Is Another Europe Possible?

Whatever Macron and Merkel have in their minds brings rather less hope for the EU. Being unable to address the questions of stability and security, they have a limited arsenal of tools to persuade citizens of member countries, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, to support deeper integration.

There was a widespread enthusiasm in the liberal circles that welcomed Emmanuel Macron’s electoral victory in spring 2017. It seemed as if we had been able to turn back time and to go back to comfortable 1990s—the new French president might have been just another Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, or Bill Clinton. What a relief after all the Trumps, Orbáns, Farages, and Kaczynskis that have haunted the liberal mainstream in their nightmares and daydreams in the last years.

As it is often the case with enjoyment, there was a fundamental contradiction in this triumphant outburst of joy and satisfaction. Macron attracted a lot of hopes, but three of them seemed to be the most widely shared among the (neo) liberals: firstly, that he would save Europe and the world from populism, blocking the rise to power of radical nationalists in the second largest country of the European Union, secondly, that he would rescue the European project and put it on a new track, and, thirdly, that he would curb the alleged excess of the French welfare state. The problem is, you cannot have all three at the same time.

Populism Has Not Triumphed Everywhere

The mainstream of public debate has manifested a lot of false assumptions, misconceptions, and denial in dealing with the recent outburst of populism. One of the key developments that went off the liberal radar was the fact that populism—although ubiquitous and truly global—has not triumphed everywhere nor were the places of its victory randomly distributed. It comes as no surprise, when you look at the situation from critical-materialist perspective, that populists enjoyed the biggest and deepest conquests in the countries and areas that have occupied the vanguard position during the now-fading neoliberal hegemony: UK, US, and Central and Eastern Europe like Poland (the golden child of neoliberal success) or Hungary. It surely is not the sole and only factor behind populist success and, as is always the case with social phenomena, one would not find 100% correlation between the two, nevertheless, the link seems to be there.

It is not difficult to explain: populism feeds on austerity that has been the motto of neoliberalization for the last three decades and enjoys great success in capturing the imagination of those who see themselves as the losers in the planetary capitalist casino: the crumbling working class of de-industrialized England, the more and more numerous drop-outs from the American Dream, the lower classes of the post-Soviet countries that lack material or symbolic capital—or both—required to fully reap the benefits of contemporary cosmopolitism. It comes as no surprise that it is France that looks like a country where politics is still business as usual and where an average citizen has got enough faith in the status quo to support a non-regressive, non-reactionary politician like Macron.

There is no doubt that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, in contrast to Theresa May, Jarosław Kaczynski, or Viktor Orbán, would like to see Europe integrate further.

The Electoral Victories of Macron and Merkel Produced a Great Deal of Hope

France is the number one public spender in OECD, maintaining one of the most advanced and comprehensive welfare programs in the world. It is easier in France than in most other places around the world to look into the future with audacity and confidence, because the French have their backs covered by their state in a better way than the English, the Polish, the Hungarians, or the Americans do.

What looks like a political bribe to the (neo)liberals (buying the victims of capitalism out of extreme misery) is the single best defense against populism and fascism. Expressing joy at Macron’s victory together with hope that he would wind down the expansive French welfare state is a self-contradictory irony bordering on complete social and political blindness: it was precisely that very same welfare state that allowed Macron to take office in the first place.

Quite similar doubts surround the possible influence of Macron and the likes of him on the European project. The parallel electoral success of Angela Merkel—even if it is just staying in power—enticed a lot of hopes and speculation around a new phase of the European integration. Again, it is a bit like going back in time and resurrecting the famous Mitterrand-Kohl duet that played such a crucial role in making the EU into what it is today. There is no doubt that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, in contrast to Theresa May, Jarosław Kaczynski, or Viktor Orbán, would like to see Europe integrate further.

The question remains, what kind of new integration would it be or rather around what goals and values would it proceed? Are these politicians capable of providing us with something else than a plan to benefit multinational capital and to strengthen the firm grip of the big and wealthy countries on the steering wheel of the European vessel? What could they offer to revive the enthusiasm for the EU that the East had even a decade ago and that now seems to be fading away?

