The urgency of the ‘Great Debate’ about the European Union

Herrera, a Marxist economist, a researcher at the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique (CNRS), who works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris, who often contributes guest articles to Workers World, wrote this article for Unsere Zeit, the newspaper of the German Communist Party. WW staff translated it.

Jan. 23 — A recent, significant opinion poll revealed how French people currently feel about the European Union. When asked, “Which geographical unit do you feel you primarily belong to?” 39 percent of respondents answered France; 23 percent named their city or locality; 18 percent named their region, province or department; and 11 percent responded the world. Only 6 percent, the smallest percentage, replied that they identified primarily with Europe! This shows how far the image of the European ideal has sunk in continental France today!

A majority of French people still remember that on May 29, 2005, nearly 55 percent of the electorate voted “no” in the referendum on the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.  This was despite the flood of pro-Europe media propaganda and the mobilization of many leading intellectuals to support a “yes.”

In many parts of the country, the negative vote was over 60 percent: in the north as well as the south, as well as in the underpopulated rural regions situated along a line from the Meuse to the Landes departments (the “diagonal of the void”). In fact, only the departments of Bas-Rhin (bordering the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate), Yvelines, Hauts-de-Seine and Paris — among the richest in France — as well as the Caribbean Antilles and French Guiana in South America clearly voted “yes!”

Yet in a disgraceful and particularly outrageous denial of democracy, the ruling elites — then President Nicolas Sarkozy, supported by the high European authorities — signed the Lisbon Treaty in 2007.  It incorporated all the components of the previously rejected constitutional text and then had the French Constitution’s revision ratified in 2008.

This act of betrayal of the French people’s will was symbolically carried out on Feb. 4, 2008, at the Palace of Versailles.  This is the same place where President Emmanuel Macron held a reception in mid-January for the big bosses of the most powerful transnational corporations to convince them to invest in France and  establish their companies there. If proof was still necessary, this provided that the consolidation of the European Union has been carried out in ways that are anything but democratic.

On the French side, it is true that the “founding fathers of Europe” were not great “progressives.” Jean Monnet, anti-parliamentary to his core, was the key figure in the Anglo-American political-financial networks. Robert Schuman, an ultra-conservative and anti-secular politician, served the steel magnates and was a fervent admirer of the  corporate Christian fascists of the 1930s — the Austrian Engelbert Dollfuss and the Hungarian Miklós Horthy. Then there was Maurice Lagrange: Barely 10 years before he drafted the treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, he was one of the leading figures and zealous executors of the anti-Jewish laws of the “National Revolution” under the Nazi-collaborator Vichy regime.

The extreme harshness of the anti-social policies carried out by the EU is too well-known to require extensive discussion here. People have been subjected to violence for four decades, with deregulation and decline of the government’s participation in the economy, wage austerity, reduction of budgetary expenditures, dismantling of social protections, “flexibility” in the labor market, job precariousness and unemployment, facilitating capital transfers and more.

The people denied a voice

But then, as if the implementation of such neoliberal programs in the name of European integration were not enough, all the steps were conceived of and carried out by high officials with no participation by the people in the many decisions that directly affect them. No priority has been given to ensuring popular well-being or providing any means for the people to make their voices heard and enable them to protest against unacceptable policies.

How can this way of functioning be described? The terminology usually adopted by the Brussels bureaucracy when speaking of governments that won’t listen to popular demands and don’t respect the verdict of the ballot box is to call them “authoritarian” (if their regime is on the right) or “dictatorial” (if they judge it to be on the left). Following this pattern, it can be said that the EU mode of governance has been “authoritarian” since its origins.

The European gift package was presented to the public in a beautiful blue wrapping decorated with gold stars and tied up in benevolent and pacifist slogans. Its primary objective was nonetheless clear: to offer transnational corporations from partner countries exorbitant power on European soil, with the added bonus of a legal framework designed to make private property sacred and to make any transition to socialism illegal.

With the aim of imposing on all Europeans the leaden blanket of a capitalist market dominated by oligopolies exempt from accountability to the people (or their parliaments), the heads of states and governments in the EU adopted the “Unique Law” in 1986. This came a year after they all sang the delicious lines of von Schiller to the sound of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: “Deine Zauber binden wieder/ Was die Mode streng geteilt; Alle Menschen werden Brüder / Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.” (“Thy strong magic binds together / What our customs slice in twain; All we humans act like brothers / where thy gentle wings remain.”)

The trap closed completely on the people when they were led to believe the great fiction that a single currency could be created without a state power — or even that a political Europe really existed. Herein lies a basic mistake: that this Europe could bring together different economies, using force, without strengthening regional political institutions or promoting social harmonization, however desirable that might be.

This “bad Europe,” inherently anti-democratic and anti-social, turned against its own peoples, and forced the peoples and the Eurozone’s member countries and the entire hierarchy of national laws and rights to submit to its merciless order. It is therefore quite logical that increasingly this order has been openly and massively rejected.

