“More Europe” or “back to the national state”: a false dilemma for the left
Updated: Apr 10
Twenty years ago, the European Union seemed to embody the future. The importance of the national state seemed to be retreating. Millions of people expected peace, security, prosperity and democracy from the EU as well as cosmopolitanism and overcoming nationalism and racism.
This dream now lies in ruins. The South European states, above all Greece, suffer under the dictatorship of a brutal politics of austerity. In East Europe, racists and right wing populists act with violence against migrants. Great Britain decided in a referendum to leave the EU.
Many people in Europe identify themselves less and less with the “European project” which is increasingly regarded as an undemocratic farce led by an aloof layer of Brussels bureaucrats. In foreign and security policy, as well as in refugee policy, the EU countries are divided, while every month hundreds if not thousands drown every month at the gates of Europe.
Instead of developing as a “peaceful counter-pole” to US unilateralism, the EU is massively rearming, rallying the continent together with NATO into a dangerously confrontation with Russia, and submitting to Donald Trump’s aggressive politics against Iran and Venezuela, while at the same time acting as the neo-Colonial ruler of Africa.
Despite diverse beliefs about different questions, the rulers of Europe – whether they are called Merkel, Macron, Salvini or Orban – are united on one thing: there is no alternative to a neo-liberal “Carry on!” with the privatisation of public wealth, with social cuts, with the deregulation of the labour movement and with starvation wages.
It is, for example, possible for the German liberal media to be appalled at the anti-democratic tendencies of the Hungarian government without saying a word about the introduction of slave-like working conditions in their own country, which above all benefit the German car industry. The EU institutions are ready to punish Italy for questions of budget consolidation, but not for the Italian state’s criminalisation of refugee helpers.
The left should decisively reject this Europe, embodied in the EU. This is an EU which cannot be reformed, and must be abolished and replaced with a new, credible form of international solidarity and cooperation. The problem is not the EU in its “current constitution”; the EU – as the real conglomerate of institutions like the EU commission and the European Court of Justice is the problem.
These institutions are by their very nature intentionally anti-democratic and neo-liberal. They did not arise to consolidate democracy in Europe, but to separate the democratic process from the economic arena throughout Europe. The founders of the EU thought that democratic intervention in the economy could only cause damage. Therefore, it must be managed by “experts” and technocrats.
In Germany, a country which emerged from the Second World War, many people are fearful of the strengthening of right wing populists and fascists – both in neighbouring countries and also in Germany itself. As many of these right wing forces use EU-critical arguments, many see the EU as a synonym of peace and overcoming ancient bogeymen.
Worrying about these developments is more than justified. On the other hand, the idea that “more Europe” is a strategy against the European move to the right – a strategy that is concretely translated into “more EU” – leads into an extremely fatal dead end. This approach doesn’t take the wind from the sails of the right-wing populists; it contributes towards further strengthening them. Thus the contradiction between “more Europe and “back to the national state” – which is raised not just by the media, but also by many left wingers – is the wrong starting point for an objective analysis.
On the one hand, the EU – both in its current reality and in its founding idea – is no means for overcoming the national state, but merely a configuration for pursuing its interests – more precisely, the economic interests that are located in every national state – more effectively.
On the other, “more Europe”, which is understood by many people as more inner-European solidarity and cooperation between people in different countries – will be won not with, but against the EU institutions.
The European Parliament as a motor for democratising the EU?
Many people fully know about the current undemocratic character of the EU. In the last 15 years, we have experienced how the EU referendums about its constitution in France and the Netherlands were not respected, or – as in Ireland – only accepted after they were repeated under extreme pressure to produce the required result.
More recently there is the memory of Greece, where the EU institutions oppressed an entire population with threats, to punish them for voting in a government which had previously pledged to fight against austerity. At the same time, many left-wingers in Germany and elsewhere defend the opinion that the problem with the EU doesn’t lie with the founding idea, but with the current balance of forces within.
