This interview of Jürgen Habermas by Philip Oltermann first appeared in The Guardian on 16 July 2015. The original article can be found here
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.
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?
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.
Jürgen Habermas is emeritus professor of philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. He has published many books on the European Union, including The Crisis of the European Union. His latest book, The Lure of Technocracy, was published by Polity in February 2015