Where is Europe Going?

A view from the intellectual left, which is producing some of the best work on contemporary Europe

Protestors clash with police in downtown Rome on 15 October 2011. Protestors smashed shop windows and torched cars as violence broke out during a demonstration in the Italian capital. GREGORIO BORGIA / AP PHOTO
01 January, 2012

FEW PEOPLE WOULD DENY that Europe has been mired in crisis since the near collapse of its banking system in 2008. The entire continent has fallen prey to the sort of debilitating pessimism that last infected it when Hitler was still alive. Even its best-governed nations are stricken by the sense that things have gone badly wrong and that no one knows how to put them right. A future of hyperinflation, soaring unemployment, slashed productivity, social unrest and political repression suddenly seems frighteningly possible.

One of the most disorienting features of the crisis is that its origins and future course seem so obscure. Scores of commentators have competed with each other to explain the traumatic events of the last few years and to speculate about what happens next. By and large their theories are wildly incompatible. The left blames neoliberalism while the right blames the legacy of post-war social democracy. Some claim that globalisation needs to be reined in while others call for it to be extended.

Nevertheless, there are two observations about the current European scene which tend to unite observers from across the political spectrum. The first is that we have reached a decisive moment in the process of European integration. Nearly everyone now agrees that the leaders of the European Union (EU) will try to use the crisis to further their goal of creating a European superstate. There is also widespread agreement that the crisis has opened a new chapter in the history of popular protest. Although many countries in Europe moved to the right as the economic downturn began to take hold, the past two years have seen a massive mobilisation of workers, young people and middle-class dissidents in pursuit of left-of-centre objectives. Many believe that this coalition of enragés is forging new styles of protest that will play a crucial role in shaping Europe’s future.

The crisis has had an especially galvanising effect on the intellectual left. Most of the best recent work on Europe has been produced by socialists, Marxists and left-liberals, though there is rarely much agreement between one writer and another. For anyone wanting a sense of what the left has been saying, the three books under review are a good place to start.

Brussels, the Gentle Monster, or the Disenfranchisement of Europe HANS MAGNUS ENSENSBERGER, SEAGULL BOOKS, 83 PAGES, Rs 350

Brussels, the Gentle Monster, by the great German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, provides a stimulating introduction to the affairs of the EU. Concise, lucid and amusingly sardonic, it is entirely free of the self-regarding cosmopolitanism that mars so much writing on the ‘European project’. Enzensberger is a supporter of the EU but he knows very well that it has taken a wrong turn. His essential point is that the EU’s current structures represent an entirely novel (and almost wholly regrettable) attempt to construct a form of political authority that is simultaneously undemocratic and incapable of outright repression. The EU’s most important institutions are unelected, impervious to pressure from below and exercise functions that are wholly incompatible with the principle of separation of powers. At the same time, they have virtually no coercive power at their disposal. In the absence of a European army or police force, they can only enforce their edicts by relying on the willingness of member states to implement them. Ultimately the EU is a sort of Leviathan without teeth. It seeks to reshape a continent not through force of arms but by the power of exhortation.

The fact that it lacks hard power has done nothing to limit the EU’s political ambitions. Like many commentators before him, Enzensberger is astonished by the sheer scale and intrusiveness of European law. For more than 60 years the European Commission has pursued the fruitless dream of abolishing national differences in the interests of free trade. Its efforts prove beyond any doubt that large-scale regulation sometimes does as much to impede social justice as to promote it. Anxious to make competition between the EU’s member states seem ‘fair’ and ‘transparent’, unelected technocrats have burdened the continent with an acquis communautaire, or body of law, that now runs to more than 150,000 pages. Its overriding goal has been to standardise economic activity across every part of Europe. It is now illegal for European companies to manufacture tractor seats in more than one size. Strict rules govern the production of ‘non-directional household lamps’. Legislation has even been introduced to specify the size of condoms.

