The new road to Europe: ways out of the hydra-headed crisis

The European Union is uniquely placed to solve the problems that have been caused by the tensions and templates of national political solutions in a globalised economy. There exists a positive European reinvention of the Union for all those that are rightly indignant
Mary Kaldor
5 September 2011

There was not much holiday season this August. Day after day, the news was filled with multiple crises –the fall of Qadhafi, the brutality in Syria, the sovereign debt crisis in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, the deadlock in the US Congress and the loss of the American triple A rating, Hurricane Irene, the anti-corruption campaign in India, the English riots. Indeed there was not space or time to cover the extraordinary events that popped up in different places.

The financial crisis - as others have pointed out in the debate on “The road to Europe” - is the expression of a deeper underlying crisis that manifests itself in political, economic, social, environmental and moral terms. It has to do with the end of a long phase of human development, associated with the nation-state, mass production, the intensive use of energy especially oil, and the dominance of the United States. The last two decades have witnessed at an accelerating pace the erosion of the compact between capital and labour that underpinned the role of the state, the loss of economic sovereignty, the rising cost of energy both in economic and environmental terms, as well as new challenges to the role of America. This has also been a period characterised by the rapid growth of the so-called new economy based on information and communications technology with vast and unknowable implications for human relations. Essentially the institutions that underpinned the last phase of development have been badly damaged but so far, the institutions need to manage the transition to something new have not been established.  

The protestors in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East, the indignados in Spain and Greece or the wutburger in Germany , as Della Porta describes, are experimenting with new social arrangements and new forms of discursive democracy. But they need an institutional response. Change is blocked at a national level, the policies and assumptions of the past are imprinted on the structures of the nation-state and on the assumptions of national politicians. Some change is possible at local and regional levels but there also needs to be a global agenda, especially in the fields of finance, security and environment.

The hydra-headed crisis is also a European crisis. The crisis of the Euro like the wider financial crisis is an expression of deeper underlying factors. Yet the European Union also could represent  an answer to the crisis. It has to go forwards if it is not to go backwards. To save the euro, policies will have to be adopted that could offer a model for the rest of the world. This may well not happen, of course, but that is why activists and others need to campaign at a European level and not just at local and national levels.

The reason that the European Union contains the seeds of a solution is because it is a new type of political animal. It originated as a peace project, in reaction to two world wars and the holocaust. By trial and error, it has developed as a new form of transnational governance designed not to displace the nation-state but to constrain its dangerous tendencies. It adds a new layer of political authority rather than establishing a new pole of political authority. It is a multilateral institution but goes beyond internationalism (between states) and possesses an element of supra nationalism (beyond states). It offers new possibilities for public intervention that is not state based.

In practice, actually existing Europe appears very different. Indeed, it seems to be little more than a neo-liberal bureaucracy. As Pianta and Rossanda have shown, the neoliberal policies that underpinned the euro have been immensely destructive in social and economic terms. The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to establish a more unified political leadership but in fact it proliferated Presidents largely unknown to the public – the Union now has a President of the Council, a rotating Presidency of the Council, a foreign minister, a President of the Commission, all appointed through a murky backstage method and few European citizens are even aware of who they are. The result is a political vacuum made worse by a tendency for national governments to blame Europe for their own incapacity to respond to popular demands.

Yet precisely because the European Union is new type of political animal it has the potential to address some of the underlying sources of the crisis in a way that is not possible for nation-states. There is, of course, a risk that the euro will collapse and that the EU will disintegrate. But in order to forestall that possibility some changes are happening almost by stealth. Eurobonds have, in effect been created by the decision to convert national debt to European debt. Almost unnoticed, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel agreed to a tax on financial transactions –something long demand by activists in the social forums.

At root the weakness of the European project was that it has always been an elite project. It lacks the social compact that underpinned the state. The protestors in different parts of Europe are however mainly focussed on local demands but those local demands can only be met within a wider European framework. How can the current popular mobilisation connect up and frame a European agenda? Such an agenda might include:

  1. A new fiscal mechanism that would raise taxes at a European level – a tax on financial transactions for example, and a carbon tax – and would increase spending and redistribution at a European level.
  2. A new social policy aimed at reducing inequality and promoting jobs, especially for young people. Some have proposed a Marshall Plan for youth.
  3. An economic strategy aimed at resource saving as opposed to labour saving that would be both economically and environmentally sustainable.
  4. A renewal of the peace project including cosmopolitan citizenship, reaching out to the new democracies in the Middle East the way it reached out to Eastern Europe, and a human security rather than a national security policy.
  5. A reinvigoration of democracy both locally and at European level –  a widespread debate at local levels, in town halls and public squares, as well as a way of publicly electing an accountable political leadership.

Change of this kind in Europe could have far reaching consequences for global arrangements. The EU is still the largest single economy in the world. But it lacks popular legitimacy. How can the road to Europe be reinvigorated from the bottom up? Is another Europe possible? A peace-green-democratic-cosmopolitan Europe instead of a neo-liberal bureaucracy?

The goal is to provide an institutional model that could tackle the multiple crises that are piling up, that could channel the new technologies into emancipatory applications, and that could address the mismatch between pervasive changes in social relations and the institutions of an earlier era. We need to reinvent the road to Europe.

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