The Neoliberal Union

Blind and hungry. Brussels, October 2015.

David Cameron has signalled that the long-awaited referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union could be held early as the summer of 2016. This is big news for Britain, its Europhiles and its Eurosceptics. Not only does it demonstrate that the Conservative Party is still looking to settle old scores. The Tory government is looking to play both cards at once. Cameron does not really want a ‘Brexit’ – the portmanteau for a British exit from the EU. But he does want to increase the distance between Westminster and Brussels.

Once again, the government is looking abroad to settle scores with its party. In the 1990s, David Cameron was a fresh-faced adviser to the doomed administration of John Major. He was aligned with the Eurosceptic wing of the party, but he has always struck the softest tones of a market liberal. The challenge for Cameron is whether or not he can keep the Eurosceptics on board with the Europhiles. This means pushing European leaders for extra powers, while making it clear he means business.

The European question has paralysed Tory governments in the past. It was a recurrent source of humiliation and bombast during Major’s tenure. It also brought the Thatcher era to a close, a sweet irony given the historic role of the Conservatives as the party of European internationalism. It was Winston Churchill who fantasised of a ‘United States of Europe’. Later, Ted Heath would push for Britain’s entry into the common market with the help of rebellious Labour MPs. Even Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European act and led the UK into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. This should not surprise a modern reader.

Austrian libertarian Friedrich Hayek argued for European integration in the 1940s. His argument flowed from the grounds that it would raise new barriers to socialism at every turn and entrench the conditions of a market society. In Hayek’s view, European federalism could only lead to the creation new markets, the evisceration of public services, the erosion of welfare states and the beginning of low tax regimes. The Eurocons took the view that the European project would lead to greater growth, as well as maximal efficiency and productivity.

As pointed out by Wolfgang Streeck, the imposition of a laissez-faire economic model and a European super-state are not incompatible. This is the key fallacy of right-wing Euroscepticism. Federation necessarily entails liberalisation because it becomes harder to manage competing economic claims. Under capitalist conditions, it is easier for deregulation and low taxes to be imposed on everyone. It’s much harder to take account of uneven development. In other words, it’s not a historical accident that the EU is a neoliberal machine.

Grandpa working traffic. Milano, November 2011.
Grandpa working traffic. Milano, November 2011.

This explains why traditional left voices were Eurosceptic. In the old Labour Party, people like Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner were vocal opponents of the European Economic Community. Unlike Europe’s right-wing critics, the Bennite argument was always about the anti-democratic character of the European Union as it has emerged. After all, the European Parliament is largely toothless, with real power being exercised by unaccountable and unelected institutions – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the Council of the EU.

By contrast, the right-wing opposition to the EU was a fringe phenomenon. The number of Tory rebels over Britain’s entry into the EEC was dwarfed by the pro-European rebellion in Labour. Even still, the bulk of Labour remained Eurosceptic for quite some time. This led the most prominent Tory Eurosceptic, Enoch Powell, to call on his supporters to vote Labour in 1974. It was a ruthless, tactical decision to take down the Heath government. Tory loyalists shouted “Judas!” at Powell, to which he replied: “Judas was paid.”

Mainstream support for European integration has always been overwhelmingly liberal. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the major proponents were left-liberals like Roy Jenkins and his allies, such as Shirley Williams, who later defected to establish the SDP. The natural opposition came from nationalists. Liberal internationalism and conservative nationalism feed into one another. Their relationship is dialectical, both oppositional and complementary, and ultimately, they spiral into the same downward trajectory.

Today, the European Union represents a means of supra-national organisation. This is what Streeck calls the consolidation state. Opposition can now be bypassed, as it is contained to the reach of various national parliaments. The powers of the centre expand, as alternative centres of power are rendered diffuse. Naturally, this system suits the interests of capital rather well. Thus, the British ruling-class has a stake in Europe as an arrangement between the region’s economic powers. But the stake in an economic union does not necessarily extend to a political union.

The EU offers open trade relations and markets, including labour markets. But this also brings an alternative centre of power. So the UK aims to keep an aloof relationship with the EU. The UK is a member of considerable size and stature, but it chooses to remain distant. It hopes to maintain a central, yet evasive role. A part of this is to do with the British establishment’s infatuation with America, and the pretensions of the ‘special relationship’ (which is only talked about on one side of the Atlantic Ocean).

A social democratic Europe, as envisioned by Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, could have been a counterweight between the United States and the Soviet Union. An independent European line may have been conducive to a multipolar world. It was not impossible to imagine. As France had walked out of NATO under Charles de Gaulle, it was independent of US foreign policy. Equally, West Germany was a social democratic powerhouse bordering the Eastern bloc. But the window for a social Europe may have closed with the end of the Cold War.

Cotton candy. Brussels, December 2015.
Cotton candy. Brussels, December 2015.

Firstly, the Keynesian projects of Mitterrand were discarded at the behest of capital. Despite taking a vocal stance on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, France has since subsumed itself into NATO. The UK underwent the shift towards neoliberalism by Thatcher’s iron hand. Reunification established Germany, in economic and political terms, as the leader of Europe. The European system increasingly resembles the conduits of German hegemony. But the limits are clear: the US has nearly totalised its hold on Europe’s foreign policy.

This has led the EU to side with the US in the struggle over Ukraine with Russia, much like how European powers backed Croatia and Kosovo’s Albanian nationalists in the Yugoslav wars. Secondly, the triumph of neoliberal forces around the globe has not been combated by European integration. This is despite the fact that Germany remains the social democratic centre of a fiscally conservative framework. Instead of a counterweight, the EU stands as its own power bloc concerned with its own strategic interests.

The true character of the EU may be experienced on its periphery, in the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain). Austerity has taken a devastating toll in Greece and elsewhere, yet the fundamental project remains intact. The Greek people remain supportive of the European Union and the eurozone. The lack of monetary independence prevented Syriza from taking the radical steps necessary to repudiate debt and reconstruct the economy. Without an alternative (except the dubious influence of Russia) the Greek government capitulated.

It used to be that the opposition to integration appeared as parochial, but now it is the centre of Europe which is the most provincial and short-sighted. The destruction of the Greek economy is meant to service debts to financial institutions in France and Germany. Not that the austerity measures will secure debt repayments. On the contrary, the austerity programme has increased Greek debt and undermined the country’s ability to make the repayments. Instead, it’s a political project, which views the destruction of the welfare state as collateral.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see Britain’s referendum as a worthy endeavour. It will give people on both sides of the isle the opportunity to express their standpoint. The problem is that David Cameron is thinking primarily about the Conservative Party and his legacy as its leader. The real issues will likely be ignored in the ‘debate’ ahead. Instead, we will be expected to decide where we stand on immigration and refugees. Not a word for Greece. Not a word about austerity. Under these conditions, the forces of reaction will likely predominate.

The good news is that the European ‘debate’ will likely become a major hurdle for Cameron. He has never really been put to the test. If the referendum backfires, or his plot to grab powers back from the EU falls short, the Conservative Party could go up in flames as it did in the 1990s. This disarray may be an opportunity for Labour and its new leadership. It could well embolden the SNP and its own ambitions. More importantly, the radical left has to decide on its strategy beyond the outcome of the vote.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit