Europe by, and for, Itself

Europe by, and for, Itself

A look at the real Europe–and at the real issues it has with US policy.


George W. Bush will attend a NATO summit in Brussels on February 22, dine with French President Jacques Chirac, confer with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Mainz, Germany, and on the final day of his tour meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava. The White House insists that its quarrels with Europe over Iraq can be buried, more or less decently.

Many US commentators agree, but many Europeans do not. To be sure, even as determined an adversary of the war as Schröder thinks it more polite to speak of common goals. He has said, however, that he is ready to argue over means. It was at Worms, near Mainz, that Luther defied the Catholic Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire with the phrase, “Here I stand.” Schröder is Protestant enough to remind the US President that world politics is not a matter of atmosphere or gesture but of substance. Indeed, Bush will already have heard from Chirac and others in Brussels that most of Europe can neither be commanded nor cajoled into obedience. Even the usually acquiescent British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has found his own voice on a matter repugnant to Bush–international measures to combat global warming. Europe’s differences with the United States are magnified by Bush’s unilateralism, but fundamentally they are consequences of Europe’s sense of its present place in history. About that, Bush’s official and unofficial advisers have taught him practically nothing. What does he need to learn?

We can begin by looking beneath the surface of Europe’s troubles, even torments, with its great experiment, the European Union. Originally intended to defend Western Europe’s autonomy against the two superpowers, the EU has been altered immensely by the opening and incorporation of Central and Eastern Europe. The original six members have been expanded to twenty-five, and the union is about to begin negotiations with Turkey. The Europeans are unable to agree on what the expanded EU should become–a federal state, a larger economic union, an alliance to defend culture and territory, an engaged force in the world or a defensive moat against it. They have written a new constitution, in which major decisions will be taken by vote of separate national governments, leaving the directly elected European Parliament where it is now, exceedingly vocal but relatively powerless.

Europe’s political elites argue that only by uniting can Europe deal with the United States and the rest of the world. However, they continue to defend national interests in the EU’s budgetary and legislative bargaining. When Europeans vote for their representatives in the European Parliament, they frequently express domestic grievances, and participation in European elections is far lower than in national ones. European publics agree with the elites: They want an effective EU, but they think (rightly) that European institutions are remote and that the proposed changes will not improve matters.

Nowhere is this clearer than in economic policy. Doctrines of the virtues of “competitiveness” and of the superior efficiency of the private sector have been adopted by the European Commission, the permanent bureaucracy that regulates the European economy. The commission has embarked on a path of accelerated deregulation, rejecting socially directed investment and seeking to replace much of the European social model. That model insists there are public goods–culture, education, environment, health–that cannot be measured by criteria of profitability. Economic dogmatism also marks the policies of the European Central Bank, which claims that achieving full employment is not its task. Indeed, the introduction of the euro was part of a bargain in which EU nations renounced making full employment a top priority.

The EU is a free-trade zone, with some worker protections and social legislation, but it is especially deficient regarding long-term investment strategy. It does have a project for increased public expenditure for education, infrastructure and technology. Its premise, however, is that a modernized private sector will do the rest. Meanwhile, the private sector is disinvesting in the parts of Europe with the highest wages and moving to zones within and outside Europe with cheap labor. The new president of the European Commission, former Portuguese Prime Minister José Barroso, has just proposed even more deregulation.

In the past half-century, social Christian and socialist movements alike, joined by the trade unions and civic associations, made belief in the necessity and morality of public control of the market a central theme of European politics. Society prospered, culturally and materially. Now, a newly combative European capitalism has counterattacked. And the political parties are no longer spiritual families, like the churches. They have become machines geared to produce electoral victories, leaving the rest of society to itself. The churches increasingly resemble sects, struggling against marginalization. The ensuing vacuum has been filled with the ideologies and sensibilities of the market. The mass media have dropped much of their former seriousness and are almost as trivialized as their American counterparts.

Of course, there is resistance, but it is indifferently led. The survivors of the 1960s, now approaching retirement, include British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his German colleague Joschka Fischer, Chancellor Schröder, former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema and former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. They do not excite their voters or frighten their adversaries. Especially when in government, the older socialist parties in Germany, Spain, Sweden and Britain are devoid of vision. Perhaps new ideas will come from movements, like ATTAC in France, that seek alternative modes of globalization and call for experiments with new forms of local self-determination. They are represented in the Green parties but have been slow to penetrate the socialist ones.

Let us survey Europe’s political map. In Italy, Romano Prodi, a social Catholic who was once prime minister and then president of the European Commission, hopes to lead a center- left coalition against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the 2006 election. The coalition’s parties failed, however, to agree on a unified slate for the forthcoming regional elections. Berlusconi hangs on, despite judicial condemnation of himself and his closest associates. His government is an alliance of “entrepreneurial” exploiters, parasitic looters of the state, resentful provincials and xenophobes. The programs on his own TV stations and the public ones he controls make Murdoch and Fox seem enlightened. The old Communist Party, the critical Catholics and the secular middle class were led for decades by an educated intelligentsia deeply implanted in civil society. That society resisted the crude ideology of the cold war and endemic governmental corruption. Its contemporary heirs still resist (recall the vast demonstrations against the Iraq War), but the leaders have been unwilling to place their organizations entirely at the service of the citizens who want Berlusconi defeated. By contrast, he holds a heterogeneous coalition together by appealing to the lowest common denominators of Italian life: civic withdrawal, status anxiety and vulgar prejudice.

In Britain, despite much opposition in the electorate to Blair’s alliance with Bush, and to Blair’s creeping authoritarianism, the Labour Party is likely to win the general election later this year. The Tories alarm those who fear their intended demolition of the welfare state, and do not inspire those who seek it. The Liberal Democrats are unconvincing in their vow to make Britain independent of the United States, and vague about everything else. Millions will stifle their doubts and vote for Labour. Once re-elected, Blair might at some point be dropped by his own party. Meanwhile, Blair’s permanent heir-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, has poured money into public services. While many governments on the Continent have professed social-democratic ideals of solidarity while practicing market capitalism (the last French Socialist government was one), Britain’s Labour professes adherence to market capitalism while practicing a decent minimum of social democracy. Perhaps that accounts for the perpetually pained expression on Blair’s face: He lacks the courage of his absence of socialist conviction.

The other great party of European social democracy, the German Social Democrats, might return to office in 2006. Like Britain’s Labour, they face weak opposition. Like Labour, too, they have lost a substantial number of members and are now bereft even of slogans. Faced with an especially intense counteroffensive by German capital, they have adopted the term “reform” to describe reductions in the scope of the welfare state. No one has been fooled, but the party’s fortunes in the polls did improve when Chancellor Schröder admitted what he was doing instead of claiming an advance toward utopia. The Greens, his coalition partner, profit from their consistency on issues like civil rights, the environment and international development responsibility. They have no long tradition to abandon, and have livelier and younger leaders, even if Foreign Minister Fischer has all too obviously remade himself into a statesman. Some social activists and trade unionists have abandoned the party to contest the state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia in May with their own ticket. If successful, they could join the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (present only in eastern Germany) in a new formation of the left. It is entirely unclear whether they will have any success, and some of the protest potential may be exploited by far rightists and neo-Nazis. The Social Democrats retain an involuntary monopoly on honesty: Unlike their critics, they admit that they do not know how to master the new capitalism, so they alternate between attempts to improve its performance (for example, by resorting to deficit financing to stimulate demand) and attempts to curb the limitless rapacity of Germany’s managers.

One European ideology is alive and well, in France and beyond: Gaullism. However, the contrast between Charles de Gaulle and his pygmy successors is large. Gaullism was once bound to a specific historical moment, when Europe needed a distinctive voice as the two superpowers sought to divide the world between themselves. Jacques Chirac, after four decades in and out of office, is cheered throughout Europe as the leader of the opposition to US power; but his party was decisively defeated in recent regional elections, his government is weak and his putative challenger and successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, evinces a political morality and style reminiscent of the late Richard Nixon. Chirac, at least, understands the universal appeal of Gaullism. De Gaulle withdrew from Algeria and (at Phnom Penh in 1966) predicted the disasters that would befall imperial America. The Gaullist state joins modernization to social solidarity. When the nation rebelled in 1997 against Chirac’s plans for more of the market and less of the republic, Chirac learned his lesson. The Socialists may or may not win the presidential and legislative elections of 2007, but they will have the consolation of knowing that there is not much difference between social Gaullism and their version of socialism. At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Chirac disinterred de Gaulle’s interest in the Third World by proposing a tax on international financial transactions to fund development aid.

Finally, there is the courage of the new Spanish Socialist government. Not only has it withdrawn troops from Iraq; it has challenged the Catholic Church to accept that Spain is a liberal society and does not wish clerical tutelage. The government is not doing much about the economy, other than trying to reduce exorbitant housing costs. Instead, in a series of measures in culture, education and social life (especially regarding women’s rights), it is attacking the traditionalism that has survived the three decades since the end of Francoism. These measures are strenuously opposed by the Catholic bishops and opposition conservatives of the Popular Party, but they have wide support across the social classes. Even more divisive is the government’s policy of extending more autonomy to the regions, which has provoked near-violent responses by those who cannot bear the thought of a more federal Spain. The Socialists have one invaluable if unwitting ally: former Prime Minister José María Aznar, who cannot contain his resentment at his chosen successor’s defeat last year. No calumny or falsehood is too embarrassing for Aznar to utter, and the more he talks, the less chance his Popular Party has of returning to office in the near future. He has been an honored guest at the White House while contesting the legitimacy of Spain’s elected government. The official US foreign policy apparatus has frequently disregarded diplomatic courtesies and snubbed the Spanish government. It remains only to ask what the CIA has been doing in the country.

