A design for the flag of the European Union (detail) by Rem Koolhaas. Source: OMA/Barbican Art Gallery via Bloomberg
“WHO WILL WILLINGLY DIE for [. . .] the EEC?” When Benedict Anderson asked this sarcastic question in 1983, referring to the European Economic Community, a now-forgotten ancestor of today’s European Union, he did not have to add that, for better or worse, many people are willing to die for their nation. They’ve proved it, war after war after war. Anderson’s point was that nationalism moves mountains, but its potent we’re-all-in-it-together feeling tends to stop short at the border. The survival of your country may be capable of stirring your gutsiest emotions; the survival of the eurozone almost certainly isn’t. Unless you’re a banker.
In The Crisis of the European Union: A Response, a much-discussed collection of recent essays and interviews, the eminent German philosopher and public intellectual Jürgen Habermas turns Anderson’s argument on its head. In fact, Habermas notes, sacrificing our lives in battle is no longer at the top of most people’s to-do list. And much of the credit for this goes to supra-national entities like the European Union, which have made patriotic bloodshed much more infrequent. Now it’s time to take another step. The spirit of self-sacrifice should be demilitarized. Habermas proposes that it should be extended to fellow humans who do not happen to reside in our countries, and it should be extended from issues of life and death to issues of living standards.
What seems to have provoked Habermas to write this book is the fact that his fellow Germans do not think it’s any of their business if the Greek government, say, can’t pay its debts and the Greek people are being bled dry by an extreme, European-imposed austerity program. Why the indifference? Habermas blames the European Union’s leaders, who adore the euro but have never encouraged a sense of common political community to match the common currency. Long a critic of his own country, the 83-year-old Habermas is quietly furious at the German and French governments for choosing, as he sees it, national self-interest over solidarity with the European Union’s economically weaker nations. They have thereby jeopardized an experiment in cosmopolitan togetherness that is, he reminds us, both bold and noble, and that should be getting better press.
Excited European commentators have compared The Crisis of the European Union to Kant’s incendiary cosmopolitan manifesto of 1795, “Perpetual Peace,” which demanded an end to warfare between nations. Like Kant, Habermas is intrigued by the possibility that if people were to think of themselves less as members, belonging to a nation, and more as free-standing, rights-bearing individuals, they would have more fellow feeling with individuals in other nations. (One section of the book, on the concept of human dignity, makes the case for a sort of human-rights cosmopolitanism.) Like Kant, Habermas has always invited the question of why rights-bearing individuals would give rise to more solidarity with others than the self-owning individuals of free market ideology or, to put this another way, why self-interested individuals would care about norms of justice that, however desirable, seem to them distant and abstract. And like Kant, he therefore has to fight off the sinking feeli...read more