For example, when the left-wing alliance SYRIZA took governmental responsibility in Greece in 2015, many hoped for a closing of ranks between Greece, France and Italy to break Germany’s EU hegemony. Naturally, this development never happened. The possibility of the pro-capitalist governments in Paris and Rome fighting with Berlin to help the Greek left was, to put it mildly, naive.
Many leftists also bring up the European parliament as a potential actor in democratising and possibly federalising the European Union. In truth, the power inside the EU does not lie with the European parliament, but in the unelected European Commission, which itself is the product of a negotiation process inside the different nation states.
And in this process, decisions are taken not on the basis of rationality, but the economic and political weight of each individual state. Until now, the actions of the Commission have been characterized not by transparency, but by nepotism and lobbying. This will not change in the foreseeable future.
Even if all States were to surrender their core responsibilities to the EU parliament so that these could be deployed by a Europe-wide government, this would still not amount to real democratisation. Under the current balance of forces, right conservative and openly undemocratic and racist forces would determine the political direction of a “democratised” EU.
The specific political economy of the East European states, for example, as places for German companies to dump wages, with their weak trade unions and the absence of a left, has encouraged the rise of right-wing populism which is disproportionately represented in the European parliament.
There is another, more fundamental, problem. The most populous countries, like Germany, currently provide the most EU politicians. With an expansion of the responsibilities of the EU parliament, they would trample on the interests of smaller and weaker countries like Greece and Portugal.
Even today it is clear that the lines of division in the EU parliament often do not run between the various political fractions like the European People’s Party of the European Socialists, but along contradictory national interests.
Social democratic national chauvinists in Germany have, unsurprisingly, different interests to social democratic national chauvinists in France. Clearly, the national state still plays a central role inside the EU. It is constitutive for its essence. Why?
A project to protect the power of banks and corporations
One answer lies in the history of the European Union, previously known as the European Economic Community (EEC). At first, it was based on the dual goals of the German-French decision to create an alliance between West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries.
On the one hand, the economic weight of West Germany would maintain the role of France as a world power. On the other, the political weight of France could be translated into strengthening the political spine of West Germany, without awakening memories of German expansionism.
This “Europe of Fatherlands”, as Charles de Gaulle presented it, should have removed customs duties and enabled trade, although these were limited by the anticipated political and economic integration. This changed rapidly with the crisis of the Keynesian economic model from the middle of the 1970s, and the associated advance of finance capitalism, whose trailblazers were Ronald Reagan’s USA and Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain.
For the European élites, which were fragmented in different countries, it was obvious that they could only keep pace by deregulating markets and lowering social standards – measures which could not be easily implemented by individual governments which were dependent on democratic legitimation.
This realisation put to rest the long years of integration standstill at the end of the 1980s, reaching a peak with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which substantially increased the responsibilities of the unelected EU commission, and envisaged the creation of a single currency across Europe.
What stood in the foreground was not Europe-wide democracy, but the implementation of a neo-liberal economic policy without any democratic accountability. The national state would be maintained, but it should be made impotent.
Thus, the EU commission decreed laws like the Bolkestein directive for EU-wide liberalisation of public services, or the Bologna process for neo-liberalising universities above the heads of the population of the different countries. The implementation of a pan-European minimum wage, or a harmonisation of social standards throughout Europe were naturally noticeable by their absence.
Today it is almost fashionable to describe the Euro as a “bad design”, because the monetary union was not enhanced with an associated fiscal union. In reality, this wasn’t a mistake, but fully planned, in order to encourage the competitiveness of the individual nation states, that is, of their corporations. For the core EU countries, the reinforced integration process meant more economic growth through the opening of markets for their financial institutions and corporations.
The peripheral countries in the South (and later in the East) hoped that they could take part in the consumption of the core countries through easier clearance of credits and the harmonisation of living standards. The European Constitutional Treaty in the middle of the 2000s sealed this process and the associated democracy deficit.
