The Real Eurobattle

The Real Eurobattle

The move to a common currency masks a struggle over the social shape of Europe.


One conflict may conceal another, less visible but more fundamental. Attention today is focused on the struggle of many countries to join the European Economic and Monetary Union (E.M.U.), which is to be inaugurated on January 1, 1999. At that time marks and francs will be replaced by a single currency, the Euro. Admission to this exclusive club will be decided in the spring of 1998 on the basis of next year’s economic results; hence eligibility is really being determined now. There is much speculation about which candidates will be successful, about the rates at which the currencies will be converted into the Euro and the latter’s strength in terms of the dollar.

Yet hidden behind this Eurobattle is a deeper confrontation over the social shape and political future of Europe. What is at stake is the unmistakable attempt by the international financial establishment and Continental governments to use this whole operation as a cover for adapting the U.S. model of Reaganomics, which has already partly invaded Britain, to the Continent. And the battle is of interest not only for policy-makers in Washington and corporate tycoons in New York. Its outcome is important for all Americans, particularly those not resigned to their current predicament. There are striking signs of resistance in Europe to the economic changes the single-currency system will impose. Should it lead to a successful search for an alternative, the results would be contagious.

Eurostakes. The Maastricht treaty provided five criteria of economic and fiscal performance to determine whether a country is eligible for membership. Given the depressed state of the European economy, three of them (inflation rate, long-term interest rates and currency stability) do not seem major obstacles to most countries. The two stiffest hurdles are the budget deficit, which must not exceed 3 percent of the gross domestic product, and the national debt, which should not top 60 percent of G.D.P. Of the fifteen members of the European Union, two–Britain and Denmark–have still not decided whether they want to take part. The odds on the chances of the thirteen starters fluctuate wildly. At times, the whole project is dismissed as infeasible on the theory that even the two main protagonists, Germany and France, will fail the tests. Then, new rumors have it that all the starters, except for Greece, will somehow qualify. The various predictions hinge on one nation’s budget cuts, the estimate of another’s growth rate and the mood of the judges. All this contributes to the suspense.

In one sense, this tension is phony. The target date of 1999 was set arbitrarily; nothing drastic would happen if the monetary integration of Europe took place a year or two later. Besides, the use of various kinds of window dressing to improve performance is tolerated, making it possible for otherwise iffy countries to pass the test. (For example, France transferred $7.3 billion from the pension fund of France-Télecom to the Treasury to improve its balance sheet.) Above all, when the European heads of government sit in judgment on a country’s application, they will not have to act on bare figures alone. They are entitled by the Maastricht treaty to take into account the progress and direction of an economy. They will have to use this latitude, particularly over public debt, if they want the Euro to take off at all. Even Belgium; considered a sure thing in most forecasts, cannot be expected to reduce its national debt from 130 percent of its G.D.P. to less than 60 percent overnight.

The dramatization is not accidental, since it enables governments to justify deflationary policies with a common prescription: You must accept a slimming cure so your country can play in the big leagues and thus guarantee its future prosperity. Citizens are not being asked to tighten their belts briefly and then relax. Preparations are already being made to provide the E.M.U. with a “stability pact” to insure that deficits will be kept low, preferably close to zero. The Germans insist that the rules must be strict, the exceptions few, the penalties stiff and more or less automatic. The main purpose in this phase is to downsize the welfare state, and it is no secret that the next stage will be to attack workers’ rights or, as the current jargon has it, to “increase the flexibility of labor.”

The European Union is erecting a strange monetary structure. At the heart of it will stand the European Central Bank, modeled on the German Bundesbank, with strong powers and relative independence from elected representatives. This bank will not be checked by a strong European government or parliament, for which there is no prospect on the horizon. It will deal with weaker institutions–the European Commission in Brussels and the Council of Ministers. This does not mean that the nation-states of Europe now cease to matter as economic agents. Far from it. They keep plenty of powers, notably control over taxation and expenditures. But they will now be under close supervision from a mighty unelected watchdog, which will see that nothing is done by member governments that threatens profits or interferes with the workings of the capitalist system.

