The European Union at the crossroads

June 24, 2016

The euro and EU austerity policies have turned out more resilient than I expected (to use ironically a term that is so much part of the dominant discourse). During the euro crisis, free market policies and the principles of austerity have tightened their grip over member states. Challenges to neoliberalism and tendencies towards disintegration have been contained by the unity of the elites in Brussels, by various ad hoc rescue packages, and by tactics that come close to divide-and-rule. Following the open but failed rebellion of Syriza, Greece was turned into a de facto protectorate.

The possibility of Brexit has been looming in the background, resonating strongly with the rise of nationalist and xenophobic populism across Europe and the world. The left has failed to transform the Union. Discontent among the precariat and marginal – including the unemployed and peripheral in Europe – has been channeled into the politics of othering and scapegoating. Moreover, powerful interests oppose developing either a stronger EU or better systems of global governance, with powers to regulate and tax transnational capital and shape world markets. For the conservatives democracy must be limited and stay at home. In that sense neoliberalism may play out to be nationalistic too.

Our current predicament can be explained in terms of deeper social mechanisms and related self-reinforcing processes. The partial failure of the European project and the consequent economic difficulties have widened the legitimation shortfalls of the EU. Growing inequalities and high unemployment, coupled with precariousness of jobs, have created and intensified social antagonisms in the context of perceived further influx of immigrants, developing increasingly paranoid, nihilistic, or even fundamentalist characteristics. Moreover, people need meaning for their lives. Globally networked and flexible consumer capitalism, commoditization and the fear of alienation easily give rise to morally regressive movements and/or counter-efforts. These can create a new sense of communal belonging by imagining a new community.

If the prevailing social practices and relations are widely held to be unjust from a subjective point of view, they have a tendency to provoke criticism that can easily be bent into us-against-them antagonisms with the aid of fundamentalist doctrines. For example, real and imagined competition for jobs between immigrants and native citizens can fuel nationalism, and can also engender radical dogmas about “the fates of nations”. Consequent processes easily become self-reinforcing. Media-attention and success at polls shape public discourse and the criteria of normalcy. Through the implicit memory, often repeated claims become true in people’s minds. Group-formation, networking and the algorithms of social media make information increasingly one-sided for many. These currents are easily amalgamated with various forms of radicalism and fundamentalism.

If this is how Brexit is best understood, the most important question from the point of view of the future of the EU is the following. Have we now realized that the current EU institutions and policies are counterproductive and inadvertently responsible for the disintegrative tendencies in Europe? This realization would lead to an urgent attempt to transform the EU, to making its institutions and policies more functional and democratic. A refashioning of the EU Treaty would need to concern not only details of the founding documents; they would require changes to their underlying philosophy, to their economic theories, and to their theories of legitimation. Approval of a new constitutive treaty would require broad agreement on the new direction of integration.

Alternatively, the idea in Berlin, Paris and Brussels may well be that that the most realistic alternative is the authoritarian path, as forcefully pursued in summer 2015. Britain will be punished for Brexit, to show others that it will hurt to leave the EU. Integration must be deepened, but in terms of the prevailing free market utopia, austerity policies and related stern discipline.

Even with a few social or democratic concessions here and there, this path will surely lead to a deepening of the legitimation crisis and thereby to further disintegration of the Union. Indeed, the EU is now standing at the crossroads.

The mood in Brussels must be – or at least it should be – reminiscent of that famous Robert Johnson “Crossroads blues” recorded back in 1936. “You can run, you can run; tell my friend-boy Willie Brown; Lord, that I’m standin’ at the crossroad, babe; I believe I’m sinkin’ down.” Johnson died in 1938, at the age of 27.

Heikki Patomäki