Refeudalising Europe

Alain Supiot

To encourage French voters to approve the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, President Chirac warned them against the risk of France becoming the ‘black sheep’ of Europe. But, as Einstein once wrote, ‘in order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, first of all, be a sheep.’ In the event, the French, whichever way they voted, did not behave like a flock of sheep.

It had been thought that to ratify the treaty by means of a referendum would be a formality. At an extraordinary joint session of congress held in February at Versailles, 81.7 per cent of parliamentary deputies approved the text submitted for ratification, and in an upsurge of what Perry Anderson (in the LRB of 23 September 2004) called the ‘union sucrée’, every commentator on radio and television, and almost all those in the press, campaigned strenuously for a ‘yes’ vote. Every major political party – Chirac’s UMP, the Socialists, the centrists – came out in favour. Only one of the big trade-union groups – the Confédération Générale du Travail, which is close to the Communist Party – declared its hostility, and that against the advice of its secretary-general. The parties of the far left and far right, along with a dissident faction of the Socialist Party, also called for a ‘no’ vote.

Then something strange and unexpected happened – though it could have been foreseen by anyone who remembered what happened at the 1992 referendum to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Instead of being content quietly to follow the advice lavished on them with near unanimity by the ‘elites’, French voters were gripped by a burning democratic fever. The text of the treaty became a bestseller; millions of copies were published and everyone plunged headlong into a text several hundred indigestible pages long. Its most important provisions were read and interpreted in every possible way a thousand times over. In families, at the office, in public places, every conversation ended inescapably in an impassioned debate about Europe, its future and how one should vote. Countless discussions started up on the internet. The more pedagogically inclined set up websites supplying the facts people couldn’t find in the media. One of these sites was so successful that its creator, a provincial schoolteacher, became an overnight celebrity.

The intensity and quality of this collective act of reflection took the political, economic and media elites by surprise, and they found themselves called on to explain why they were in favour of a ‘yes’ vote and to respond to the manifold objections raised. Their task was made difficult by the current situation in Europe, which kept on providing more grist for the other side’s mill: the Polish commissioner’s call on businesses to cut jobs in France and Germany in order to create them in Poland; the refusal of the European Central Bank to intervene to end the overvaluation of the euro against the dollar; the tabling of the so-called Bolkestein directive, calling for a competitive market in wages between Eastern and Western Europe.

Some of them tried to rise to these challenges, but they soon found themselves on the defensive. The main argument of those in favour was that the new document wasn’t as bad as the Nice Treaty which is currently in force. This is undoubtedly the case, thanks particularly to the inclusion, in Part Two of the new treaty, of a charter of fundamental rights. This is genuinely innovatory, especially for the priority it gives to the dignity of the individual and the extension of the notion of ‘solidarity’ into other domains. The charter breaks with a purely mercantile or technocratic vision of Europe and would have constituted a powerful argument in favour of the treaty had several provisions not subsequently been introduced which would mean the charter has no legal force and had a number of the principles it set out – such as the right to strike or to have access to public services – not been rendered meaningless by provisions found in Part Three.

More generally, Part Three deals with a disparate collection of trade, finance, transport and employment policies which have no place in a constitution. Highly debatable provisions, taken from earlier treaties, are accorded the status of constitutional norms. Thus the Central European Bank is still assigned the task of maintaining price stability (Article I-29); the American Federal Reserve, by contrast, is also responsible for supervising the level of employment. Article III-97 aims to adapt the workforce to the requirements of the market: ‘The Union and the Member States shall … work towards … promoting a skilled, trained and adaptable workforce and labour markets responsive to economic change.’

These provisions effectively reverse the priorities established by the international community as it emerged from World War Two, when the idea was that the economy and the world of finance should serve and not dominate humanity. The Philadelphia Declaration (which became an integral part of the constitution of the ILO) proclaims the right of all ‘to pursue both their material wellbeing and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity’, and contains this strong prescription: ‘All national and international policies and measures, in particular those of an economic and financial character, should be judged in this light and accepted only in so far as they may be held to promote and not to hinder the achievement of this fundamental objective.’

One searches the new treaty in vain for a provision that would oblige economic and monetary policy to be indexed to an improvement in people’s living and working conditions. Security is seen as all-important where money is concerned, but not where work is concerned. The ‘labour force’ must adapt itself to the needs of the economy, but the value of the currency is untouchable. It is no surprise that a majority of the young and the economically active voted ‘no’ in the referendum, since they are the ones who are paying the price for the monetary policy of the euro zone in terms of unemployment, insecurity and low wages.

