The left agrees: the European project is finished … unless it can be restarted on a much more radical basis that eliminates different countries

Is this the beginning of the end for the EU, a construction that started 50 years ago on the basis of an age-old utopia, but now proves unable to fulfil its promises? The answer, unfortunately, is yes: sooner or later, this will be inevitable, and possibly not without some violent turmoil. Unless it finds the capacity to start again on radically new bases, Europe is a dead political project.
— Etienne Balibar, The Guardian

Regarding the recent entry, “Telegraph columnist: EU is doomed,” VFR’s Indian reader living in the West sends two articles from The Guardian which agree with that assessment. When it’s not just the enemies of the EU (like Gerald Warner in the Telegraph and Melanie Phillips) who are saying that the European project is finished, but its supporters, attention must be paid!

The two articles are copied below. The first, by Rafael Behrf, is less radical than the second.

The European Idea lies dead, killed by the credit crunch
The crisis in the eurozone marks the end of the dream of the continent as a superpower
Rafael Behrf
The Observer, Sunday 23 May 2010

History offers only two models for the integration of different countries, with competing national interests and rival strategic ambitions, into a single, unified economic and political system. There is conquest and there is the European Union.

Some of the EU’s more hysterical critics don’t see much difference between the two. But in reality, there is something superb in the agreement by European nations to set aside centuries of slaughter, and create a single marketplace whose rules are decided by collaboration and compromise. It is the only miracle ever performed by committee.

That, in essence, is the European Idea. It is not a destination but a trajectory—from atavistic nationalism to co-operative internationalism. The assumption has been that “ever-closer union”, as mandated by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, must be desirable because the alternative would be a relapse into ever-wider disunion, a path forbidden by atrocious history. So the crisis currently afflicting the euro is not just financial, it is existential. Never before has one of the EU’s grand projects looked so close to going into reverse.

Greece, whose bodge-job finances triggered the crisis, might well be forced to negotiate an exit from the euro. Diplomats, economists and politicians who dismissed that scenario as too complex and too destabilising a few months ago now debate the detail of how it might work. Rarely has the unthinkable so quickly become the thought.

That doesn’t mean the single currency is doomed. Last week, eurozone finance ministers gambled hundreds of billions in bailout funds that it is not. But alongside the financial turmoil is a growing political crisis and it afflicts not just the euro but the whole European project.

EU governments are used to disagreements over economic co-operation, but they were totally unprepared for the vast financial transfers—bank bailouts, fiscal stimulus, emergency loans—that were required in the last two years to avert economic meltdown. It has been especially difficult for Germany, which has observed stricter budget discipline than many of its more wastrel neighbours, and resents being tapped up to rescue them.

The mood among many Germans was summarised by a recent headline in Bild, the country’s most popular newspaper, bemoaning that the euro bailout made the nation “the suckers of Europe again”. That expresses the natural resentment that taxpayers’ money is going to subsidise unsustainable public sector jobs for Greeks who have lived way beyond their means, when there are plenty of needy Germans who haven’t.

But the fact that such frustration is readily vented also reflects a cultural change in Germany’s relationship with the rest of Europe. For most of the second half of the 20th century, West Germany integrated itself with its neighbours in a spirit of repentance for the Second World War. The ideal of European economic unification was a way to pursue national ambitions, but stripped of toxic notions of Teutonic pre-eminence.

There is only so long that any country, whatever the crimes of its past, can sustain an economic and foreign policy characterised by atonement. For Germany, that limit has been reached.

Germany is not about to turn Eurosceptic on the petulant British model. If anything, Berlin will now press ahead with deeper integration inside the eurozone, but on its own terms, with stricter rules, more rigorously enforced. That, according to German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, “naturally means a bit of federalism in the German sense of federal”.

The UK will never sign up to that, but it isn’t in the euro anyway. France is, but Paris prefers European integration when it creates institutions that are more Gallic-looking. In fact, most member states will bridle at the idea that the EU should form an inner core designed by the Bundesbank.

