Home > Uncategorized > What next for the EU?

What next for the EU?

from Jayati Ghosh

Even before the results of the UK referendum, the European Union was facing a crisis of popular legitimacy. The result, especially in England and Wales, was certainly driven by the fear of more immigration, irresponsibly whipped up by xenophobic right-wing leaders who now appear uncertain themselves of what to do with the outcome. But it was as much a cry of pain and protest from working communities that have been damaged and hollowed out by three decades of neoliberal economic policies. And this is why the concerns of greater popular resonance across other countries in the EU – and the idea that this could simply be the first domino to fall–are absolutely valid. So the bloc as a whole now faces an existential crisis of an entirely different order, and its survival hinges on how its rulers choose to confront it.

A little history is in order first. The formation of the union itself, from its genesis in the Treaty of Rome in 1957, was as much a result of geopolitical pressure from the US as it was of the grand visions of those who led it. The six founding countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) built on the hope of the European Coal and Steel Community that was established in 1950, that greater economic relations would secure lasting peace and prosperity. Somewhat ironically, they were egged on by the United States, which in the post Second World War period not only provided huge amounts of Marshall Plan aid to western Europe, but urged the reduction of trade barriers between them to encourage more intra-regional economic activity and provide an effective counter to eastern Europe during the Cold War. 

Subsequent expansion of membership (the UK joined the EU in 1973, along with Ireland and Denmark, followed in the 1980s by Greece, Spain and Portugal, and then by Austria, Finland and Sweden in the 1990s and then some years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a large intake of 12 central and eastern European countries in the 2000s, with the most recent member being Croatia in 2013) has brought the number of member countries in the EU to 28. Over the years, expansion has been accompanied by the push for “ever greater union”: the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 that laid down the ground rules for economic engagement and strengthened the institutional structure of the European Commission and the European Parliament; the creation of the Single Market of free movement of goods, services and people starting from 1994; the Treaty of Amsterdam that devolved some powers from national governments to the European Parliament, including legislating on immigration, adopting civil and criminal laws, and enacting the common foreign and security policy; and even a common currency, the euro, shared by a subgroup of 19 members from 1 January 1999.

Some would say that it is remarkable that a continent with a fairly recent history of wars and extreme regional conflicts could have achieved such a combination of expansion and integration. There is no doubt that, from the start, this was a project of the political and corporate elite of Europe, and the “voice of the people” was not really taken into account. Yet in many ways it was also a visionary, even romantic, project that could only go as far as it has gone because, even as it increasingly furthered the goals of globalised finance and large corporations, it still contained the (inadequately utilised) potential for ensuring some citizens’ rights across the region.

However, as the EU bureaucracy expanded and as the rules–particularly the economic ones – became ever more rigid and inflexible, with the forceful imposition of fiscal austerity measures in countries with deficits and even in countries where there was no real need to do so, the Commission itself and the entire process came to be seen as distant, tone-deaf to people’s concerns and impervious to genuine pleas for help and a degree of empathy.

Germany, the undisputed leader of the bloc, epitomised this sense of rigid adherence to (often nonsensical and contradictory) rules. The lack of consistency in creating a monetary union without a genuine banking union or any solidarity with fiscal federalism has created years of economic depression in some countries and deflationary pressures across the Eurozone and most of the EU. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the tragic case of the Greek economy, but this is also true of other countries in the periphery that have been forced into austerity measures with little to show in terms of benefit for more than five years now.

So in the expanding but unfinished project that is the European Union, corporate elites have basically achieved their goals and won – as indeed they have been winning in pretty much every region of the world over the past three decades.

The implicit project of aiding finance and other large private capital and dismantling the welfare state in these countries has moved ahead. The result has been not only economic stagnation and continued increases in inequality, but a breakdown of communities and a pervading sense of hopelessness among people across the region, who feel they are no longer able to control their own destiny. Low and receding employment prospects, precarious work contracts, flat or falling real wages, increasing insecurity in material life, reduced access or lower quality of essential public services such as health and education, less social protection, and a general sense of economic decline have become pervasive features, even though these are by and large still prosperous societies. All these are indeed not common only to Europe, but are felt in many other parts of the world as a result of economic policies favouring the rich and large capital, and suppressing the rights and aspirations of ordinary people on the grounds that “there is no alternative.”