Struggling to respond to these powerful arguments in favour of a ‘non de gauche’, the ‘yes’ camp appealed to the authority of a bunch of has-beens. Emerging from retirement, these political dinosaurs flew to the rescue of a document put together under the aegis of the very old, very arrogant and very unpopular Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Their voices merged with those of the showbiz celebrities and foreign heads of government who had also been mobilised to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote.

Faced with the persistent ‘no’ majority in the opinion polls, some ‘yes’ supporters finally said out loud what many had been keeping to themselves: that it was a grave mistake to ask the people’s advice, because the people are stupid and can’t see where their best interests lie. Claude Imbert, the founder and leader-writer of the weekly Le Point, made no bones about it: ‘Imagine a young lad slogging away all day long in a factory near Nancy. He gets home late in the evening. Let me tell you that what he wants is a beer. He’s not going to read the small print of the constitution.’ As it happens, there’s good reason to believe that ‘a young lad slogging away all day long in a factory near Nancy’ knows a good deal more about the effects of European policies on the lives of working people than any leader-writer or member of parliament. To believe in democracy is to believe that the nation as a whole, provided it is properly informed, is better placed to judge the general interest than any one of the individuals who make it up.

This body of people has to form a single political society and identify with it strongly enough for their lives to be committed to it, so that it is plausible ‘to die for one’s country’. Such an identification is still to be found at the level of the nation-state, but no one would be prepared to die for the European Union. In Europe, nationality became part of an individual’s identity only as a result of a long historical process, and it will take time too for a ‘European society’ to come about (if it ever does), a society whose members feel inseparably bound together and share a common future. The formulation of a constitution could have been a foundational moment for a real European nation. But for that to be the case, it would have had to be put together by a constituent assembly, elected by all of Europe’s citizens as the culmination of a transnational political debate in which the differing conceptions of the EU had confronted one another.

Instead, the treaty was negotiated by a ‘constitutional convention’ made up of representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament, and national parliaments and governments. This arrangement was all too reminiscent of the Estates-General under the Ancien Régime, which aimed to represent not a sovereign people, but the political bodies operating under the authority of the monarch. The section of the treaty which deals with ‘The Democratic Life of the Union’ also revives the notion of intermediate representation, not just on the part of member states but also ‘representative associations’ and ‘social partners’. Giving a place in the constitution to such intermediaries is to revert to the feudal contract. One detail is enough to demonstrate that the EU has departed from the concept of democracy inherited from the Enlightenment: namely, one man, one vote. The proposed preamble to the treaty contained a quotation from Thucydides defining democracy as the power of the greatest number. This definition was judged to be contrary to the principle of equality between states and was left out of the text adopted by the intergovernmental conference of June 2004.

It’s true that this refeudalisation of our institutions has been in train since the Treaty of Rome (1957), which offered a garbled view of the democratic principle. Now, in the case of the European Commission, authority has been vested in a new clerisy of technocrats and economists. The Council plays the role of the Estates-General, charged with ensuring a form of national representation that is qualitative (maintaining the balance between states) rather than quantitative (based on universal suffrage). The figure of the judge who also legislates, which the French might have thought had disappeared for good in 1789, has been revived. And, finally, the European Parliament, the assembly of those elected by universal suffrage in the various nations, has been reduced to a walk-on role, with no real hold on power. For the countries inside the euro zone, a further step was taken with the creation of a monetary authority – the European Bank – that is free from political control, an arrangement unheard of since the Middle Ages. This resurgence of feudal structures – resulting in the ‘network society’ described by Manuel Castells – is a phenomenon of more widespread significance. It goes hand in hand with the weakening of the model of the sovereign state, and manifests itself also, if less blatantly, in the national judiciaries. We must be aware of this refeudalisation in order to stop democracy becoming a hollow term, and to ensure that citizens continue to have some real purchase on Europe’s political choices.

Since it is not based on the will of a single sovereign people, the EU can be at best only a site of solidarity, and at worst one of competition between nation-states which retain their differences. The turnaround in French opinion stems precisely from the fact that, for the past few years, competition between countries seems to have proved stronger than any organised show of solidarity.