Immigration, especially but not exclusively by Muslims, has led to racial divisiveness like that in the United States. The loud opposition to Turkey’s admission to the EU serves as compensation for what many Europeans experience as a loss of their cohesion and distinctiveness. They are attacking an easy but false target. Some years ago a Socialist interior minister of France, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, told his nation, “You know very well that it is not the Tunisian grocer down the street or the Moroccan auto mechanic around the corner who threatens your identity; it is global capitalism.” But global capitalism is an abstract problem, while immigration, with its pressure on employment, housing, schools and social benefits, is a very visible one. The murder of the Dutch social activist Theo van Gogh by an Islamist fanatic, the recruitment by Al Qaeda of Muslims in Europe, the Madrid train bombing, the angry separatism of the immigrant communities in several nations–as well as effective discrimination against them in employment and the subsequent social pathologies of immigrant communities–attest to Europe’s incomplete integration of immigrants. That has led to electoral successes for the fascists and xenophobes in local elections in Britain and regional ones in Belgium and in eastern Germany, where a pathological nostalgia for the Third Reich afflicts young people raised under Stalinism. Apart from promising to limit immigration, the democratic parties are united by a common helplessness in the face of the problem.

Like old-fashioned anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant feelings are an emotive shorthand for resentment at all the changes burdening Europe. These attitudes are not the monopoly of the racist skinheads who disfigure the landscape in several nations. The center-right government of Denmark boasts of its draconian anti-immigrant policies. The campaign for “a Christian Europe” (sometimes termed Judeo-Christian Europe) mounted by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and others attacks not only Muslims but Europe’s secularists and modern Christians. An Italian Catholic ally of Berlusconi, Professor Rocco Buttiglione, lost a post as European commissioner for justice, freedom and security before he could assume it after he told the European Parliament that although he would be fair to homosexuals, he believes homosexuality is sinful. Buttiglione, a friend of our own Justice Antonin Scalia, now absurdly terms himself a Christian martyr. Many European Christians regard the episode as an embarrassment and hope for another wave of reform in the Roman Catholic Church like that of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. European majorities generally accept the complexity and pluralism of modernity in a way many Americans (and not just the religious traditionalists) cannot.

This is the Europe Bush will be visiting–to lecture them on democracy and insist on their sacred duty to follow our leadership in matters large and small. Will someone in the White House dare to give Bush a recent German Marshall Fund Poll that showed large European majorities strongly opposed to the idea of subordinating themselves in such a way? Despite rhetorical professions of acceptance of European integration, there is one primary American policy toward Europe: to enfeeble it by splitting it. That goal connects the refusal to collaborate with the Europeans on the governance of the world economy (the strong euro, favored by the US Treasury, limits EU exports and thus exacerbates the Continent’s economic stagnation) with the campaign to denigrate Europe–drawing on our own limitless national reserves of philistinism.

On the other hand, there is a substantial pro-American party in Europe that regards US power as indispensable to its own projects. It comprises academics, publicists and politicians who favor a Europe-US alliance of limitless duration and scope. Europe’s bankers and industrialists are allied with American capital (heavily invested in Europe) in an attack on the European welfare state. Blair and Berlusconi are not Washington’s only servants on the Continent. European Commission president Barroso was a compliant US ally as Portuguese prime minister. Now he is more discreet, but an autonomous Europe is not his most obvious goal. The Dutch secretary general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, seems to be speaking not only for but from the White House.

Nevertheless, a majority of Europeans find the policies of the American right repugnant. Even if Bush were back in Texas, profound differences–on the environment, the relationship between market and society, the death penalty and secularism–would divide the continents. Given that a majority of the European public and its elites find the US claim to world leadership increasingly intolerable, sooner or later institutions like NATO will have to be replaced by much more limited forms of transatlantic cooperation. Schröder has just shocked the pro-American party in Europe, and of course the US foreign policy apparatus, by declaring NATO superseded and calling for a new US-EU relationship.

In the meantime, Europeans are struggling, against continuous US interference, to build a common foreign and military policy. Leadership in that effort falls to Chirac and Schröder. Their support in Europe is substantial, and they are backed by the Continent’s cultural elite, who know a great deal about the United States, not least about our own opposition. Two great modern philosophers, the late Jacques Derrida of France and Jürgen Habermas of Germany, described the refusal to join the Iraq War as a European declaration of independence. The intellectuals, in this case, are quite practical. Historical identities are not inscribed in texts but in political acts. The more the United States tries to sabotage the European project, the more support for it will grow. Nothing in the present alignment of forces will change rapidly, while severe setbacks to the process of European integration are possible. But its achievement, in the end, would constitute a huge gain for those in our own nation who seek a decent internationalism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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