In this context, the EU decision to accept (relatively few, around a million) refugee migrants from war-torn regions of West Asia – mostly tragic victims of instability in the region resulting from wars entered into by the governments of the US and the EU themselves –was in some ways the final straw. In some countries like the UK, there was already resentment at the entry of EU citizens from eastern Europe, who were seen to be driving up house rents and lowering wages. But the possibility of particularly Muslim immigration that was cynically used by the Leave campaign in Britainis also a major element of the public response in many other countries like France and even Germany, where other people, rather than corporate capital, are seen as the threat.

So the tragedy is that growing alienation of many people who have become the victims of financial globalisation has also left them unable to pick on their real enemy. Instead, the tendency has been to pick on others, who are equally or even more the victims, but can be isolated and made into scapegoats because of some apparent differences, particularly recent migrants fleeing either enormous physical threats or economic hardship. The vote in England and Wales both indicates and further strengthens an increasingly unpleasant rightwing surge across Europe, in which “nationalism” is little more than a fig leaf for open or suppressed racism and intolerance to ethnic/cultural differences.

Of course, the alacrity with which other European leaders have said that the Leave vote in the UK must be respected is somewhat surprising. It is worth noting that the European Union so far has not been particularly responsive to the voice of popular will, typically forcing people to bend rather than the other way around, even when there have been significant democratic pressures within member countries against its mandates. Consider just a few examples. In Denmark, 51.7 per cent of voters wanted to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, but the country was made to vote again until the treaty was passed by an even smaller majority.  In 2002, the EU Constitution was rejected by 54.9 per cent of French voters and 61.5 per cent of Dutch voters, but these results were simply ignored and the Lisbon Treaty was put in place. In 2008, Ireland voted against the Lisbon Treaty by 53.8 per cent, but were made to vote again until a more satisfactory result was obtained. In 2015, 61.3 per cent of Greek voters – an overwhelming majority – voted against the austerity programme of the EU, but this too was rejected. At that time, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker even said, “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”

So what is so different about this British referendum? To begin with, it comes from a very important – many would say – crucial member of the Union, albeit one that has always had a rather difficult relationship with the body. In the EU, Britain has always been a bit of the tetchy uncle at the extended family gatherings, complaining about the facilities and the cacophony of the younger children present and grudging the occasional present he is expected to give. The country did not join the Eurozone (to its own great advantage) and has fussed about the payments it has to make as well as the regulations for labour and welfare that is has been forced to introduce. Governments in the UK have always contained Eurosceptic voices, especially in the Conservative Party. But is nonetheless a large and important economy, with a significant geopolitical presence even if that is largely the legacy of history.

Second, ignoring democratic expression at this point of time in Europe is fraught with greater risk. There is already a significant movement against immigration and against the EU, driven again by anger, despair and frustration at economic trends, that is growing across different member countries. If a clear result in this referendum is blatantly denied (despite the best intentions of those working to have a second referendum) or leads to a delayed and watered down response without Britain actually leaving the EU, this will fuel an even greater right-wing response and further strengthen this movement. Then the right-wing surge has the potential to become a veritable tsunami across Europe.

Some of this is already evident in the open glee of far right nationalist forces in response to the UK referendum. The day after the result, Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration National Front in France, who hopes to win the next Presidential election in 2017, wrote, “The European Union has become a prison of peoples. Each of the 28 countries that constitute it has slowly lost its democratic prerogatives to commissions and councils with no popular mandate. Every nation in the union has had to apply laws it did not want for itself. Member nations no longer determine their own budgets. They are called upon to open their borders against their will. Countries in the eurozone face an even less enviable situation. In the name of ideology, different economies are forced to adopt the same currency, even if doing so bleeds them dry. It’s a modern version of the Procrustean bed, and the people no longer have a say… We have tried to deny the existence of sovereign nations. It’s only natural that they would not allow being denied.”

