Solidarity on Europe's horizons

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Planet earth with sun rising over European countriesJurgen Habermas, the renowned German philosopher and sociologist, gave a lecture recently at the University of Leuven, not far from Brussels. Tickets sold out weeks in advance and the crowd was so large that TV screens were set up for the overflow to watch in an adjacent park. As the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy exclaimed in his introduction: 'Even in Leuven, it is exceptional for a philosopher to gather such a crowd!'

He then offered a personal remark to Habermas: 'I could suddenly see you as young man, aged 15 when the Second World War ended, and a life from then on dedicated to a cause. To bring more ethics into politics.'

Habermas' lecture drew on his perception of a critical ethical gap in European politics. At present all that seems to unite European citizens is the negative sentiment of 'Euroscepticism'. That's because a moment has arrived where the political arrangements embodied in EU institutions are no longer in sync with reality. There's a gulf between citizens' opinions, and the policies (developed by technocrats) pursued to solve Europe's most pressing problems.

This democratic deficit poses such dangers that a monetary union without a closer political union is no longer workable. As Van Rompuy acknowledged, for committed Europeans the important discussions to be had now aren't just concerned with institutional design, but with 'the fundamental questions'. Enter the philosophers.

In Brussels it is impossible to miss the evidence of the effort that European nations have put into institutionalising the Union. Perhaps it's easy to assume that institutions will somehow channel politics in the right direction — they will keep political exchange and activity within reasonable boundaries, keep the business of politics functioning respectably and productively, and keep the disparate nations moving towards an ideal of democratic amity.

If institutions are designed well, if they operate within a framework of values set out from their founding, they will roll on without the need for redesign or reconceptualisation. So it may seem.

Whereas once 'Europe' was a benevolent abstraction that bestowed prestige and economic growth on many of its members, it now seems like a malevolent abstraction, bestowing hardship on European citizens suffering unemployment, disappearing bank balances and other social costs. It will take hard work to reverse the political costs of this (for example, the rise of right-wing euro-sceptical parties such as the UK Independence Party).

Habermas' lecture in Leuven indicates how and why philosophical thinking can assist in the practical business of reform. Here in Brussels people are going about the business of institution building, but alongside this, inextricably bound up with it, is the continuing identification of principles and concepts that will direct those institutions and the politics they encompass as new problems emerge.

And the principle that Habermas hit upon, a principle to underwrite the future of European politics, was 'solidarity'.

'Solidarity', as Bryan M. Hehir, professor of the practice of religion and public life at Harvard, puts it, 'is the conviction that we are born into a fabric of social relationships, that our humanity ties us to others.' It isn't a contract entered into by discerning individuals, it's a more deeply embedded part of our social and political reality.

It's also a word at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching at the end of the 20th century (think of John Paul II's encyclical The Social Concern of the Church). And it's linked to all of the great faith traditions in that it involves the recognition that one's local community is connected to a wider, even universal, community.

Europe is a vast community of communities — not just states but regions and sub-regions. The recent European institutions open day showcased an extraordinary array of regional and communal identities — ethnic Hungarians from Romania, citizens of the Republic of Srprska, alongside Bavarians and South Moravians, to name a few.

As Van Rompuy reminded the audience at Leuven, 'we are 500 million Europeans, living in 27 countries, with many spaces of European debate'. There is no one shared European public sphere — rather there are many 'public spheres' in each country and region, each with its own political language, ideals and historical burdens.

This is why Habermas' call for solidarity, for the growth of a 'shared political perspective' is so challenging — it's a call for a conversation born out of a common European public sphere, where certain principles can be acknowledged as shared, as foundational. That sphere has yet to be built, not just from Brussels, but at home on the ground of those particularist identities.

It is a 'forward-looking' concept — it offers 'the sense of a redemptive reconstruction of relations of reciprocal support'. And it's above all a concept that can be brought to bear practically: Habermas was eager to dispel any 'moral stuffiness' that might be attached to the idea.

In this impulse he followed John Paul II, for whom solidarity could not be 'a feeling of vague compassion'; instead 'it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good'. It implies a kind of politics that shows how the 'politics of interest' and the 'politics of community' might relate in new ways.

According to Habermas the politics of solidarity means that reforms have to be carried out 'in a cooperative effort' to produce economic growth across the entire euro zone. This may well mean the larger EU economies accepting some negative redistribution of economic resources.

But it would also mean that discussions about the future of Europe become more audible at the national political level, with 'the full recognition of a genuine European dimension ... in our everyday world, on our horizon'. 'Europe' has to be connected to local communities — it has to become a marriage of principle and local politics.

In Brussels people are taking up this suggestion in response to the European Year of the Citizen. There's a proliferation of online start-ups aimed at connecting citizens to institutions, hoping to foster conversations between constituents and their MEPS. This is the beginning of the effort that Habermas calls for to bring Europe to people's horizons, to their communities, and to re-shape European politics on the model of solidarity. 

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a policy researcher with Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels. 

Earth image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Brussels



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"a sense of a redemptive reconstruction of relations of reciprocal support" - is this a philosophical way of saying "a fair go for all"? I wonder what The Iron Lady of British politics would make of this from the high throne to which she has been exalted by the Tories and many Christian conservatives?

Uncle Pat | 14 June 2013  

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