In the second part of Kieran Allen’s Brexit pamphlet, he explores the nature of the EU, from militarisation to neoliberalism and attacks on migrants, to ask ‘is the EU progressive?’
Part 1 is available here.
The Irish political elite are riding a wave of Europhilia. The majority of people see the Tory Brexit for what it is – a conservative reaction dressed up in nostalgia for empire.
But Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil also want to claim that Merkel, Macron and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels are our ‘partners’. Varadkar said that ‘we have received unequivocal support from our EU partners in the negotiations on Brexit’. The Irish people, he suggests, should not only be grateful but should recognise the EU as the ‘light that shines’ against the darkness of nationalism and populism.
Most bizarrely, perhaps, has been the extent to which Sinn Féin has fallen into the role of cheerleaders for the EU. For many years, the party was opposed to the institution. They voted against joining the EEC when Irish membership was first proposed and actively opposed the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. In 2003, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey said, ‘Too much of our sovereignty has already been ceded to EU institutions.’ In 2014, his colleague Lynn Boylan MEP said, ‘The people of Ireland are suffering immensely due to the policies of austerity being pushed by the institutions of the EU.’
Now, however, the party has done a significant about-turn. Despite the role of the EU in crushing independence in Catalonia, Sinn Féin argue that Brussels – ‘Our gallant allies in Europe’ as the Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson put it – can be used to help win a United Ireland. But this is madness. The EU is not a friend of Irish sovereignty, nor of any other nation for that matter. It is a deeply undemocratic institution, whose purpose is to serve the elites of Europe.
The European Union is a would-be great power, forged through an alliance between Germany and France. In 1949, the US created a military shield in Europe by forming NATO, and this gave the two old enemies the confidence to co-operate on an economic level. They first signed a Coal and Steel pact in 1951 which guaranteed coal extracted in France for the German steel industry. Six years later, they went on to form the European Economic Community (EEC) with four other countries.
From the very start, there were divergent interests. France wanted the EEC to act as a counterbalance to the US and create a space for French imperial interests after their defeat in the Suez crisis in 1956. Germany saw the EEC as a way to make the revival of German power more acceptable. This intention was made explicit in the Marbella paper, written by the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He wrote that West Germany’s ‘unwanted and dangerous rise to second world power in the West in the consciousness of other governments’ could lead ‘to a revival of memories not only of Auschwitz and Hitler but also of Wilhelm II and Bismarck… perhaps as much in the West as in the East’. It is consequently
‘ …necessary for us, so far as possible, to operate not nationally and independently, but in the framework of the European Community and the NATO alliance. This attempt to cover our actions multilaterally will only partially succeed, because we will (necessarily and against our own will) become a leadership factor in both systems.’
The creation of the European Union helped both states to pursue their divergent interests. France has been able to resume its role as an imperial power, with military interventions in countries as far apart as Syria, Libya and Mali. Germany made huge economic gains by adopting a ‘wages suppression’ strategy, known as Hartz 1V, in 2004. This cut unemployment benefit and forced workers into low-paid jobs, dramatically reducing German wage costs. At the same time, German banks lent out massive sums to the peripheral countries such as Ireland and Spain, thus creating a big export market for its goods. In addition, Germany benefited from the way that Central and Eastern Europe was detached from the Russian empire and incorporated into the EU.
If anyone has any doubt about the EU s imperial project, they need only look at what happened after the economic crash of 2008.
Irish banks had run up huge debts to fund a property bubble. When they crashed, they threatened to bring down the whole EU banking system, with German and French banks being the most exposed. According to Bundesbank figures, German financial institutions had €138 billion invested in Ireland. The European Central Bank put huge pressure on the Irish government to pay back these loans. Its President, Jean Claude Trichet, told the Irish Finance Minister that ‘a bomb would go off in Dublin’ if the investors were made to pick up the tab. The Irish people were forced to pay out €64 billion to settle these loans.
