Patrick Smyth: The battle for a better Europe is not lost

‘Not surprisingly the last few years has seen the rise throughout Europe of nationalist “Out, out, out” forces, although yet to find substantial base here’

‘François Mitterrand, asked about any EC problem would reply “More Europe, more Europe”. No more.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘François Mitterrand, asked about any EC problem would reply “More Europe, more Europe”. No more.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Over the past decade there has been a significant shift in the way the European Union has been discussed here by most of those most critical of it. There was a time when to describe them as “anti-European”, to suggest even that they would tear down the whole thing or withdraw in the morning, would not have produced a significant demur.

Not so more recently. Whether directed at Socialist Party or Sinn Féin activists or the broader EU-critical movement, such characterisations would have drawn righteous indignation: “We are not anti-European, we are for an alternative Europe.”

In part at least, probably influenced by contact with other EU left/green parties, that is an acknowledgment , explicitly or not, that the union is seen less as simply a rich man’s club and more as a vessel to be filled, fashioned and steered in a social direction by determined campaigners, whether MEPs or social movements on the streets.

The arguments made by many on the pro-European left, particularly in Ireland, had found some echo – that the EC/EU had, after all, established important, progressive social standards, on hours, equal pay, part-time rights; and on issues such as the environment, consumer rights and food quality. In tandem with the completion of the internal market, a level playing field for business, there was an understood community-wide bargain, not out of any great love for workers’ rights, but as a British Liberal once said of the welfare state, it was “the price we pay for the security we enjoy”.

That bargain, Social Europe, was reflected in major redistributive programmes such as the cohesion and social funds, the former an explicit quid pro quo to the poorer states such as Ireland, for the completion of monetary union, the acceptance its benefits would not be evenly spread and that it was in the interest of all that poorer states catch up.

That understanding was also an essential expression of the politics of social democracy and the not-dissimilar German Christian democracy, the dominant ideological forces of the community, but whose communitarian, sharing values would be diluted and largely negated by the neoliberal counter-revolution that was Thatcherism and its continental allies.

Fast-forward to 2008, and that ideological shift, fed by the “impossibly costly” challenge of applying a similar redistributive logic to the poor enlargement states, would see a new logic to problem-solving. François Mitterrand, asked about any EC problem, would reply: “More Europe, more Europe.” No more.

As German commentator Ulrike Guérot put it recently in Open Democracy: “What is important to note is how it is being dealt with in the European context: we nationalise our problems, we operate by pointing the finger of blame at one another, dividing Europe into north and south, and we simply do not feel like a community that will stick together no matter what . . . That is not a symptom of what is problematic, that is Europe’s actual problem!”

So we see less emphasis on collective solutions to issues such as sluggish growth, and more on entrenching legal requirements on individual states to adhere to a specific ideological model of spending, of “fiscal responsibility” and ultimately of austerity. Alternative models are increasingly no longer menu options on the EU’s broad- church political agenda, but explicitly ruled out through legally enshrined budget supervision tools.

“The existing EU system is the embodiment of post- democracy,” Guérot writes, citing Colin Crouch’s maxim “You can always vote, but you have no choice.”

The irony, and the danger for the EU project, is that this makes the arguments of those now willing to embrace the “alternative Europe” slogan all the more difficult to sustain. Has the EU irretrievably become the irreformable capitalist club they once perceived? Is the battle for a social Europe decisively lost?

In the UK a major union has concluded that if David Cameron’s succeeds in negotiating an opt-out from the Social Chapter the answer will be yes, and it will support Brexit. Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times writes that “buyer’s remorse has crept in among social democrats” and warns of the distinctly lukewarm attitude even among Labour’s leadership contenders to continued membership.

Not surprisingly the last few years have also seen the rise throughout Europe of nationalist “Out, out, out” forces, although they are yet to find a substantial base here.

But the battle is not lost. There is an understanding , albeit unexpressed publicly, among leaders profoundly committed to the EU project that the further integration necessary to copperfasten economic union will necessitate embracing to some degree that social Europe bargain if the project is to regain its legitimacy. A system of fiscal transfers, investment in jobs, eurobonds, the mutual sharing of debt, new mechanisms for democratic accountability . . . they will take time, but the logic of history – and of capitalism – demands it.

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