So there will now be period of dense technical negotiation, beset by national rivalries and acrimonious diplomacy. It is hard to overstate how disastrous that is for the European project. It guarantees that the one thing Brussels will fail to do is act with a unity of purpose in dealings with the rest of the world. The hope of being able to do just that was the only thing that sustained the EU through its last crisis—the gruesome ratification of the Lisbon treaty.

That process, in which European leaders haggled with their electorates in a series of bizarre referendums, reinforced every conceivable prejudice about the contempt of European elites for popular opinion. It was justified by the expectation that, once the new reforms were in place, the EU might begin to legitimise itself by its good deeds in the world.

Together, European governments would constitute a superpower, ready to deal on equal terms with the US and to check the flight of economic power eastwards, to China and India. The European Idea would be rejuvenated because citizens would start to witness the benefits of integration as Brussels set the global agenda on climate change, financial regulation, human rights, world peace. There was no plan B.

A neat summary of plan A is contained in the recent findings of the Reflection Group, a team of distinguished business leaders, academics and elder statesmen commissioned by European governments to consider the strategic challenges on the horizon. Their report, published two weeks ago, talked about reconnecting the EU with its citizens, investing in skills, a “new industrial revolution” (green, naturally), speaking with one voice in the world.

The group warns that “the choice for the EU is clear: reform or decline”. That is too optimistic. Reform is what the EU has always done. Perpetual, incomprehensible reform is one reason why many Europeans don’t like the EU and don’t know any longer what it is for. The point of the Lisbon treaty was that it should be the reform to end all reforms. And just when the EU most needs to move on from arcane debate about its structures and start actually doing things, it is plunged into the worst crisis of internal cohesion in its history.

The EU will continue to muddle through, but the credit crunch has buried the European Idea. The moral authority contained in the vast achievement of binding Europe’s bellicose tribes into peaceful collaboration is spent. There will be no 21st-century European superpower, just a bunch of middle-sized ex-powers arguing over a dwindling pot of devalued money. Reform or decline? Europe will do both.

In the second article, Etienne Balibar decries the dissolution of the EU back into squabbling nationalisms and says that the European project is finished, unless it can be relaunched on the basis of a single state guaranteeing true equality among all peoples.

Europe is a dead political project
This is the beginning of the end for the EU unless it can find the capacity to start again on radically new bases
Etienne Balibar, Tuesday 25 May 2010 12.30 BST

Within a single month, we have witnessed Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece announcing his country’s possible default, an expansive European rescue loan offered to him on the condition of devastating budget cuts, soon followed by the “downgraded rating” of the Portuguese and Spanish debts, a threat on the value and the very existence of the euro, the creation (under strong US pressure) of a European security fund worth €750bn, the Central European Bank’s decision (against its rules) to redeem sovereign debts, and the announcement of budget austerity measures in several member states.

Clearly, this is only the beginning of the crisis. The euro is the weak link in the chain, and so is Europe itself. There can be little doubt that catastrophic consequences are coming.

In response, the Greek protests have been fully justified. First, we have been witnessing a denunciation of the whole Greek people. Second, once again the government has betrayed its electoral promises, without any form of democratic debate. Lastly, Europe did not display any real solidarity towards one of its member states, but imposed on it the coercive rules of the IMF, which protect not the nations, but the banks.

The Greeks were the first victims, but they will hardly be the last, of a politics of “rescuing the European currency”—measures which all citizens ought to be allowed to debate, because all of them will be affected by the outcome. However, to the extent that it exists, the discussion is deeply biased, because essential determinations are hidden or dismissed.

In its current form, under the influence of the dominant social forces, the European construction may have produced some degree of institutional harmonisation, and generalised some fundamental rights, which is not negligible, but, contrary to the stated goals, it has not produced a convergent evolution of national economies, a zone of shared prosperity. Some countries are dominant, others are dominated. The peoples of Europe may not have antagonistic interests, but the nations increasingly do.

