Is ‘Europe’ a Dead Political Project?

Etienne Balibar believes so. In a new article for the Guardian, he addresses the recent financial slump spreading from the Greek economy and what it could mean for the political project of the European Union. With European policymakers more attuned to the neoliberal policies of the IMF than their own people, the European left moribund, and a renewed threat of right-wing populism on the rise, Balibar argues that it is now time to begin thinking past a unified political framework that creates greater economic inequalities.

But the breaking of the EU would inevitably abandon its peoples to the hazards of globalisation to an even greater degree. Conversely, a new foundation of Europe does not guarantee any success, but at least it gives her a chance of gaining some geopolitical leverage. With one condition, however: that all the challenges involved in the idea of an original form of post-national federation are seriously and courageously met. These involve setting up a common public authority, which is neither a state nor a simple “governance” of politicians and experts; securing genuine equality among the nations, thus fighting against reactionary nationalisms; and above all reviving democracy in the European space, thus resisting the current processes of “de-democratisation” or “statism without a State”, produced by neoliberalism.

Something obvious should have been long acknowledged: there will be no progress towards federalism in Europe (the one that is now advocated by some, and rightly so) if democracy itself does not progress beyond the existing forms, allowing an increased influence for the people(s) in the supranational institutions. Does this mean that, in order to reverse the course of recent history, to shake the lethargy of a decaying political construction, we need something like a European populism, a simultaneous movement or a peaceful insurrection of popular masses who will be voicing their anger as victims of the crisis against its authors and beneficiaries, and calling for a control “from below” over the secret bargainings and deals made by markets, banks, and states? Yes indeed. I agree that it can lead to other catastrophes. But the risk is greater if nationalism prevails in whichever form.

I agree with Balibar about the discrepancy between politics and economics in the European Union today. Political unification has been far more successful in the project than the economic aspect, and the imposition of a single currency on drastically different national economies is now creating financial problems that many had overlooked as a possibility. I also sympathize with his call for a new view on what a post-national federation would look like, including creating a much greater democratic space than currently exists among the nations.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that the populist insurrection he foresees can avoid taking on specifically national characters, as opposed to a unified European one.  While the EU has created a highly integrated form of bureaucratic political unification, most would agree that it also has not been successful in generating a new pan-European form of allegiance among people. In other words, nationalist sympathies still abound and, as we think back to Polanyi’s description of the global economy’s cycle of boom and bust, financial crisis tends to lead to conservative protectionism and nationalist populism. We have already seen recent signs of that in Hungary with the electoral successes of the Fidesz and Jobbik parties, the lack of any substantial leftist opposition to Sarkozy in France and Berlusconi in Italy, the continued dominance of the socially-conservative Christian Democrats in Germany, and the heightened fear of Muslim immigration in numerous countries, with the most prominent example being the Swiss ban on the construction of mosques.

All these signs indicate that nationalism has already prevailed in the last few years. The task for all progressives and leftists in Europe today should be to think of a new political and economic alternative that can both halt the conservative drift back to statism and at the same time stand in principled opposition to neoliberal economic integration and the federalism of the EU that has become its political form.

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