Western Europe is looking into an uncertain future. The German election, which was supposed to clear the horizon, has really obstructed the view. True, Helmut Kohl did get his fourth mandate, as tactical switching by some of his Christian Democrat supporters enabled his allies, the Free Democrats, to clear the 5 percent barrier. But a recovery by the Social Democrats, a return to the Bundestag of the Greens and a spectacular debut in Berlin of the ex-Communist “Red Socks,” the Party of Democratic Socialism, combined to produce a 6.7 percent swing to the left compared with the previous election. With a ten-seat majority in the lower house and with the upper, the Bundesrat, dominated by the Social Democrats, Herr Kohl is not even assured of completing his four-year term. If we add to the German results the unexpected element of suspense injected into the French presidential poll next spring by the infighting on the right, and the new doubts about the political longevity of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now under investigation on corruption charges, the future makeup of political leadership in Western Europe does look puzzling. Yet beyond such electoral calculations lie bigger questions about the size and shape of the European Community and the degree of its integration and independence.
The European Union still has only twelve members. On January 1 it will be joined by the Austrians, the Finns, the Swedes and, if they also vote yes in a referendum, the Norwegians. The Hungarians and Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks are already at the door, though, considering the costs their admission would impose on the union’s key budgets of agriculture and development aid, they may spend a long time in the waiting room. Whatever the case, the sharp increase in the E.U.’s membership, if unaccompanied by a strengthening of its institutions, will turn it into a sort of loose free-trade area, an aim that the British, backed by the Americans, always had in mind. But, headed by Germany, now undoubtedly the main actor on the continent, the Europeans may also move in the opposite direction, resuming the Maastricht road toward closer financial and political integration.
The most important event since the fall of the Berlin wall was indeed the reunification of Germany. With a population of more than 80 million, a growing economic potential and no longer any need for the American nuclear umbrella, Germany strengthened its dominant position at the heart of Europe. This supremacy was confirmed at once: What was good for the Bundesbank became the prescription for the Community as a whole, even if its tight money policy both precipitated the currency crisis of the summer of 1993 and lengthened the depression. However, it was not quite clear what use Germany would make of its enhanced power. Would it lean to the East or to the West? The answer seems to be both ways.
Germany seems determined, once the former East Germany is fully absorbed,’to resume at full speed its “drive to the East,” the economic invasion through Czech, Polish and Hungarian territory ultimately up to the Urals. But that does not mean that Bonn has abandoned its firm support for the integration of Western Europe. In a policy paper published before the election, Herr Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union suggested that since all E.U. members will not, before the year 2000, be able to pass the “convergence tests,” which establish a country’s eligibility to join the monetary union (the criteria include a maximum inflation rate, maximum tolerated levels of foreign trade and budgetary deficit, and an acceptable ratio of public debt to gross national product), those that can do so should move ahead on their own. The paper specifically mentioned the original’ six members of the E.E.C. minus Italy–in other words, Germany, France and the Benelux countries.
This conception of a two-tier Europe is, naturally enough, resented by those reduced to second rank, notably Britain, Italy and Spain. Yet even the French establishment is of two minds about what it calls a “Europe with variable geometry”: It wants to cling to Germany but it does not wish to be stuck in a small area dominated by the German mark, a kind of northern league without France’s Mediterranean partners. We shall see next year how the various countries jockey for position as they prepare for the 1996 conference, which will consider revisions in the Treaty of Maastricht.
The real question, however, is what kind of Europe and for what purpose? Can Germany be the unifier and wield Western Europe as a weapon or a Third Force–which General de Gaulle tried and failed to do against the two nuclear giants in his day–against the two economic giants, the United States and Japan, today? I have my doubts that Germany can accomplish this feat. While Bonn sides with Paris in stressing Europe’s need for its own economic, political and even defense institutions, it sides with London in championing free trade and financial orthodoxy. In my view, the only way Europe will become an autonomous entity is if it is driven by the vision of a radically different society. But this is made less, likely by the second key feature of the recent period-the steady Americanization of Europe.
Obviously, Western Europe was influenced by the American example throughout the postwar era. In the first thirty years of unprecedented expansion, it was catching up with the United States, imitating its patterns of production and its models of consumption yet preserving its “social democratic” values of collective welfare and job security. But in the 1980s, after the beginning of the structural economic crisis, another stage of Americanization began. The defeat of the European labor unions, the complete freedom for capital movement, the deregulation that deprived national governments of control without transferring their powers to Brussels–all this laid the groundwork. Yet only during the 1990s, a time of deep ‘recession when unemployment has become a permanent phenomenon, has the American economy–with its working poor, its “labor flexibility,” its private enterprise and private health insurance–begun to be presented by the European establishment as a model to follow. The message is plain: There is no longer any scope for the reformist management of capitalist society. For the social democratic parties of Western Europe this raises the question of their very survival [see Singer, “Does the Left Have a Future?” July 25/ August 1].
