Tuesday, July 1, 2008

gUiLLeMoTs vs. Jurgen Habermas

Everybody likes listening to indie songs with over-the-top production and reading about political theory and/or political philosophy, right? Good.

While over in the USA you are all talking about Obama and the upcoming presidential elections (well, five months seems to count as 'upcoming' there) here in Ireland, and more generally in Europe, we're still pondering the Lisbon Treaty defeat. I originally thought the Guillemots 'Get Over It' would be an appropriate record to post after a week or so of post-referendum 'period of reflection' (and I could work in clever allusions like "in another life, I'd be drenched in sweat with you" for "enhanced co-operation" among EU member states). Alas, politics isn't that simple, and a week or so is definitely a long time.

Here's the record, on cool-as-the-bee's-knees picture disc, but I've no neatly ordered thoughts to lay out about one of the most important political events of my lifetime - certainly since I've been eligible to vote, which I wasn't at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, abortion/divorce referenda, or even Nice (the previous EU treaty) for that matter. Fellow Irish blogger (and Yes voter) No Ordinary Fool has done the sensible thing, and announced a sabbatical on the subject. But I can't quite let the itch go, not least because it's still a live issue in Europe.


Guillemots, 'Get Over It' (vinyl rip)


This weekend, The Irish Times carried an article by renowned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, under the heading "Irish vote should be signal to call a halt to elitist European Union: More ground-level democracy in the European Union is the correct response to the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty - not less".

www.irishtimes.com - Full article [fixed link]

Habermas is best known for originating the ideas of the 'public sphere' and 'communicative rationality', in sociology as well as politics; in general, his theory is one of advancing human emancipation and democracy. Last year, (2nd year/sophomore) I did one of the most interesting courses of my university career so far, titled 'Power, Discourse and Political Action' and focused on the tension between the theories of Habermas and Foucault. (I aced that one easily enough, but more ominously for my discussing the Lisbon Treaty referendum, I only scored a B on 'Democratic Theory' this semester just past)

In the article, most of which I would have to agree with in broad terms, Habermas speaks of paternalism, cyncicism, and a "bureaucratically engineered" response to the institutional difficulties of the newly expanded Union, pushed forward by a political elite but come up against "the burdensome exception stipulated in the Irish Constitution" (that requires us, essentially, to have a referendum on any EU treaty. To be clear, it's not actually in the constitution, but follows from a judicial reading of it). He asserts:

"The failed referendums are a sign that, thanks to its own success, European unification has reached its limit. This can be overstepped only when the pro-Europe elites stop touting the virtues of parliamentary democracy as a way to avoid the messy business of actually listening to citizens.

A schism has opened up between the political decision-making powers that have been transferred to Brussels and Strasbourg on the one hand, and the opportunities for democratic participation that have remained in the member states on the other."

Habermas argues that the grand forces of expansion and unification operating in the European Union have brought the whole project beyond the limits of political clarity or democratic consensus; "we should expect two things from our governments: they must concede that they have run out of ideas; and they have to stop pretending that a debilitating lack of consensus does not exist". Of course, while this has translated on the ground in Ireland into much more disparate fears about the direction of the European project, it has also been reflected in the difficulty of 'selling' the complex legal treaty to the voters by the political establishment. This, in essence, was the problem with the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

Habermas's solution is a Europe-wide referendum, where

"The phrasing of the question must be sufficiently clear for voters to know the consequences of their vote. And citizens across Europe must be able to vote on the same day, on the same topic and according to the same method. A problem with referendums until now has been that debates have been held in each national context, cut off from the outside"

Also - and this is a proposal resisted with great fervour by most Yes campaigners in Ireland, on account of the influence and benefit we would lose - the possible establishment of a two-speed Union: "...for member countries that are initially sceptical, a politically successful nucleus at the heart of Europe would have a stronger gravitational pull. After all, internal differentiation, albeit legally complicated, would simplify the controversial expansion of the Union."

I don't agree with everything Habermas says, and as a letter writer to the paper pointed out, he was not directly aware of what passed for discourse on the Treaty during the referendum campaign, which would hardly match up to his standards of 'communicative rationality'. That refrain aside, there are serious questions about democracy - the importance of one person's vote, the true political progress of Europe - inherent in this current dilemma.


Guillemots, 'Get Over It', Live on Jonathan Ross


Longman Oz said...

Is he speaking about a European-wide election without unanimity from each Member State?

Erich said...

Nice read, horrible music. Thank you.

gabbagabbahey said...

- Longman; as far as I can tell, he doesn't say one way or the other. I reckon though he wouldn't be going for unanimity on a nation-state level, because that ties up too much with the politics of national governments whereas he is talking about the individual-level democratic rights of the European people (rather than peopleS, perhaps; and at which point, the right cries 'superstate!')

Good question, though. He probably didn't think of it; it's just theorising about how a better referendum process could be constructed.

- erich; I doubt it's Habermas's cup of tea, either. But which version? - the studio version is beyond polish, the live is as dirty as mud...