Europe in Ten Questions


Few people
feel very concerned about Europe. Why is the European Union so important?

Most people
underestimate the importance of the European Union. When the average family
income in Belgium is comparatively lower than it was 20 years ago; when more and
more young people survive on the legal minimum income; when one has to work
longer and harder to maintain one’s living standard; when women are given the
“right” to work at night, then European integration is at work. The
shutting-down of Renault-Vilvoorde; the restructuring of Opel; the dismantling
of Sabena, Danone, Marks and Spencer, Cockrill Sambre; the threat of
privatization hanging over the postal and transport services—European
integration is accountable for all of this. If, tomorrow, we are dragged into
military escapades, this will happen in the name of Europe; the victors will be
the European multinationals. Today over 60 percent of all legislation is edicted
at the European level.

Isn’t a
United Europe a necessity, given that each European country is too small to
compete alone on the global market?

The pursuit of
profit and the inevitable competition forces transnational corporations to
produce on a larger and larger scale. This leads to constant restructuring, to
fusions and concentration, and also to the construction of vast economic zones.
The European Union has 15 members and may soon have 25.

This increase in
scale allows unprofitable units to be closed and creates opportunities for the
transfer of production to low-salary regions—Renault- Vilvoorde’s production was
moved to Spain and Russia. It also increases the degree of “efficiency” (each
unit of production may specialize in one sector and can produce for the entire
Union). In order to “regionalize” production, markets must be liberalized and
strong regional blocs must be built. The purpose of such blocs is to protect the
trade and investments of their own TNCs. The creation of a single currency for a
region is a logical consequence of this. Thus, the gradual dollarization of
Latin America is a response to the creation of the Eurozone.

In the second
half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries the conquest
(colonization) of territory was required in order to guarantee access to raw
materials, cheap labor and new outlets. As of the end of the 20th century it
seems as if the development of integrated markets, under the leadership of a
central “fulcrum” fulfils this role; notice that the division of the world into
zones of influence by means of economic blocs does not solve the major economic
problems: overproduction, stagnation, over speculation. In fact, this process
exacerbates conflicts between the great powers with all ensuing military

Let us return to
the question: the creation of the Union is indeed a necessity—within the logic
of capitalism, at least. For the reasons explained above, we have to break out
of that logic. Apart from the economic and military considerations, larger scale
is not a guarantee against social demolition. Take the example of the U.S. This
wealthy nation has 45 million poor, 1 out of 4 children go hungry and 1 adult in
5 is illiterate. The average life expectancy in the black community is equal to
that of an inhabitant of China, or to that of certain states in India.

But on
social policy and welfare matters, Europe does better than the States. Isn’t
that an argument in favor of the Union?

That we should
score better on social matters is due to a long tradition of struggle, to
stronger unions, and to the unique circumstances after WWII. At that moment,
many concessions were made. This was not necessary in the U.S. where, on the
contrary, an anti-communist witch-hunt was organized. But, nothing is forever.
In the name of competitiveness and in order to hoist up the profit margins—which
have shrunk as a result of the economic crisis—European capital demands the best
possible conditions. This will only be possible by applying the anti-social
measures long in application in the U.S. Thus, the post-war welfare state has to
be dismantled. The lower the wages, the harder the workers toil and the higher
the profits. The less capital is taxed (and hence, the less funds available for
social security) the higher the gain. This is the iron law of capitalist

In the 1980s, the
conditions were ripe for a frontal attack on social rights. This happened
separately in every country. However, in the 1990s, the attack was carried out
under the European banner. The notorious Maastricht quotas served to camouflage
the neoliberal offensive under European colors. Compliance with these monetarist
requirements has had far-reaching consequences. The conditions were only
fulfilled thanks to savings in education, healthcare, and social security.
Conforming to the norms led to privatizations; increased indirect taxation (VAT)
and higher income tax; job cuts in public services, index freeze, etc. Continued
market liberalization led to intensified competition and increased pressure on
wages and on working conditions.

