• The European Union – History, Tragedy, and Farce

  • By Marisa Matias , José Gusmão | 28 Feb 18
  • There is an apparent moment of peace in the European Union. A moderate economic recovery is being made the basis for a number of quite optimistic declarations and initiatives regarding the future of Europe. In some peripheral regions, such as our own, the reversal of certain austerity measures has lent credibility to the idea that alternative policies can be implemented in Europe. Everybody has forgotten about Greece, the Greek ultimatum, and the current situation and its causes.

    In this scenario, the left can either take the optimistic path and hope for the best or it can pause and reflect on all the structural problems that have been identified since the beginning of the EU and on the solutions that were put forward in these past few years. Can we realistically hope for a Union in which left-wing policies can be implemented? Is there room for full democracy and citizen’s choice in the European Union, or are we simply trying to make the best of an ultimately unsalvageable project?

    The answer to these questions, of course, constitutes the main strategic issue for the European left. Whatever our answer, our position on the European question will shape most of our national and international struggles and our ability to provide mobilising alternatives to the political centre, other than the ones provided by the far-right. Facing this issue is an unavoidable responsibility

    History: Europe’s founding myth

    The main European delusion is the idea that the European Union’s sorry state is due to the subversion of the generous and solidary intentions of its founding fathers. If we discard the propaganda about the European Social Model, which was never actually converted into real European law or policies, it becomes clear that the EU was never intended as a Union based on economic and social solidarity. In fact, it was never intended to be a Union in any way, shape, or form.

    Since the very beginning, the European Union was all about free trade. The ‘single market’ is an original way of saying free trade, with decreasing room for public policy and with a playing field designed for the most competitive economies on the continent. The EU’s institutions and rules were designed to serve the economic nationalism of Germany and similar economies. Funding directed to peripheral economies’ development made European integration more appealing to public opinion, but it came at an extremely high price.

    Peripheral economies were forced to dismantle many of their most important productive sectors, and many others were quickly wiped away by the abrupt opening of their markets. As things moved along, structural funds became increasingly scarce and conditional on neoliberal structural reforms. In the European integration process, the stick was stronger than the carrot.

    Of course, it is possible to agree on the origins of the European project and still have different views on what to do from now on. Clearly, it would have been much better to have been wise enough not to have stepped onto the European train from the platform in the first place rather than jumping off the train at full speed. On the other hand, if we have come to believe that the train is pulling our countries towards a cliff then jumping off right now does not seem such a bad idea.

    Tragedy: The financial crisis and the EU’s ugly face

    Economic divergence was the main feature of European integration from the very beginning, but this process accelerated dramatically with the monetary union. The nominal convergence process and the introduction of the euro generated huge economic imbalances between central and peripheral economies. These imbalances grew steadily during the euro years without much of a fuss being made over it. Most people simply did not know about the issue, and those who did overwhelmingly believed that since we were all in the same boat things would somehow even out.

    They did not. When the financial crisis came, and after a timid and brief countercyclical effort, the European institutions imposed on Member States – in varying degrees – severe austerity policies connected with a structural reforms agenda, which were not subjected to any democratic scrutiny. Moreover, the severity of these policies was extremely selective as was indeed the degree to which European rules were effectively enforced.

    While peripheral economies are threatened and bullied for their public accounts imbalances, Germany has accumulated record high and persistent current account surpluses, which are profoundly disruptive for the Eurozone. Nevertheless, Germany has not had to face the slightest reproach from European institutions. European commissioners make it a point of stating very clearly that their assessment of compliance with European rules is made on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. This, of course, creates absolute arbitrariness and completely different treatment of different countries with different degrees of political power.

    These events have made a critical point about the European Union increasingly clear: The EU is not a democracy. In fact, it does not even have a state based on the rule of law. European institutions and law have created a system in which some leaders resemble ancient sovereigns exercising political power. This makes European integration a gigantic step backward in Europe’s political system. Almost all national democracies in Europe are more democratic than the European institutions. And the ones that are not face far fewer difficulties from the EU than the governments that have democratically decided to diverge from European institutions.

    Such was the case with Greece. The ultimatum was that imposed on the Greek government continues to produce devastating economic and social effects, but it seems that even a significant part of the left is willing to forget that this ever happened. In our opinion, the Greek lesson – and what a hard one it was! – has shown us one simple thing: A government of a peripheral country that is unwilling to contemplate and prepare for a break with the Eurozone is basically condemning itself to obey whatever orders it is given by the European institutions. To reject the possibility of a break is to place our countries in an objective state of diminished political autonomy and accept any European fate. This is a very bleak perspective, as the recent political initiatives have once again confirmed.

    Farce: By now Europe has no feet

    The present debate in the European institutions is quite a degrading one. After economic incompetence leading to the post-crisis disaster, after the disgraceful behaviour of European institutions in the refugee crisis, Europe’s peoples are witnessing a ludicrous debate on the future of Europe. The wrong answers are being given to the wrong questions by the wrong people. The European Union faces sluggish economic growth, massive macroeconomic imbalances, unsustainable public debts, an unreformed financial system, and a continually growing far right. While these issues remain to be addressed, European bureaucrats are intent on promoting the militarisation of Europe.

    While this happens, Europe’s left has its own problems to solve. The existence of different national strategies is not, in our opinion, one of them. It is only natural that left organisations devise their own strategies and alliances to deal with national problems and political equilibria. However, understanding the European crisis and providing a plausible common response is equally important. And we are still very far from achieving that objective.

    The European centre is tipping to the right, both in the contents of policy- making and at the institutional level. The defeats that are being suffered by socialists everywhere are producing a more aggressive conventional right and providing more and more breathing space to the far-right’s solutions to the discontent of Europe’s populations. Blaming workers for their electoral choices – as is very common in the case of Brexit – is hardly a viable option. Much less a democratic one.

    It is time for the European left to understand what growing sectors of Europe’s populations are understanding: the European Union is not going to change. What we see is what we are going to keep getting. And if the left does not provide people with a plausible alternative that deals with the concrete problems of their lives someone else will. The prospect of a break with the euro is not a pleasant or, for the moment, a popular one. But it has a decisive advantage: it is possible. And it can mobilise national sentiment around the defence of workers’ rights and the welfare state, instead of racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, if we stick to generic rhetoric about how the united left is going to change the European Union, we will fool no one but ourselves.