My Europe: Right or Left!

Misconceptions about the crisis and about the role of Europe and the Member States are spreading rapidly. First and foremost, one major consequence of the financial markets crisis was re-interpreted as a sovereign debt crisis, thus transforming an effect of the crisis into a cause. Listening to general debates in the European Parliament, you  could easily get the impression that  a fight to the death is going  on between the forces of evil – the Member States – and the good guys, the European Commission and in particular the European Parliament.

It would appear that this theme of a fight between the good guys and the bad guys is not just confined to science fiction movies and block-busters. This simplified misconception of a more complex reality has entered the Brussels arena and you can find it for instance in prototypical form in the “manifesto for a post-national revolution in Europe” by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt. This new euphoric misconception is not just in the air, it is linked to a change of what Pierre Bourdieu called the “habitus”.

A new species of ladies and gentlemen in Brussels’s corridors has adopted a quasi-religious approach towards what they emphatically call “Europe”. A quavering and somewhat pathetic tone adds that little something extra to their voices thus transforming an opinion into a Europhile attitude. In fact this new “habitus” is one which transforms your perceptions, enabling you to perceive the forces of evil in the villainous old Member States with their muddling-through strategies, their trials in fighting the consequences of the crisis or their “laisser faire” attitude which leads to worsening austerity. The new Europhile “habitus” makes you see stagnation in the Member States, overlooking the frantic activities currently taking place in most European capitals.

In reality, it is a huge work in progress aimed at deconstructing the old European social model and transforming it into a competitive structure able to compete with other global villages. That the forces pushing for that deconstruction can be found in the Commission (see the brilliant analysis by Ronald Janssen) and in particular in the Troika, means that if you want to be a member of this group you must also ‘not mind’, ‘not care’. Simply join in with the new uninterrupted background chorus of: “Europe! Europe! Europe!” resounding in the Brussels corridors. The modern European credo has the appearance of a mass, and its message is simple.

So, the new “habitus” distorts the perception of what is taking place. Has there ever been a separation between right and left? Not at the European level. In the old Member States, in the past, there was a clear difference between the governing party and the opposition. The often ambiguous outcome of European elections, which brings no clear majority for one party, obliges all political parties to find compromises. But does that really mean that an alternative project cannot be found? For Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt, the Commission and the European Parliament are the good guys and you have to strengthen them. However, the Commission limits itself to commenting on the activities of the Member States and pushes the Member States into austerity regimes leading directly to a European depression. Do we need more of the same – more austerity-Europe, more undemocratic economic governance, more fiscal treaties pushing for consolidation only and nothing else?

More and more companies are closing down, like Ford in Gent. What is the response of Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt? You need a “green deal” and an industry which is not ”délocalisable”…. Good heavens, that’s a really great idea. Why didn’t the trade unions or the political left come up with such a brilliant idea? However, after a short reflection: Why did the European Parliament miss the point and forget to introduce such legislation? Perhaps the reality is a little bit more complex. In 14 out of 27 Member States the industrial relations and collective bargaining systems have been reformed, in 14 Member States changes to individual and/or collective dismissal rules have been introduced, in 15 the working time legislation changed and in 21 the rules on atypical contracts, in particular for young people, have been modified. So, if trade unions want more interference in supposedly autonomous collective bargaining and more so-called reform of labour law, then they have to ask for “more Europe” (in the current situation it would look like self-flagellation…), but what if they don’t want this kind of Europe of “more austerity” and more biased labour market policy reforms? Can they count on the support of the European federalists or have the federalists forgotten that most of the time they supported “social Europe”, at least in the past?

CB&V intend to disseminate a new European narrative or should we say tale: If something new is coming up, it is important to put an “idyllic spin” on it – that’s what CB believes and clearly states in the interview which has been added to the manifesto. It seems that he is not alone in this view. The alternative is not between the option of establishing austerity-Europe on one hand and a social alternative on the other, no, it is between the status quo and “more Europe”.

For those who have learnt that content is important and who see that the main content of current European policy is austerity, fiscal consolidation with the effect of mass unemployment and the risk of a lost generation, it is difficult to choose between this status quo and even more of the same. The Member States recently reached a compromise and agreed to introduce a financial transaction tax. These complex elements of the reality are completely excluded from the idyllic picture necessary to propagate the Europe of Barroso. A new ideology, a new penseé unique, a sort of Europe-euphoria is being established by these vehement propagandists of “more Europe”.

Some apocalyptic elements have to be added to that picture: If the Euro explodes, Europe will explode. If Europe is jeopardized and disintegrating, peace is under threat as well. The end of the world is getting nearer – it gives you the creeps. There is only one way to avoid the apocalypse – a revolution, a federalist revolution and “more Europe”. It’s not too late to convert, to adopt the Europhile “habitus” and to become a believer as well. Only Europe can find the solution, only Europe.

In fact, more interesting than the manifesto itself is the interview added to the pamphlet which completely contradicts it: Cohn-Bendit/Verhofstadt admit that Europe as such is not the miracle solution (“un remède miracle”). Both criticise the failure of the EU2020 strategy which was built on insufficient and inefficient tools like the open coordination method (best practice). Verhofstadt explains that the objective is not to speak badly of Member States and reminds us that the framework for a century of progress was the national one. They stress that Europe must force China to respect environmental and social norms, including trade union freedoms. They admit that retaliatory measures might be useful – and they also see that the Commission avoids them for ideological reasons. Lastly, they come up with proposals on how to rearrange the European institutional triangle:  an assembly of technocrats who are not responsible is not what is needed, but rather a political government under the control of the EP and the Council. They propose to transform the Council into a sort of Second Chamber as in the USA or Germany.

Cohn-Bendit/Verhofstadt are right to say that it’s a major problem that the Commission does not fight for a project but instead gives up before even starting to fight. The explanation for this behaviour lies in the fact that the Council chooses the Commission President who is therefore a child of the Council. It would be better to elect the President directly, that’s the solution of Schäuble, echoed by Cohn-Bendit. Verhofstadt would prefer it if the EP designated the President, what would be a better way because under those circumstances, it would also enable the EP to put pressure on and make the President resign which is almost impossible with a directly elected President (see my recent contribution in Social Europe). Verhofstadt adds that a federal Europe must have an important social component. Less rigorous is their position on democracy: Verhofstadt thinks that a European state structure must be build first and afterwards democracy will follow. Isn’t the idea of a spillover being too optimistic? Cohn-Bendit is convinced that democracy can’t wait but must be part of the structure right from the start. What is certain: A contradictio in adjecto is possible – on one hand an idyllic manifesto, on the other hand a pragmatic approach towards a better Europe.