A Question of Europe

Categories: Analysis Features

As frustration with the EU is mobilised by centre-right and far-right forces, Chris Bambery considers whether the left can carve out space for a progressive critique of the union.

Faced with the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party in England and the resulting resurgence of Tory Euro-scepticism there is a temptation, in reaction, to adopt a pro-European stance. The debate on the European Union within Britain has always been monopolised by the right and centre, being framed in terms of the necessity of maintaining sterling and imperial measurements, preventing Brussels interfering in the day to day business of economic exploitation and of course halting immigration.

The rise of UKIP has been mirrored elsewhere in Europe as the right seizes on growing disillusionment with the European Union project and with opposition to immigration. Across the EU the centre left are perhaps the most enthusiastic supporters of the EU, but, while critical, the majority of the radical left is also ultimately committed to maintaining their respective state’s membership of the Euro club. That’s true for Die Linke in Germany and the leadership of Syriza in Greece.

In this article I want to argue that it would be a profound mistake for the left to collapse into supporting the European Union. The EU is 100 percent neo-liberal and is impossible to reform. The European Parliament has little or no control over the European Commission nor over the European Central Bank. The results of referenda, when they run counter to their decisions, are simply ignored. The logic of the EU is alien to any policy which priorities social welfare and justice, peace or ecology.

Proof of this proposition may be found in current EU policy towards Ukraine. Let’s be clear – Ukraine has not and will not be offered membership of the EU club. It totters on the edge of bankruptcy and if Brussels finds it hard to cope with the economic meltdown in Greece, it is unlikely to take on an even bigger problem. Ukraine is being offered “association” with the EU and is about to sign up to that. This arrangement would require it to accept EU political, administrative and economic regulations. In the economic domain, the issues of competition, customs, energy, intellectual property, public procurement, services and sustainable development are central. It of course will be denied any say in how the club is run.

Already the cost of EU, IMF and US “bail outs” – sums which are minimal compared to the scale of the problem – involves embracing the full austerity package pioneered in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland. The Ukrainian prime minister designate Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the BBC that “extremely unpopular steps” would be necessary to fix the “desperate financial plight.” He added, “We are on the brink of a disaster and this is the government of political suiciders. So welcome to hell.”

The European Union is moving forward with the programme which saw it incorporate Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the disintegration of the USSR two decades ago. Along with NATO expansion this was key to the diminution of Russia as a major power – you do not need to sign up to Vladimir Putin’s policies to appreciate that and to recognise that this interpretation predominates in Moscow.

An anti-democratic and unstable union

The great boast of the EU was that it eradicated the threat of a European war. Coming after the tragedies of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 it was an attractive one. In reality it accelerated the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which quickly led to war a few hours east of Venice, and it could be doing the same in Ukraine today. The issue of EU expansion into the Ukraine by the latter’s admittance to its free trade area was crucial to the chain of events which now threaten serious economic and political instability in Europe.

If we look further into the corridors of power in Brussels what we see is a growing belief that when faced with economic and social problems, the preferred solution is to suspend what democracy there is on offer. That’s what has happened when the EU has sent in its bureaucrats – unelected of course – to implement the policies of the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) and take control of national economies. It reached its peak with the imposition of unelected “technocratic” governments in Greece and Italy.

Of course now we are being told that with one leap Europe has escaped recession. However, the reality is that large swathes of Europe are mired in conditions associated with economic depression. Unemployment remains historically high outside of the core Eurozone area (Germany, the Netherlands and Austria) and there is not expected to be a significant fall anytime soon. Across the European Union wages have fallen, most dramatically in Southern and Eastern Europe. That has also been true in Germany where the success of its exports is grounded in the reduction of wages a decade ago under a Social Democratic-Green coalition which pioneered the implementation of benefit cuts as a way or eroding wages – put simply, this involved scaring people into holding onto jobs with less reward for fear of falling out of work.

The economic balance has also shifted with the strengthening of the position of Germany and its satellites – the Euro core – as against a weakening European periphery. Labour devaluation is a policy set to continue. Under the terms of the Maastricht Treaty the issue of wages and collective bargaining remain the preserve of national governments. However, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (promoted by German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Federal Bank, and agreed to by the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers) there will now be centralised control of the budgets of member states who signed up to the Treaty. Brussels will have control over public spending and can act to enforce measures to reduce budget deficits. Such measures would include policies aimed at cutting labour costs. It is also a block on any potential left-leaning government prioritising welfare spending. Neoliberal policy is woven into the very fabric of the European Union.

The fact that Britain did not sign up to this fiscal compact  is neither here nor there. In the EU what counts is the “race to the bottom” as each national government rushes to cut labour costs, reduce welfare spending and increase privatisation. Britain, with productivity levels way below its rivals, has no choice but to hold down wages and benefits if it is to compete in this climate.

The Left and the EU

Opposition to the EU on the grounds that it a club run by the elite on behalf of the elite does not mean retreating into jingoism and UKIP style politics, God forbid. Over a decade ago the social movements and the radical left from across Europe came together in the European Social Forum and a string of demonstrations against EU summits and other gatherings of world leaders, the most important and biggest being in Genoa in 2001 around the G8 summit.

The catch phrase then was “Another Europe is Possible.” Activists who took different positions on EU membership came together to agree on fighting for measures to enhance democracy and to resist neo-liberalism. The general thrust was in opposition to the official “race to the bottom” in arguing that the best social and economic provisions within the EU should apply to all – the highest minimum wage, the most liberal abortion provision, the best health and safety laws etc. Fast forward to 2014 and, whatever the claims about a European economic recovery, there is a desperate need for a pan-European front against austerity, because it’s not going away.

We need to oppose the European Union. If we do not we will allow the right, the far right in many cases, to monopolise the very real grievances people have with the erosion of democracy, living standards and welfare provision. The far right, of course, will attempt to turn such anger against migrants, the Roma, Muslims and Jews. The left must champion a Europe based on true equality, democracy and peace, a Europe and which prioritises the needs of its citizens: a Europe of the people, not of the elite.

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