Conceived in Maastricht in 1991, this construct is often described as an attempt by Germany to spread its model to the rest of Europe. In its earlier version, built in the fat days of Europe’s unprecedented prosperity, the German model included considerable social benefits for the population. The new version, for the lean years, is supposed to cut or cancel those benefits in Germany as well as in the rest of Europe. It is designed to reduce public expenditure on health, old-age pensions and other welfare services while encouraging private insurance. Its other task is to render the minimum wage meaningless and eliminate all the limitations introduced since World War II on the employer’s freedom to hire and fire as he pleases. In short, it is to build Europe à l’américaine.

Similar and Separate? Yet could a German-dominated Europe both imitate and defy the United States, using the Euro, a new reserve currency, as a weapon to challenge the dollar, an instrument of U.S. domination? There is an element–though only an element-of truth in this vision. The fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting collapse of the bipolar world has strengthened the conflicting tendencies within the Western alliance, driving the European Union and Japan to question more openly U.S. hegemony. To stand up to U.S. giants, European firms have multiplied mergers and other forms of collaboration across frontiers. Airbus, now a serious competitor for Boeing, is the best-known example, but there are many more recent projects, notably in the arms industry.

Politically, too, Europe is showing signs of searching for unity and independence. The Maastricht treaty combines monetary union with the establishment of a common security and foreign policy; a joint European spokesperson is soon to be chosen, though that officer’s rank and prerogatives are still undefined. The blunt European refusal to accept the U.S. diktat on the Cuban embargo, climaxing in the Helms-Burton and D’Amato acts being dragged in front of the World Trade Organization for judgment; the attempt by the European Union to get a seat of its own in the Middle Eastern talks; the tensions between Paris and Washington over Africa; the massive vote of the Europeans for Boutros-Ghali as U.N. Secretary General despite the U.S. veto–these are only some of the recent signs that, when interests clash, Washington can no longer take European obedience for granted.

But these symptoms should not be read as a full-fledged declaration of independence. In the most advanced sectors of the economy–in telecommunications, in digital television, in arrangements between international airlines–most mergers and deals are struck across the Atlantic. The political limits are apparent even in the behavior of the European leader who has supposedly been the most defiant, French President Jacques Chirac, who has ostentatiously donned the Gaullist mantle. True, he was bold enough to meet Benjamin Netanyahu on his own soil and plead for the rapid creation of a Palestinian state and ask, unsuccessfully, for a European presence at the negotiating table. Yet this same man did something that must have turned de Gaulle in his grave–he has decided to bring France back into the integrated military command of NATO, clashing with Washington only when he demanded–so far, in vain–that the alliance’s Southern Command be given to a European, preferably someone from France. This sums up well the whole relationship. At this historical stage, Europe is not really questioning U.S. leadership of the alliance; it is seeking a better position within its hierarchical structure.

Nor is this surprising, since the European Union is not struggling to defend a fundamentally different society. Why should, say, a Spanish tycoon choose a European partner if the American has greater technological know-how and better terms to offer? Why should Germany or Italy, let alone Britain–often considered to be America’s Trojan Horse–back Paris in its confrontation with Washington? In the name of which principles or which vision of society? Admittedly, there are still important social differences between the United States ,and the countries on the other side of the Atlantic, but they are dwindling and, in any case, should not be exaggerated. One cannot take too seriously British Prime Minister John Major, who, in trying to attract investment in his country on the grounds that labor there is cheap and without legal protections, paints the European Union as dangerously red because it decrees that people should not, as a rule, work more than forty-eight hours a week.

The social chapter of the Maastricht treaty, which Britain’s Tories reject and its Labor Party welcomes (this is the only important difference between their European policies), is not something that sends shivers down employers’ spines. In the three decades of European integration the interests of big business have always prevailed over those of labor. In the past fifteen years the emphasis has been squarely on profit-making and unfettering the market. The Maastricht treaty with its monetary union marks the crowning triumph of this tendency.

