Deeper European Integration Needed, But Unlikely

Via Maria Farrell, wise words from Jurgen Habermas on Germany:

After Helmut Kohl, our political elites underwent a sweeping change in mentalities. With the exception of a too-quickly exhausted Joschka Fisher, since Gerhard Schröder took office a normatively unambitious generation has been in power. It seems to enjoy Germany’s return of Germany to normality as a nation-state – and just wants be “like the others”. Conscious of the diminishing room for political manoeuvre, these people shy away from farsighted goals and constructive political projects, let alone an undertaking like European unification. I detect a certain indifference towards this project. On the other hand, the politicians can no longer deceive themselves concerning the fact that the Federal Republic is the greatest beneficiary of the single currency. Self-interest dictates that they support the preservation of the euro zone.

However, that can only be accomplished if the euro countries build up a common economic government and co-ordinate their fiscal policies. There are extreme economic imbalances among the countries in the euro zone; this is why, at the time the euro was introduced, the medium-term goal was to harmonise the levels of development of those rather heterogeneous national economies. Now it turns out that the stability pact is much too rigid an instrument for achieving this goal. As a result, we now face the alternative of either co-operating more closely or of doing away with the single currency. The pivotal political question from a German perspective is whether the Federal Republic is ready to change its European policy before it is too late, and then whether it is also able to co-operate with France in leading the other EU countries in that direction.

In some ways, I think this is unfair to the current generation of German leaders. What Habermas says is correct, but there’s the problem highlighted by Tyler Cowen that there’s really not much of a European demos or public sphere outside of elite circles and that makes it extremely difficult for the EU project to go forward. I do think Cowen is being a bit unfair by choosing Berliner Morgenpost headlines instead of those of a larger and more nationally oriented paper like Süddeutsche Zeitung, FAZ, or Die Welt but the basic issue still holds. I think “European” consciousness is more advanced in smaller countries (Finland is very “European”) but they can’t lead effectively. Which is to say that the kind of integration that Europe needs is fairly unlikely to manifest itself.

But this all just underscores how urgent it is for the European Central Bank to do a good job. The ECB functions perfectly well as an institution, monetary policy is elite-driven everywhere anyway, and monetary policy is the aspect of European life where integration has gone the furthest. Making policy for the whole continent to suit the mindset of extremely conservative Germans is not a good idea.