Europe’s Long Journey: How the EU Lacks Alternatives, Perspectives, and Solidarity

By Andrea MammoneAugust 19, 2014

Europe’s Long Journey: How the EU Lacks Alternatives, Perspectives, and Solidarity

ALTIERO SPINELLI, an Italian anti-fascist politician, co-authored the famous “Ventotene Manifesto” in 1941. Initially called “Toward a Free and United Europe,” this script became a milestone in the creation story of European integration. Spinelli posited that a victory over fascism would be useless with no concomitant reconsideration of international alliances and the same understanding of (the role of) nation-states. What had “to be resolved first,” he wrote, “is definitive abolition of division of Europe in national, sovereign States.” This did not mean, for him, that nations were irrelevant. They should have maintained their autonomy to develop their own political life. However, Spinelli promoted the establishment of such a European community, and then inspired the significant move toward what is known today as the European Union.

The journey toward European unification from then on was ambitious, and largely successful. It began, in many ways, with the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and a fight for the continent against fascism, inspiring a generation of world leaders to imagine the establishment of a peaceful international community. To achieve this, nationalism, and the resentment that often comes with, would have to be dismantled. These years of war were, in fact, fundamental in shaping the future of Europe. The future was to be molded, as Dan Stone very perceptively describes in Goodbye To All That? The Story of Europe Since 1945 (Oxford University Press), on an anti-fascist consensus: state-led economies, labor protections, free education, and welfare.

The Cold War made consummating that vision difficult. In the early years, steps had to be taken to reestablish trust among old enemies, and one of them was the establishment of a shared coal and steel production. France’s foreign minister, Robert Schuman, was among the few politicians pushing for the supranational integration of Europe’s lands. “The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations,” he stated on May 9, 1950, in a famous governmental proposal (the Schuman Declaration; few seem to know that the European Union celebrates this anniversary). “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” The rhetoric of trust, ambition and hope for a bright future was universally shared.

Today we see a very different story: The European Union is more unpopular than ever, and nationalistic doctrines are back. The appointment this year of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission has only made matters worse. He has been derided as a technocrat and a Brussels insider, someone unable to reform institutions that badly need it, and a keen promoter of a further federation of Europe. Public debate around what is, at times, named “Euro-federalism” (which is stronger integration, and the EU acting as a real federal state), especially, though not exclusively, in Britain, is dyspeptic at best, with an almost reflexive allergy toward the word itself. Few seem to understand what the term really means — a demonstration both of poor knowledge of EU policy matters, and the public’s disgust with the body overall.


A Lack of Vision

Since the May election for European parliament, Euroscepticism has crested with alleged semi-apolitical populism, protest votes, and far-right gains. One has only to walk the streets of many towns, from the north to the south of member states, to hear everyday people decrying the Euro, the EU institutions, and a perceived foreign interference in their respective societies. Anti-EU, often xenophobic movements have taken advantage of the toxic atmosphere, offering golden lands, jobs for their national fellows, and public funding for local infrastructure and other projects. France’s Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, stressed during her candidacy the need to defend France’s national interests, the veto on Turkey joining the EU, and the abnegation of the transatlantic treaty with the United States. While the more extreme positions of these should be, at least in theory, easy to dismiss, more nuanced questions continue to vex more moderate EU thinkers: Will Britain be better placed in a novel Commonwealth and outside the EU? Would Greece perform well with no Euro? How would French multinationals benefit from foreign economic protectionisms? Should Italy instead join a Mediterranean union?

Preserving local values, traditions, and national heritages is a common responsibility. Yet the preservation and advancement of a grounded EU is not tantamount to the dissolution of local interests, as the extreme right-leaning and anti-EU movements would have us believe. Some of their slogans — including the emphasis on Western civilization and the relevance of the fatherlands — are the detritus of generations past, especially of the discourses of the right since the interwar years. As Tony Judt remembered in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Vintage),

Visiting Vienna in October 1999 I found the Westbahnhof covered in posters for the Freedom party of Jörg Haider who, despite his open admiration for the ‘honourable men’ of the Nazi armies, who ‘did their duty’ on the eastern front, won 27 percent of the vote that year by mobilizing his fellow Austrians’ anxiety and incomprehension at the changes that had taken place in their world over the past decade. After nearly half a century of quiescence Vienna — like the rest of Europe — had re-entered history.

