It has not been a very good year for “Europe” – at least not for the notion of a liberal and unified continent that has in the postwar decades come to be embodied in the institutions of the European Union and its push for “an ever closer union” to “eliminate the barriers which divide Europe.”
Plagued by a state of perpetual crisis, hobbled by a debilitating “democratic deficit” and facing the indomitable specter of a resurgent reactionary right, many of the ambitious aims that once undergirded the European project are now giving way to the daemons of the past. Racism, nationalism and xenophobia are all on the rise, while disparities between peoples are rapidly intensifying.
Nothing exemplifies the slow death of the European ideal better than the annihilation of the Greek “OXI” in the July referendum and the resurrection of fences and border controls between EU member states in response to the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
Europe’s collective response to both of these crises has confirmed beyond any doubt that the twin concepts of “democracy” and “solidarity” – once considered foundational to the European project – have long since been hollowed out by the EU’s thoroughly neoliberal turn after the Maastricht Treaty.
Over the past two or three decades, as barriers to capital were eliminated and European leaders built their “ever closer union” of financial and business interests, new walls were erected to stem social mobility and keep out the Unwanted Other. The peoples of Europe and those fleeing to the old continent to escape war, poverty and persecution have been left by the wayside.
Of course all of this was clear to the perceptive observer years ago – but it is nevertheless remarkable how fast popular perceptions of political realities can change in times of crisis.
Back in 2004, when I was an Erasmus exchange student in political science at the University of Bologna, I bought a book by Jeremy Rifkin – the American author known for his propensity to snuff out social trends and turn them into bestselling titles by grossly hyping their relevance out of proportion.
The book was called The European Dream, and – dedicated as it was to “the Erasmus generation of college students in Europe” – I figured it might resonate with my own pro-European views.
It turned out I was hopelessly mistaken, but the book nevertheless makes for fascinating re-reading today, in light of EU’s deepening existential crisis, as it perfectly captures the vacuity and naiveté of the liberal mystique that once surrounded the European project at its heyday around the turn of the century.
In his laudatory introduction, Rifkin wrote that “the European Dream is an effort at creating a new historical frame that can … connect the human race to a new shared story, clothed in the garb of universal human rights and the intrinsic rights of nature – what we call a global consciousness. It is a dream that takes us … into a global age. The European Dream, in short, creates a new history.”
A decade later, this “global consciousness” appears to have been little more than cheap liberal veneer to paper over the reactionary underbelly of an increasingly anxious European middle class, whose social welfare and economic security have been thoroughly eroded by globalization, financialization and European integration.
Today, a few decades into Rifkin’s much-vaunted “global age,” the European Dream lies in tatters. From its ashes now rise the once-forgotten monsters of a revived nationalism.
Of course none of this is new. The European ideal has been on its last legs for some years now, confronted with a sovereignist recoil going back at least to the rise of the Euroskeptic right in the early 2000s and the rejection of the European Constitution in the French and Dutch referendums of 2005.
Voter turnout has been falling in every consecutive European election since the creation of a European Parliament in 1979, and has not surpassed 50 percent since 1999. The democratic legitimacy of the Brussels bureaucracy has been publicly questioned ever since.
This legitimation crisis was greatly amplified by the anti-democratic and anti-social response to the Eurozone debt crisis. By 2011, faced with the imminent threat of a Greek default and a catastrophic breakdown of the Eurozone, European leaders were publicly warning that the EU as a whole stood on the verge of collapse.
While such pronouncements were clearly self-serving at the time, intended as they were to justify draconian measures to save the euro, they did contain an element of truth that had hitherto remained a taboo: the fact that the process of European integration might just as easily go into reverse; a recognition that the movement towards “ever greater union” can by no means be taken for granted.
But if these trends were already being openly discussed from 2005 and especially from 2011 onwards, the events of the past year have really driven the EU’s inner decay to a point of no return.
The brutal financial asphyxiation of the first Syriza-led government and the abrupt erection of new fences and border controls between EU member states show that the two key “achievements” of the neoliberal European project – the European Monetary Union and the borderless Shengen Area – are both in mortal danger.
Combined with its brutal austerity regime, its extreme disrespect for the legally enshrined and internationally binding human rights of refugees, and its reactionary crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of the Paris attacks, it has become clear that the EU is now incapable of defending even its own limited liberal principles.
What emerges in this scenario is a profound crisis of governability. As the preeminent German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued in a recent interview with ROAR Magazine, Europe now finds itself in a political interregnum. And as Antonio Gramsci famously argued in the 1930s, such interregnums tend to be accompanied by the appearance of all kinds of morbid symptoms.
Confronted with these bleak conditions, the task of the broader left and the grassroots movements is to begin crafting concrete alternatives to the decaying institutions of the European Union and to start building an emancipatory and transformative political project that can counter the continued imposition of the EU’s neoliberal dogma while staving off the resurgence of the reactionary right.
For a moribund progressive opposition, organizing such transformative action will be a tall order. Yet early signs of a new politics are already dawning on the horizon, and fresh opportunities for social agitation and political organization will undoubtedly arise over the course of 2016.
Emerging from the innovative democratic practices of grassroots struggles against austerity and from the participatory logic of self-organized initiatives for the commons, new organizational forms and political imaginaries are being pioneered by activists across the continent. These may well form the basis for a radically different kind of European unification in the future: a “Europe in common.”
Buoyed by political flash points like the Greek OXI, the #RefugeesWelcome mobilizations and the electoral victories of the municipal platforms in Spain, such an emancipatory grassroots politics may yet offer an aspirational alternative to the prospect of endless neoliberal decay and intensifying nationalist tensions.
Whether it will be enough is another question altogether – a question we will hopefully be in a much better position to answer one year from now. In the meantime, the best the movements can do is to build and expand their collective power in anticipation of the inevitable social, economic and political turmoil that still lies ahead.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.