I first ran into a left critique of the EU when I got to know folks from the Dutch Socialist Party. Like many new or reformed euro communist parties in western Europe they had noticed how since Maastricht and the development of a common currency, standard tools governments have had to help their economy and middle class was being lost.
- Deficit spending. Under the European Fiscal Compact, states must have balanced budgets or surplus under the treaty’s definition which means not exceeding 3.0% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Why did Europe contract and not quite recover from the last global economic crises? No ability to do stimulus, unlike the US.
- Labor Law Reforms. The efforts to weaken labor protections in France comes from EU efforts at creating a “flexible labor market”. The efforts to dismantle the collective bargaining framework of Greece? The same end.
- Common currency? It prevents the needed devaluation for Greece, it prevents countries from using interest rates to spur economic growth. To lose both means governments are limited to respond to downturns.
This should suggest that, as someone on the left, I would cheer on Brexit, the UK’s vote to leave the EU. And that I would wish for the EU project to be abandoned altogether. That is not the case and I’ll make an argument towards that end.
But it does provide a backdrop to understand how after a lost decade, with increasing inequality, flat wages, vital services being taken away, that you have an angry working class. And that it wouldn’t take much to direct that anger to the free movement of peoples, immigrants, and refugees in particular. And that is what the right pulled off.
And that the financial elites that had developed the structures that would led to this situation may not be who the working class turn to when it comes to economic advice. So why stay in the EU and under what conditions can it do good in Europe?
- Cosmopolitanism. Europeans being able to move and work throughout the EU 27 member states. This has started to create a European identity, apart from nation states, especially for the younger generation. And that identity has produced real cultural gains in places from Ireland to Spain.
- Democratic norms and human rights. As Poland and Hungary makes moves that undermine democratic norms, the need for the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU becomes more evident, especially for minority populations.
- Economic integration. As Russia continues its expansionist policies, the need to integrate eastern Europe into the western economy becomes a genuine national security concern.Given the western Europe’s actual economic integration, closed borders and tariffs would be disruptive to those economies.
- Redistribution. Poorer countries and regions benefit directly from EU aid and investments. If broadened it can work to insure no region is left behind.
- Political cooperation. From the refugee crises to the environment to law enforcement, too many issues simply cannot be adequately handled by individual nation states, including issues surrounding terror.
Since the formation of the EU member states have been at peace. The idea of coordinating trade, political and economic issues and establishing common democratic and human rights norms seems to me like a project worth fighting for.
But it’s clearly not sustainable as presently organized. There seems to be two different directions one could go.More integration or more devolution.
- Make Europe like the United States, where there is a president elected directly by the people. A European parliament that actually drafted legislation. It’s not likely that Europe could sustain the kind of austerity imposed on certain countries, if there was direct democratic accountability.
- Make the EU a looser organization that allows individual countries more tools to relate to their own economies. End the euro, interest rates and currency decisions given back to countries. Use the EU to establish floors not ceilings on what countries do in relation to their labor markets.
I’m apt to think 2 is more politically possible than 1. It would be too much sovereignty lost to go with 1. And I can’t imagine many European business interests would go with 2. Because “differentiated integration” means that responding to economic conditions could not be coordinated. Nor would they have the influence they clearly enjoy with Brussels.
But there is a pan European movement on the left that is interested in reforming the EU to be more democratically accountable, where economic justice for working people could take hold. I think of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain, the Left parties in France and Germany.
A Europe they help shape could enact the ideals of the EU as it was founded. Because without a shared prosperity in a shared society, we have two choices. The ugly nationalist and fascistic movements of the far right or the EU status quo driven by finance capital and unaccountable technocrats. To quote Rosa Luxemburg:
“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma