Social Europe is the Only Solution



The current crisis of legitimacy of the EU can be traced in a path-dependent fashion to its roots in the aftermath of World War II. Subsequent historical distance has elided together the anti-fascist popular consensus across the continent after the defeat and delegitimisation of Nazism with the elite integration ‘project’ which came to fruition in the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

In fact that consensus would have been much better expressed in the post-war plans for a federal Europe of radicals like Altiero Spinelli. Antonio Gramsci, victim of Italian fascism, had envisaged an integrated Europe in which the ‘nation-state’ would be reduced to local government.

What defeated the progressives in the wake of war turned on the reconstruction of the word liberty. From the obverse pole to fascist dictatorship, ‘freedom’ became attached not to actual human agents united across the devastated continent in hope of a secure future but to capital and commodities, anthropomorphised into the bearers of ‘free movement’. Indeed the only actual human beings which the Treaty of Rome was to address were the workers who were, with a jaundiced eye, to enjoy ‘free movement’ too—an afterthought added at the behest of the Italian Christian Democrat government, anxious to ensure that it could offload its surplus labour to northern Europe.

The theory was that a Common Market, by outlawing protectionism, would somehow dissolve the nationalistic antagonisms that had led to war. The problem with this theory, of course, is that it was more economically reductionist than the most vulgar Marxism. Moreover, it would be known only to its founders and sponsors, so to speak, who assumed it merely required a ‘permissive consensus’ to progress. It was the Marshall Plan and national Keynesianism which actually engendered the trentes glorieuses but the coincidence of post-war reconstruction made the theory, at that time, seem to work.

In fact, the Council of Europe, established in 1949, said a much more effective ‘never again’ to fascism (and Stalinism) by its overt promotion of universal norms, which confined nationalistic particularism and xenophobia to the margins of the post-war continent (Northern Ireland, Cyprus and the Basque Country) for decades until the wars of the Yugoslav succession. The council now dwarfs the European Union, with 47 members, and its much more intrusive human-rights interventions rarely excite the ‘Eurosceptic’ response which the EU has increasingly faced in recent years.

Euroscepticism first emerged on the political stage with the 1991 Treaty of Maastricht, when the ‘no’ from Denmark in the subsequent referendum—many Danes feared for their universal welfare state in the Big Market—indicated that the ‘project’ was incompatible with a no-longer deferential citizenry. The Christian-socialist European Commission president Jacques Delors tried to ensure that the final phase of national market deregulation was accompanied by a ‘Social Europe’. But this was merely an offsetting, compensatory project which did not challenge the fundamental opening towards a further concentration and centralisation of capital in Europe, from which growing social inequality—as the Gulliver of capital escaped its Lilliputian national constraints—and core-periphery tensions could only follow. Even the social democratic pioneer, Sweden, saw its income Gini coefficient soar as ‘social democracy in one country’ became increasingly impossible in subsequent decades.

The crisis of legitimacy was consolidated in 2005 with the Dutch and French popular votes against the draft constitution—at least in part because of its neo-liberal inflections. The accession in 2004 of states for whom ‘actually existing socialism’ had been abhorrent and a series of European Court of Justice rulings enforcing further deregulation of the labour market deeply entrenched the neo-liberal outlook in the European institutions, particularly the commission.

In other words, the crisis was in long gestation before its current manifestations. Lenin once defined socialism in the USSR (hardly persuasively) as = soviet power + electrification. And the fundamental European contradiction is this: if markets can only work to the degree that they are socially embedded in a dense network of appropriate institutions and norms, then the idea of Europe as = deregulation of markets + a supervisory technocracy could only mean a Europe in which the movement of capital is fundamentally destabilising, and ever more so. The origins of the Eurozone crisis, let us not forget, lay in banks, including German banks, placing hot money in the poor periphery as asset bubbles were inflated – not (outside of Greece), in fiscal profligacy by individual member states.

For a young generation for whom the war is sepia-tinted history and neoliberalism offers only insecurity—including in some countries a more than even chance of being unemployed—’Europe’ therefore now holds no meaning except Erasmus programmes for the educated elite. This is the real reason behind the ever-declining turnout in EP elections, often seen as paradoxical given the parliament’s somewhat enhanced powers, as each new cohort finds the process ever-more ‘second-order’.

It can only be if Europe is seen to be the site of collective solutions to global challenges, challenges far too large to cope with on the national level—such as stemming climate change or re-regulating the continent-wide labour market—that it can acquire a new legitimacy. Indeed, outside of the oil-buttressed exception of Norway, there is no other site where solutions canadequately be found.

So Social Europe becomes the question of the institutional and normative elaboration of the embedding of markets, which can also be the potential of a ‘social pact’ (as the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the European Trade Union Confederation have advocated) to engage the social partners and NGOs beyond the institutional arena. The successful Party of European Socialists campaign for a youth guarantee shows this can be rendered meaningful in practice. The next campaign should be for a Europe-wide minimum wage.

Before the crisis, Vivien Schmidt could apparently reasonably claim that the EU suffered from a challenge of ‘output’ rather than ‘input’ legitimacy. Her argument[1] was that really the problem was national elites anxious to blame ‘Brussels’ for everything emanating from the union they didn’t like, while claiming national credit for everything they did. But it is clear now that the EU has entered a chronic crisis on the ‘input’ side, as citizens in Greece, Italy and Cyprus in particular find themselves victims of neo-liberal dogma, facing punitive social recessions regardless of how they might actually have voted in national elections.

Social democrats should be at the heart of resolving this crisis of legitimacy, by articulating a popular and progressive project for Europe, in alliance with greens, social liberals and progressive NGOs. It is crucial that the PES manifesto for the 2014 EP elections sets out that project in crystal-clear fashion. A lowest-common-denominator campaign with little traction across the continent as national issues are allowed to predominate could see not just a further plummeting of turnout but, worse, real victories for the authoritarian radical right—despite the echoes of the 1930s–who have been much more effective than social democrats in tapping popular despair.

There is an old Irish joke about an American, driving round the narrow roads of the west of Ireland, who stops a passer-by to ask the quickest way to Dublin—‘I wouldn’t start from here’ is the terse response. The European liberal-left has no other place to start apart from the one in which it finds itself. A break-up of the Euro, with the inevitable beggar-thy-neighbour competitive devaluations that would follow, would be no answer. The way has to be charted to a Social Europe which can tame the capitalist tiger in the only way it now can be tamed after decades of neoliberal globalisation—on a European and ultimately a global scale.

I have set out before the elements of the architecture of a genuinely Social Europe, which is not merely a palliative but a new social model which can provide an inspiration to others struggling across the world—where, since the demise of ‘actually existing socialism’, Islam, utterly counter-intuitively, has provided the main adversary pole. These are by no means original and indeed have been widely rehearsed by others.

The problem is not a dearth of concrete policies and proposals. The key question is whether next year Europe’s social democratic family can act as a sufficiently coherent and compelling political force to redefine anew the basic discourse of Europe, so that the left’s core values, of liberty, equality and solidarity, trump the neoliberal narrative of ‘free markets’ that has triumphed for so long—to, we now know, disastrous effect.

[1] Schmidt, Vivien (2006), Democracy in Europe: The EU and National Polities (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

This article is part of the EU Social Dimension expert sourcing project jointly organised by SEJ, the ETUCIG Metall, the Hans Böckler Stiftung, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Lasaire.