As Enzensberger cannily notes, this wave of ‘regulation mania’ has not only stymied economic dynamism but gone a long way towards undermining individual liberty. If the citizens of Europe are denied access to a wide variety of goods by a slew of insanely detailed laws, it follows that their capacity to organise their lives as they see fit is greatly reduced. Anyone who believes that free trade tends to augment human freedom would do well to consider the actions of the European Commission. So far its keenest brains have proved unable to dismantle trade barriers without trampling on individual liberty at one and the same time.

Enzensberger’s vision of the European future is a lot less apocalyptic than his concerns about individual freedom might lead one to expect. Recognising that the EU bureaucracy is utterly determined to push on towards the creation of a superstate, he comes close to predicting that its ambitions will sooner or later be thwarted by a peaceful reassertion of national consciousness. It is only possible to force a diverse group of countries into a single mould for so long, or so he implies. The member states of the EU are anxious to sustain their national traditions but have no interest in imposing them on anyone else. One day they will bridle at the EU’s efforts to “homogeniz[e] all living conditions” and slough off its institutions without a single shot being fired.

Whether the EU can survive these possible developments is entirely dependent on how sensitively it responds. If it continues to behave as if nothing short of a superstate will do, it may well disappear altogether. If it evinces a little modesty and adopts a more relaxed style of governance—if, in particular, it adheres to the principle of “graduated integration” and allows member states to choose which aspects of the EU project they wish to sign up to—it could yet survive in a more democratic and less intrusive form. What is not in doubt is the survival of European comity. In a moving passage addressed to an imaginary EU bureaucrat, Enzensberger argues that post-war developments in economics, technology and culture have bound together the peoples of Europe so powerfully that very little could now tear them apart. In any future that we can foresee, the multifarious states of Europe will co-operate with each other even if the EU is no longer there to chivvy them along:

... as far as the integration of Europe is concerned, we, long ago, made ourselves independent of the authorities. Today, civil networks bind us more tightly than all the treaties you negotiate here in Brussels. Millions of threads create interdependencies which elude your control and which you can neither tie nor tear.

The New Old World PERRY ANDERSON VERSO 561 PAGES, £14.99

Enzensberger’s book can be read in about 90 minutes. The same can hardly be said of Perry Anderson’s vast, impossible-to-summarise and astonishingly accomplished The New Old World, first published in 2009 and now reissued in a handsome paperback edition. A major presence on the Anglophone left since becoming editor of New Left Review in 1962, Anderson has a well-deserved reputation for knowing virtually everything and making links where most people would see only a tangle of detail. His new book succeeds in combining a penetrating survey of the EU’s development with lengthy, wide-ranging and suavely compressed essays on the recent history of France, Germany, Italy, Cyprus and Turkey. It also incorporates a useful critique of some of the main academic theories of European integration, showing considerable sympathy for the work of Alan Milward, Craig Parsons and Giandomenico Majone, but precious little for that of the American right-winger Andrew Moravcsik. It seems unlikely that anyone except Anderson could write with such authority about so wide a range of topics. If the reader is willing to devote two or three weeks to engaging seriously with The New Old World, he or she will find the experience incomparably educative.

Unlike Enzensberger, Anderson looks forward to the day when the EU acquires the characteristics of a genuine state. Although he never quite comes out and says so, it is clear that he still dreams of what his former comrades on the Trotskyist left would call a United Socialist States of Europe. His sense of what a socialist EU might achieve makes his pessimism about the immediate future of Europe seem all the more stark. Speculating about the near future in a glum chapter entitled ‘Prognoses’, Anderson hints that we may be facing a period in which the EU pursues a reactionary form of centralisation while social cohesion across Europe begins to crumble. His concerns about centralisation relate primarily to the area of foreign policy. In an icy survey of the recent efforts of the EU’s member states to adopt a common position on international affairs, he argues that Europe is preparing itself to play a “sub-imperial role”. Too cowardly to challenge the power of the White House, it looks set to spend the next few years undergirding American bellicosity in the Middle East, cosying up to Israel and forcing a neoliberal agenda onto the countries of the developing world. At the same time it will have to deal with powerful forces pulling it apart from below.

