Better off without them?

James Wickham24/06/2016

James Wickham: The founding fathers of the European Union believed that economics determined politics. They have been proved wrong. What will happen now, after Brexit, involves politics – political choices, political values. The European Union can only survive if its supporters recognise this.



Nearly three quarters of a century ago, early advocates of a united Europe like Jean Monnet believed that the road to a united Europe lay through a united market. They believed that creating a single market would mean more trade between participating countries and that this in turn would create closer social links. Eventually the links would be so close that Europeans would start to feel Europeans and Europe would have been created behind their backs.

All sorts of consequences flowed from this assumption. For decades academic researchers accepted some form of spill-over theory. They assumed that integration of the market created inevitable pressures for integration in other areas. This ‘neofunctionalist’ theory was the intellectual cornerstone of ‘European integration studies’ which tacitly assumed a one way movement from more market to more union.

In terms of policies the market-first belief ensured that creating and consolidating the market was the political priority for those who wanted a more united Europe. The priority was removing national barriers and ending national protections.

The market-first approach also guaranteed that the European project was an elite project: there was no need to build Europe by mobilising Europeans. Historically European nations have always been built by elites, but this usually involves creating myths about the heroic …. people (fill in the dots) whose essence is expressed in their nation state. However, if you believe that Europe will just emerge automatically because of market integration, there is no need to bother about what empirical Europeans actually think or want, and there’s certainly no need mobilise them to become European! And for a time this worked, after a fashion. So long as the ‘common market’ could be seen as delivering economic benefits, European populations tolerated European integration.

In any case, market-first did not always mean market-only. The origin of the European Social Fund can be traced to the measures in the Treaty of Rome to facilitate the retraining of workers affected by the industrial changes that economic integration was expected to accelerate. In 1973 the first enlargement (the UK, Denmark, Ireland) was accompanied by the first attempts at a European social policy - the Social Action Programme of 1974. Later the Delors presidencies (1985-1995) developed the ‘European Social Model’ which aimed to wrap around the deepening European market European institutions of social protection. There was a recognition that a market which extended beyond the nation state had to be accompanied or even buttressed by social policies with the same reach.

But that was all a long time ago.

Since the 1990s market-first has become market-only. The deepening and expanding of the market has become an end in itself, it is certainly not a tool to create a new political and social entity. This is of course justified by the belief that more market = more completion = more growth, totally disregarding any distributional issues and wilfully ignoring any implications of such ‘growth’ for social cohesion.

Instead of the market becoming a means to create a united Europe, European institutions have been
instrumentalised to create a wider market. This now pits ‘Europe’ against the social and institutional protection that the national states long provided for their inhabitants. It is ‘Europe’ that promotes the noxious TTIP treaty, it is ‘Europe’ that demands the privatisation of state enterprises. It is therefore hardly surprising that the less skilled and those who need their national welfare state most have been drifting to the right wing populist parties which promise to protect the national state. The Brexit vote is merely the most dramatic example of this trend.

The advocates of the free market appropriated Europe for their own ends. In so doing they have stimulated forces that will probably destroy the European Union itself. The only possible silver lining for today’s vote is that successive British governments have always been amongst the strongest advocates of more markets and by far the strongest opponents of any Euopean level social policy.

Maybe we’re better off without them?

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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