The discussion as to whether the U.K. should vote to leave the European Union has taken on a new dimension in the past few weeks, with increasing public discussion on the left. Two notable commentators, Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and journalist Paul Mason, have each published articles critiquing the E.U. as an institution but ultimately urging leftists to vote to remain within it. It is worth placing today’s discussions in a historical context. The European Union only came into existence in 1993, while its antecedents began in the continent’s post-war recovery and reorganization.
When the Marshall Plan came into operation in 1948, Europe’s post-war recovery was stalled, with no countries’ economies returned to their pre-war levels. In planning the Emergency Recovery Plan the U.S. came to recognize the need for a buoyant German export economy. The Marshall Plan ended in 1951, the same year the Treaty of Paris established the European Coal and Steel Community, aimed at creating trade links which would make member states less likely to go to war with each other and to promote economic recovery. The U.K. was not a signatory.
In 1958 the European Economic Community was created by the Treaty of Rome, again with the aim of promoting integration and economic advancement. Again, the U.K. stayed out. It took the country more than three decades, and decolonization, to look at Europe as something it could join rather than a group of countries it beat or saved in World War II. For Europe the treaties were designed, at least in part, to redress some economic anomalies — the EEC could be explained as a straightforward trade in which German industry, rapidly expanding since the war, gained access to the French market in exchange for France’s agricultural economic base being supported formally through the new treaty.
As early as the 1960s there were fractures, however, with the Nordic countries and the U.K. applying to enter the EEC and being vetoed by France on the basis that its candidacy was a U.S.-sponsored trojan horse. Europe was attempting to build itself up as a trading bloc without interference from outside, and it wasn’t until 1973 that the U.K. was admitted to the EEC. By this point the Common Agricultural Policy, a system of subsidies and controls which accounted for over 70 percent of Europe’s budget in the early 1980s, had already begun. The CAP has had the effect of stalling growth in other areas of the world and disadvantaging communities within Europe whose agriculture does threatens others.
Within two years of the U.K. joining the EEC, Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party before becoming prime minister in 1979. Like other countries across Western Europe, the U.K. embarked on a series of reactionary measures to break workers’ rights to collectivize and strike. The decline of heavy industrial manufacturing, beginning in the 1960s, reached its peak in the ‘70s with the collapse of the last remaining industrial tenets. The push for freer markets, already a fait accompli due to the Common Agricultural Policy and the earlier treaties, gathered pace and scope. With the U.S. and Japan emerging as the most powerful economies in the world through the 1980s, Europe came to contemplate how it might reorganisze for the demands of global trade.
Doing so would require an evolution of the mechanisms that had already been put to work effectively. One critical feature of European integration until the 1980s was its heavy-handed approach to managing affairs it controlled. Whole swathes of business were managed by institutions developed to enforce treaties, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing especially. This kind of top-down management was ill-suited to the demands of a post-industrial economy seen especially in Japan and the U.S., however. Success stories — and there were some, even on a national level in certain industries — were overshadowed by decline in the kinds of industries people saw as fundamental to their nation’s being. As these dwindled they were replaced by post-Fordist activities, which were disconnected from communities but required ever greater control over a far wider pool of consumers than had previously been possible.
The demands of new industries necessitated a shift in the nature of governance. For the U.S. this meant NAFTA, which threw open the doors of trade and created low-income, insecure jobs. In Europe it was clear that there needed to be a renegotiation not just of trade between existing countries but a different set of governance agreements for them. To achieve this the European Council held a treaty summit in 1992 in the Dutch city of Maastricht and agreed to a series of points which would drastically alter the life of citizens in its control. It formally established the European Union, as well as European citizenship and the Euro currency.
The Maastricht treaty was superseded by the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in 2009. The 16 years between their ratifications had seen the Euro be adopted as the currency of 19 E.U. member states and the E.U. itself increase by 15 countries. Maastricht had set the E..U up, and expanded its role beyond trade into areas of security and the home affairs of its member countries. The new members, all but three in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, found themselves members of an organization which seemed capable of expanding endlessly without external issues to confront.
What happened next to Greece tells us all we need to know about what the European project has become and how it will conduct itself in the future. Before admission to the Eurozone, countries were expected to meet a set of criteria to ensure their economies were compatible with the new status quo. Greece failed most of these measures outright, its economy drastically out of step with the imagined mainstream. It didn’t matter — statistics were favorably interpreted, fanciful promises garnered as to the country’s intentions — and Greece was admitted in 2002.
