Saturday, 2 June 2018

Does the EU Have a Death Wish?

Consider the Italian crisis that blew up this last week. As the right populist Northern League and the Five Star Movement, perhaps the most pristine example of petit bourgeois radicalism seen anywhere, were negotiating the arrangements for coalition government, Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord couldn't resist the theatre of political grandstanding. He goaded the establishment by nominating Paolo Savana (a well known euro rejectionist) for finance minister, and was duly rejected by Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. Mattarella, it is worth noting, is as establishment as they come. Starting off with a social democratic-leaning section of the Christian Democrats, he has served as a trusted fixer and politician for a kaleidoscope of centrist and centre left coalitions ever since. And so he was always going to reject such a provocative move, political consequences be damned. Champagne corks must have popped in Salvini's HQ when Mattarella published the defence of his position, arguing Italy was integral to the Eurozone and that any such move would upset the markets.

And, as if on cue, assorted EU figures piled in. Leading bean counter, Guenther Oettinger was forced to apologise after suggesting the bond markets would discipline Italian voters for supporting populist parties. Oops. Centrist pin up Guy Verhofstadt argued the economic difficulties Italy has experienced are because of a lack of reform. "Reform" here means - what else? - attacks on living standards, labour laws, and cuts to the public sector. It's almost as if Guy hasn't paid much attention to the way Italian politics have gone these last few years. And the Grand Poobah himself, Jean Claude Juncker suggested Italy depends too much on the EU to sort out its problems. "Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work; less corruption; seriousness ..." as he helpfully put it. Good job support for staying in the Eurozone among Italians remains very strong, albeit tapering off disastrously among the young. Still, this is incredibly reckless behaviour.

Is it a Eurocrat thing or a centrist thing? During the EU referendum campaign it was very easy for Leave to take the high road, because there is a significant democratic deficit at the heart of the EU. The European Parliament, the EU's sole democratic body, is not sovereign within the EU, and it is probably the most insulated elected body in Europe. Consider how UKIP MEPs have used the Brussels-Strasbourg roundabout to enrich themselves without having to do a day's work and got away with it just goes to show how distance and, well, lack of interest buffets the inhabitants of this most august of chambers from the vicissitudes of the popular will. Except twice a decade when elections roll around. Though without much in the way of power, the parliament is a clearing house for cross-continental debate and, as such, affords MEPs (well, at least those who engage) a certain perspective, a bubble of their own not unlike those inflated by Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff and sundry council chambers. Except this bubble is largely divorced from national context, and barely followed or commented upon unless a big issue is brewing up. This isolation from national polities force MEPs into close approximation with employees of the EU, the commissioners and civil servants, who are also insulated from democratic pressures. Though there are sometimes significant political differences, there is fundamental agreement around the deepening of the European project from above, because they know best, and the acceptance of the four freedoms - unimpeded movement of goods, services, capital and people. Though, of course, none of these are as frictionless as their advocates say. The EU's predecessor organisations were conceived and set up as elite projects, and elite projects they remain. Small wonder we see a certain arrogance on the part of what passes for its best known figures.

Though it's not that the EU is uniquely paternalist in its outlook. Contrary to the nonsense peddled by the Brexit right and those who would emulate them in Italy, the EU is run from the centre right. The core body is the Commission, which is comprised of appointees of each member state. It has the power to bring forward legislation, and is responsible for the EU's day-to-day running. Some powers are shared with the Council, which is comprised of ministers from each member state and is, therefore, only very indirectly elected. As right and centre right parties currently comprise a majority of EU governments, so Juncker is, unsurprisingly, from the centre right European People's Party (grouping of mainstream Conservative and Christian Democrat parties in the parliament) and Council president Donald Tusk, drawn from Poland's centre right Civic Platform. Why is this relevant? You just have to look at how the Commission has dealt with EU members in some difficulty. Greece is is the obvious example, but the same demented and enforced austerity foisted on the SYRIZA government has been imposed, albeit less harshly, on Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Cyprus and, of course, Italy. Ostensibly done to appease electorates in the more industrious and prudent countries - namely Germany - in reality it underlines not just the commitment of the right to market fundamentalism of the shortest-termist kind, but their political bankruptcy. They still have no answers to the crisis that has rumbled around the world these last 10 years. Like our very own Tories, their defence of class power and class privilege undermines the relationships that confer them authority and control.

Those of us on the left who supported a remain vote in 2016 did so in the full knowledge of what the EU is. As an unaccountable elite project and international agent of austerity, nevertheless the emergence and deepening integration of European economics, culture and, well, society in general was and is an advance on strong nation states and closed borders. The left vote for remain was not because of the EU, but in spite of it. Brexit was always going to be a playground for right wing nationalism and the most backward sections of British capital, for whom the rising tide of xenophobia and further weakening of Britain's economy and position in the world stage is a price worth paying. But what is interesting is how the arrogance we see from the Commission and its minions finds itself replicated here among the so-called hard remainers.

The utter idiocy of AC Grayling, marking his transition from court philosopher to court fool is one case in point. The attachment of so many self-identified centrists is more than a matter of pragmatism. It even goes beyond a Hegel-style worship of the EU as a Love, Love, Peace, Peace repository of reason. It is a deep recognition, a kinship between how they and the Commission approach politics. The EU is a living reminder, an ever-present nostalgia fest of when centrism (defined very broadly as Blairism-Cameroonism) ran the shop. With May in charge and socially liberal Toryism on the back foot, and Corbynism holding sway with a few centrist holdouts in the PLP and regional party structures, the EU figures as the time before establishment politics changed, when centrism's leading figures were feted, not scorned, by their party faithful and their words and opinions carried weight. As we have seen time and again they cannot and refuse to orientate themselves to the new situation, and so they cling to what's left of their past. It meant they were allies in the referendum, but are not and could never been any use for reforming and democratising the EU.

Will the EU come out the other side of whatever else the crisis in Italy throws up? More than likely. But that's because of the deep roots of support the EU has sank in core sections of the European electorate. For as long as the commissioners and MEPs strut around, dispensing arrogant advice, for as long as the EU is seen and makes itself seen as the architect of austerity and economic stagnation, its legitimacy problems will keep bubbling up and there will be those on the right willing to exploit them for political capital.


George Carty said...

What lessons (if any) can other European countries learn from Germany's success, or is it something that is largely not reproducible (perhaps because it is based on cornering a limited-size market for premium-quality products where competing with China on price isn't an issue)?

And would the EU be doing better had it been more protectionist (so that perhaps we'd have less "Made in China" products in our shops and more "Made in Poland")?

Speedy said...


To be fair, Junker, Guy et al all favour a more functional EU, but were whipped into line during the Greek crisis by the Germans, as memorably recounted in Adults in the Room. The inherent tension between the German desire of a non-federal Europe of rules, and the federal Europe of Guy et al is the central tension in the EU and the one that will make it untenable in the long-run: not because it is irresolvable (a properly federal Europe with budget transfers as per the US would be workable) but because of national chauvinism, beginning with the Germans, but I doubt ending with them.

George Carty said...

How much is the German mercantilism that has proven so damaging to Europe been the consequence of the fact that Germany's population began declining earlier than other European countries, thus convincing Germany's policymakers that the nation had to "save for retirement" by acquiring financial claims against other nations?

Speedy said...

E voila!