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What has the EU become?
A few casual observations from over the years
The internal contradictions within Europe’s major institutions are becoming ever more apparent. The European Union, NATO, the single currency zone are looking increasingly fragile. This is a topic I have touched on previously and continue to return to here.
In this post, I would like to share a brief, highly subjective timeline of the EU. It’s not intended to be definitive in any sense, rather more anecdotal in character.
When I started living in what was then the European Community nearly forty years ago, it seemed like a mostly benign entity which one might best describe as a “free trade zone with benefits”. I say benign advisedly, in the sense that, yes, back in the 1950s, when unification of Europe stated to take shape in the early European Coal and Steel Community at the height of the Cold War there was clearly an implicit political agenda at play, namely the goal of the US to anchor West Germany clearly in the West and prevent any kind of meaningful rapprochement (particularly in the economic sphere) with the Soviet Union. However, as the project of European integration proceeded, equally clearly there were various interests at play, Cold War thinking would not have been the sole motive to drive the project forward.
I’m going to start with the mid-1980s, when I moved to Amsterdam.
1986: In the third expansion round of the EC, Spain, Portugal joined. Harmonization was, as I recall, a buzzword at that time. The new members were to be gradually integrated into the system in ways that would make them equal partners, living standards, wages, and per capita income would in due time be harmonized, thereby ensuring no member enjoyed outsize competitive advantage. Whether the reality lived up to the promise, one might well ask, but that was the general idea at that time.
1990s: I was a subcontractor in various R&D projects that received European funding; that meant regular meetings in Brussels and contact with EU bureaucrats. I learned a new term: subsidiarity. That’s the principle that decision-making should be decentralized to the greatest possible extent. Even then, I’m not sure how much it was practiced, but they did preach it. It’s a word Ursula von der Leyen I daresay has never once uttered in her entire adult life.
Late 1990s: As the decades-long preparation for the introduction of the single currency, the euro, were being undertaken, one heard critical voices. Here in the Netherlands, the euroskeptic Socialist Party (SP) warned that it was a bad idea. I don’t remember the exact arguments made, but they would have been prescient. We later learned from figures like Yanis Varoufakis, who chronicled in his book on the European financial crisis, that at the time those pushing the single currency knew there wasn’t sufficient political cohesion to form a proper economic union, but they thought that the single currency would in fact cultivate that. That opposite has turned out to be the case; the single-currency straitjacket is gradually driving the currency union apart. We also learned from Varoufakis that Germany was originally skeptical of a shared currency, but France wanted it, and that was the quid pro quo for France agreeing to German reunification.
2005: Referendums were held in the Netherlands and France on the proposed EU constitution, a document which euroskeptics at the time, including the above-mentioned Dutch Socialist Party, pointed out was not similar to other such constitutions, a brief summary of general principles, but was in fact a detailed blueprint for a neoliberal economic regime. I voted in the referendum against the constitution, as did a majority of voters here, as did a majority in France. But in both cases, the referendum was apparently not binding, only “consultative”, hence could be ignored. A third referendum was held in Ireland, which was similarly rejected by a majority of the voters, but that referendum was binding. This meant that the referendum had to be held a second time which allowed the voters to be
propagandized properly informed about the virtues of the constitution and vote correctly this time, which they dutifully did. Brussels subsequently abandoned the idea of holding of referendums, and the proposed constitution was, with cosmetic changes, rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty. It was signed in 2007 and came into effect on 1 December 2009. Whatever doubts I had previously had about the direction the EU was going in were only magnified by those proceedings, which left a bitter taste in my mouth. There is much more to be said about the Lisbon Treaty, but for now I will only say that it appears to have greatly accelerated the EU’s current disastrous trajectory.
In 2004, Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland joined. Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary kept their national currencies, the rest joined the eurozone. In 2007 Bulgaria and Romania joined while keeping their national currency. At this point, harmonization appeared to more narrowly bureaucratic than fully economic; that in reality the new members were intended as supplies of cheap labor and enlarged markets for the rest of the EU, Germany of course in particular. The latter’s persistent Drang nach Ost had been satisfied this time around by relatively peaceful means.
2015: the Greek crisis. You all know how it went: German and French banks had huge exposure to Greek debt. The EU lent money to Greece to pay them back. Greece was then hung out to dry by the EU, essentially reduced to a debt colony. There was no solidarity, only opportunism. Within the Eurogroup, as Yanis Varoufakis documented, the European finance ministers imposed a policy decided behind closed doors dictated by Germany. There was no real deliberation or genuine democratic decision-making. It was the clearest indication that a kind of silent coup had taken place, that the once relatively benign free-trade zone had morphed into something much different — something frankly quite toxic.
Here we are in 2023. What has the EU become? I struggle with a label. How about: authoritarian neoliberal technocracy? Authoritarian because it is actively, viscerally anti-democratic. Neoliberal because of the reigning economic doctrine that amounts to essentially permanent austerity and ever-increasing inequality. Technocratic because of the rigid, anti-social adherence to abstract models and mechanistic thinking.
This dysfunctional system does not produce positive outcomes for a broad majority of Europeans. It is broken and will eventually fail. It cannot be reformed, because that would require democratic process, something specifically designed to be excluded from the system.
There is a great deal more to be said about all this, and I will be addressing various aspects of the current situation in future posts.