Sixty years after its founding treaty, the European Union is far from the stability, the legitimacy and the concerted development that its leaders had guaranteed a few years ago. On the contrary, on the eve of Brexit negotiations, which served as the alarm bell of how unpopular “European project” really is, it seems that the E.U. has entered into a fatal crisis. Its very existence is in question.
To be sure, one should keep a clear mind about the widespread “catastrophism” going around. Nonetheless, there have been an accumulation of obstacles and setbacks that were not the result of chance.
I’ll enumerate them here, and this is not an exhaustive list: the persistent weakness of the euro and accumulation of debt, followed by a response inflicted upon Greece that proves the political and financial powers do not understand (and no doubt will not understand) the solution; the refugee tragedy and the dishonorable agreement with Turkey, which only temporarily moved the border from one place to another; crushing austerity, which accelerated the de-industrialization of territories, shifted competition to the bottom (to workers of different nationalities) and destroyed welfare resources; the inability of parliamentary institutions to govern the crisis, which, from one country to the next, led to the discrediting of politics in its traditional forms.
Add to this, last but not least, the growth of the international challenges that have resulted in tensions between NATO and the Russian Empire, the contagion of war in the Middle East, the rise of an anti-European U.S. administration, etc.
Even on the left a kind of ugly excitement is overcoming those who, because of ideology or mindset, never believed in European integration, which they view as only an imperialist machine. While those — myself included — for whom European citizenship is both an ideal and a means to tackle the challenges of the contemporary world, we’re left to explain what’s stopping us from admitting defeat.
Before proceeding with the analysis, a preliminary reflection is necessary. The current Europe has very little to do with that which (under another name) the Treaties of Rome solemnly founded 60 years ago. The geography, the history and the political horizon had all changed by the end of the Cold War and with the delegitimization of the socialist idea under all its forms that ensued. The objective of an “ever closer union among the peoples and Member States” has given way to a de facto integration system “at various speeds” or even, in some countries placed under guardianship, under neo-colonial practices.
The environment with which it is connected — through flows of capital, of populations and of “dissymmetrical” information — is the lawless (but not masterless) world of global finance and of the great eastward shift of the poles of wealth. All these transformations are connected, even if their articulation is complex. The European Union of Maastricht engraved the “sacrosanct” principle of “free and undistorted competition,” to which every undertaking and way of life must bend. This “actually existing” Europe must rethink its function for citizens and for the international context. At most, Saturday’s Rome Declaration should remind us that there was a great political project and that there could be another for the current century.
What should Europeans discuss in the days and years to come, while the tensions of the interregnum grow?
First of all, nationalism, which has prompted a reconsideration of the “federal” idea, undermined by suspicions of illegality and unpopularity. European unification had strengthened states at the time of the “national social” policies. It serves today rather to undermine employment relationships and social security. Nationalism has thus become extremely responsive.
But we can’t forget what encouraged this shift: the way in which governments, concerned above all to preserve their own monopoly as representatives of the people, took advantage of the turning point in 1989 to block any evolution toward a shared sovereignty. There has never been a real federalism in Europe, in particular because the republican idea of the “division of powers” has never risen to the community level. The weakness of the European Parliament is the clearest indication of this.
Second, we must strategically discuss the relationship between globalization and European integration. For some, Europe is a tool of capitalist globalization — that is, a full commoditization with devastating social effects. For others, thanks to the potential balance that can be found between local protections and global controls, it is the means to resist the new Leviathan. The dispute over the euro and its interaction with common economic policy is at the center of this debate. This shows well, I think, that there is a middle ground between a neo-liberal orientation and a socialist orientation, which should be redefined. This conflict will probably play out in Germany, but it will not be in isolation.
Finally, the “populism” issue must be tackled head on. In fact, populism is not the flip side of the question of the European “demos”; and the demos, in turn, is just the symbolic term that covers the issues of the enlargement of democratic practices. Populism is not nationalism, even if it’s connected extensively to left- and right-wing sovereignism. Nor is it fascism, although the current xenophobic offensive in almost every European country is using this “anti-system” language, if not its institutional objectives. The academic establishment and the media appear coalesced in strengthening this amalgamation. On the contrary, these ideas should be methodically separated in order to imagine and create an alliance between the need for popular sovereignty and for overcoming an exclusive identity.
In other words, to conclude: We can, I believe, fully accept the position of those who, on the left in particular, describe the current construction of Europe as a failure and an obstacle to the improvement of the fate of the majority. Everything except one thing: that the collapse of the European institutions and, a fortiori, the abandonment of the Fed’s outlook in Europe represent a positive condition for future struggles. To this we must persevere, but at the price of a radical political transformation, which will generate new power relations in Europe and is the work of all citizens.