To use the fictional expression of another European, Milan Kundera — whose work and life transcend borders and languages — this almost looks like a “return” of history (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Faber and Faber). Yet, It’s well known that the rise of the recent far right in many European nations has been having an impact on ethnic relations, mainstream policies regarding immigration, and discussions on belonging, citizenship, and identity (including a wide European identity). It’s also easier to cover: b-roll of neo-fascist demonstrations brimming with hatred and rage is a lot easier to come by, and better for ratings, than of politicians fiddling away at their desks, suffering from a lack of vision.

That, of course, is really the sickness at work in the EU today. Traditional political movements and their leaders have been unable to offer solutions. The policies of the old guard that began with people like Spinelli seem to be largely forgotten. The center-right European People’s Party, the largest group in the EU parliament (221 seats), is struggling to counter what Ulrich Beck has truthfully labeled “German Europe”: a EU unilateral guidance founded on German financial stability, applicable to all — a situation that nobody, including Germany, would want. Juncker, their main candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, shares in some ways the same austerity-led plans so unpopular with member states. He aims to promote “growth with no debt,” which is an anodyne way of saying a huge reduction in public investment and any other spending that increases public deficits and works against the EU Stability and Growth Pact. The truth is that this influential (and moderate) European People’s Party doesn’t have much of a platform for the Union either.

A paradox is that some conservatives like David Cameron nationally embrace this economic ideology, even if they publically rejected Juncker for his European federalism. Cameron’s EU group, the European Conservatives and Reformists, has grown to 70 European MPs since absorbing an anti-Euro German party (opposing Angela Merkel) and some other Northern European anti-immigration and nationalist movements. They are naturally less pro-Europe than many other groups in the parliament. However, what do they really propose for the EU? Who would their ideal candidate be? And what about their actual policies? These questions remain unanswered.

Yet the EU is rudderless not solely because of a lack of conservative vision. The creative vacancy, as mentioned, plagues all sides.

With few alternatives for knitting a fractured union together, it’s difficult to imagine a more federal Europe actually working (especially if a limited number of nations led it unofficially with no real democratic backing). And, generally, a national dimension, nor a shared wealth (when possible), should not be fully abandoned. Stone, in Good-Bye To All That?, makes a fair point when he writes:

even if idealists of political federalism […] have believed that economic integration would ‘spill over’ into political union, in actual fact the [European Economic Community] and even the EU have tended to succeed best where they have permitted the national interests of Europe’s nation-states to flourish in concert with one another.


A Way Toward Neoliberalism

Labor, moderate socialists, and social democrats are in a paradoxical situation. In theory, due to their traditional left-wing ideological references, they should have benefited from the troubles, outcomes, and disregard of a financial markets-led world. Some of them became more centrist instead (if not right-leaning), embracing liberalism and the virtues of the market. As the economy was flourishing this seemed the better option. The response to the financial crisis has been neoliberal in nature, with an emphasis on bailing out the markets and banks, and the costs paid by everyday citizens. As Stone argues, it is exactly this acceptance of neoliberalism, with its denationalizations, reductions of welfare, and free-market ideologies, that has most significantly undermined the postwar (anti-fascist) consensus which built Europe. The march to neoliberalism began with the 1970s oil crisis and accelerated thanks to globalization, the appeal of the New Right, and the decline of the left.

