The dream is over: what kind of Europe is this?

‘The dream is over’, wrote John Lennon in 1970 after the breakup of the Beatles, disillusioned with the band, the whole sixties scene, and belief systems generally.  I’m having pretty much the same feelings at the moment about the European Union as the implications sink in of the acceptance of the EU/IMF austerity package by a coerced Greek parliament ringed by desperate protests, riots and burning buildings.

Through the 1990s and into the new century, I taught European Studies, and in that heady decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the launch of the euro, I accompanied young students on educational trips to Brussels and beyond, visiting the European Parliament and other EU institutions, absorbing the lessons of the past at the First World war sites of northern France and Belgium, and encountering the signs of Europe’s 20th century nightmare in other places.  With those ghosts at our shoulders, it felt intoxicating to be able to cross frontiers unchecked, sailing past boarded-up border posts, carrying bright new euro notes and coins that could be spent anywhere.

Today, there are no illusions.  Across Europe, the EU has been transformed in the minds of voters everywhere into an undemocratic regime of bureaucrats imposing spartanism on the less fortunate in the name of the rich and the powerful.  To forge ahead towards EU fiscal union with social tensions and resentment rising seems like madness.

A decade or more ago, there seemed to be a strong case for arguing that the supranational structures of the EU were the only way that national or local populations could retain sovereignty over their territorial affairs and interests, under pressure from the forces of globalization (large multi-national firms, outsourcing of labour, mass migration, ecological disaster, climate change and so on).  Indeed,this was the argument that turned most of the British left and trade union movement (myself included) into ardent Europeans from the 1980s onwards.

That case is still valid today as nation-states increasingly fail to protect their citizens from the depredations of globalisation – more so in the current global recession.  National governments are failing to effectively regulate financial systems, protect the environment, or narrow the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. In other words, democratic states can only retain their sovereignty insofar as they do what the EU was established to do – pool their sovereignty in supra-national projects of coordination and cooperation.

But what is happening now is a long way removed from the ideals of the founding fathers of ‘ever closer union’, indeed current moves seem likely to jeopardise the whole project, with a gulf opening up between Germany and those who live in nations having to endure austerity measures imposed by the alliance of banks and EU technocrats, and a growing sense of alienation from the EU expressed on the street from Athens to Galway. As Maria Margaronis writes in today’s Guardian, ‘this is not the people’s Europe we dreamed of’.  Of course, there was always something schizophrenic about the EU – on the one hand establishing and codifying the rights of European citizens or transferring resources from rich to poor areas under the funds for social cohesion, whilst at the same time battering down the barriers to an open market for multinationals to profit from.

But, the treatment of the Greeks (and of Portugal, Ireland and the rest) really does pose the question of what kind of Europe we want. Because there are other ways out of the financial crisis facing the eurozone than the one being pursued currently by the technocrats in Berlin and Brussels.  If he sticks to his guns, François Hollande, the Socialist party candidate in France’s presidential election, could demonstrate that.

At the EU summit on 30 January a new Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union was finalised by the leaders of all EU member states (with the exception of the UK and the Czech Republic).  It’s an extraordinary document, following as it does the replacement of democratically elected politicians with technocrats in Italy and Greece. Once agreed, mere elections and changes of government will not be able to change the caps on public spending set out in the treaty: even when a majority in a parliament changes, it will be unlawful to overthrow the budget limits. Any new government that tries it will be hauled before the European Court of Justice.  As Kirsty Hughes wrote on Open Democracy, this is a bleak day for European democracy:

This sweeping agreement to move a central economic policy choice – argued over by politicians and economists alike for much of the last 80 years – out of the remit of democratic politics is an extraordinary moment in European political history. If Obama and the US were bound by EU rules, the mildly Keynesian policies that are allowing the US economy to grow while the EU hits recession would be illegal.

Teargas in front of the Greek parliament

And now, even after the Greek parliament has voted to accept the terms of the bailout, the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund which drafted the programme of Greek cuts are demanding a signed pledge from all political leaders in Greece that, whatever the outcome of the election in April, the terms of the bailout will be ‘clearly and unequivocally’ upheld.