In Greece, the EU staged a financial coup against the left-leaning Syriza government by organising a run on Greek banks through changing the method of calculating its reserves. Timothy Geithner, former Secretary to the US Treasury, described the EU’s approach to the Greek crisis:
‘The Europeans came to the meeting basically saying “We’re going to teach the Greeks a lesson. They are really terrible. They lied to us. They suck and they were profligate and took advantage of the whole basic thing and we’re going to crush them” was their basic attitude, all of them…’
This sounds exactly like the old colonial masters who ruled countries like Ireland and India. But while having every ambition to function as an empire, the EU suffered from two major problems. First, its own coherence was undermined by contradicting national interests. Although European corporations benefit from having a larger single market, competition between them has also intensified. Each national government therefore seeks to gain its own advantage. This results in continual state rows over tenders, mergers and the informal aspects of capitalist rivalry.
Second, the EU’s ambition is weakened by its lack of military muscle. EU states have intervened in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine, provoking terrible civil wars. But like a child that pokes a hornet’s nest with its stick, it then rushes back to the US military machine for support. This has given Trump leverage to demand that they make an extra contribution to the costs of NATO. Like a good gang boss, he knows when to push for more protection money.
The departure of Britain from the EU is seen as an opportunity to address these fundamental weaknesses. More precisely, the departure is both a threat and an opportunity.
The remaining EU states are determined to seriously weaken their British rivals – if only to stave off moves by others to leave the EU. From their imperialist perspective, they have little choice – Brexit poses an existential threat to the very project that has benefited European corporations for decades.
But Brexit is also seen as an opportunity for greater centralisation and the creation of an EU army. Britain’s presence inside the EU ensured that there was only a shallow unity. The British ruling class thought they had a ‘special relationship’ with the United States and often functioned as its mouthpiece inside EU circles. Britain’s own role as an offshore centre for financial speculation meant that it did not want to be bound by EU rules.
After Brexit, the objective is to forge the EU as a stronger imperial force, and so the left critique of the EU has become even more important. The far right attack the EU for very different reasons and seek to channel the frustrations of the population in a racist direction. Rather than deluding ourselves about the nature of the EU, the left needs to understand how the extreme centre created the conditions for the rise of the far right through its austerity programme and its military interventions in the Middle East. The current EU project is operating at many levels.
In June 2016, the EU Commission issued a document titled ‘A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy’. It claimed that ‘investment in security and defence is a matter of urgency. Full spectrum defence capabilities are necessary to respond to external crises’.
Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, was blunt about what this means: He wants a ‘European security union’ and ‘a common European army [that] would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values’.
These moves have resulted in the formation of PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation framework. Its purpose is to bring together member states whose ‘military capabilities fulfil higher criteria’ and which have made ‘more binding commitments with a view to the most demanding missions’.
There is also a further aim to create ‘a permanent HQ for the military and civilian missions and operations of the EU’. This would help create ‘an authentically European esprit de corps’ through joint training of military officers.
Each PESCO member state has made binding commitments to meet certain targets to improve military capabilities. One is to raise military spending to 2% of GDP. As an EU Commission paper shows, the EU 28 invests just under €28,000 per soldier, compared to €108,000 per soldier in the US. So they want to significantly increase military spending in all EU states. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have supported Ireland’s entry into PESCO, despite this necessitating a five-fold increase in the military budget, at a time when the country is suffering from a desperate housing crisis.
Neoliberal policies are being written into EU law. This gives shelter to national political elites, who can claim that they are not responsible for unpopular policies but are compelled to implement them.
The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 already copper-fastened neoliberal doctrines. Article 86 states that any public service that had a ‘revenue-producing monopoly’ must be subject to the ‘rules of competition’. In simple language, if you pay any charge for a service, then private companies had to be allowed in to compete.
If water charges had gone ahead in Ireland, for example, they would have fallen into this category, and the way would have been opened for privatisation. Moreover, under Article 87, states would not be allowed to grant any aid to a public company lest that ‘distort the market’.
The crash of 2008 provided another opportunity to intensify the neoliberal assault.
Under the Fiscal Compact in 2012 – readily enshrined into the Irish constitution by our obsequious local elite – the Irish state was instructed to run balanced budgets. Or, more precisely, the budget deficit must not be greater than 0.5% of GDP.
Conservatives always demand a ‘balanced budget’ because it limits what can be spent on public services. Yet states can borrow at low levels of interest, so there is no reason that they cannot borrow to help create jobs. The Fiscal Compact has prevented the Irish government borrowing or even spending money from the Irish Strategic Investment Fund to build social housing.
