When I graduated from high school, my career aspiration was listed on my diploma: Habermas wants to become a journalist, it said. Yet once I began working for the Gummersbach section of the Cologne daily Kölner Stadtanzeiger, and then again when I wrote under Adolf Frisé for the culture pages of the Handelsblatt, it was repeatedly made clear to me that my writing style was far too complex. Even the extremely charitable Karl Korn, who fervently urged me to practice during my time as a university student in Bonn, later declared that I should perhaps stick to my academic proclivities. It is a critique that continues to be reflected in reader mail, and at my age, improvement isn’t likely. All of which makes me even more delighted about the invitation, extended to me by the director general of Saarland Broadcasting in conjunction with the German-French Journalism Prize, to follow in the footsteps of such distinguished predecessors as Tomi Ungerer, Simone Veil and Jean Asselborn. My connection to Asselborn is that he too prefers blunt honesty when speaking of Europe. With the prize presenter and laudator having found such complimentary words for my efforts – endeavours which are otherwise simply derogated as euro-romanticism – you will certainly not view it as a transgression of good taste if I, against the backdrop of our disintegrating continent, merely repeat that which I have often stated before on this subject.
I will refrain from addressing the symptomatic clamouring coming out of Bavaria, a ruckus that triggered a government crisis while shoving the more pressing issue – the lack of cooperation in the EU – into the background. The culpability lies with that sort of pro-European who shies away from admitting to the real reservations they in fact hold against a Europe of practiced solidarity. Jean-Paul Sartre explained the term mauvaise foias an elegant contradistinction to bonne foi. Who among us is not familiar with this quietly murmuring uneasiness? We act bona fide, in good faith, but in moments of reflection, we sense a gnawing doubt about the consistency of the assertively argued convictions we hold – as if there was a weak spot in the river bank over which the waters of our argument are flowing unnoticed. My impression is that Emmanuel Macron’s appearance on the European stage has exposed just such a weak spot in the self-image of those Germans who patted themselves on the back during the euro crisis, convinced as they were that they remained the best Europeans and were pulling everyone else out of the quagmire.
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Social democratic parties across Europe are now paying the electoral price for their uncritical embrace of globalisation in the 1990s. Then, responsible politics was equated with adaptation to the demands of global markets. As Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder put it in their much-quoted The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte pamphlet: ‘Social Democrats must accommodate the growing demands for flexibility’.
This refrain was accepted as ‘pragmatic realism’ and was quickly adopted by most social democratic parties that governed Europe in the late 1990s. Thus, as Dani Rodrik recalled here, the centre-left was complicit in pointing globalisation in a neoliberal direction. Crucially, social democratic parties in government were happy to support the launch of the euro without ever questioning its ordoliberal governance rules and to sign up to further depoliticization of public policy whereby technocratic institutions gained control over areas of policy that thus far had been subject to democratic scrutiny.
But by treating globalisation as a force of nature that could not be controlled, social democratic parties contributed to the rise of inequality, to the erosion of the welfare state and social protection that had characterised the European social model, to the creation of a new social class, the working poor. Both New Labour’s tax credits programme and the SPD’s Agenda 2010 were predicated on the idea that greater economic competition implied lower wages and weaker social protection. Ultimately, they contributed to the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crisis, from which most European economies have not yet fully recovered.
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