This has everything to do with the euro, and the desperate need by Germany and the other nations of the EU’s rich north to keep it afloat.  Back in the 1999, at the time when the single currency project was being finalized, Timothy Garton-Ash (always a reliable commentator on European matters) was prescient in expressing his doubts:

The leaders of the Western Europe concentrated their energies on the amazing adventure of monetary union. … Only a fool or a bigot could not see the potential benefits.  But I think it was simply the wrong priority for the 1990s.  After the miraculously peaceful end of the Cold War, we should have concentrated our efforts on building [a] liberal order for the whole of Europe.  And I’m afraid that EMU is a bridge too far for Western Europe itself.  Some of the countries now in monetary union are not ready for it.  I fear the resulting strains will make Western Europe a very bad-tempered place  – perhaps even worse – at some point in the next ten years.
(The History of the Present, 1999)

Let’s recall where it all began: in 1945 Europe lay in ruins and 50 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives in a conflict that dwarfed even the First World War in its level of death and destruction. But, whereas World War 1 exacerbated nationalism and ideological extremism in Europe, World War 2 had almost the opposite effect.  People in different parts of Europe began to dream of a different kind of Europe. Many were from Europe’s linguistic and political borderlands – Schuman from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, De Gasperi from northern Italy, Spaak from bilingual Belgium.

Within five years of the end of the war, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, prompted by Jean Monnet, proposed to Germany the first practical move toward European unity, and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed and made support for the principles of European integration the cornerstone of German foreign policy after the War. He wrote:

Though it is often said that mankind is incapable of learning from history, this is not absolutely correct, to judge by our German experience.

As a result of the disaster which two world wars have brought to Germany, the great majority of our people have consciously or intuitively realised that nations cannot continue to live exclusively according to their own desires and inclinations, but must merge their interests with those of the other peoples of the world. There is no longer any important problem which is only a German or even only a European one. We must learn to think and to act in larger terms.

The saying “We are all brothers!” is not an empty phrase and must never be allowed to become one. We must not think of certain countries as far away and therefore of no interest to us. Every country concerns us, for peace is indivisible and unless every country, in its decisions and acts, takes thought of the state of the whole world, this peace will never come.

The age of national states has come to an end. Everyone must feel that a change has taken place, that an era has vanished and that a new age is dawning in which men will look beyond the borders of their own country and work in fraternal co-operation with other nations for the true aims of humanity… And when this Europe, this new Europe, is built, our young people will once more find scope for active and peaceful lives.  We in Europe must break ourselves of the habit of thinking in terms of national states.

- Konrad Adenauer, The End of Nationalism, 1955

While the European Community was being constructed in Western Europe, there were those, such as Vaclav Havel the leading dissident in Czechoslovakia during the Communist years who dreamed of seeing that community extended eastward:

All of us … thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of “blocs”, of a European policy based on respect for human rights. … We must not be afraid to dream of the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe.

- Vaclav Havel, President of Czech Republic, 1990

Today, though, Maria Margaronis can write from Athens that

Both left and right talk about a new German occupation – an understandable reference given that Germany is calling the shots and that Greeks last queued at soup kitchens in the 1940s …. Both those tropes call up the silent ghosts of the Greek civil war, which launched the cold war in Europe and outlawed the Greek left for the next 30 years. In this story, the west plays the part of the repressive imperial interloper.

She concludes that what is really at stake here is not simply to do with Greece – it’s a question of Europe’s identity:

All eyes are fixed on Athens, but the way out of the crisis requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want. The one we have now, with its deep structural inequalities and its rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology, protects neither democracy nor human rights. Stiff-necked and punitive, it prefers to eat its children.

Can the seemingly impossible become a reality, as Vaclav Havel expressed it?  Is it still possible to dream of a better Europe,  to build a better Europe?

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6 thoughts on “The dream is over: what kind of Europe is this?

  1. Has Europe has run out of steam, intellectually and economically, you can’t conjure material wealth from a vacuum? At times of such political paralysis & economic stasis the establishment reaction could be to look to global conflict to deflect attention from the possibility that political leadership is in fact directionless. In that case we may already be living the Orwellian nightmare without actually being fully aware of it yet?

  2. A good analysis of the position with some revealing quotes. Thanks! As a committed socialist living in Italy I’m appalled by what I’m seeing around me. Rather pessimistic about the immediate future too. I can’t see anyone who has the political balls to do anything about it.

  3. Thanks for this, insightful. What a mess we have ALL created. As is almost always the case when we face a tradegy like this, there are many causes and in some senses we are all to blame. I read today that the Greek people had suffered a 40% dfrop in income in 5 years. Though many there must accept a share of the blame,a further reduction is surely untenable.
    European Union is a failed concept, We are not really Europeans, we are individual cultures on the same continent. It is desperately sad to see what has happened in a wonderful country.

  4. I visited Athens on the eve of the euro conversion. I still have some drachmas as memento of the trip. Greece was like a normal country just over a decade ago, now all hell has broken loose. Something is wrong somewhere.

  5. Spent the last week of February in Spain. There is a man on hunger strike right at the centre of the brand new and ultra modern Malaga Airport. He cannot get a job.
    At the Union offices just across the road into Gibraltar are banners claimimng that there are people who have not been paid by the Government for five months. It felt faintly uncomfortable to be a tourist in such circumstances, and yet one hopes many more people will visit in order to help.

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