The EU was born out of the political ambition to put an end to the bloody history which led every country in continental Europe in turn to the point of collapse. That political ambition took an economic detour: by linking their material interests and opening up their markets, nations were invited to link their futures. Faithful to an idea dating back to the Enlightenment, the founding fathers of the EEC saw in trade a means not only of circulating goods but also of bringing people closer together. Conceived in this way, the construction of Europe carried within it a twofold promise, in which until recently almost all French people believed. First, the economic promise, inscribed in the Treaty of Rome (Article 117), to ‘promote improved working conditions and an improved standard of living for workers’. And, second, the political promise of European unification based on the values of liberty and solidarity, whose vital importance in maintaining peace had been demonstrated by two world wars.

Even in 1992, a narrow majority of French voters (50.8 per cent) expressed their belief in these two promises by ratifying the Maastricht Treaty, which brought in the common currency. With a rise in unemployment and the pauperisation of a significant part of the working class, doubts were already making themselves felt about the economic promise. On the other hand, the promise of peace and liberty had just been resoundingly realised: the fall of the Iron Curtain, without a shot being fired, meant that people could envisage a Europe reunified around a shared political programme, symbolised by the common currency.

That hope went up in smoke with the Iraq war and the political split it revealed. It was not a split between the peoples of Europe, since the launching of that war in contravention of international law was opposed by the majority in every country. It was, rather, a split between governments: 18 of the 25 member states decided to side with the American coalition and take part in the military occupation of Iraq, while a minority, led by France and Germany, decided firmly to oppose it. In the light of that experience, the creation of a European foreign minister and a common defence policy, as proposed in the treaty, seemed at best an absurdity and at worst to commit the EU to subservience to the foreign policy of the United States. Several provisions in the treaty tend in that direction, such as Article I-40, which requires the actions of the EU to be compatible with those of Nato, and Article III-210, which supports the fight against terrorism in third countries without defining terrorism. The French, faithful in this sense to the heritage of De Gaulle, want nothing to do with such subservience, sought after though it is by the UK and the former Communist countries.

From this, two opposed visions of Europe emerged. According to some, Europe is the oldest but also the weakest part of a homogeneous Western model, and needs to align itself as closely as possible with the international policy of the US; according to others, it needs to become the embodiment of a different conception of the West, one that has learned from the experience of wars and colonisation and takes advantage of the diversity of its cultures.

Europe is similarly divided over the social question. The Treaty of Rome’s promise to improve workers’ standards of living now takes the form of what is pompously referred to as the ‘European social model’. EU law has laid down a few minimal rules aimed at reconciling the principles of free competition and social solidarity. Whether in the area of public services, security of employment or collective bargaining, the law accepts that economic competition must take second place. The principle of solidarity has also led to the setting-up of the European social fund, which transfers resources from the wealthier regions to the poorest. This is the policy of ‘social cohesion’, and it has brought about economic lift-off in Ireland and Portugal.

Recently, however, the principle of solidarity has suffered serious setbacks. It was first questioned by the British, who refused to sign up to any new social legislation and, fewer than ten years after joining the EEC, demanded that they should not pay more into the European budget than they got out of it. This form of accounting has since become more widespread, as each country goes through its books and takes a stand against any initiative that might increase its costs and reduce its returns. The retreat from the spirit of solidarity has also been evident in a set of political choices that tend to pit one national legal system against another, notably where fiscal and social questions are concerned, and in the failure to introduce a European tax capable of financing investment and expenditure in the common interest. Europe continues to cultivate a rhetoric according to which the ‘economic’, which transcends national borders, is opposed to the ‘social’, which is treated as a purely national matter.

The accession of the former Communist countries gave the EU a historic opportunity to base itself definitively on solidarity between member nations. For that to happen, however, their joining would have had to be seen as a true refounding of Europe, with the West agreeing to finance in large measure a Marshall Plan for the East, and the East agreeing in return not to resort to social or fiscal ‘dumping’ in order to compete with the countries from which it expected aid to come. Europe might then have become a place where the solidarity between rich countries and poor ones could be tested. But the opportunity has been lost and the accession of the Eastern countries has been a complete failure, as has been made clear by the impossibility of reaching agreement on a new budget.

