Jürgen Habermas
Jürgen Habermas

Limits and achievements of the nation-state

In this step, we consider Jürgen Habermas’s theory of ‘constitutional patriotism’.

Habermas is arguably Germany’s leading political theorist and critical theorist. His theory of constitutional patriotism proves relevant for our discussion on the future of the European nation-state.

Constitutional patriotism suggests that people may be brought together not only by shared culture and history, but also by adherence to values, norms and procedures of a democratic constitution. Some capture this distinction as being about adhering to either ethnic markers (shared history, culture) or civic virtues (values, norms). One well-known ‘civic system’ is the United States, with its focus on the flag and the constitution. For the European Union, this means that a sense of political belonging can exist also in absence of a shared history or ethnicity.

Habermas’s contribution to the discussion on the nature and on the future of the nation-state provides us with a sound account of strengths and limitations of the nation-state. Habermas discusses the impact of modernisation and the collapse of the old feudal system (in which people were protected by kings, princes and other rules in exchange for them working on the land) on the development of a European nation-state. He discusses the importance of nationhood in establishing a bond between various groups and solitarity and, consequently, democracy. At the same time, in line with constitutional patriotism, Habermas does not see cultural or ethnic homogenity as a necessary condition for a sucessfully functioning constitutional democracy.

If you are interested in Habermas’ views on Europe and the nation-state, this book might interest you. You can also have a look at the following article, where Habermas develops a similar argument.

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European Culture and Politics

University of Groningen

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