Whereas Enzensberger believes that pan-European solidarity is now all but indestructible, Anderson fears that cultural differences are beginning to fragment the continent beyond repair. Immigration gives him particular cause for concern. Noting that the “richer Western states” of Europe now play host to somewhere between 15 and 18 million Muslims, he argues that European culture may currently be too feeble to assimilate the influence of Islam. The great dream of European unity could yet come to grief on a tidal wave of immigration from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Anderson should not be mistaken for an anti-cosmopolitan reactionary of the type of Christopher Caldwell, whose recent book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, he subjects to respectful but decisive criticism. In itself Anderson sees nothing intrinsically problematic about mass immigration into Europe. His point is that the arrival of large numbers of Muslims—very few of whom subscribe to Islamist dogma—has only caused difficulties because of the decline of European political culture. Like many other commentators on the hard left, Anderson believes that the parties, institutions and ideologies that defined left-of-centre politics in post-war Europe have been badly hollowed out over the past 30 years. The rise of the New Right has led inexorably to the decline of the old left, eviscerating the trade unions and pushing socialist or social-democratic parties ever further towards the centre ground. This is the context in which the problems associated with immigration have come to seem greater than they actually are. Disoriented by the collapse of the socialist tradition, ordinary Europeans have developed a sort of morbid fear of the newcomers in their midst: Muslim immigrants have been treated as harbingers of social breakdown rather than a new thread in the European tapestry. The only way of avoiding the fragmentation of Europe—this at least is Anderson’s implied argument—is to ensure that the effects of immigration are offset by a revival of the Labour Movement.

How likely is this to occur? Anderson is not entirely pessimistic. Having vented his fears about social fragmentation and neo-imperialism, he ends his book by noting that the oppositional impulse in Europe is unlikely to be dead. His words have come to seem increasingly prescient in the years since the hardback edition of The New Old World was published. The renaissance of left-wing politics in Europe is now increasingly hard to ignore. Its context is not merely high rates of unemployment and negligible rates of growth but widespread outrage at cuts in public expenditure. When the governments of Europe were forced to bail out their banks in the autumn of 2008, they ran up enormous deficits which they are now trying to pay off by slashing public-sector employment, reducing welfare payments and scaling back investment in education and healthcare. The result has been the biggest outbreak of social protest since the 1970s. Ferocious militancy in Greece and Spain has been counterpointed by more modest but still bracing displays of resistance in France, Britain and elsewhere.

An arresting slogan on a banner raised by protestors in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 23 October 2011. JENNY MATTHEWS / IN PICTURES / CORBIS

So far the disaffected have expressed their anger in one of two ways. Trade unions throughout Europe have revived the tried-and-tested methods of industrial struggle, in some cases combining strikes and occupations with so-called ‘bossnappings’. At the same time, a more symbolic form of protest has been adopted by young people across the continent. Inspired by their brave counterparts in the Arab world, students and other youthful rebels have begun to stage semi-permanent occupations of public squares and other prominent spaces. As I write, 200 or so protesters are camping out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Their passionate opposition to the status quo is vividly expressed on one of their most arresting banners: “Capitalism is Crisis”.