Meanwhile, the center-left has suffered from an erosion of leadership. During his candidacy for Commission president, Martin Schulz, head of the Party of European Socialists, failed to present a real alternative to Merkel’s policies, and they did not win the EU elections. In an electoral congress in spring 2014 in Rome, he declared that Europe should again be “the prime location for business, because the smart new products are developed in European labs, manufactured in European factories by European workers.” In an 11-page talk, Schulz discussed the relevance of labor relations, the need for more jobs, the role of renewable energies, as well as provisions for industries and small and medium enterprises. But little progress has been made.

Other leaders presently lack any strong appeal. French president François Hollande continues to lose elections. Ed Miliband, the Labour politician, must win the national vote in 2015 to stay relevant. The UK Labour Party shares some of Schulz’s more reasonable economic and social policies, though, once more for a British party, they did not back his campaign for federalist and pro-EU ideals (one should wonder if it is surprising that EU candidates are in favor of Europe). Paradoxically, the main option for a pro-European leader comes from the “weak” Southern Europe: Italian Matteo Renzi, former mayor of Florence. He is the rising star of the Democratic Party, and also Europe’s youngest prime minister, with Italy leading the presidency of the Council of the European Union (up to December 2014). He would like a better and stronger Italy and Europe, while generically slowing down some of the austerity, even if it is not evident how this will be successful and accepted by the strongest nations. The fact that he won the EU elections in Italy is, moreover, linked with national factors than any international and ideological reasons.

The center-left’s recent embrace of pro-market positions has done little to attract increasingly disaffected voters, and has only further distanced itself from traditional progressive positions. In a document adopted by their leaders in Athens in 2011, titled “Europe is in the wrong hands: Our alternative to a Conservative Europe: a strategy for jobs, fair growth and social progress,” they instead argue for the “progressive alternative to ‘austerity only.’” The paper defends welfare, criticizes the “irresponsible conservative government policies in some member states in the recent past,” and adds how “under the pretext of ‘increased competitiveness,’ conservative governments want to impose a ‘Pact’ on all member states, which is more a diktat of an ultra-liberal and austerity-only agenda that would make it impossible for them to overcome the crisis.”

By 2014, a political rhetoric more in line with the existing economic policies took hold, with little mention of a number of other themes. Nearly all Socialists, in fact, backed the moderate right-leaning Juncker for the commission, with Schulz himself endorsing the appointment, calling it “a historic day in the continuing process of developing a true European democracy.”


Moving to Transnational Social Europe

A true European Union — an equivalent to the united geographies Spinelli and his fellows once imagined — lies beyond the mere merging of currencies and fiscal policy. Rather, it is the variety, motion, and strength of European of cultures that has long made Europe strong; therein lies the secret to sustaining a union. Culture, knowledge, and education generate a real Europeaness.

Those leading the EU today seem to have all but forgotten this. In his discourse in front of the European parliament before MPs voted for the commission leader on July 14, Juncker rightly stated (mirroring some of Schulz’s electoral program) that the EU needed a “social impact assessment” of proposed economic reforms, and to strengthen industries, support small and medium enterprises, and become a world leader in renewable energies. In his 12-page statement, named “A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change,” there is, however, nothing on culture, education, and arts, with the exception of a generic line on “additional investment should be on […] education, research and innovation.”

A European identity cannot be achieved through monetary union alone. Europeans are made by shared histories, interrelated literatures, and migrations. These transnational features of the EU surely helped to establish a sense of European belonging. Building a more social Europe, and understanding what Europeans need, is fundamental. Expanding, for example, the funding of mobility, welfare, youth, employment, and education should be significant aims This is a way to balance the unpopularity, the public disinterest, and also the demagogy of the anti-EU nationalist forces.

Little will come of EU elections, celebrations, and appointments if EU leaders fail to do this. They would be well served to study the modern, intriguing, and transnational history of Europe, and return to the principles out of which the dream of a united Europe was first born.


Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

LARB Contributor

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy will be published in January 2015 by Cambridge University Press. He is writing a short book on recent Europe. He has written for Al Jazeera, The Independent, The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, and New Statesman.


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