In Italy, Prime Minister Renzi is under pressure because of implementation of neoliberal austerity policies, with the rise of Eurosceptic Five Star movement that recently won important mayoral elections in Rome and Turin. Yesterday the EU rejected his plan to provide public support for banks with large non-performing loans, and he may not survive a referendum in October on sweeping constitutional reforms.

Ironically, far-right anti-EU movements are on the ascendant even in supposedly economically successful countries. Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, tweeted, “Hurray for the British! Now it’s our turn!” In Germany, the Alternative for Germany began as an anti-euro party but is now more openly anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. It now has seats in eight of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and is expected to win seats in the national Parliament the Bundestag in the elections next year. In Austria the candidate of right-wing Freedom Party almost won in the Presidential election, with just under 50 per cent of the vote.

So which way will the European Union go now? The immediate response appears to be a closing of ranks and circling of the wagons, with strict terms applied to the UK as punishment and also deterrence to other would-be leavers. But stronger political union with much greater federal powers no longer seems to be on the table. Instead, there are also likely to be calls for greater flexibility, with respect to both economic policies and migration. Donald Tusk, the Polish President of the European Council, has already warned that that ordinary European citizens do not share the enthusiasm of some of their leaders for “a utopia of Europe without nation states, a utopia of Europe without conflicting interests and ambitions, a utopia of Europe imposing its own values on the external world, a utopia of Euro-Asian unity”. It is likely that there is much less political appetite for greater integration, for example in a banking union, and this will make other forms of economic union even less effective, especially in countries experiencing continued economic difficulties and consequent social unrest.

The European Union as it exists today is unstable and probably unsustainable. But it will be tragic indeed if it collapses under the weight of its own contradictions only to yield to the petty and xenophobic forms of national neoliberalism that are currently the most forceful alternative to neoliberal economic integration. What Europe and the world require are more internationalist alternatives based on popular sovereignty, solidarity, the improvement of workers’ conditions and the rights of citizens. Sadly, at this time there are only very few voices making such demands.


*This article was originally published in the Frontline, Print edition: July 22, 2016.

  1. robert locke
    August 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    “What Europe and the world require are more internationalist alternatives based on popular sovereignty, solidarity, the improvement of workers’ conditions and the rights of citizens. Sadly, at this time there are only very few voices making such demands.”

    We all know this. What is your strategy for achieving what you want?

  2. August 2, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Thank you, Editor, for passing on these thoughts on the EU from Jayati Ghosh. He concludes with the looming prospect, need for alternatives and sad lack of them. Robert Locke pointedly responds: “We all know this. What is your strategy for achieving what you want?” Thank you for that, Bob. I take it your question is directed at all of us.

    My own Christian view of the significant history of this is subtly different from that of Jayati Ghosh. It is focussed not on the need but on developing comparable alternatives; it shares the sadness but – where some might feel joy that “our Redeemer liveth” – hangs onto hope as the necessary condition for persisting in the development.

    By a curious coincidence, Saturday night I picked up a few pages detached from the end of G K Chesterton’s social philosophy “Orthodoxy”, and read “It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. … Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripedes, but he lived in a gayer universe”. The readings at church this Sunday followed the despair of Ecclesiastes 1:2 (“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”) with Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:1-11 (“Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, look for heavenly things; kill in yourself especially greed”) and Jesus in Luke 12:13-21 (telling the story of a rich man intending to eat, drink and be merry, but God saying to him: “Fool! This very night your soul will be required of you, and you can’t take your wealth with you”). So what is hope? Chesterton discovers many things in the art of “G F Watts”: here not Commerce but blind Mammon striking down innocent youth, and not Despair but Hope “a bowed and stricken and secretive figure cowering over a broken lyre in the twilight”. Hanging on by a thread.

