Review of “The European Identity: A Faltering Project” by Jurgen Habermas

In the timely work, “The European Identity: A Faltering Project” by Jurgen Habermas, we find four principal concepts: Transnational authority, transnational public spheres, a European identity and normativity shaping the book together and yet each of them existing in conceptual isolation.

The need for different kinds of international organizations is the guiding light of the book. The weaknesses of nation states in an increasingly interdependent world society account for the growing need of another kind of world order. The roles of Human Rights in this new order as well as identity are paid tribute to: the sovereign national states that lost much of their autonomous decision making power are operating almost like structures which exclusively implement human rights within their national borders. It is at this point that public spheres come to play and a relation between public spheres and supranational institutions emerge. Habermas claims that the need for a transnational authority can only be attained by the empowerment of transnational public spheres. However, in our time, it is the nation states which are holding the national public spheres trapped within themselves. The main challenge in attaining a transnational public society is the lack of responsiveness of national public spheres to one another.

A similarity can be drawn between national identities and national public spheres. It is of utmost importance to bear in mind that nation-states and national identities also have gone through historical processes which constructed new collective identities during the 19th century. Nonetheless, creation and empowerment of a transnational public sphere is not similar to the possession of historical memories and the historical processes that the nation states have gone through. This is the point where the work of Habermas shines at its best: it is not the creation of public spheres but the transformation of them which needs to be aimed at. What would prove to be fruitful is rendering existing national public spheres more responsive to one another, with the influence of media which goes beyond “infotainment” (from an Adorno and Horkheimer, “Dialectic of Enligthenment” point of view) and offers substantial commentaries that would prove to be the strongest tool along the way. Transformation of national public spheres needs to be accompanied by a transformation of the power of nation-states along a cosmopolitan path rather than undermining their zone of influence.

The pathway pointed out to seems a difficult one with very many obligations rather than a natural one which flows easily. This is why we find normativity and idealism and arguments defending these two concepts in the book. Habermas stands firmly on the optimistic spectrum and defends his optimism with a theoretical claim: “The cynical recognition of an unjust world does not point out to a lack of knowledge, but to a corruption of the will”.

Another relation between two seemingly distinct concepts that emerges from the book is that between social theory and legal theory. This growing relationship is raised by discussing legal concepts such as the role of international treaties as basis of legitimation for governance beyond borders. “Which one can embrace which, legal theorist the sociologist or the sociologist the legal theorist?” Habermas asks. Regardless of the answer, the importance of contemplating the two ideas not in isolation but as strongly related concepts seems to be one of the most important conclusions that can be drawn from this new book. The harmonious picture presented in the book shows the symbiotic relationship between theory and practice; theories discussed are firmly grounded in the world, and ideals which may be charged with normativity are always supported by concrete examples. “Social Sciences and Philosophy have drifted further apart than the founders of critical theory could have ever imagined” Habermas states in the Preface. “Europe: The Faltering Project” is a good example to explain why behavioural political science should regret digressing from theory.


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