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Is Europe to Blame?

James Heartfield’s new book The European Union and the End of Politics (Zero Books) is about the evolving relationship between the European Union and its constituent member countries. It is a mix of political science, recent European history and a call for agitation from the people of the continent.

Conventional consensus

The basic premise is that across Europe, over the last 30 years or so, there has been a decline in active, popular participation in national politics and that in most countries the mass mainstream parties of right and left are in real decline as meaningful movements. This is reflected in the great reduction in party membership and in public interest and involvement in policy debate and formulation. According to Heartfield, the fundamental reason behind this phenomenon is that most conventional political parties no longer have any major ideological divisions between each other and generally have adopted a consensual position on the desirability of having a regulated but free market as the basis of the economy accompanied by a modest investment in the welfare state. For the parties of the Left, even talk of an aspirational nature of aiming for a major transformation to the basis of society has long since evaporated. Hence the debate in national parliaments is mostly ritualised and meaningless and the coverage of politics by the mainstream media generally focuses on personalities, scandals, government cock-ups and associated ‘stories’. Into this vacuum of real politics have stepped the institutions of the European Union. The lives of the people of Europe are increasingly determined by policies emanating from Brussels.

Heartfield points out, though, that in many cases this reduction in national decision-making has a cynical origin. Governments are relieved to use the official need to conform to EU rules and directives to explain and justify the necessity of implementing reforms (in the areas of the economy, environment, immigration etc.) that are electorally unpopular but necessary for the smooth functioning of capitalism across the continent. As an example, writing as a socialist based in Ireland, where the power of the European Union is clear particularly since the economic meltdown of 2009 and the need for the country’s finances to be ‘rescued’ by the EU and IMF, all budget cuts and increases in taxation are said to be inevitable for Ireland to remain part of the system. However even before that it was obvious how much decision-making had been transferred to Brussels. Government ministers from most Departments make very regular visits to Brussels to consult with EU officials and their fellow ministers to return and announce a policy which is then rubber-stamped by parliament.

Recent European history

Much of the book is taken up with an analysis of issues that have concerned the European Union since its inception: the legacy of World War Two, the influence of the Cold War on its formation and development, growing integration between the member states, the increase in the number of member countries, the relationship with the United States, the global positioning of the EU, the stresses resulting from the adoption of a common currency by some of its constituent entities, etc. Like much analysis of recent history, the reader is free to agree or disagree with the author’s interpretations on any particular issue. Some of the material in the book will be of interest to any person concerned with contemporary politics though other sections (particularly Chapters 7 and 8 where the ‘theory’ of European integration is examined from a variety of perspectives) will only probably only excite those with a professional remit in this field.

One small criticism is that when the author discusses the antagonistic relationship between some individual countries and the European Union, it is not clear what is precisely meant by the latter term. Is it the institutions and bureaucracy in Brussels or is it the governments of the major states, principally Germany? Heartfield’s own opinion on Europe is divulged in the final, Conclusions chapter of the book. Although throughout the book, the reader is given the impression that he regards the nation-state as the superior basis for political organisation and decision-making, it seems that he is not a nationalist but is in favour of a pan-European framework for the continent. However he feels the current European Union can have no place in such a project given its complete lack of popular democracy or genuine sovereignty. To implement a new type of Europe firstly requires the regeneration of popular politics and mass mobilisation in the national arena of its people.

Shallow debate

The socialist objective transcends the issues discussed in the book. As socialists we seek the replacement of the current basis of society, capitalism, by a new fundamentally different basis, socialism. This will be a world-wide society not based on countries or continents or superpowers. So we are not concerned as to whether capitalism is organised on a national or trans-national basis. The EU is clearly a capitalist construct where the dominant elements of the capitalist class in Europe see an advantage in organising the politics and economy of Europe on a continent-wide basis. The reason the existence of the EU generates political heat is that such an artifice brings no advantages to some elements of the capitalist class within each country, yet they feel they must bear a proportion of the costs, so they oppose it.

The issue of the relationship between member states and the EU is probably most controversial in the UK. However the shallowness of this debate can be quickly exposed. In 2014 there will be a referendum on Scottish Independence from the UK while in 2017 or so there may be a referendum on British ‘Independence’ from the EU. Does anyone really believe the day to day lives of ordinary people in Scotland or England will be significantly affected by the outcome of these referenda? Of course, as with the ebb and flow of capitalist politics, there will be temporary winners and losers amongst the working people of Britain. Those British workers who live and work or are retired in Europe, gain some minor benefits from British membership of the EU. It’s much easier to travel to another member country without the need to change currency (Eurozone only), obtain visas, satisfy custom requirements, organise emergency health care, etc. As against that, other sections of the working class in Britain may benefit from an exit from the Union; those employed in sectors where they are competing with migrants from Europe to sell their labour power. However the basic position of the vast majority of the people in Britain will be unaffected by the manoeuvring of politicians on either side of these campaigns. Ultimately only the transformation of the economic basis of society and the scrapping of national and supra-national based identities can do that.