Right now, in the
EU, there are 27 million unemployed, (all categories included). There are 58
million poor. That is one-sixth of the active population and one-sixth of the
total population respectively. In France, the income of the highest earners
increased by 17 percent between 1989 and 1994. The lowest incomes increased 3
percent. In Great Britain, the income of the richest 10 percent increased by 60
percent between 1979 and 1995. Meanwhile the poorest 10 percent of the
population had their income reduced by 17 percent. In France the soup kitchens
served about 31 million free meals in 1992-93. Five years later the number had
doubled. Between 1993 and 1996, the number of French citizens receiving minimum
income rose by 27 percent. In Germany welfare payments by local authorities
trebled between 1987 and 1997. In the Netherlands, the numbers of homeless rose
from 25,000 to 45,000 between 1990 and 1998. The number of people receiving
minimum income grew by 11 percent.

Clearly, the poor
and the unemployed have little to expect from the Union. Every year, the EU
devotes barely 3.6 percent of the budget and 0.04 percent of the GNP of the
members of the Union to employment and job creation. That amount is more or less
equal to the sum that the European Commission allocated to the construction of
an international golf course in Malmedy in 1989. After 1994 the poverty
reduction programs were halted, as was the publication of figures about poverty
levels in the union.

What are
the principal political institutions in the EU?

The supreme body
of the EU is the European Council, composed of the heads of government and the
ministers of Foreign Affairs. Every six months the presidency of this council
changes hands. The Council meets four times per year in summits, during which
the main axes of political coordination are agreed on, for both home affairs and
foreign policy. These principles are transformed into laws by the Council of
Ministers known as the Council. The Council is divided into various sub-groups:
the Agriculture Council, responsible for the Common Agriculture Policy; the
Council of ministers of economics and finance (EcoFin); the Council of ministers
of foreign affairs, etc. Decisions are taken either unanimously (there is a
power of veto) or the system of qualified majority voting can be used (states
have a weight proportional to their size). Decisions are made in secret.

The executive
power is in the hands of the European Commission. This body
numbers 20 members. The five biggest countries have two commissioners; the
smaller countries have one each. These are not elected by the citizens of the
Union, but are nominated by the member states. The Commission prepares the
material for the European Council and proposes new laws. It develops guidelines
for member states and oversees the respect of the treaties. In conflicts between
member states, the Commission serves as mediator. Finally, the Commission also
represents the Union on the international scene—hence, the negotiations in the
WTO are carried out by the Commission, not by individual European states.

There is also the
European Parliament. After the distribution of responsibilities as shown above,
there is little left over for the Parliament. The Parliament cannot make laws,
it can only amend or—in certain cases—hold up legislation. This applies to a
limited set of spheres; for example, Parliament is not competent in fiscal or
social affairs. It is primarily a consultative body. The ministers and the
Commission must listen to the Parliament; they are seldom obliged to take
account of its opinions. In theory, Parliament supervises the actions of the
Commission. However, the means at its disposal are limited. It cannot choose the
members of the Commission, and can only reject the Commission as a whole.
Parliament also has budgetary powers: every year it must approve the budget.
There are 626 members of Parliament, organized in eight groups. They gather for
a 12-week session per year.

Europe is
often called the cradle of democracy. Is that reflected in the Union?

The European
Parliament is the only legislative assembly in the world in which no laws are
written. The Council and the Commission legislate; Parliament may amend their
work, but even so, only within very strict limits. Parliament, the only elected
institution, has mainly symbolic and cosmetic significance. In practice, the EU
is directed by a small number of non-elected technocrats and the most important
decisions are made behind closed doors.

This should not
surprise us. The present European Union is a project run by capitalist
interests, and was never intended to take its inhabitants into account. On the
contrary, from the very beginning, every effort was made to keep citizens as
remote as possible from the centers of power. Capital directs the
decision-making process via powerful lobbies. There are around 10,000 active
lobbyists assembled in 500 groups. About 3,000 lobbyists concentrate on the
Parliament; that means 5 lobbyists per MP. The lobbyists’ task is to tailor the
Union to capital’s size. They succeed fairly well. Not only do they determine
the principal axes of policy and the agenda of the EU; they coach
decision-makers thoroughly on minor matters too. Examples are legion: if the ERT
(European Round Table of Industrialists) decides that education should be
subservient to the principles of competition, then the Commission will adopt
that position. If proposals circulate regarding an energy tax to combat the
greenhouse effect, then the lobbies will bombard the politicians with all kinds
of so-called scientific studies and heavy pressure to prevent such legislation
from being enacted.