Social Policy as Such Is Not Enough

There surely is a lot that a mechanism such as the EU could do for citizens of European countries, however, the ideas of austerity and flexibility that seem to animate Merkel’s and Macron’s mind would hardly benefit anyone apart from financial markets and its rich investors. We live in uncertain times of major political and economic earthquakes when the value number one seems to be everyday stability and safety.

It is easy to tell what the EU would have to do to provide it: rather than scaling down its welfare programs it should commit itself to strike another New Deal with its citizens, devising new ways of delivering material stability and predictability into people’s life. It will surely not be achieved by stressing that the ultimate virtue in international relations is forcing a country to pay its debt despite the misery of its citizens or making job market flexibility government’s priority number one.

What is worse, we are facing a bigger challenge than the social-democratic welfare states of 1960s and 1970s. Social policy as such is not enough. There are huge segments of Europe’s population that are afraid not only of the invisible hand of the market that can put them out of job but also of the invisible hand of a terrorist that is ready to detonate buses or trains we are all sitting in on a daily basis. The link between the terrorist threat and the willingness to support right-wing populist governments is an obvious fact across Europe. It makes local, national politics a formidably difficult challenge—every major terrorist attack committed by a Muslim anywhere in the world makes the populist parties score higher in the polls.

A European Army Would Help Support Deeper EU Integration

As if that was not enough, Central and Eastern Europe is more and more troubled by the unpredictable behavior of Putin’s Russia. There is only one way to counter this threat: by creating European defense forces that would allow the EU to emancipate itself from its increasingly problematic dependence on the US. It is feasible, but would require more than just political will: it will not happen without higher spending, which means either more austerity to move funds to this new priority or a higher taxation. The former one would have a devastating effect on European societies and would provoke even more support for anti-EU populists; the latter is not in line with neoliberal vision of economic policy of both Macron and Merkel.

Building a proper European army, along with a relevant defensive strategy, would help persuade Central and Eastern Europe to support deeper EU integration (if the region gives up its bizarre and misplaced faith in its alleged partnership with the US that is supposedly ready to provide a helping hand in the case of a major military threat). It would not eliminate the terrorist threat and the controversies around immigration it fuels. There is only one solution to it: radically improve the living standards of African and Middle-Eastern societies. Striking dirty deals with Turkey—the preferred solution of current EU establishment cynically referring to human rights when it is a handy tool to punish “misbehaving” EU members—will do nothing to stop the influx of migrants from those areas as long as their lives in their respective countries are a hellish nightmare.

Poland or Hungary, as sovereign states, can refuse to accept any further integration within the EU, but they cannot forbid other sovereign states from creating new international arrangements among themselves.

How to Stabilize the African and Asian Regions?

European demography endangering Europe’s productive capacity creates a vacuum that helps to suck in new immigrants that arrive legally or illegally. With demography being on the rise on the other side of the Mediterranean and with wars, epidemics, and crises wrecking the lives of millions of people, the migration pressure on the EU will only rise. No level of internal security will help stabilize the situation.

Europe should rather create a massive African-Asian wealth fund that would help to stabilize the region and elevate possible refugees out of their extreme misery. That again requires more than political will (and even that is lacking)—it requires vast amounts of resources, so—again—more austerity or more taxation. What may be even worse, it would require the EU to reform its agricultural policy, especially its export subsidies that wreck the rural economies of developing nations in Africa and elsewhere.

All those factors combined to render a successful deepening of European integration at least unlikely with Macron’s and Merkel’s current policies. Being unable to address the questions of stability and security, they have a limited arsenal of tools to persuade citizens of member countries, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, to support any deepening of integration. We will surely see some attempts to entice it, however, with no real material means at hand, the advocates of a more integrated Europe will have limited success.