Some people on both sides of the Rhine River, especially on its western banks, dreamed for a while that President Macron would be the long-awaited leader who would finally succeed in reinvigorating a now dusty and contested European project. Who could be better than a former investment banker to breathe new life into ruling-class confidence and carry out their wishes?

But the Yellow Vests protest!

But this was not to be! The French president’s pretty “federal rocket” took off from the Sorbonne in September 2017, but had to return to the mainland a year later to face booing by the Yellow Vests. The “little Napoleon” of the “French startup nation” wanted to conquer “an Empire,” as his Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire said in an interview with the German daily Handelsblatt.  Le Maire stated, “Europe must be an empire.” Bravo, Herr Minister, what a great idea! Macron is not even respected by his beggars.

Fortunately for Macron, the police are still with him, although who knows for how long.  The police are silencing protesters with batons, tear gas, high-pressure water jets and flash balls! The repression has resulted in more than 2,000 wounded, including over 100 people maimed and disfigured (18 lost an eye, 4 a hand). Some 6,475 have been arrested and 5,339 detained in police custody. There were more than 1,000 convictions from Nov. 17 to Jan. 7. This is the France of Kinglet Macron! The people’s legitimate anger will not be calmed.  It is rooted in their radical, definitive refusal to accept injustice.

To say that Macron disappointed the German elites is an understatement. Perhaps only Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peter Altmaier, her minister of economic affairs, showed magnanimity. They need Macron if they hope to save what can still be salvaged from the European project.

Others showed less pity and attacked someone who took himself for a monarch. Jans Weismann, Bundesbank president, criticized the French president for his budgetary slippages and the concessions he allegedly granted to the Yellow Vests.  But were these concessions real? A close examination shows that he gave almost nothing to the protesters.

The German media have spoken on this. A Der Spiegel editorial stated that the supposedly overly generous French social state should come to its senses and reduce the minimum wage, pensions and unemployment benefits.  Bild’s columns stress that it is not possible to “work less and earn more.” And Die Welt’s columns say that France has become a “risk factor.” Will islands have to be sold to get out of debt?

It is in this unique context that the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen has just been signed.  This was done to make us believe that European integration — traumatized by the shock of Brexit and abused by worrisome centrifugal forces in Italy, Poland and Hungary — was continuing to move forward. The grandeur of Macron’s vision contemplates the possible salvation of the European idea through the more complete submission of France to Germany.

New Deutschmark: the euro

Disgusting! To tell the truth that all capitalists know will not be offensive to either Germany or the Germans: that the neoliberal EU is, above all, a space for the exercise of German oligopolies’ hegemony, which, in order to assert the interests of the national ruling classes, defends this new Deutschmark: the euro.

It is for this reason — and because of congenital Atlanticism [special relations with the United States — WW] — that Britain has always chosen to remain outside the eurozone and has recently reactivated, despite intense internal tensions, the jurisdiction of its national sovereignty. It is for the same reason that all the peoples of Europe, including Germans, are condemned to neoliberal purgatory.

On Jan. 21, 1793, the French masses beheaded a king and queen at the Place de la Révolution in Paris. After the Yellow Vests mobilized for more than 10 weeks, President Macron declared in front of 150 blissful global capitalists: “If they [Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette] came to such an end, it is because they renounced reform. France is on the path to reform.”  

By “reforms,” President Macron means “destruction”: of state and public ownership, unemployment insurance, pensions and the heart of France. This began when he was minister of economy, industry and digital affairs for President François Hollande.  He then authorized the sale of entire sectors of domestic industry — from Alstom’s energy division to Alcatel, Technip or STX — to foreign transnational corporations, favoring U.S.-based companies.

The true master: Washington

The Germans understand well that President Macron is not the “reformer” he claims to be, and that he will probably not end the street unrest, nor will he overcome French cultural inflexibilities. Because he will fail to “normalize” this turbulent country and get the people in line, they use him as an errand boy to carry their bags at the U.N. The smooth organizer of gala dinners for CEOs will lobby on behalf of Berlin in Security Council corridors!

While a Parisian lackey, who thinks he is an Elysian god, dreams of grandeur which he cannot afford, his purse strings remain tied by Frankfurt.  And the NATO military garrisons have their headquarters in the cold and rainy village in Hainuyer, in Belgium’s Walloon area — in Mons to be precise, located 60 km southwest of Brussels and NATO headquarters.

The Bundestag has courteously added a preamble to the Treaty of Aachen reminding whoever might have forgotten just who the true master is: Washington! What modesty prevented this Assembly from mentioning to the Europeans the exact number of U.S. military bases still present on German territory today? Donald Trump laughs about the idea of a “real European army.”

Those on the left of the political spectrum in France, most leaders of activist and trade union organizations, believe there is a way to build “another Europe” — the “good Europe.” However, one day the progressives will all have to recognize that such a hope is futile under the current framework of the Treaty on the EU.  It legally prohibits any modification of its rules, however minimal, until it has been unanimously accepted beforehand and then ratified in all 28 member states.

In other words, European neoliberal diktats cannot be relaxed. They are not meant for the people to discuss — let alone challenge — but to be executed. Their measures of generalized austerity and systematic disruption of public services, now applied in an attempt to save capitalism in crisis and revitalize growth, are not only destructive — but absurd. They are the surest way to intensify this crisis and propel the system toward the abyss. This is done by promoting the rise of extreme right-wing demagogues, racists and accomplices of the established order because they are pro-capitalist.

The eurozone, such as it is and how it functions, is a prison for those it relates to.  The jailers respond to those who reveal this sad reality by saying that it is a thousand times better to be fed and housed inside a warm dungeon than to die of hunger and cold outside. The truth is that this argument does impact the left.  

Actually, many leaders of the French left who head progressive parties and workers’ unions succumbed to manipulation, abandoning their class positions in the arena of ideological struggle. What is needed is not a “Great Debate” hypocritically led by a failing Macron regime, but rather overcoming fears of breaking the silence about the euro and the EU. Unfortunately, this is still lacking in the Yellow Vests’ demands, even if there are some signs here and there denouncing the betrayal of the 2005 referendum and calling for Frexit [France leaving the EU — WW].

This is not about asserting authority over poorly assured “truths.” The fact is that no one knows exactly what the consequences would be if France abandoned the euro and/or the EU. But it is certain that it is better to live free than in chains.

Real pyramid of power

What the French know is that their control over their currency and budget has been confiscated by Brussels technocrats who stand at attention while strictly applying the orders issued by German decision makers. For 74 years, despite some timid attempts at autonomy formulated by a departing chancellor, these decision makers have obeyed U.S. leaders under the control of financial oligarchs who are at war with the workers of the global North and the peoples of the global South. Crudely put, this is the real pyramid of power.

Today, the deterioration of living conditions imposed on the world of work, repression of struggles against countless social injustices, and criminalization of trade union actions and environmental activism have pushed society backwards to such a degree that discussing the real problems can no longer be avoided. The EU and the euro are among them. The time has come for the left to assert itself and say whether or not France should remain.

Despite how it looks, the hardest thing will not be to fully examine the potential risks of loss of purchasing power and inflation; fiscal and external deficits; financing of deficits; capital flight; and tax and debt burdens. This is because even before the left has clarity on these issues, the day will come when Germany, tired of being surrounded by such a lack of discipline and so much mediocrity, will unilaterally decide on a Grexit — or a Gexit! Whether to exclude Greece or any of the “pigs” (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece) as neoliberal Europeanist orthodoxy describes them — or slam the door, tolerating only faithful and strong vassals, such as Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.

The most difficult issue to ponder is whether the peoples of Europe are condemned for eternity to kneel before NATO imperialism and accept the savagery of the capitalist system. And whether to tolerate for a longer period of time the sledgehammer blows of the “there is no alternative” dictate that the European leaders, disciples of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, have been hitting the masses’ heads with for four decades.

It would be delusional to believe in the possibility of a new “Keynesian compromise.” The previous one, sealed after World War II, was not conceded by the capitalists, but it was won by popular, multiple and convergent struggles. Today, with high finance hanging over every political authority in Europe — included those elected by the people — there is no willingness to make any concessions. Keynesianism, which would be welcome, has neither a basis in reality or a future. Now, the major financial powers govern the destinies of the people, dictating their laws to states, dominating decisions on setting interest rates, creating money or even — when necessary — nationalization.

Alternatives for the people

Right-wing political figures, like François Asselineau or Florian Philippot, are certainly not wrong to want to focus the “Great Debate” on the question of the euro.  The fundamental reason is that the European project cannot be reformed from within by the logic that drives it, and it must be deconstructed. However, they are wrong to imagine that the way out of the crisis is through capitalism — or by adopting an anti-immigrant position. This is where the difficulty lies in building alternatives for the people.

Since Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, a specter has been haunting the European left: failure. It will soon be 30 years since the leaders of Europe’s progressive organizations were buried under the rubble, stopped saying the word “socialism” and avoided thinking of a collective postcapitalist future through a socialist transition. But is there another way to meet popular expectations?

Would the people want to relive the bureaucracy, the gulag, the terror? Is that what it means to be a communist? It is crucial to be serious and faithful to the ideals and struggles of the many heroic women and men who sacrificed their lives for a better world, social emancipation and national liberation.

If many left leaders are still struggling to find the courage to affirm the urgent need to rebuild substantial, coherent and credible programs that take the offensive in developing democratic and humanist socialist alternatives, they should be helped to rethink, without taboos or complexes, new, elementary social perspectives placed at the service of the people.

These would include the nationalization of the banking system and strategic sectors of the economy; redefinition of the political role of central banks; restoration of controls on the exchange of financial investments; partial cancellation of public debts; extensive redistribution of wealth; reconstruction of quality public services; and expansion of popular participation. Or even, envisioning the building of another organization of Europe as a region that is progressive and respectful of the nations of the global South.

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