It is no
exaggeration to postulate that the Union is governed de facto by the TNCs—by
capital. One of the biggest lobbying groups says that around 80 percent of their
suggestions are incorporated by the European governments.

Why do the
multinationals have so much power and influence?

There are various
reasons for this. To start with, the TNCs have a strong item of blackmail: their
capital. For example, the turnover of the 45 businesses of the ERT is bigger
than the GNP of the Benelux. Should the politicians not dance to their tune, the
TNCs threaten financial and economic reprisals. Secondly, there is a broad
consensus within the elite regarding the political and economic route to be
followed: all major political parties, the commissioners, the ministers, even
the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) embrace neoliberal dogmas. In such
an ideological force field, it is not hard for the TNCs to push through their
agenda. These two reasons, taken together, show that the highest spheres of the
EU and those of the business world often cohabit. This is reinforced by the
practice of the “revolving door”: business tycoons who become politicians, and
vice versa. Think of the socialist Karel Van Miert, former commissioner of
competition (now director of Swissair) or Romano Prodi, chair of the Commission
(worked at the public holding IRI). In other words, the political and the
economic elites are one large club. By this means, the corporations obtain
privileged access to the highest seats of power.

In Europe, the
most important decisions are made in the Commission, behind closed doors.
However, those doors are left ajar for the prestigious leaders of the big
lobbies. In addition, those lobbying groups get seats in official advisory
bodies and have regular informal contacts with the top politicians. In this
manner they can weigh heavily on political work.

Fourthly, the
decision-making process in the EU is a very complex affair: apart from the
European institutions, national politicians also play a role, this makes the
whole very difficult to grasp. Themes are often very technical, some matters
fall under the national domain others do not, this means that knowledge of the
different legislations is necessary. In order to acquire this and to keep up to
date, expertise and resources are required. Other pressure groups, such as the
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have to perform their task with severely
limited resources. Finally, there is general lack of interest and of knowledge
on the part of the public. This makes it easier for the lobbies in Brussels to
wield their influence.

Are we
heading for the creation of a true European State, similar to the U.S.?

This is a knotty
point of European unification. On the one hand, a supranational state is the
logical conclusion to the present-day developments and would fit the strategy of
the corporations. Capital will always seek out the form of government, which
will best defend its interests. In more concrete terms, in order to defend “our”
economic and geostrategic interests worldwide—in opposition to the other great
powers, when necessary—a strong, independent common foreign (and military)
policy is required. This cannot exist without some kind of supranational state.
On the other hand, given the European diversity in language, culture, history
and purchasing power, the construction of an extensive homogenous supranational
structure, modeled on the U.S., is not feasible in the short term. The
nation-state continues to play an essential role in keeping the populace in
favor of ensuring maximum profits for capital.

As a consequence,
the structure of the developing European state is rather patchy: there is a
mixture of national and supranational jurisdictions. There is a lot of
resistance to the concept of a supranational state, both from public opinion and
from the political elite of the member countries. To counter this, a multi-tier
integration is proposed: there would be a core group of countries, which would
proceed with rapid integration, and a peripheral group, moving more slowly
towards unification. The avant-garde would consist of the France-Germany axis,
along with the Benelux. The political institutions would rapidly go through
fundamental change.

At the end of
April 2001, Federal Chancellor Schröder launched an attention-grabbing proposal
for drastic reforms. The Commission would become the European government and the
Council would become a sort of Second Chamber, along the lines of the German
Federal Council. Simply put, a proposal to create the United States of Europe.
It remains to be seen if the public will accept this. The result and the speed
at which this political transformation will be carried out will depend on
balance of power within the EU.

Isn’t a
European army necessary as a counterweight to U.S. military domination?

The military
expansion of the Union is a reflection of contemporary politico-economic trends.
In order for Europe to present itself as a superpower, an independent army is
required for several reasons. First, military independence from the U.S. is
needed, in order to carry out a common European foreign policy. Such a policy
would defend the interests of European multinationals in Europe’s backyard:
Eastern Europe, Africa, and later in the high priority strategic regions
(Central Asia and the Middle East). Second, the Euro will only be accepted by
the international currency markets if it is backed by sufficient military
strength. This has proven true in the past. Third, a European army is necessary
as an outlet for the European arms industry.

