Exclusive: Intellectual figurehead of European integration says efforts of previous generations put at risk by Angela Merkel’s hardline stance on Greece
Jürgen Habermas, one of the intellectual figureheads of European integration, has launched a withering attack on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, accusing her of “gambling away” the efforts of previous generations to rebuild the country’s postwar reputation with her hardline stance on Greece.
Speaking about the bailout deal for the first time since it was presented on Monday, the philosopher and sociologist said the German chancellor had effectively carried out “an act of punishment” against the leftwing government of Alexis Tsipras.
“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,” he told the Guardian. Previous German governments, he said, had displayed “greater political sensitivity and a post-national mentality”.
Habermas, widely considered one of the most influential contemporary European intellectuals, said that by threatening Greece with an exit from the eurozone over the course of the negotiations, Germany had “unashamedly revealed itself as Europe’s chief disciplinarian and for the first time openly made a claim for German hegemony in Europe.”
The outcome of the negotiations between Greece and the other eurozone member states, he said, did “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.”
Habermas added: “Forcing the Greek government to agree to an economically questionable, predominantly symbolic privatisation fund cannot be understood as anything other an act of punishment against a leftwing government.”
The Düsseldorf-born philosopher, a former assistant of the prominent Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, rose to prominence during the student protests in the late 1960s. His works on the establishment of a pan-European political and cultural identity, such as Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, went on to influence and shape policy debate around the European Union. At the start of the millennium, Habermas was one of the leading drivers behind calls for a European constitution.
Recently, the 86-year-old has aggressively criticised Merkel’s leadership in Europe in books such as The Lure of Technocracy, while also coming under criticism himself. In 2013, Habermas clashed in a series of articles with another influential German leftwing intellectual, sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, who has identified the kind of European federalism espoused by Habermas as the root of the continent’s crisis.
Habermas told the Guardian that he agreed with many of his critics’ main points. “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,” he said. “The balance between politics and the market has got 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.”
Habermas argued that Europe was “stuck in a political trap”.
“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,” he said. “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.”