    So, with “only very few voices” even demanding alternatives, and considerably less trying to create them, my strategy has had to be reduced to “planting seeds” – the DNA or structural schema of an alternative – realistically accepting that “he who plants pears, plants for his heirs”. From the letters on the EU being published in our local paper, this looked like fertile ground, so here’s what I planted.

    “I came home to the Malvern Observers of 20th and 27th July to find folk still squabbling about Brexit. Like Jeremy Corbyn I voted to “stay” onIy 75% sure that was best, and agree only 75% with Clive Smith and John Gunton’s advice – “Get over it” – for if Julian Roskam’s history is dubious, that’s no excuse for “kicking” him. l agree more with Caitlin Croker, on treating the vote as “advisory”, for it was seen by many (including myself) as the only opportunity they had to protest against Osborne’s banker-ruled austerity and Cameron’s playing games with the referendum: “Heads I win, tails you lose”.

    “Unlike most voters today, I lived through the Hitler war and learned the Christian philosophy which turned our Empire into a Commonwealth and warring nations into a cooperative EEC. Barbara Dodd may be proud to be British, but I have been ashamed to be English since Thatcher sold off our jobs and communications media to international speculators in the City and did what General de Gaulle had feared: helped turn the European Economic Community into a US-style political European Union. But why? In my old age I ask this impartially as a former public servant, scientist and systems analyst.

    “One has to “join the dots” of international history to see European law as Roman and ours as that of our Norman invaders; to see the invention of book printing being followed by Machiavelli advising would-be kings to “tell the people what they wish to hear” and just four years after that by war over the Reformation of Christianity. Henry VIII not only embroiled us in these but – forced by his financiers to pay interest on war debts – legalised the previously forbidden usury. Elizabeth I obtained her gold via piracy on the high seas. England’s bankers, however, really started the rot by inviting Dutchman William of Orange to throw out our then Scottish king, James II, Amsterdam paying for the war by “creating money out of thin air”. In 1694 London’s financiers did likewise, forming the Bank of England to pension off the monarchy and enable the City to control our government via its budget. That it does seems to be why there is so little difference between Conservative and Labour governments.

    “The Americans twice threw out this Reserve Banking as unconstitutional, but in 1913 were conned into seeing the private Federal Reserve Bank as the Government’s, enabling Wall Street to emerge rich and powerful from two World Wars, dominating US government, NATO defences against Stalinist Russia, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and WTO (World Trade Organisation). The EEC also rejected the English system, but our City helped the USA sponsor the European Central Bank and its euro. So now we have three banking systems competing (as the clever Chinese watch), with little England’s “special relationship” exposing the City to mighty US Federal power if we resist European take-over by no longer clinging to our “Big Brother”.

    “Surely, then, Brexit is “out of the frying-pan, into the fire”. What we really need to do is to work out how to put out the fire, i.e. reform the banking system by being honest instead of Machiavellian about how it works. Without the confidence tricks, that is virtually what happens in a credit card system.

    “In this a bank loan merely creates a credit limit, which indebts us only insofar as we use it and don’t pay off in the agreed time. We indebt ourselves not to the banks, but to those who credit us with goods; we merely account for our repayment with monetary credit given to us for earning our keep (which includes our looking after ourselves). Treating banks, businesses and government departments as persons is already recognised as a legal fiction, which as a fiction creates no international right to our credit cards. In reality, bought ownership is shared, or a personal responsibility. Everything else seems to follow, including local banks and governments for local purposes. If everyone has credit available when they need it, there is no need for tax, profits, wages, interest and the like. Charges for un-regenerated, unjustifiable and/or unearned resource use amount to fines, while the price theory of economists already assumes local traders vary charges to clear their shelves.

    “So yes, I agree with Caitlin Croker. For all the immediate reasons she gives and even more because of our responsibility for life on Earth and the future of our children’s children, we all need to do some very serious thinking and to hold our politicians to account BEFORE they act. Let us hope our new Prime Minister, more serious than Cameron, turns out not to be a Thatcher look-alike despite starting with Machiavellian prayers and “strong” commitment to nuclear re-armament”.

    What’s next for the EU? If it is not based on truth, then continuing idiocy.

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