The development
of an offensive army of intervention will lead to an increased number of
military operations in the Third World, or in the countries of the former
Soviet-bloc. “Reluctant” countries will be militarily brought to heel. Since the
fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has taken part in military operations in Iraq,
Bosnia, Kosovo and Yugoslavia and now in Afghanistan. It never ends. Peace is
further away than ever. Furthermore, the division of the world into zones of
influence, and the internal strife amongst the great powers is growing. This
leads to increasing trade wars, which could eventually result in armed conflict.
It is not by chance that the EU wishes to form its own, autonomous army. In the
past, the creation of regional power zones has always ended in large-scale
military confrontations.

How soon
can we expect a European Army?

At the summit of
Helsinki (December 1999), a rapid intervention force was brought to the
baptismal font. This was a unit of 50-60,000 soldiers. In fact, this is a very
small army and there is, as yet, no mention of actions outside of a NATO
context. A fully independent European war machine is something North America
would not accept, and the Europeans cannot (or dare not) attempt.

Various factors
justify why the Union has not (yet) developed its own military arm. Firstly, the
leading economy, Germany, is still a dwarf in military terms. Secondly, an
integrated army requires a state with a federal structure; this is not yet
possible. Thirdly, there is internal opposition, primarily from Great Britain,
but also the Scandinavian countries and Austria are hesitant about a militarist
identity. Fourthly, Europe lacks the technological and industrial base essential
for a fully autonomous military industry, able to carry out long-lasting
operations abroad. Finally, the absolute military superiority of the U.S. and
the hold it has over the member states through NATO (direct membership and

This is the
present-day situation. However, this could change at short notice. Germany has
the potential to become a nuclear power very quickly. British industry could
change its attitude if European integration continues to progress. Recently,
there have been clear signals that Tony Blair wishes to drag Britain over the
threshold. As regards the European defense industry, major efforts have been
made; in a not-so-distant future the Union will be capable of setting up an
intervention force without U.S. assistance. The grip of the U.S. on the present
and future members of the Union may wither away and an alliance with Russia is
not unthinkable. The main weakness at present is the lack of a supranational
institutional structure, but that aspect is undergoing significant change.

What should
we make of the expansion of the Union towards Central and Eastern Europe?

With the collapse
of the communist regimes, a region with a population of 150 million was “freed.”
This was a gift from heaven for the stuttering European economy: new outlets and
cheap raw materials and labor. The German TNCs are drooling more than most.
After unification, Germany reinforced its dominant and leading position within
Europe. The conquest of new markets in the East is not only interesting
economically speaking, it is also important from the point of view of
geostrategy. According to the German Central Bank, the eastward expansion means
that the EU will evolve from its junior position to a truly powerful competitor
of the U.S. This will entail a reshuffle on the international political and
military chessboard. Ex-Chancellor Kohl even believes that expansion is a matter
of war or peace in the 21st century.

There is a second
reason for the priority accorded to the integration of the countries of the
former Soviet-block. The transition to capitalism has not brought the hoped-for
wealth. On the contrary, in 17 of the 18 countries, the economic and social
situation is now worse, often far worse than before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Added to the heightened ethnic tension, this creates a powder keg of simmering
discontent. To prevent destabilization on the Eastern border and/or a possible
return to communism or anti-Western attitudes, the Union wishes to incorporate a
belt of countries as quickly as possible. The people of the candidate states are
told that EU membership will raise their living standards to those of the richer
West-European countries. Given present-day trade fluxes and investment patterns,
it is safe to predict that the cleft between these countries and the 15 will
only increase. Past experience confirms this: the gulf between Spain, Greece,
and Portugal and the rest of Europe has only grown since their accession. The
stronger economies like the Czech Republic or Slovenia will be able, perhaps, to
thrive, but the vast majority risks receding to the status of “internal
colonies.” Due to the very low Mexican wages, U.S. multinationals erect
subsidiaries just over their Southern border. Today the same pattern is
appearing in German multinationals.                          Z

Vandepitte is a member of Attac Belgium.