The sick man of Europe

Today, 25 March 2017, is the 60th anniversary to the day of the signing of the Rome Treaty, which set in motion the whole historical process that culminated in the European Union, after going through the stages of the European Economic Community and the European Community tout court. This has long been presented as a success story, almost exemplary, the legend goes, in terms of the supersession of the nation state, to be emulated by attempts at supranational integration around the world. To give credit where it is due, the EU and its earlier forms were, to a considerable extent, successful in creating a quite advanced scaffolding for the construction of a new and supranational politico-economic structure, in dealing with the multiple internal contradictions and tensions between the member states, in swallowing the weaker state structures of Central and Eastern Europe, including many countries of the Balkans, and in their resilience to the several serious crises at the international level that took their toll on the EU. However, this elaborate structure now seems to have met its Waterloo. The European Union is now the sick man of Europe, to use the adage that Western powers used a century ago for the moribund Ottoman Empire.

Aspirations of the European bourgeoisie

The EU has always been presented by its bourgeois defenders as a beacon of democracy, peace, human rights, social cohesion, and civilisation. It is none of these. The EU is simply the outcome of an aspiration on the part of the divided European bourgeoisie to establish a unified front in its dealings with the rest of the world and a crucible where the rights and gains of the European working class could be dismantled.

Although the cradle of capitalism, Europe rose on the world stage as a divided force, the direct descendant of the Westphalia Peace of 1648 that established the latter-day system of states and statelets on a good part of the so-called old continent. The larger of these states at least were adequate as political shells for nascent capitalism as they acted to unify, at various stages of historical development, their domestic markets in line with the needs of the rising bourgeoisie, as in the case of Britain or France for instance, and some of the smaller ones underwent a process of belated unification in order to respond to that same need, as in the case of Germany and Italy. However, with the tremendous increase in productive forces and the advances in transportation and communications, capitalism sought, towards the end of the 19th century, even larger political units for its unfettered development. Here the United States with its vast domestic market presented a great advantage to the capitalist class in increasing the scale of its operations. Hence despite the continuing dominance of Britain and the exemplary success of Germany in the development of its productive forces, at least owing in part to the completion of its own unification process in 1871, the United States was to leap ahead of all the European countries in the economic sphere by the end of the Second World War. So in the economic competition between the two continents where capitalism took off relatively earlier than the rest of the world, the US was clearly in an advantageous position due to its immense domestic market that permitted huge economies of scale to be realised even before or independent of the turn to the world market.

This tendency was confirmed and strengthened by another consequence of Europe’s division into a multitude of states. The two world wars were, almost entirely in the case of the first and partially in the case of the second, directly the consequence of rivalry between the various capitalist states of the European continent. And although the United States joined the war in later stages, it was Europe that was devastated twice within the space of a mere three decades. This fact was of capital importance for the economic dominance and political and military hegemony of the US in the period after the Second World War.

So the construction of the European Union was a belated answer to a long-felt need on the part of the European bourgeoisie to overcome the division of the old continent and to build a unified front to compete with the US (and increasingly Japan). The need was articulated as early as during the First World War. But the European bourgeoisie only made a real effort in this direction after the Second World War with the initiation of the process leading to the EU. For a long time many imagined that Europe was at the threshold of a solution to the age-old problem of division on the continent. They thought, in recent times particularly, that the process was irreversible. They were disregarding a fundamental contradiction of the functioning of capitalism on the world scale.

Forces of integration and forces of competition

Capital has a tendency, very early on detected by Marx and Engels, to unify the different parts of the world economy and form what was called the “world market” by the precursors, what should now be called the “world economy” at this beginning of the 21st century. (Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Bukharin titled his seminal study on imperialism Imperialism and World Economy, and he was not alone in using this terminology.) However, this tendency towards integration, itself a consequence and form of appearance of the growing over of the productive forces beyond national borders, is constantly contradicted by another characteristic of the capitalist mode of production: the multiplicity of states. Capitalist states are, first and foremost, the site of the protection of the capitalist mode of production vis-a-vis the encroachment of the proletariat and the broader working masses on the prerogatives of the ruling class, i.e. the bourgeoisie, but also, in subsidiary fashion, the representatives of a certain fraction of the world bourgeoisie coalesced under a national guise. In other words, each state represents a national fraction of the international bourgeoisie. In clear contrast to the theory of globalisation that posits the disappearance of the nation state and the philosophical idealism of many a left-wing theoretician subscribing to this liberal idea, states are not phantoms existing solely in political space, but are firmly grounded, even in our day and age, in the material interests of a certain national bourgeoisie, American, Japanese, British, French, German etc.

This implies that the consummation of a process of integration between states requires also the amalgamation of the fractions of the bourgeoisie that stand behind each of these states. When times are easy and capital accumulation is advancing at a rapid pace, the forces of integration predominate. But when crisis sets in each national fraction of the bourgeoisie will run for its life. This is what happens at the global level: the fragmentation of the world economy that followed what is dubbed “the first wave of globalisation” at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, when the world economy went bust in the 1930s, is the classic example of this tendency towards competition and dissolution of the union established between the national fractions of capital on the world scale. What is happening now after the financial collapse of 2008 and the onset of what we consider to be the Third Great Depression in the history of capitalism indicates that we are headed in the same direction. The protectionist policies defended by Trump and Marine Le Pen and the like are only a more systematic framework for tendencies that were already at work.

