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The road to Europe: the need for trans-European politics

The EU's crisis has been framed as an economic one, with the self-interest of individuals in nation states pitted one against the other: if the Greeks do well, the Germans do badly. But Europe needs a plural political existence - European political parties expressing this - in order to function.

‘We are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting men’, Jean Monnet famously declared. Over the last months, since the sovereign debt crisis has hit Europe, the Eurozone and the European Union more generally has felt more and more like a coalition of states, reasoning about who should be a member of the coalition, whether it is still worth taking part, and at what cost. It may be that Greek membership of the Eurozone is judged to be too high a “cost” to pay for the other members, and so it will be forced to default out of the euro in a more or less orderly fashion. Where Greece goes, other Eurozone states may be forced to follow, Portugal, Ireland … now the talk is of Italy and Spain and already we are talking about the complete breakup of the Eurozone, and potentially with that the posing of a mortal threat to the European Union itself.

What has been most shocking to many of us convinced Europeans has been the resurgence of populist stereotypes of other nationalities and cynical and backhanded attacks amongst the peoples of Europe: the Greeks are lazy and should sell the Acropolis to pay off their debts, some German newspapers have suggested; the Germans have been characterised as priggish and tight in the press of several Mediterranean countries … and so on. What happened to the union of Europeans?

Europe’s leaders have not restrained from taking part in the mud-slinging, not only those like Berlusconi from whom such behaviour is expected (although no more excusable for all that) but even Angela Merkel herself has gone in for repeating unfounded slanders (such as her unfounded assertion that Southern Europeans work less hours than the Germans). This is not the way to unify men. The return of these pejorative national stereotypes has led to the finance minister of Poland warning the European Parliament that if the Eurozone crisis is not resolved there could be war in Europe within 10 years. It sounds exaggerated now, but then so did the threat of each of the World Wars to most people less than 10 years beforehand.

There is now a considerable debate about exactly which new economic instruments and which new powers for the European institutions will be required to resolve the sovereign debt crisis. Elsewhere I have joined the people saying that Eurobonds are an essential component of this. But beyond this question of “fixing” the economy, the crisis should lead us to pose bigger questions about the strategy of European integration itself.

Since the beginning, with the Schuman plan in 1950, this has been based on forcing states to work together by intertwining their economic interests in such a way as to make war between them practically impossible. The first step of this was with the creation of a common market in coal and steel, which quickly led to the formation of the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community, and the course was set for the European Union we have today. The presupposition almost all the way through has been that by creating common markets of ‘free and undistorted competition’, the interests of Europeans would be united, because state interference in the markets would be effectively controlled in the common interest by a High Authority and, later, the European Commission. In this optic, the powers of the European Commission have been for lowering barriers to competition and keeping them low.

With the creation of the common currency, the European faith in free markets seems to have been taken even further. Now, without any serious fiscal or political integration limiting or coordinating competition between the member states of the eurozone, as Rossana Rossanda points out, some people seem to have expected that simply the common symbol of the common currency would work to unite Europeans. In reality, it is unlikely that any of the major personalities creating the currency believed this, or believed that the common currency would survive without fiscal or political integration in the future. The strategy of European integration from the beginning has been one of small steps which obliged states to take bigger steps of integration in the future. And here we are talking about forms of fiscal union to combat the sovereign debt crisis.

What is posing a major problem now, however, and more than ever before, is the disappearing consent of the peoples of Europe for economic integration at all prices. A free and undistorted competitive market is not sufficient to create solidarity amongst people. A logic of economic integration is a logic of self-interested collaboration: for as long as participating in European cooperation seemed to offer the promise of prosperity for enough people, the tacit consent required pushing cooperation further was guaranteed. But now that prosperity seems much more under threat, people are reassessing their own self-interests. The way the sovereign debt crisis has been handled has exacerbated this ‘economic’ reasoning: the Greeks have had visibly to suffer austerity and pay a personal price, the Germans feel they are being asked to ‘pay’ for other countries’ problems they have had no role in creating: both the Greeks and the Germans are being made to feel like they are ‘losing’ in a competition of sorts.

The rationality of an actor in a market is not enough to create a robust community which is willing to face challenges collectively, it is only enough to create fragile coalition based on the self-interest of its actors, which will break as soon as the actors feel their interest is elsewhere. Now, more and more people both amongst the indignados on the street and the bourgeoisie looking at their capital investments are questioning whether their real interests are in continued European collaboration.
Explaining to Europeans that their real, long-term economic interests are still in cooperation will at best only patch over the problem until the next crisis. The discourse of European integration has to go further and talk about justice, equality, fairness, sustainability, a decent way of life and perhaps even, as Roger Scruton has suggested, talk about morals. These are the kind of considerations which go beyond the narrow economic logic of self-interest and appeal to people as members of a political community rather than isolated individuals in a market.

A community of Europeans will have been created when the debate during a crisis is no longer about whether it should be the Germans or the Dutch who pay for the Greeks or the Italians, but about the distribution of wealth amongst the working class and more wealthy Europeans, about the unemployment of European young people, the phenomenon of precarity and its spread throughout Europe, and so on. Furthermore, a community of Europeans will have been created when the talk in Europe is not only about the distribution of wealth and opportunity amongst people in Europe but about Europe’s response to a changing balance in the global economy and in global politics. One of the striking things about the response to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is how small minded it all seems in the context of massive economic shifts to the Orient and democratic transition in the Arab world, both of which are already having decisive impacts on Europeans without there being any serious European strategy or response to these changing conditions.

This is why, as John Palmer has pointed out, the emergence of genuinely European political parties is vitally important. Europe will be a community of people when there are different competing visions of the European political good, and these will be promoted and carried forwards by competing European political parties. Democracy in this sense is not just an additional extra which can be added-on at a later stage to a political community like the European Union, it is the glue which will hold the community together over the course of history. The lesson of the financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis for Europe must therefore be that a European economy is impossible without a genuinely European democracy.

A total union amongst men is a utopia which may be worth pursing but is most likely impossible in any political community. A politically integrated Europe will be one in which there are competing visions of the common European good, and competing ideas for how political and economic burdens will be distributed fairly across the community. At the moment, in the context of economic crisis, only economic actors and nation states are making their voices heard. For the sake of the European economy as well as for the sake of democracy, we must all bring other considerations to the debate as well.

About the author
Niccolo Milanese is co-president of European Alternatives

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