A tale of two Europes

Niccolo Milanese looks at the multiple crises in the European Union with an unimaginative elite against the twin threats of progressive and reactionary civic movements

The past decade in Europe is at one level that of a decadent, unimaginative and sometimes mendacious elite unable to fully understand, let alone properly address, multiplying crises. This is the history from above of the European Union. But there is also another story which has largely been outside of the interest of the media: a story of political invention amongst the citizens, sometimes for progressive and sometimes for reactionary purposes. This is the history ‘from below’ of Europe. The way these two histories come together and interact is going to be decisive for the future form of the European Union.

Examples of the unimaginative elite are easy to find. The financial crisis hitting Europe in late 2007, which rapidly turned into a crisis of the euro, was above all a crisis of the banks which could have been decisively addressed early on and could have been used to complete the fiscal union necessary for the sustainability of the eurozone. Instead, the structural weaknesses of the eurozone and the lack of proper balanced governance of the single market persist, and the crisis has instead been used to reinforce a neoliberal economic model based on austerity and precarity which works to the benefit of a few elites principally in core European countries.

There is nothing sustainable in this solution and the next crisis around the corner will either be used to reinforce this model even more drastically, by totally removing those elements of social cohesion policy and structural investment which still persist, or it will be used to change direction.

Likewise, the increased migration flows in 2015 were not only predictable but predicted and the European Union not only failed to make adequate preparations for these but failed to use the policy mechanisms already at their disposal, instead allowing itself to get into a ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ situation where each member state blames the other. Few take responsibility and the fortress around the European Union is reinforced. Again, this situation is not sustainable. People will continue to come to Europe, and either efforts to stop them will become so restrictive that the rights of Europeans to move will become caught up in the fortress, or a real coordinated European asylum and migration policy will be developed.

The central forces of European politics have shown their lack of imagination with a simplistic understanding of the situation. They hope that with growth returning to the European economy as a whole, the pressures on the weak institutions of the eurozone will be reduced, and the underlying racism that prevents a generous coordinated migration policy for Europe will be softened.

It is delusional to suppose that growth alone will address any of the underlying problems. The European Union plans of French President Macron – by far the most ambitious of the current leaders – still amount only to minor changes in European economic governance, with proposals for a European finance minister, more resources for the Union and greater efficiency in the existing policies of granting and refusing asylum in Europe.

Even these totally inadequate changes have been rebuffed firmly by other European leaders, leading many commentators to despair at the lack of positive dynamics for the reform of the EU (the longtime European optimist Jurgen Habermas recently wrote he is ‘failing to see any encouraging trends right now’).

Now let us turn to the history ‘from below’ of the European Union, which is perhaps the real novelty in the past decade: the first time that a European citizenry has really expressed itself as such. The last decade has not only seen crisis, but also citizens mobilising to address them. We have had solidarity actions with and inside Greece and refugee-welcome initiatives, ‘blocupy’ mobilisations against the policies of the European central bank, the launching of NGO boats to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean (most recently the boat Mediterranea in Italy, the first such boat to sail with an Italian flag and therefore in principle the right to dock), Amazon and Deliveroo strikes in the gig-economy, mobilisations to protect or advance women’s rights to abortion in Poland and Ireland, or the rights of LGBT couples in Romania, protests for freedom of the press and against corruption in Romania, Slovakia, Malta and elsewhere. Such civic initiatives have found electoral expression and success, notably at city level. Cities like Barcelona under the administration of Ada Colau have become inspiring paradigms for others.          

What is more, over the last decade, civic learning amongst movements has been taking place. Where the concerns of Ada Colau’s Barcelona-en-comu were initially local – starting with stopping housing evictions – rapidly it became apparent that change in the economic, environmental and social conditions of the city rely on action beyond its limits, and with little support from the national government, only coordinated international action would open up such possibilities. Thus the city of Barcelona took leadership in an international network of ‘fearless cities’.

A similar form of learning could be found in workers organisation in the precarious economy. In 2013, Amazon workers in distribution warehouses in Germany attempted to strike and found that Amazon simply redeployed work to the nearest warehouse over the Polish border in Poznan. The following year, representatives of the German trade union Verdi joined up with a new trade union in Poland, Inicjatywa Pracowicza, to organise coordinated strikes. Now the Amazon strikes on Black Friday and Amazon Prime days take place in most European countries in a coordinated way.

All these initiatives on the progressive side of civil society have been matched and sometimes surpassed by initiative on the reactionary side. Whilst civic initiatives to stop housing evictions created a positive example in Barcelona, a similar process in Budapest where the incumbent Social Democratic party could be blamed for the failure led to the coming to power of Victor Orban.

Far-right organisations have been able to convene protests and rallies of numbers unseen since the Second World War, notably in Warsaw each November. They have also built a social base by providing services from security to social welfare where the state has failed. For every ‘refugees welcome’ initiative, there is a corresponding reactionary initiative to patrol the borders. Reactionary religious organisations have been able to intensify campaigns against women’s and minority rights, and freedom of expression is under attack. In many instances, reactionary civil society has been able to coordinate internationally better than the progressive side. The success of Victor Orban in advocating a nationalist, conservative and Christian European Union, in coordination with other nationalist movements which ultimately have divergent objectives but see short term benefit in collaboration, shows that the political translation of this civic energy has been largely to the benefit of the right.

This overall European picture of political deadlock ‘from above’ and civic energy ‘from below’, both increasingly hijacked by the far-right, should have many resonances for people in the United Kingdom. The ‘remain’ cause in the Brexit referendum was led in an unimaginative, uninspiring way, which assumed that an overall message of economic prosperity – irrespective of the way that prosperity is distributed or deeper questions about the quality of life – would be sufficient to defend the status-quo. Meanwhile, enough of the civic energy for change was captured by a far-right cabal which has pulled British politics towards its most hostile, ungenerous and dysfunctional state for decades.

How the Brexit process evolves will be crucially important for the future direction of Europe. The European Union elites are attempting to use the process to generate legitimacy for themselves negatively: by showing how bad it is to leave the European Union, they aim to build legitimacy amongst their own populations. This shows the staggering lack of positive ideas for the future of the Union amongst the elites. On the other side, the far-right nationalists build their betrayal narrative not only in the UK but across Europe – ‘look at the mendacious European Union which once again frustrates national sovereignty’ – and hope for an even more dysfunctional European political economy they can exploit further.

Against both of these tendencies, citizens of the UK have a common interest with progressive Europeans across the continent to continue to invent a positive future through civic initiatives of solidarity and joint struggle, and to aim to give this positive civic energy representation in political institutions at every scale. The fronts we have to fight on are multiplying, but let us make that multiplicity our strength and our agility to negotiate different contexts our virtue. This is one of the deep meanings of the European idea over centuries, once the bureaucratic and administrative shells are stripped away: it is an expression of our capacity to create a new world together and to face-down the risks implicit in any such project.

Niccolo Milanese

Niccolo Milanese is a member of European Alternatives.