by Philip Oltermann originally published at the Guardian
Read the full text of the Guardian’s exclusive interview with philosopher and sociologist Habermas, in which he describes the agreement as ‘toxic’
Jürgen Habermas: ‘We are stuck in a political trap.’ Photograph: Martin Gerten/EPA/Corbis
Guardian: What is your verdict on the deal reached on Monday?
Habermas: The Greek debt deal announced on Monday morning is damaging both in its result and the way in which it was reached. First, the outcome of the talks is ill-advised. Even if one were to consider the strangulating terms of the deal the right course of action, one cannot expect these reforms to be enacted by a government which by its own admission does not believe in the terms of the agreement.
Secondly, the outcome does not make sense in economic terms because of the toxic mixture of necessary structural reforms of state and economy with further neoliberal impositions that will completely discourage an exhausted Greek population and kill any impetus to growth.
Thirdly, the outcome means that a helpless European Council is effectively declaring itself politically bankrupt: the de facto relegation of a member state to the status of a protectorate openly contradicts the democratic principles of the European Union. Finally, the outcome is disgraceful because forcing the Greek government to agree to an economically questionable, predominantly symbolic privatisation fund cannot be understood as anything other than an act of punishment against a left-wing government. It’s hard to see how more damage could be done.
The European Council is effectively declaring itself politically bankrupt
And yet the German government did just this when finance minister Schaeuble threatened Greek exit from the euro, thus unashamedly revealing itself as Europe’s chief disciplinarian. The German government thereby made for the first time a manifest claim for German hegemony in Europe – this, at any rate, is how things are perceived in the rest of Europe, and this perception defines the reality that counts. I fear that the German government, including its social democratic faction, have gambled away in one night all the political capital that a better Germany had accumulated in half a century – and by “better” I mean a Germany characterised by greater political sensitivity and a post-national mentality.
Guardian: When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras called a referendum last month, many other European politicians accused him of betrayal. German chancellor Angela Merkel, in turn, has been accused of blackmailing Greece. Which side do you see as carrying more blame for the deterioration of the situation?
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Habermas: I am uncertain about the real intentions of Alexis Tsipras, but we have to acknowledge a simple fact: in order to allow Greece to get back on its feet, the debts which the IMF has deemed “highly unsustainable” need to be restructured. Despite this, both Brussels and Berlin have persistently refused the Greek prime minister the opportunity to negotiate a restructuring of Greece’s debts since the very beginning. In order to overcome this wall of resistance among the creditors, prime minister Tsipras finally tried to strengthen his position by means of a referendum – and he got more domestic support than expected. This renewed legitimation forced the other side either to look for a compromise or to exploit Greece’s emergency situation and act, even more than before, as the disciplinarian. We know the outcome.
Guardian: Is the current crisis in Europe a financial problem, political problem or a moral problem?
Habermas: The current crisis can be explained both through economic causes and political failure. The sovereign debt crisis that emerged from the banking crisis had its roots in the sub-optimal conditions of a heterogeneously composed currency union. Without a common financial and economic policy, the national economies of pseudo-sovereign member states will continue to drift apart in terms of productivity. No political community can sustain such tension in the long run. At the same time, by focusing on avoidance of open conflict, the EU’s institutions are preventing necessary political initiatives for expanding the currency union into a political union. Only the government leaders assembled in the European Council are in the position to act, but precisely they are the ones who are unable to act in the interest of a joint European community because they think mainly of their national electorate. We are stuck in a political trap.
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Guardian: Wolfgang Streeck has in the past warned that the Habermasian ideal of Europe is the root of the current crisis, not its remedy: Europe, he has warned, would not save democracy but abolish it. Many on the European left feel that current developments confirm Streeck’s criticism of the European project. What is your response to their concerns?
Habermas: His prediction of an imminent demise of capitalism aside, I broadly agree with Wolfgang Streeck’s analysis. Over the course of the crisis, the European executive has accrued more and more authority. Key decisions are being taken by the council, the commission and ECB – in other words, the very institutions that are either insufficiently legitimated to take such decisions or lack any democratic basis. Streeck and I also share the view that this technocratic hollowing out of democracy is the result of a neoliberal pattern of market-deregulation policies. The balance between politics and the market has come out of sync, at the cost of the welfare state. Where we differ is in terms of the consequences to be drawn from this predicament. I do not see how a return to nation states that have to be run like big corporations in a global market can counter the tendency towards de-democratisation and growing social inequality – something that we also see in Great Britain, by the way. Such tendencies can only be countered, if at all, by a change in political direction, brought about by democratic majorities in a more strongly integrated “core Europe”. The currency union must gain the capacity to act at the supra-national level. In view of the chaotic political process triggered by the crisis in Greece we can no longer afford to ignore the limits of the present method of intergovernmental compromise.
• Jürgen Habermas is emeritus professor of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. His latest book, The Lure of Technocracy, is published by Polity