Europe – Bad News & Battles

EU-logo11We’ve been watching the European elections with a mixture of concern and disdain here at Pluto, largely depending on which of our own authors we’ve been reading recently. The gamut of opinions here at the Pluto office runs from progressive Euroskepticism, in the vein of the late Tony Benn (who could not ‘give away powers lent to me’), to supportive of the European Union as a structure that unites the working class but nonetheless critical of its current form. Sadly, such opinions do not seem to fit neatly within the existing political discourse, as presented by the mainstream media. As David Cronin put it in his introduction to Corporate Europe (Pluto, 2013):

‘Having spent almost half my life in Brussels, learnt how to speak four European languages and travelled widely on the continent, it seems absurd to me that I can be called “anti-European”. Yet that is the label which is routinely applied to those who criticise the “European project”.’

Cronin’s basic argument – shared by many here – is that the so-called ‘European project’, spearheaded by Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and all stripes of Liberal in the European Parliament, is actually a continuation of the project of neoliberalism which is today ‘jeopardising many of Europe’s greatest achievements.’ Indeed, by his reckoning, ‘it is the corporate army which is truly anti-European’.

Fortunately Cronin is not alone in his conclusions, similar arguments have been developed Thomas Fazi in his recent book The Battle for Europe (Pluto, 2014). Much like Cronin, Fazi sees in the European Union’s recent policy, ‘an attempt by the wealthy elite to do away with the last remnants of the welfare state and complete the neoliberal projects. In other words it is a classic case of economic shock doctrine – and the first instance in history where such ‘therapy’ has been applied to an entire continent.’

If these writers are “anti-European” then so too are we here at Pluto, not to mention other vital social commentators such as John Hilary – who describes Cronin’s book as ‘required reading for every European citizen’ – or Steve McGiffen – who describes Fazi’s as ‘exceptional work – a must read!’.

There are, it seems, good reasons for Europeans to be sceptical of, even resistant towards, the European Union.

But there is a brand of anti-European sentiment which really must be resisted and that is the right-wing populism typified by Nigel Farage. The rise of the far right – represented in parties like the French Front National and the Germany National Democratic Party – as well as the not-quite-as-far-right – in parties like Britain’s UKIP and the Italian Lega Nord – has often centred round the European Union creating problems of immigration. The rhetoric from these parties has often been extremely disturbing and divisive such as when the German NPD campaigned under the slogan ‘Money for granny instead of Sinti and Roma’ or when the founder of the Front National called for the use of the Ebola virus against European immigrants. Only belatedly have real issues like the democratic accountability, parliamentary sovereignty, or exploitative integration of the countries of the East and South – as raised by people like Cronin and Fazi – been invoked by these parties.

So why have they proved so popular? In the United Kingdom at least, hostility and fear towards immigrants has been aided by a slanted media discourse. As Philo, Briant and Donald argued in Bad News For Refugees (Pluto, 2013):

‘In a society which is already heavily stratified between rich and poor, the arrival of new groups whether they are poor economic migrants or destitute refugees can put pressure on the poorest areas of that society as they struggle for already scarce resources in health, housing and education. The media can respond in different ways to this. It could focus on the plight of the new arrivals and pressure policy makers to respond to the needs of refugees or other groups by directing appropriate resources and reducing the stress in local areas. It could also point to the role of the West in contributing both to the economic problems of the developing world and to some of the conflict that have produced large-scale population movements. Or it could exploit the potential tensions created by these movements for its own commercial advantage (in attempts to increase market share of readers, listeners or reviewers).’

Philo et al. are clear that such a media discourse enjoys a reciprocal relationship with right-wing political narratives such as those put forward by UKIP and their ilk:

‘Some politicians effectively do the same thing to generate popular support for right-wing, populist and nationalist policies. Such rhetoric also functions to reduce public discussion of the impact of other factors such as the financial and economic crisis, the recession and the inadequacy of political responses to these.’

So isn’t it natural that we should see mainstream parties like the Conservatives and Labour in Britain keen to admit they haven’t been “tough enough” on European immigration just at the time when other questions are being raised about their political responses to our long economic crisis – not to mention the political responses of the European Union as a whole, as skewered so brilliantly by Fazi and Cronin. And with the refusal of the mainstream parties to challenge this rightward motion, should we be surprised when it persists and grows in strength?

So it seems we are caught between an increasingly centralised, corporatised Europe and its racist, populist opponents. But what should we do about it? Fortunately, we have writers whose criticism is also constructive:

‘When talking of future political scenarios,’ argues Thomas Fazi, ‘it is important to understand that the future is not written in stone and does not depend entirely on high-level decisions and unpredictable variables. It depends very much on the choices and actions (and even thoughts, the more spiritually minded would say) of each one of us.’

Fazi outlines what he sees as a ‘path for the transition towards a democratic and economically, socially and environmentally sustainable Europe’ which, crucially, he bases on positions and arguments already being made by ‘European social movements, trade unions and left-wing thinkers’. Amongst the demands made by this progressive bloc are financial and fiscal reforms such as capital controls, a ban on shadow banking, and a financial transaction task; social reforms such as strengthened wage standards, employment planning, and a rethinking of incomes policy; as well as a much broader plan for the Eurozone which would pursue a ‘progressive federalist solution’ to current ills.

Similarly, Cronin calls for banks that serve society, tax justice, real action on climate change and a broad rethink of our national economies and their relationship to international bodies like the EU. He breaks down practical steps to achieve these objectives and highlights latent possibilities in existing situations which might otherwise not be apparent to those who are not looking for real solutions to current problems. On a hopeful note, Cronin observes, ‘There are signs that a mass movement against austerity is emerging’ and such a movement could not help but include a fundamental change to the European Union in its objectives.

Nonetheless, as we said when we began, it is not with hope but concern that we have watched the latest European Elections. With the right on the rise and Europe in crisis, progressive voices like Fazi, Cronin and the authors of Bad News For Refugees begin to seem more and more like individual beacons of hope, rather than the bright and brilliant mass movement that we so badly need. As Cronin puts it in the conclusion to his Corporate Europe: ‘No doubt, some readers will dismiss my … demands as utopian. But the consequences of not striving for them could be dystopian.’

Indeed, David, indeed.

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