Second, any Keynesian strategy to generate public “trust” in the economy rests on three interdependent pillars: a stable currency, a rational system of taxes, but also a social policy, aiming at full employment. This third aspect is systematically ignored in most current commentaries.

Furthermore, all this debate concerning the euro monetary system and the future of Europe will remain entirely abstract unless it is articulated to the real trends of globalisation, which the financial crisis will powerfully accelerate, unless they are politically addressed by the peoples which they affect and their leaders.

We are witnessing a transition from one form of international competition to another: no longer (mainly) a competition among productive capitals, but a competition among national territories, which use tax exemptions and pressure on the wages of labour to attract more floating capital than their neighbours.

Now, clearly, whether Europe works as an effective system of solidarity among its members to protect them from “systemic risks”, or simply sets a juridical framework to promote a greater degree of competition among them, will determine the future of Europe politically, socially, and culturally.

But there is a second tendency: a transformation of the international division of labour, which radically destabilises the distribution of employment in the world. This is a new global structure where north and south, east and west are now exchanging their places. Europe, or most of it, will experience a brutal increase of inequalities: a collapsing of the middle classes, a shrinking of skilled jobs, a displacement of “volatile” productive industries, a regression of welfare and social rights, and a destruction of cultural industries and general public services. This will precipitate a return to the ethnic conflicts which the European construction wanted to overcome forever.

We cannot, accordingly, but ask the question: is this the beginning of the end for the EU, a construction that started 50 years ago on the basis of an age-old utopia, but now proves unable to fulfil its promises? The answer, unfortunately, is yes: sooner or later, this will be inevitable, and possibly not without some violent turmoil. Unless it finds the capacity to start again on radically new bases, Europe is a dead political project.

But the breaking of the EU would inevitably abandon its peoples to the hazards of globalisation to an even greater degree. Conversely, a new foundation of Europe does not guarantee any success, but at least it gives her a chance of gaining some geopolitical leverage. With one condition, however: that all the challenges involved in the idea of an original form of post-national federation are seriously and courageously met. These involve setting up a common public authority, which is neither a state nor a simple “governance” of politicians and experts; securing genuine equality among the nations, thus fighting against reactionary nationalisms; and above all reviving democracy in the European space, thus resisting the current processes of “de-democratisation” or “statism without a State”, produced by neoliberalism.

Something obvious should have been long acknowledged: there will be no progress towards federalism in Europe (the one that is now advocated by some, and rightly so) if democracy itself does not progress beyond the existing forms, allowing an increased influence for the people(s) in the supranational institutions. Does this mean that, in order to reverse the course of recent history, to shake the lethargy of a decaying political construction, we need something like a European populism, a simultaneous movement or a peaceful insurrection of popular masses who will be voicing their anger as victims of the crisis against its authors and beneficiaries, and calling for a control “from below” over the secret bargainings and deals made by markets, banks, and states? Yes indeed. I agree that it can lead to other catastrophes. But the risk is greater if nationalism prevails in whichever form.

In this part of the world, such forces were traditionally called “the left”. But the European left is also now bankrupt. In the broader political space, stretching across borders, that is now relevant, it has lost every capacity to express social struggles or launch emancipatory movements. It has surrendered to the dogmas and rationales of neoliberalism. Consequently it has been ideologically disintegrated. Deprived of any strong popular support, those parties which represent it nominally are now powerless spectators of the crisis, for which they offer no specific or collective response.

We may well wonder, in these conditions, what is going to happen when the crisis enters its next phases? There will be protest movements, almost certainly, but they will find themselves isolated, and possibly they will become deviated towards violence, or recuperated by racism and xenophobia (which are already surging all around us). But the question also concerns intellectuals: what should and could be a democratically elaborated political action against the crisis at the European level? It is the task of progressive intellectuals, whether they see themselves as reformists or revolutionaries, to discuss this subject and take risks. If they fail to do it, they will have no excuse.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 29, 2010 06:52 PM | Send

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