On top of all this, the EU has created a European Central Bank that is supposedly ‘independent’. But this myth was debunked by the Corporate European Observatory when it discovered that that 98% of all advisors in the ECB’s advisory groups have been representatives of the finance industry. Just three financial institutions, ‘Deutsche Bank, BNP, Paribas and Citigroup, occupied 208 out of 517 total advisory seats.
Not surprisingly then, the ECB refused to put money into public investment to help get Europe out of austerity. Instead, it has spent €60 billion each month buying corporate assets and government bonds. It was literally printing money so the rich could get cheap credit.
For these reasons, there has been popular opposition to what the EU stood for. In 2001, the Irish rejected the Nice Treaty. In 2005, the French and then the Dutch rejected the neoliberal EU Constitution which was then reworded as the Lisbon Treaty. Ireland was the only country to hold a referendum on Lisbon, which it rejected the first time around. As Sinn Féin and others today speak rosily of the EU, it should be remembered that they were leading opponents of Lisbon, and their leading figures identified themselves with the growing anti-capitalist movement that argued that another Europe was possible. Times change.
After Brexit, there will be greater emphasis on centralising EU economic policy to ensure that no country escapes from the neoliberal straight jacket. The EU Commission, for example, now monitors every country’s budget to ensure that they stick rigidly to the neoliberal rules. It has already told Italy’s government that its budget is unacceptable and threatened it with fines if it does not change.
Almost everyone has heard of Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall to stop migrants entering the United States from Mexico. But there has been little focus on how the EU has deliberately turned the Mediterranean into a grave for thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and war. In 2017, for example, 2832 migrants died attempting to cross into the EU.
Overall, the EU has cut the numbers of migrants entering the continent by 90% from its peak in 2015.
The way it has done so has been brutal. In 2016, it did a deal with Turkey to send back Syrian refugees. In return for receiving them, Turkey was granted €3 billion in aid.
The EU has spent vast sums on more border controls and on bribing countries as diverse as Algeria and Tunisia to detain migrants. Its most disgusting act was to fund the detention centres run by the Libyan government and its paramilitary backers. This was despite clear evidence of slave auctions and rape in these centres.
It has also launched a verbal attack on NGOs who have chartered ships to help rescue migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean. Instead of supporting rescue efforts, the EU is funding the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea and return them to detention centres. Karline Kleijer, the head of emergencies with Medicines Sans Frontiers, describes what has happened:
‘The European political decisions that have been taken during the past weeks have had deadly consequences. There has been a cold blooded decision to leave men, women and children to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. This is outrageous and unacceptable.’
Even before Brexit, immigration officials on both sides of the Irish border have a record of profiling people of colour. Black people have been asked to leave buses and trains for special questioning. In Operation Gull, which occurred ten years ago, Africans were illegally detained at ports and airports by officials.
Instead of viewing the conflict between Britain and the EU as one between backward chauvinists and liberal progressives, it is more accurate to see it as a fight between two bully boys. In a world where capitalism has entered a period of decline, the political elites are moving towards new methods of rule. Racist attacks on migrants and refugees are not just coming from the far right. They are being articulated by mainstream politicians of the extreme centre who want to divert the anger of their populations onto scapegoats.
The old order of global free trade created after World War 2 is breaking down. Countries are returning to the use of tariffs, devaluations of currencies and other informal restrictive measures to protect their corporations and gain advantage over those in other countries. Sometimes this means ‘competitive devaluations’ to gain advantages for exports, and, at other times, it means breaking away from free trade zones and doing special bilateral deals.
The long-term consequences of such actions are unknown, but they are likely to be associated with greater militarisation. One only needs to look at Trump’s efforts to ratchet up tariffs on China while simultaneously strengthening US military power to see where such developments can lead.
The conflict between Britain and the EU is at a low level of intensity so far, but the dynamic of greater competition between states is similar. Both sides will fight and resort to blackmail and whatever it takes to secure their share of a global economy. For the moment, it may suit the EU to ‘stand firm with Ireland’, but this is a tactical, rather than a principled, position. They simply want to use Ireland as a lever to increase tensions within the US. But this tactic can and will change as soon as it appears there is a deal which suits their interests. In the meantime, while the conflict intensifies, the people of Ireland could suffer most by the fall out.