Such an evolution poses a serious problem for Europe’s social democratic parties, which fared well during the years of Europe’s book as the reforming managers of capitalist society but who can now only return to office as the agents of counterreform. To redress this trend they would have Jo change their nature, radicalize and internationalize their strategy, rely on movements from below. So far, all of them–and Italy’s former Communists, the Democratic Party of the Left, headed by Massimo d’Alema, are part of the family–have chosen the opposite way, opting for Clinton-style “common ground.” How bipartisan European foreign policy has become is well illustrated by the two most recent changes in government as a result of a general election. In Spain the right took over from the left; in Italy it was the other way around. Policy toward Maastricht did not alter an inch in either case. That’s consensus for you! And if you ask the leftists respectful of the established order, Why? the inevitable answer is, Because there is no other way.

Trouble for Tina. How do you define the uniformity of thought prevailing in our societies? The French, dropping the unfashionably Marxist “ruling ideology,” invented the rather untranslatable pensée unique. A good U.S. example was the consensus greeting Francis Fukuyama’s pseudo-Hegelian assertion that capitalism marks the end of history. The ideological mood of recent years is best summed up by Tina, the nickname given Maggie (There Is No Alternative) Thatcher, who bludgeoned all opposition. Spreading surreptitiously across frontiers, this crude doctrine paralyzed the search for other solutions. Its spell is now being broken under popular pressure as Western Europe reacts to the attack on its institutions of welfare.

While the erosion of the social gains achieved in the postwar period has been going on for some time, it is only in the past two or three years that, under the spur of international institutions, the offensive has intensified in theory and in practice. Since the Europeans do not want to give up their benefits, so has the resistance. Two years ago, when their old-age pensions came under attack, the Italians staged in Rome the biggest demo since World War II. In October, threatened with a cut in their health benefits, German workers went on strike and took to the streets. Yet historians will probably take as the ideological turning point the French winter of discontent, a year ago, when the government’s attempt to slash public spending on health got millions of people out into the streets. Their plain message, frightening for the Establishment, was: To hell with your propaganda–if this is the future you are offering us and our children, we don’t want it.

The importance of this rejection of the ideological dictatorship cannot be overestimated. Still, it was only a beginning. On this negative platform one has to start the search for an alternative society. My arrogance does not go so far as to offer a program to a movement that, anyhow, needs a vision, not a blueprint. But I am brave enough to suggest four points, four taboos that the movement will have to smash if it is not to be blocked in its search by the diversions of official propaganda. The first is the assumption that the form the internationalization of the economy has taken-so-called globalization-is a natural and inevitable result of technological progress. Actually, it is the outcome of a deliberate policy: the extraordinary expansion of international transactions has more to do with the decision to free capital movements than with the invention of computers and modems.

The second, connected point is that technology is allegedly neutral. In fact, research is socially determined, and the results, too, can be employed in various ways. A different attitude toward growth is vital if we want to avoid a fatal clash between our economic system, geared to expansion, and the limits of our environment. The third myth is that all struggles must be sporadic or marginal, because total, as the fashion has it, is totalitarian. Actually, capitalism is a complicated system with its own coherence and logic, and it can only be replaced by another society with a complexity and logic of its own. Finally, against the prevailing resigned refrain-fend for yourself because nothing can be done in this world–one must revive the old belief that society, human fate and hence your life can be altered by political action.

It is this revival that has just begun in Europe. Whether this resistance, this pressure from below, will prove stronger than the conciliatory temptations of the leaders nobody can tell. What is clear, however, is that if in this Europe torn by unemployment, angered by dwindling benefits, frightened by the unknown, the its failures amid growing discontent, the future will be bleak. The half-million right-wingers who gathered in Rome in November to protest the policies of a left-wing government were a reminder that if we don’t come up with progressive solutions, soon the press may be writing about another European sensation, the latter-day version of Eurofascism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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