Utopia and incapacity

There should be nothing surprising in the fact that the last supporters of the European project outside Brussels and the German political elite are to be found in post-communist countries. Europe during the cold war represented an ideal of normalcy to which nations trapped in the Soviet bloc longed to return, while today countries such as Latvia and Poland look to Europe for protection against the reviving power of Russia. Unfortunately the European normalcy to which post-communist countries have returned is one of chronic crisis.

No one can tell what the future will bring, but it is clear that the current order in Europe is unstable. There is no popular support for a European federal government. The nation-state has many flaws, but aside from a few relics of monarchy and empire – Spain and Belgium, Canada and the UK – it remains the upper limit of democratic legitimacy. At the same time, the economic problems of the Eurozone can only be resolved by pooling fiscal sovereignty at a transnational level. The upshot is deadlock, which in practice means German hegemony against a background in which large parts of southern Europe have been condemned to permanent depression.

The implications of continuing levels of unemployment on the scale that exists in Spain and Italy have not been fully appreciated. An entire generation is being shut out of the economy and marginalised in society. The political response to this situation has so far been muted. This is the first great depression to occur against the background of welfare state, which mitigates its damaging effects. But the impact is still large, since the long-term result can only be to empower extremism. Already there are signs of this happening, not only with the neo-Nazi party in Greece but also the French National Front and Beppe Grillo’s movement in Italy. While such movements are unlikely to mount a challenge to democracy like that in the 1930s, they do have some of the characteristics of fascism.

What is striking in the established political classes is their combination of utopianism and immobilism. That a federal Europe is a utopian project should be obvious. Long settled by different peoples, Europe cannot repeat the experience of the US (which in any case became a modern state only after a devastating civil war). European elites have long believed that crisis would forge deeper integration and thereby advance the European project. I remember Joschka Fischer confidently expressing this view at a meeting in the Nineties. In fact crisis has only produced stasis.

One of the side effects of a permanent European crisis is a mentality of introversion and an inability to deal with external challenges. The situation in Ukraine is an example. Once again we cannot foretell the future, but it is hard to envision Europe emerging the winner in the contest for power in the country. For Russia Ukraine is an existential issue, while for the EU it is merely an interruption in the process of expansion. It is not simply that Russia has control of energy supplies for the country. Putin’s realist tyranny has a systemic advantage over a European pseudo-state whose policies are at once hubristic and weak. A similar state of affairs exists at the global level. China is reshaping the world economy in ways to which Europe – obsessed with internal issues – has no response.

The irony of the current crisis is that it comes about because of a great triumph – the defeat of communism and the reunification of Europe. The more modest EU of the post-war period had many achievements to its credit. Linked together by free trade and intergovernmental cooperation on environmental and defence issues, a Europe of nation-states would have been far more stable than the enfeebled Leviathan that exists at present. Even the single currency might have been successful if it had been restricted to a smaller number of more similar economies. As it is, the EU is both unworkable and unreformable.

That does not mean it is bound to collapse anytime soon. The likelihood is that Europe will flounder for decades, economically stagnant except in Germany, breeding varieties of extremism, unable to respond to expanding Russian power and increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. At some point in the future, one can envision the continent reverting to something like its condition around the end of the nineteenth century, with Germany as the dominant power looking beyond Europe for new markets and resuming its historic attempt to forge a special relationship with Russia.

A reversion of this kind offers no prospect of security, but it is hard to see how it could be avoided. Writing in 1927, Paul Valery suggested that the secret dream of Europeans was to be ruled by an American commission. In effect that was the case from the end of the Second World War through the cold war and the post-cold war era. Europe has been the beneficiary, but America is now focussing its attention elsewhere. At this point continued European crisis looks like an historical fate.

Published 7 July 2014
Original in English
First published by Res Publica Nowa 25 (2014)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa © John Gray / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine

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