… and no peace project
Despite this reality, the importance of the EU from a progressive perspective was often not located in the economic and social policy, but in the false assumption which saw the EU, despite all the bad developments, as a force for peace. The truth is that peace in Europe since 1945 has not been dependent on the existence of the EU, but on the highly dangerous equilibrium of the nuclear horror between the superpowers in the Cold War.
The amalgamation of the previous arch-enemies France and Germany did not come from pacifist feelings, but from the realisation that only cooperation could sustain both counties in a bi-polar world. As war actually returned to Europe in the 1990s, it was the EU under German leadership, which threw oil into the fire by unilaterally recognising Croatia and Slovenia, thus massively accelerating the break up of Yugoslavia.
Today the EU, together with the USA, is promoting militarisation on a global level. As Germany and France did not take part in the Iraq War, many fostered the hope in Europe as a peaceful counterweight to the USA in an increasingly multipolar world. This hope quickly turned out to be an illusion.
Even under the unpredictable Donald Trump, the common European foreign and security policy exists mainly as an appendage to US policy, whether in the Middle East, Latin America or in the Ukraine conflict, where its hard to differentiate between the roles of the EU and NATO. On the other hand, in Africa, the EU – after consultation with the USA – plays a leading role in supporting authoritarian régimes with the aim of guaranteeing access to minerals.
In migration policy, opening borders within Europe was famously accompanied by the sealing of outside borders. We see the consequences of this partition every day in the Mediterranean, as well as in the EU-Turkey treaty for returning refugees to authoritarian countries. Through similar treaties with neighbouring countries around the Mediterranean, the EU is gradually externalising its borders.
The refusal of countries like Poland and Hungary – against the wishes of the EU – to accept any refugees at all – puts the EU in the paradoxical position as apparent advocate of open borders and tolerance. As reactionary as the Eastern European governments are, they are essentially the minions of a European migration policy which on the one hand is not afraid of turning the Mediterranean into a mass grave, while on the other hand managing to establish a permanent state of uncertainty, dehumanization and precariousness in Europe
Highlight the leading role of Germany in Europe
In many countries, the EU is regarded as being a largely German project. And it is really true that German economic interests currently determine the course of the EU. But for an analysis from the left in Germany, it is necessary to look more closely at the reason why this hegemony came about.
As the Maastricht Treaty was signed, it was not at all foreseeable that 20 years later Europe would be “speaking German”. In order to enable the Euro, German capital had to give up its beloved Deutschmark, which was seen at the time as a politically serious contribution by Germany to the unification of Europe.
The explanation of the current German hegemony lies elsewhere, namely in the Hartz IV and Agenda 2010 “reforms” by the Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green coalition. The descent of real wages in Germany compared to the productivity level gave German capitalism an important competitive advantage against key countries like France and Italy from this time on, creating the export surpluses that are still a problem today. Macron wants to emulate this “success model” in France, but this has triggered a political crisis embodied in the protest of the so-called “yellow vests”.
The fact that German workers accepted this development at the time is still one of the most important historical defeats of the working class here, one which was made possible by the earlier transformation of East Germany into a cheap wage zone and the corporatism and national chauvinism of the trade union bureaucracy.
The source of the current plight of Greece lies correspondingly to a large extent in the inability of the workers’ movement here to effectively defend itself against the attacks by capital 20 years ago. The particular duties of the left here derive from this reality.
Conversely, “Europe” is particularly important for the German élites, not just because of the clear advantages for export-orientated German industry, but also ideologically. Of course there are interests here, which express discontent with the “rescue packages” for Greece, The AfD is trying to politically represent these interests with a mixture of open racism and historical revisionism.
But German capital stands predominantly behind “Europe”, or at least the German hegemony within it. Politically, the commitment to “Europe” signals that Germany is a Global Player, without awaking nasty memories of the previous German expansion efforts. Die LINKE should not degenerate into a progressive alibi for a power orientated German ersatz nationalism.
For international solidarity, also beyond the FRONTEX line
The party DIE LINKE still states in its constitution that the EU is “militaristic, undemocratic and neo-liberal”. Nothing that has happened in recent years challenges this assessment. Quite the opposite, it is confirmed on a daily basis, through many deaths in the Mediterranean, more austerity in Southern Europe and more sabre rattling in foreign policy.
Die LINKE cannot become the advocate of an EU-friendly left liberalism, and not just because this political space has already been filled by the Greens. A demand for “more Europe” is seen as being unrealistic to an increasing number of people, also in Germany.
It is true that many young people in Germany who take the streets against the AfD, the abstract idea of “the EU” is synonymous with openness and pluralism. But this is a specifically German experience that cannot be projected onto, for example, young people in Southern Europe who have been driven to emigration by the high unemployment rate. In the anti-fascist demos in Athens, for example, you don’t see any EU flags, and that is no accident.
On the other hand, we should differentiate between the demagogy of the right wing populists and their current practise. The Orban régime in Hungary is happy to rant against the apparent multiculturalism of the EU, but it would be nowhere without the cohesion fund from Brussels.
The governments in Warsaw, Bratislava and elsewhere like to stir up hatred against refugees and Merkel’s “welcome culture”, but they are elated by the fact that German corporations from Audi to ALDI rule their countries. And even with the Nazis of Golden Dawn in Greece, its an open secret that they opposed Greece leaving the Eurozone in 2015.
The presentation of a democratized and social EU must be accompanied by a correspondingly concrete strategy, which hasn’t yet been the case. But it is not just the current balance of forces that makes this approach seem utopian; the EU is from its very nature resistant to reform.
At a time when the hegemony of the political centre is crumbling, only the right wing can profit from the left being so out of touch with reality. The right – whether the AfD in Germany or the Front National/Front Rassemblement in France – offer a political horizon which, although utterly chauvinist and racist, and in essence just as neo-liberal, appears to be much more tangible to many people than the wishful thinking of a “left restart of the EU”, where no-one really knows when and with which forces this should happen.
Die LINKE could take an example from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn can still enthuse people because his political horizon of the abolition of neo-liberalism by a Labour government seems a plausible and concrete strategy to many people. And this for the simple reason that a government can be elected on a national level, whereas the EU Commission cannot.
Even if the Brexit referendum has driven a wedge between Labour voters, Corbyn is still taking care to pose the right questions. The crucial question is not more or less Europe, but whether people have the possibility of a dignified life, with access to an adequate social security system and renationalised public railways.
The guiding role of Germany within the EU poses specific tasks for the German left and the party Die LINKE. The recognition of the structural asymmetries inside the EU also dictates the recognition of the right of peripheral EU countries like Greece to leave the Eurozone, if this is what they want to do.
At the same time, we should resolutely stand against the idea that considers Germany and “German interests” to be the victim of Brussels politics. Generally speaking, German capital and the ambitions of Germany to be a world power are still the victors of the European “integration and consolidation project”. Defending the EU as a fundamentally progressive project does not present any contradiction to nationalism here, rather it poses as one of its variants.
At the same time we need to recognise that workers here are the victims of a policy of wage dumping, which is promoted through its export as the norm within an EU-wide race to the bottom. This policy does not in any way stand in contradiction to the existence of the EU as a capitalist project, which encourages free movement of capital and services without regard for social rights, while impeding desperate people in a fatal manner. This is the realisation of the “European project”.
The left fights resolutely for peace, as well as for the protection of people fleeing war, economic misery and climate change. We do not want to limit the international solidarity which many erroneously associate with the EU to the European continent, but also to the territories on the other side of the deathly FRONTEX line. This struggle begins above all with the recognition of the current balance of forces.
This article first appeared in German on the freiheitsliebe Website. Reproduced with permission from the author.