The most fundamental species of depoliticization affecting European politics is provided by its historical momentum. From Monnet onwards, the goal of European unity itself was thought to legitimate the process of integration. At the time, promises were made that national sovereignty would not be impacted. Given the historical frame of the immediate postwar period, what could be better than a European project striving for unification? This continues to be an important ‘driver’ of the European present and into its future. The fact of peace, which is of course of enormous importance, is taken to justify the present course. But as we have seen, this does not even qualify as a post hoc-fallacy: the budding European community can itself be regarded as the product of the spirit of peace or rather the exhaustion with war that was sweeping the continent. And even its peacemaking qualities, however motivated, cannot be taken for granted in view of the wars conducted both within and by the community itself, as in the Algerian war, and in its backyard, as in the Yugoslav and Kosovo crises.

That is the initial two-step of European integration: from being worthy of pursuing almost for its own sake (without much regard for results) to being officially justified by reference to peace, and then prosperity. As we have seen, prosperity, too, is increasingly becoming problematic as a legitimating resource in the wake of the economic crises, though there are arguments to show that the EU was unable to keep track with global economic progress already from the eighties onwards.

But on the process of European integration went, inspired by the lofty goals of peace and prosperity, or perhaps other ones. As it progressed, it increasingly stood in need of legitimation. Once it began relating to national constitutions and affecting the lives of citizens, it could no longer be carried by a central group of elites alone, without needing to justify what was happening. We have discussed the options open to the community as a dilemma: input legitimacy versus output legitimacy. Because input legitimacy requires a sufficiently unified underlying will of the people (Gemeinsamkeitsglauben) and this was and remains altogether absent on the European level, the alternative path was chosen. Output legitimacy is about effective problem-solving and so the European community set about creating institutions that could meet this challenge. Because the problems concerned need to be agreed upon by the community as a whole, however, there is a limitation on the scope of what can be discussed. Notably, as Fritz Scharpf has shown, pursuing conflict-minimizing solutions or avoiding political perceptibility becomes an important strategy to avoid putting too much strain on the EU’s legitimizing resources. This strategy has in turn shaped the political direction of the EU itself. Decisions of positive integration would have to be taken via political channels, and this has proven to be a very difficult matter because of the ‘consensus barriers’ involved. However, decisions of negative integration could be pursued via juridical means. Together with the European Commission, the ECJ’s task has been to ‘fill in the gaps’ that were left in the Treaty. The ECJ pursued integration by removing national regulation that was thought to hinder a competitive single market – and since individual juridical decisions were nearly invisible, it could do so without much political upheaval.

In so doing, the ECJ had to clear up the relationship between EU law and national constitutions. A year after the end of the Algerian war, it concluded that it was possible for individuals (and corporations) to bring member states before the European court on the grounds that the latter had violated EU law. In treating the claimant’s case at all, the ECJ made it the case that one could sue sovereign states based on EU law. In its verdict, the ECJ accordingly stated that based on the spirit of the Treaties, a new legal order had been created at the time of founding: thus making itself the spokesperson for the spirit of the Treaties and making it the case that foundation had in fact entailed the subsumption of national legal orders under the new, European one. This was later clarified to entail the supremacy of European law over national law. The vantage point thus created was almost completely immunized from the influence of national and European citizens alike. This meant that the ECJ itself and the policies of negative integration that it favoured were, as Jürgen Habermas expresses it, increasingly unassailable. We may here trace a displacement of the initial political-moral dignity of the project of European integration to the institutional-juridical level: democratic publics cannot be involved in this kind of technical matter, after all.

This dignity can today be reinforced by three concrete arguments, all of which are effective depoliticizations: ontological, rights-based and moral-political. First, the ontological argument is that in globalized times, nation states cannot accomplish much on their own. Alone, they even risk becoming willess puppets dancing to the tune of global market forces. Unification is thus necessary. Applying this argument to the present state of the EU is questionable, as the European Parliament found when its Special Committee reported that some member states displayed a pattern of systematic obstruction on the matter of combating tax evasion. Its concrete policies of negative integration would seem to be a ‘policy of depoliticization’ rather than a way of taking matters into one’s own hands. From an even more general perspective, it seems that choosing the form of law and using this form to rationalize international politics, as the EU is attempting to do, does not yet mean that the substance of concrete laws is legitimate. This is again a variation on a Habermasian theme. Second, the rights-based argument is that the EU is a force for good through its championing of human rights. As we have seen, historically speaking the community’s rhetoric has not matched its practice, which was a hard point to accept in the context of the Cold War. In the present, too, European practice has shown a willingness to let refugees drown and to respond to their arrival mostly with concern for national consequences: for instance by attempting to barter with Turkey. This leads to the third and final argument: the moral-political argument. Europe is thought to provide a safeguard for political dignity (which is already problematic in view of the deal with Turkey) as well as a safeguard against populist arguments: Donald Tusk insists that we should not submit to them, and populism in general is presented as a danger. This dismissive view of populism is a form of localized depoliticization critique, which itself has depoliticizing effects. Europe’s alternative has been to initiate the right kind of participation (populism being the wrong kind). The practice of European governance, following this proposed alternative to the letter, has involved NGOs that are thought to represent the general population based on a notion of the common good, or based on high numbers of donors and members. These parties are invited to ‘think about’ pre-defined problem definitions. This mode of participation depoliticizes the political process because only a select few, i.e. those selected by the executives, gain access, and representation is taken for granted and reified. Further, it depoliticizes politics itself by reducing it to consensus around pre-established parameters. Finally, it depoliticizes civil society by transforming membership society into management society.

The simple narrative and self-description of European politics as delivering peace and prosperity while striving for a containment of market forces, a championing of human rights and a politics of participation without populism thus proves to be impossible to sustain in this form. The background assumption of unproblematic European integration either as an end in itself or to further the elements of this narrative is likewise to be rejected. This leaves us with the question how the elements of depoliticization that characterize European politics are to be combated. In previous series of posts, we showed that there is a tension between the ontological aspect of depoliticization critique and ethics or normativity. At the same time, depoliticization critique itself has to be conceived not only as the withdrawal of ontological ground on which to found the political without remainder, but also as the responsibility to fill the resulting gap by other means – that is its ethical aspect. In my attempt to provide an answer to the overall problematic of depoliticization and to its presence in European politics in particular, my overall strategy will be to make this tension between ontology and ethics productive. The first step in this strategy is to ask why ethics has gradually been forced out of depoliticization critique, and whether this move itself has been problematic. Answering that question will be the objective of the next series of posts.


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