It is these difficult times that have really put the EU in question. The contradiction between the advantages that each national fraction of capital on the European continent (e.g. Germeni French, British, Italian etc.) enjoys vis-a-vis the rest of the world are now being subjected to erosion as the inner contradictions between the different national fractions of the European bourgeoisie rise in intensity. The clear confrontation between Germany and other powerhouses such as the Netherlands or Denmark, on the one hand, and the much weaker economies of the Mediterranean, on the other, is only the tip of the iceberg that conceals manifold contradictions between the different fractions of the European bourgeoisie.

A beehive of contradictions

These contradictions are manifested in several areas. It should be remembered that Europe has really become the weak link of the world capitalist economy under the dire circumstances of the Third Great Depression. This is the backdrop to all the contradictions faced by the EU.

The first contradiction is obviously in the financial sphere. Many countries, Greece to start with but also others, are in deep trouble regarding their public debt. This is plainly a result of the transfer of the burden that weighed on the financial sector after the crash of 2008 to the shoulders of the public sector. This transfer did not put an end, however, to the agony of private financial capital: the European banking industry is in shambles, with the number one bank of Germany, Deutsche Bank, and the number three of Italy, Monte dei Paschi, close to bankruptcy. So this raises all kinds of tensions between the European states, of which the diktat of the Troika (now the Quartet) on successive Greek governments is only the most salient example. Moreover, the single currency system of the euro is increasingly under threat. The question of the collapse of the euro is probably more a question of when than a question of if.

There is then the blow dealt by Brexit. Britain is no minor partner for Europe. The City is the most important financial place in the world after Wall Street. The loss of Britain will have an immense impact on the EU, not the least of which is the demonstration effect.

That demonstration effect plays handsomely into the hands of the rising proto-fascist movement in almost all countries of the EU. It should not be forgotten that during the 2014 European elections these proto-fascist parties came first in three countries, Denmark for one, but more importantly two of the decisive countries, France and Britain. Presidential elections are approaching in France and one of Marine Le Pen’s most vocal promises is a referendum on “Frexit.”

Fourthly, the refugee problem is a key source of contradiction, not only between countries (see the Western Europe-Eastern Europe divide, albeit one that is only relative, on this question) but also the political forces within each country. This is an additional factor that plays into the hands of the proto-fascist movement, as amply demonstrated by the rapid rise of the AfD party in Germany in the context of Merkel’s initial receptiveness to the refugee wave. This question has even resulted in a rift between Germany and France, on the one hand, and Italy, on the other, with Renzi, then prime minister of Italy, obstructing the holding of a closing press conference at a recent Euro summit.

There is obviously also an increasing geostrategic rift between the core countries of Europe (Germany and France along with others) and those of Eastern Europe. This was first manifested during the days leading to the Iraq war of 2003, when France and Germany refused to support the Anglo-American war drive while the so-called “new Europe” danced to the tune of George W. Bush. With Trump in power, it is possible that this rift be widened, not necessarily in terms of relations with Russia at first, but perhaps in other guises.

The final factor of paramount importance is the rising suspicion, even outright rejection within the large masses of people on the question of the EU. Brexit clearly showed that it was the working class of Britain that desperately voted for quitting the EU  in the referendum that was the decisive factor. More and more the same is becoming true for other countries. This need not play necessarily into the hands of the proto-fascists. One can very well defend an anti-EU stance on the left without falling for reactionary nationalism. The program for the United Socialist States of Europe will be increasingly on the agenda in the coming period. Or at least that’s what we hope for.

Longevity and brevity

We live in an age in which life expectancy for humans has been on the rise for decades and is foreseen to go even beyond the 100 mark, thanks to the new advances in genetic technologies. There is a big “if” of course: the average human will be able to expect to live beyond 100 if the war and destruction provoked by capitalist imperialism permit future generations to survive!

But this rise in life expectancy seems to have bypassed the EU: only 60 years after its conception, it finds itself in mortal crisis. So much the better for humanity at large! For the EU is an imperialist monster that has always tried to pose as the defender of peace, democracy, and human rights. It has even dared to pretend, in utter defiance of the truth, that it is a benefactor of workers’ rights. The truth is that Brussels, i.e. the European Commission and all the other bodies of Europe, has been engaged for decades in dismantling all the rights and gains of the European working class in line with the neoliberal and globalist policies of the EU.

So at 60 only, the EU is agonising. It is the sick man of Europe. To advance this diagnosis may sound strange when it comes from a Turkish Marxist. Yet there is not an iota of the feeling of revenge in our stressing of this state of things. For we know that Turkey is once again a sick man itself. The difference is that Turkey is no longer “of Europe”.