In 2001 the Greek government signed, in secret, a deal with Goldman Sachs to suppress the level of debt on its balance sheet. Overnight Goldman made $600 million and Greece had saleable credit. German and French banks swooped, buying up cheap assets, buoyed by the same conflation of existence and security which Paul Mason seems afflicted by. All seemed well until the global financial crisis saw liquidity problems spread across the continent, catching Greece’s overvalued assets out — the country had to quickly accept its first Troika-enforced bailout. The rest isn’t quite history, being lived out each day at Europe’s southeastern extremity.
Returning to present conversations, both Varoufakis and Mason are deeply aware of the crises the E.U. faces and the ways in which it perpetuates them through its inaction. As Greece’s finance minister during the country’s renegotiations of its bailout from the Troika in 2014, he was vocal about the obviousness of Europe’s new agenda. Mason, too, was involved in Greece’s travails — he is perhaps the U.K.’s best-known reporter of the country’s struggle.
Both recognize the incongruity of the E.U.’s present actions, relative to what they identify as its noble historical aims. Peace, prosperity and stability are of course laudable goals, but the means of achieving them have to be taken into account. The Marshall Plan’s reconstruction of Europe has been repeatedly critiqued as a thinly-veiled colonization process, designed to enhance Europe’s ability as a consumer but to limit its productive value relative to U.S. interests. The myth that Europe, architects of colonialism and purveyors of white supremacy the world over, enthusiastic collaborator in the Holocaust, expunged its internal strife through two world wars before embracing peace is as unexamined as it is pervasive in the left’s public discussion ahead of this referendum.
Throughout its existence the European project, beginning with the Marshal Plan, continuing through the formation of the ESCC and in time the E.U., has been orchestrated to advance a specific capitalistic agenda of deregulated free markets through the disassembly of national government’s control over its own legislative boundaries. For Mason and Varoufakis, both of whom have called for sustainable models of capitalism, the prospect of this multi-decade, socio-political project’s future is unrelated to any criticism of its extant form.
While Varoufakis and Mason have different focuses as to Europe’s problems (Varoufakis’ belief that the project has lost sight of its democratic roots, Mason’s identification of its consistent betrayal of workers’ rights) neither critique is convincing as they assume that the E.U.’s existence and scale is to some extent self-legitimising.
Varoufakis details the history of Europe in Greece — from the military dictatorship which clamped down on leftists, emboldened by U.S. agencies, to the subsequent joining of the E.U. and the proliferation of credit at the behest of German and French banks, encouraged by a Western European establishment which saw Greece’s admission to the Eurozone as an acquisition. Mason details the consistency and vitality of the European project’s attacks on labor rights and its appalling human rights record.
Yet both end up at the same conclusion — that the U.K. should not leave the E.U., at least for now. Mason sees the threat of an untrammelled Conservative government as a threat too toxic to contemplate, and Varoufakis harks back to the yesteryears of a Europe focused on peace. The irony of Mason rhapsodizing a continent which consistently elects center-right governments to save the U.K. from its own appears not to have dawned on him, and Varoufakis’ assertion of Europe ever being committed to peace falls down historically.
Those considering how to vote in the referendum would do well to think about the E.U.’s future — immediate and long-term — and the signs are all there for Europe’s hideous past continuing proudly, endlessly, over the horizon. With TTIP already in negotiation, we have the embodiment at least of the ideal type existence for the E.U.’s leaders; corporate personhood, secret courts to deal with miscreants who infringe the new citizens’ rights and the subsuming of countries into a governmental structure ever less democratic. So far only France’s capriciously socialist government has managed to derail negotiations, temporarily.
On human rights, Europe’s response to the plight of refugees trying to resettle within its borders has been abject. Even since 2009, when it was happy to lend its tacit support to a deal with Qaddafi’s government in Libya to prevent refugees reaching European shores, every opportunity Europe has had to demonstrate its self-reported humanitarianism has been missed. With almost 1 million people now seeking safety on the continent, the response has been to grant asylum to 72,000 (one refugee for every 7,005 E.U. citizens). The rest will be dispersed back to Turkey and then, quite possibly, Syria, without legal representation or access to support services. Very simply Europe doesn’t care about refugees it can see, and is doing everything in its power — and beyond its legal authority — to prevent it from seeing any at all.
In June the U.K. will vote on whether to remain in the E.U. Rather than deciding on the merits of the institution, presupposing that its existence must grant it some, leftists ought to consider the value of disrupting one of the world’s great ills — a strong, prosperous Europe. In doing so they might even deal a body blow to one of the grandest constituents of that group — the U.K. As E.U. Commissioner Donald Tusk says, in keeping with the join-or-die narrative emerging from Brussels, “the alternative to the E.U. is chaos.” Could it be time to choose chaos over untenable precarity?