The message is now being drummed in with increasing urgency. In Germany, with the election barely over, all sorts of industrial associations pressed Kohl to cut taxes, reduce expenses on social security and remove controls on the labor market. In Italy, the Confindustria, the employers’ confederation, which initially viewed the upstart Berlusconi with a degree of suspicion, now welcomes wholeheartedly his attack on the country’s national pension plan and expects from him a similar assault on the national health system. In Britain, the bourgeois press is hailing Tony Blair, the new Labor Party leader, as the redeemer who will lead his party into the light of reason, i.e., total subservience to the rule of capital,, while warning him not to produce any social welfare plans that might in any way interfere with profits. The examples could be multiplied throughout Europe. What is striking is the weakness of the ideological resistance.
That brings us to the third feature of Western European politics: the extraordinary shift of the terrain on which the confrontation takes place. On public versus private, on the role of profits and the importance of “free enterprise,” the left now accepts ideas that a quarter of a century ago the right barely dared to proclaim.
The trend is least marked in Germany, where the idea of a coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had been preached and practiced in the past. Actually, Rudolf Scharping, the relatively new leader of the Social Democrats, may find it increasingly difficult to collaborate with the Christian Democrats, now that Chancellor Kohl is being driven by big business to strip Germany’s market economy of its “Social” connotations. Elsewhere, the shift is more striking. In Italy, the formerly Communist P.D.S. is seeking an alliance with the rump of Christian Democracy–not on its own terms but on any terms. The man almost certain to represent the Socialists in the French presidential poll, Jacques Delors, outgoing president of the European Commission, is known to be Kohl’s favorite and is being described, accurately though unkindly, as the candidate of German Christian Democracy. And the recent reform proposals of Tony Blair’s associates make William Beveridge, the father of Britain’s postwar welfare state, who never pretended to be a socialist, look like a radical revolutionary.
Acceptance by the Western left of consensus politics is not news. For years, however, this consensus was sweetened by a social democratic coating. Now it is plainly designed to take us straight back to the capitalist jungle. In a hostile world with its mysterious novelties-the information highway, deregulation, electronic financial manipulations-and the harsh reality of insecurity and unemployment, frightened people are irrationally seeking a shelter in such certitudes as family values. The left is providing no universalist solutions, while the extreme right is offering some that are narrowly nationalistic. Jean-Marie Le Pen may now be past his prime in France, but a jingoist with aristocratic manners–Philippe de Villiers–stands next to him to nearly double their common electorate. This may be a portent of the future as the attack on the welfare state really begins to bite.
The worst need not happen. Western Europe still has economic fat and, therefore, time to prevent the emergence of dangerous saviors. Two examples show both the scope for resistance and the problems connected with organizing it. The first comes from Italy. Berlusconi’s offensive against the pensions did provoke a popular reaction. Labor unions were driven to mobilize and on October 14 the whole country was paralyzed by strikes; more than 3 million people marched in the streets of the main Italian cities. On November 12, 1.5 million marched in Rome, in the biggest demo since World War 11. Such a show of strength had an impact on both the government and the opposition. But it will not last if . the opposition parties keep criticizing the policies of Berlusconi without attacking the assumptions and the vision of society on which these policies rest. The steam is clearly there, but without a framework, without movements and parties to harness it, it will not be converted into effective and lasting action.
The second example is linked with the October coronation of Tony Blair in Blackpool. This was the first Labor Party congress since his election as leader and everything was duly stage-managed to produce a great show, which was lavishly covered by the media, Only one small incident disturbed the ceremony. Contrary to the wishes of the leadership, the delegates voted, admittedly by a narrow majority, to reendorse the famous Clause Four of the party platform providing for “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” For years this clause has been a shibboleth, since nobody seriously suspected the Labor Party, as it is now constituted, of doing any damage to the existing system. The voters simply wanted to proclaim that, unlike their leaders, they don’t want their party turned into an imitation of the Democratic Party (Clinton is no longer fashionable, but his party still is); that their dream is not American; that they still have a vague vision of a different society.
Let me at once explain my rather loose use here of the term “Americanization.” I am simply suggesting that the United States represents, at this juncture, the latest stage of capitalist development, a pattern it is trying to impose on the world at large. This does not mean that the Americans are condemned by some curse to live forever in a system based on greed, social injustice and growing inequality. There was a time when many did assume that the capitalist order in the West would be first threatened in countries like France and Italy, with their big Communist parties and radical tradition. Now nobody dares to prophesy when it will happen and in what pecking order. All that I am trying to argue here is that in the next few years Western Europe will be the site of a crucial struggle for the survival of the left as an organ of social transformation, reformist or otherwise,
The left-wing parties of Western Europe now have internationalism thrust upon them. If they want to carry on, they must project their ideas to the stage of the European Union. They have to turn the “Social Charter”–the section of the Maastricht Treaty that regulates working conditions and social welfare–from the gimmick it is at present into a real instrument for the defense of the interests of working people. They must introduce projects to reduce working hours radically, achieve full employment and not just preserve the welfare state but reshape it as a self-managed institution. Simply to defend past conquests, they will inevitably be driven to search for a different form of society. If they manage to do so, they will serve as an example for their fellows not only in Western Europe but also across the Atlantic. On the other hand, if they fail, the future is gloomy. The steam that will be augmented by growing discontent, resulting from the dismantling of the welfare state, may well provide power for more dangerous engines. This is what is at stake in Western Europe five years after the fall of the Berlin wall and five years before the millennium.