A sure sign of the protest movement’s growing influence is the fact that academics and journalists have begun to take it seriously. One of the best entry points into this growing body of work is The Crisis and the Left, this year’s edition of the indispensable Socialist Register. Edited by Leo Panitch, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber, The Crisis and the Left takes an international perspective on the current slump and features essays by 16 of the world’s leading socialist scholars. Two essays in particular give us a sense of what contemporary protest movements are trying to achieve, not merely in Europe but in the US and the Arab world as well. In ‘Slump, Austerity and Resistance’, David McNally argues that the two wings of the protest movement need to work more closely together so that their strengths cancel out their weaknesses. The problem with the trade unions is that they are unwilling to exercise their power effectively. Theoretically in a position to change government policy through a rolling programme of strikes and occupations, they tend in practice only to take action for very brief periods. By contrast, the various youth and student movements are utterly uncompromising in their desire for change but not very skilled at disrupting the status quo: “As much as they can occupy streets, insurgent movements of youth lack the economic clout of workers’ struggles, which can shut off the flow of business profits.” McNally’s solution is for the workers’ and youth movements to come together in a mutually enriching alliance. If the trade unions can be transformed by an inflow of youthful fervour—and if young people can learn something from the trade unions about disrupting the smooth flow of the profit system—the prospects for putting Europe’s austerity agenda in reverse will be greatly enhanced.

A more wide-ranging approach to contemporary protest is taken by the great Marxist geographer David Harvey in his essay ‘The Urban Roots of Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for Anti-Capitalist Struggle’. Harvey’s argument is that the current wave of urban occupations may well develop into a new radical politics of space—or, more precisely, it may go some way towards reviving an attitude to urban politics that was once quite prevalent on the left but has now fallen into abeyance. According to Harvey, the traditional left has been hampered by too narrow a conception of how social change can be achieved. Bewitched by the collective power of the industrial working class, it has tended to regard the struggle between workers and their employers in large factories as the crucible in which a new socialist consciousness will be forged. In doing so it has inadvertently weakened labour movements by putting too much emphasis on individual workplaces and not enough on forging ties between workers in different locations. The great virtue of the emerging protest movements in Europe is that they seek to unite people across entire cities. Although occupations may not involve a direct clash between workers and employers, they usually occur because ordinary people wish to resist the degradation of urban life at the hands of the ruling class.

When students and the young unemployed pitch their tents in public squares in London, Athens or Madrid, one of their goals is to protest against the commercialisation of public space, rising property prices and other symptoms of capitalism’s grip on urban life. Occupying a city is as much an act of class struggle as striking for higher wages and better working conditions, but what distinguishes it from certain other forms of class politics is its enormous potential for mobilising people. Vast numbers of workers live in the same spaces and are affected by them in innumerable ways. Once a protest begins it can attract thousands of participants in a very short time, in turn sparking new protests that can be linked up across the urban landscape. These forms of unity are not only important because they help people to achieve their immediate goals, or so Harvey implies. They also point the way towards the large-scale cooperation that any society seeking to replace capitalism will have to adopt. In the urban protests of today lie the seeds of a socialist future.

People take part in the traditional May Day demonstration in Paris on 1 May 2009. Left-wing opposition leaders and the country’s trade unions called for marches to be turned into a ‘historic’ protest to demand more help for workers and families. LIONEL BONAVENTURE / AFP PHOTO

Enzensberger and Anderson, McNally and Harvey—these are just four of the innumerable pundits trying to predict where Europe is going next. The differences between them reflect the sense of intellectual uncertainty that is an integral part of the current European scene. At the moment it is simply not possible to make a judgement about which of them is likely to prove prophetic. It is very common for ruling groups to overreach themselves during moments of crisis, so it may well be the case that the discredited European elite will speed up its efforts to create a neo-imperial superstate of the sort envisaged by Anderson. At the same time, there is every reason to believe that the current outbreak of radicalism will be durable. The emerging alliance between trade unionists, political activists and student radicals shows that there are millions of people in Europe determined to bring the age of the New Right to an end. Perhaps the likeliest long-term scenario is a prolonged struggle between a centralising Euro-elite and a revivified, clamorously democratic and pan-continental labour movement. Most Europeans like to think that the ultimate result of the turbulent years ahead will be the emergence of a genuine Europe of the peoples. It will require quite a struggle to ensure that their hopes are realised.