Sowing whirlwinds: European elites get the crisis they deserve

James Wickham04/12/2011

James Wickham: Europeans are getting fed up with Europe. Everywhere as the crisis deepens and as some experts demand closer European integration (‘fiscal union’, Treaty change, etc.), more Europeans are becoming disenchanted with the European project.The sociologist Neil Fligstein showed that European integration has had most support from the better off and the better educated.More generally, unlike the creation of modern Italy or even modern Germany in the 19th century, the European project was never a mass movement.

Today even some national elites are abandoning Europe.Certainly here in Ireland much elite opinion seems to be now more pro-American than pro-European, and anti-German jokes worthy of Biggles and the British Daily Mail appear to be normal in the media. Yet this is hardly an Irish peculiarity. Elite disenchantment is pervasive, probably a response to the growing popular discontent.

All of this arguably stems from two long-standing trends.In the past most Europeans have passively tolerated European integration.It was plausible that it had some connection to economic growth from which they benefitted; it sometimes delivered some small but tangible benefits in terms of ease of travel, rights to health services, etc; in some countries it brought better governance and more progressive social, cultural and environmental policies.And then of course some interest groups (e.g. farmers) gained, as did some regions.

The Maastricht Treaty even created some rights for us as European citizens.

But all of that is in the past. For the last decade the EU has been chipping away at the basis of its own popular support.It stands for the privatisation of state assets, and even more crucially, the marketisation of state services - the European Court of Justice not as enforcer of citizens’ rights but of the rights of the free market.If the European Social Model is built on national welfare states, then the European project is now about weakening these – and putting nothing in their place. Why on earth should anyone apart from neo-liberal thugs support it?

More recently another trend has surfaced.Central to the European project was the creation of European institutions (above all the Commission itself) which were to act for Europe as a whole.Although necessarily the big states might dominate Europe, such European institutions would ensure the smaller states had a disproportionate voice.Furthermore, European institutions could ensure that policy differences were not just between nation states, but between different European-wide interests.

Yet as the crisis has mounted, so European institutions have been sidelined. The member states have often ensured that European posts (such as above all the President of the European Commission) are filled by nonentities who can’t threaten them. Now European politics have collapsed to the level of 19th century nation-state realpolitik, with ‘Germany’ demanding this and ‘France’ demanding that and ‘Ireland’ protesting something else.In such a situation it’s hardly surprising that ordinary people understand the crisis in equally national terms (the nasty Germans want to boss ‘us’ around, the spendthrift Irish want to squander ‘our’ taxes, etc).

So why don’t progressives start calling for a new Treaty?One that links fiscal union to European democratic control? One starting point: a European President directly elected by all European citizens?

Posted in: Europe

Tagged with: Euro crisis

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 


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