A Lack of Representation among the Working Class

What about other, more bottom-up factors that may encourage European integration. Is there a chance that the EU citizens themselves will spontaneously push for a more integrated Europe? It may happen, of course, but only if the EU undertakes internal reforms, especially if it does something to address its vast deficiencies in the field of democracy. For the time being, it has embraced too much-unelected power to attract vast popular sentiment.

One of the factors behind the populist rebellion of the recent years is the lack of adequate political representation among many members of both lower and lower middle class. The degree to which the EU is alienated behind the rows of its bureaucrats that no one has ever voted for makes it unfit to face this pro-democratic element of populism. The fact that the EU has created a lot of opportunities that everyone can benefit from brings little consolation here. Opportunities are great for those who have the material and symbolic resources necessary to make use of them, for example to work and to travel in any member country. Otherwise, these opportunities are irrelevant or even annoying.

What is worse, in the last three decades of the (neo)liberal hegemony the very term “opportunity” has been so widely abused that it has lost any meaning. We are surrounded by a constant propaganda of opportunities and our freedom—or even obligation—to use them. All neoliberal reforms were supposed to create new enormous opportunities; and they have—for the very few who have amassed vast wealth thanks to them. For an average person all those opportunities mean mainly less stability, less protection, more risk, and more exploitation. It is impossible to defend the EU or attract anyone to it with the mirage of new opportunities it creates. People prefer stability and predictability, something that they feel is guaranteed and not probable: more security, not more possibilities.

The New Europe vs. Old Europe

There is yet another way forward possible: establishing a new, more deeply integrated structure on top of the EU without the support of those unwilling to join it. It would create a two-speed Europe with a possible path to catch up for those who will not be on the wagon when it starts. Emmanuel Macron expressed on more than one occasion his opinion that the EU is facing the consequences of its overexpansion, thus suggesting that a more compact Union would function and grow better.

Building a proper European army, along with a relevant defensive strategy, would help persuade Central and Eastern Europe to support deeper EU integration.

Of course, such a project will face a fierce resistance from Central and Eastern Europe, it may, however, very well happen despite it. After all, affirming the national sovereignty is the cornerstone of politics in many populist-led countries of the region. And that is a double-edged sword: Poland or Hungary, as sovereign states, can refuse to accept any further integration within the EU, but they cannot forbid other sovereign states like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain from creating new international arrangements among themselves.

It is a scenario we may very well see. Its consequences are difficult to foresee. On the one hand, it would surely alienate and antagonize the so-called New Europe against the so-called Old one. Especially as it would mean some weakening of the existing EU, which would be detrimental to Central and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, it may have a surprising effect. Part of the crisis of the European idea is the perverse emancipation of the East which is not willing anymore to look up with awe at the West. As long as we, Central and Eastern Europeans, were full of fantasies and dreams about our European identity and we desperately aspired to become part of European institutions, everything looked good. This Eastern awe also inspired Western minds who felt good being such an object of admiration. The problem is that after becoming the member of NATO and the EU the East has run out of fantasies.

The Best European Project That Neoliberal Money Can Buy

The European malaise is only a part of this complex phenomenon, but an important one. Once there is a new, exclusive “club” that offers to members a heap of benefits that the outsiders do not enjoy, we, in the East, may very well collectively go back to our aspirational mode and decide that we need to change this or that to please the ones who guard the gate of this new promised land. It is not certain to happen, but it remains a possible path.

The problem is that this new exclusive club of smaller and better-integrated EU will have little to offer if it is led by the likes of Macron or Merkel. It will rather be a zone of even bigger austerity and higher exploitation, so nothing to look up to in awe. Such a new EU would not be a vehicle of Europe’s advancement and growth but rather its regress and decadence. That is yet another dangerous scenario for Europe. So whatever Macron and Merkel have in their minds brings rather less hope for the EU. Everything seems to indicate that we are already living in the best European project that neoliberal money can buy. As it is always the case with neoliberals, they have very little money to offer when it comes to public affairs. Well, as the saying goes: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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