Whether Britain stays or goes, are Europe’s fault lines deepening dangerously?


Ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, CommonSpace spoke to two leading academics who are concerned about the EU’s future development

“WE are in for an incredibly rocky period, whether we stay in or not,” says Professor Mary Kaldor.

It would be a bold assertion by the professor of global governance at the London School of Economics were it not one with a growing following ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership on 23 June.

The European Union and its various subsidiary projects, centrally the Euro common currency launched in 2002, have experienced a tumultuous few years.

The global economic crisis of 2008 exposed the chronic weaknesses of many European economies, and laid bare a deep chasm between countries of the European ‘periphery’, such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so called PIIGS), and the more economically stable Western European members of the 28-strong bloc of states.

As the numerous crises dragged on the far right re-emerged across Europe, from the Front National in France to Golden Dawn in Greece. In 2015, the refugee crisis saw over a million people from the world’s most war-torn parts flee to Europe, a situation ably capitalised on by the new right.

The enduring figurehead of the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is determined to forge ahead with the project.

“There are many conflicting interests in Europe, but it is my damn duty to do everything I can so that Europe finds a collective way,” she said, in the teeth of the refugee crisis. Indeed, the EU still has its trenchant optimists. It also has has some experts deeply worried for its future.

In the context of existing problems, Kaldor is certain that Brexit spells bad news.

“If Britian votes for Brexit, I think that will enormously empower growing anti-European parties, largely of the far right,” she says.

Professor Mary Kaldor: Based at LSE, Kaldor is an expert on conflict

“We are seeing a phenomenon across Europe that is quite similar to what is happening in Britain, which is that nationalistic and racist politics is mobilising among the older, disenfranchised male working classes. I think that’s an incredibly dangerous development.”

As much as Kaldor thinks that the EU’s problems have helped foster these reactionary movements, she doesn’t see Brexit as any kind of response.

“They’ll get a further boost in the case of Brexit,” she says.

Kaldor co-authored a study on dissident European political movements in 2012, in what seems like a different age for the European project. The EU they asked questions about then was clearly not the focus of enmity it is today.

“We interviewed people in Occupy, we interviewed people in various rightwing movements as well, and what really surprised us is people never mentioned Europe, they were only concerned with their own national situations,” she says.

“When we raised the Europe issue, what we found was that young people assumed, took for granted, they were European.

“The older generation were for [the EU], remembering the Second World War. Many of the countries new to the EU, remember their recent experience of communism and fascism were also supportive.

“Spain, Greece, Portugal and Eastern Europe were among the most supportive.”

“Unless there is a fundamental shift in economic policy, the Euro will not survive.” Professor Mary Kaldor

Kaldor’s hopes that the EU can be wrestled away from its current path rest upon a push for the reform of its institutions by European citizenry. This, she hopes, would to be met with a retreat from the EU’s current economic consensus by its managers.

“Unless there is a fundamental shift in economic policy, the Euro will not survive,” she says.

 “Principally that means a big increase in the shared budget of the Euro countries, wealth redistribution and renewed investment.

“There is no way to resolve the Euro-crises without abandoning neo-liberalism.”

The EU’s current economic paradigm is also on the mind of Neil Davidson, a lecturer in Sociology at Glasgow University and one of Scotland’s most respected theorists on nationhood and nationalism. He takes, if anything, a dimmer view of the EU’s prospects.

“The single currency established in stone the hierarchy of unevenness between the different nation states.” Neil Davidson

“The single currency established in stone the hierarchy of unevenness between the different nation states, at the top of which is Germany,” he says.

“This has imposed a common set of standards on all of Europe, with some countries far less capable of meeting those standards than advanced economies like Germany and France.

“This arrangement reinforces inequalities between the states, and prevents the kind of intervention a state would usually take to solve urgent problems. The arrangement leaves individual nations with all the difficulties of states, without any of the benefits.”

The Eurozone in particular is in a very vulnerable position, Davidson believes.

Davidson worries the EU is heading in a more “rule-bound” direction, where “reform measures and nationalisation become even more difficult” for national states.

In the event of Brexit, he thinks it is “highly questionable whether the Euro can survive”. He is just as doubtful of the EU’s capacity for an orderly retreat from it’s current set-up.

“Other countries may take their cue from a Brexit, and demand at least a reformed relationship,” he says.

“It [the EU] may return to a common market type situation but that will be viewed as a retreat by the commission and the leading figures in the European Central Bank (ECB).”

Likewise, a more comprehensive reform towards “a more federal Europe” would likely prove “politically impossible”.

Neil Davidson: Lecutrer at Glasgow University and author of numerous studies on nations and nationalism

Davidson also worries, contra the hopes of Kaldor, that rather than easing-up on neo-liberalism, the EU is heading in a more “rule-bound” direction, where “reform measures and nationalisation become even more difficult” for national states. In this sense, he says, austerity-plagued Greece is a window into the future.

Also at risk of collapse is the much vaunted and derided policy of ‘free movement’.

One of the founding ideas of the EU is that citizens of the bloc should have the right to migrate and work within member states.

It is probable, Davidson believes, that whatever the result of the UK’s referendum, there will be pressure to restrain the number of EU citizens coming to Britain.

He envisages one possible scenario, where freedom of movement degenerates into the freedom to holiday.

“In the event of an In vote, I think the Tories will move towards further restrictions [on migration]. There’s an argument developing, for example in Switzerland, that people can have freedom of movement, but can’t work or receive benefits.”

“I’m not sure the project of the EU is realisable when it is so apparent that some countries are more equal than others.” Neil Davidson

There is something of a clash between Davidson and Kaldor’s 2012 research on where future national disruptions of the EU are likely to emerge.

“Spain, Ireland, Portugal and eventually Greece,” are the likely weak links, he says.

But Davidson insists that instability isn’t driven by the peripheral countries of the EU, but from the European centre.

With France rocked by economic decline, the rise of the far right and a resurgence of the labour movement “Germany is increasingly alone at the top of the pile”.

“I’m not sure the project of the EU is realisable when it is so apparent that some countries are more equal than others,” he says.

Kaldor, the author of several respected tomes on war and conflict, fears a profound destabilisation, possibly triggered by a UK decision to leave.

She describes the descent of the European continent into something short of war but “a kind of mixture of criminality and political violence”.

Kaldor said this immediately before hearing news about the killing of Jo Cox.

The EU will still be there when the UK’s referendum is done. The question then will be; can Europe rise to its numerous challenges, or will they consume it?

Picture courtesy of Dr Les (Leszek – Leslie) Sachs

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