May 25, 2010
Europe is a dead political project, By Étienne Balibar, guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 May 2010
This is the beginning of the end for the EU unless it can find the capacity to start again on radically new bases
Within a single month, we have witnessed Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece announcing his country's possible default, an expansive European rescue loan offered to him on the condition of devastating budget cuts, soon followed by the "downgraded rating" of the Portuguese and Spanish debts, a threat on the value and the very existence of the euro, the creation (under strong US pressure) of a European security fund worth €750bn, the Central European Bank's decision (against its rules) to redeem sovereign debts, and the announcement of budget austerity measures in several member states.
Clearly, this is only the beginning of the crisis. The euro is the weak link in the chain, and so is Europe itself. There can be little doubt that catastrophic consequences are coming.
In response, the Greek protests have been fully justified. First, we have been witnessing a denunciation of the whole Greek people. Second, once again the government has betrayed its electoral promises, without any form of democratic debate. Lastly, Europe did not display any real solidarity towards one of its member states, but imposed on it the coercive rules of the IMF, which protect not the nations, but the banks.
The Greeks were the first victims, but they will hardly be the last, of a politics of "rescuing the European currency" – measures which all citizens ought to be allowed to debate, because all of them will be affected by the outcome. However, to the extent that it exists, the discussion is deeply biased, because essential determinations are hidden or dismissed.
In its current form, under the influence of the dominant social forces, the European construction may have produced some degree of institutional harmonisation, and generalised some fundamental rights, which is not negligible, but, contrary to the stated goals, it has not produced a convergent evolution of national economies, a zone of shared prosperity. Some countries are dominant, others are dominated. The peoples of Europe may not have antagonistic interests, but the nations increasingly do.
Second, any Keynesian strategy to generate public "trust" in the economy rests on three interdependent pillars: a stable currency, a rational system of taxes, but also a social policy, aiming at full employment. This third aspect is systematically ignored in most current commentaries.
Furthermore, all this debate concerning the euro monetary system and the future of Europe will remain entirely abstract unless it is articulated to the real trends of globalisation, which the financial crisis will powerfully accelerate, unless they are politically addressed by the peoples which they affect and their leaders.
We are witnessing a transition from one form of international competition to another: no longer (mainly) a competition among productive capitals, but a competition among national territories, which use tax exemptions and pressure on the wages of labour to attract more floating capital than their neighbours.
Now, clearly, whether Europe works as an effective system of solidarity among its members to protect them from "systemic risks", or simply sets a juridical framework to promote a greater degree of competition among them, will determine the future of Europe politically, socially, and culturally.
But there is a second tendency: a transformation of the international division of labour, which radically destabilises the distribution of employment in the world. This is a new global structure where north and south, east and west are now exchanging their places. Europe, or most of it, will experience a brutal increase of inequalities: a collapsing of the middle classes, a shrinking of skilled jobs, a displacement of "volatile" productive industries, a regression of welfare and social rights, and a destruction of cultural industries and general public services. This will precipitate a return to the ethnic conflicts which the European construction wanted to overcome forever.
We cannot, accordingly, but ask the question: is this the beginning of the end for the EU, a construction that started 50 years ago on the basis of an age-old utopia, but now proves unable to fulfil its promises? The answer, unfortunately, is yes: sooner or later, this will be inevitable, and possibly not without some violent turmoil. Unless it finds the capacity to start again on radically new bases, Europe is a dead political project.
But the breaking of the EU would inevitably abandon its peoples to the hazards of globalisation to an even greater degree. Conversely, a new foundation of Europe does not guarantee any success, but at least it gives her a chance of gaining some geopolitical leverage. With one condition, however: that all the challenges involved in the idea of an original form of post-national federation are seriously and courageously met. These involve setting up a common public authority, which is neither a state nor a simple "governance" of politicians and experts; securing genuine equality among the nations, thus fighting against reactionary nationalisms; and above all reviving democracy in the European space, thus resisting the current processes of "de-democratisation" or "statism without a State", produced by neoliberalism.
Something obvious should have been long acknowledged: there will be no progress towards federalism in Europe (the one that is now advocated by some, and rightly so) if democracy itself does not progress beyond the existing forms, allowing an increased influence for the people(s) in the supranational institutions. Does this mean that, in order to reverse the course of recent history, to shake the lethargy of a decaying political construction, we need something like a European populism, a simultaneous movement or a peaceful insurrection of popular masses who will be voicing their anger as victims of the crisis against its authors and beneficiaries, and calling for a control "from below" over the secret bargainings and deals made by markets, banks, and states? Yes indeed. I agree that it can lead to other catastrophes. But the risk is greater if nationalism prevails in whichever form.
In this part of the world, such forces were traditionally called "the left". But the European left is also now bankrupt. In the broader political space, stretching across borders, that is now relevant, it has lost every capacity to express social struggles or launch emancipatory movements. It has surrendered to the dogmas and rationales of neoliberalism. Consequently it has been ideologically disintegrated. Deprived of any strong popular support, those parties which represent it nominally are now powerless spectators of the crisis, for which they offer no specific or collective response.
We may well wonder, in these conditions, what is going to happen when the crisis enters its next phases? There will be protest movements, almost certainly, but they will find themselves isolated, and possibly they will become deviated towards violence, or recuperated by racism and xenophobia (which are already surging all around us). But the question also concerns intellectuals: what should and could be a democratically elaborated political action against the crisis at the European level? It is the task of progressive intellectuals, whether they see themselves as reformists or revolutionaries, to discuss this subject and take risks. If they fail to do it, they will have no excuse.
• This is an edited version of an article which will be published in full in the June issue of the online journal Theory and Event (Johns Hopkins University Press)
at May 25, 2010
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