Responsibility for this failure must be shared. A heavy responsibility lies with France which, navel-gazing and alarmed by the reunification of Germany, did not follow up on German proposals (Lammers-Schaüble in 1994, Fischer in 1998) for reforming the European political framework before enlargement. And then, as its price for abandoning the deutschmark for the euro, Germany itself imposed monetary and budgetary constraints on the EU which created unemployment in the West and scotched any ambitious financial plans for the Eastern countries. The UK, which has always seen unity on the Continent as a threat, refused to associate itself with a number of common policies (the euro, the Schengen agreement on borders, certain social directives) and then went about fomenting divisions between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Europe. The Eastern countries also bear some responsibility since, by supporting the US rather than France and Germany in the Iraq conflict, they demonstrated scant concern for European political solidarity and flaunted a bellicosity that lost them the sympathy they had previously enjoyed in ‘old’ Europe. By taking a stand against the two founding members of the EU, in order to establish themselves on the international stage, these countries have destroyed the notion of a European policy that might show the world a different face of the West from the American one – and that has had a lot to do with French disillusionment with the EU.

Disaffection with the European idea stems ultimately from the EU’s inability to decide where its borders should be or to take account of the cultural diversity and varied historical experiences of member countries. Like all organisations charged with liberalising international trade, the institutions of the EU are working towards a world made transparent and uniform by the market. The tendency is towards a levelling out of cultural idiosyncrasies. One need only look at a euro banknote to realise what this means. Whereas the currency might have been the symbolic locus of the immense cultural patrimony that Europe holds in common, all traces of that patrimony have been erased and the notes purged of any identifiable symbols. Another – caricatural – manifestation of this drive towards cultural uniformity is evident in the EU’s language policy. Behind the costly façade of an abstract equality between all the languages spoken in member states, the EU’s institutions are promoting a de facto monolingualism, which can lead only to an erosion of the wealth and diversity of European thought. In the legal field in particular, the growing use of English as the single working language carries within it the seeds of the eventual liquidation of Continental law in favour of the common law tradition. By electing to think of Europe only in English, the EU is promoting Europe’s integration into a homogeneous Western model dominated by the United States.

This distaste for cultural diversity is combined with an inability to set limits on the Union. To announce the addition of an indeterminate number of new members only a year after the last enlargement, which has raised enormous and as yet unresolved problems, shows that the technocrats are getting out of control; and a general refusal to go along with them was another element in the French ‘no’ vote. This is not to say that Europe should remain inside its present borders. European culture owes a lot to Russia (which it would be dangerous to isolate) and to the Orthodox world. The Ottoman Empire was for centuries a European power. From the Roman Empire to French colonisation, North Africa has a long common history with Europe.

But the accession of these new states can’t be thought about without taking into account civilisational differences. Otherwise, Brussels will simply find itself repeating, where these ‘transitional’ countries are concerned, the methods the World Bank or the IMF apply to ‘developing’ countries: that is, imposing the model of rich countries on poor ones, whose expertise and experience are ignored. This was the way East Germany was absorbed after reunification: ‘Forget what you were and become what we are!’ The fiction of an immediate metamorphosis of East Germans into West Germans – symbolised by the parity between the two deutschmarks – was thought preferable to a new constitutional pact that would have taken into account the different history and resources of the two sides. Instead of being reconstituted, the Federal Republic was ‘enlarged’ by the ‘new Länder’ – an attempt to wipe out forty years of history with the stroke of a pen. Reunification made those in the East feel ignored and despised, and those in the West resentful of forking out for the ungrateful East Germans. The same error was repeated, minus the financial aid, when the first wave of formerly Communist countries joined the EU. This enlargement obviously raised different problems. Instead of recognising the history, culture and vast needs of the new members, and negotiating with them conditions which might allow them to feel at one with ‘old’ Europe – which would have required time and patience – it was thought sufficient to extend the rules of the single market and watch these countries merge into the Western model. That way of doing things could only foster disillusionment and ill-feeling on both sides.

The failure to agree on boundaries or to take national differences into consideration is a dire consequence of the capitalist dynamic. It is dragging Europe forward in a way that may prove catastrophic. There is no example in history of a large-scale institution enduringly based on foundations such as these. However one feels about the French rejection of the treaty, the crisis it has opened up has at least halted this disastrous march forward.

It would be foolish to claim to be able to assess the consequences of the failure of the constitutional project a little more than a month after the French referendum, but one thing is certain: the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes have signalled a renewed concern with how our citizens should be governed at a time when some had thought we could start concerning ourselves with the governance of things.

Such was the shock they suffered, the French political class and the media have become more introverted than ever. Chirac is clinging onto power, so depriving the country of any credible political voice on the international stage. He has installed an unlikely gathering of politicians at the highest level of government and charged them with re-establishing contact with an imaginary nation: a nation that voted not on Europe itself but against labour laws and in favour of a repressive penal policy. The new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has hurriedly announced a ‘boost’ to employment, in terms that suggest the weariest old nostrums of deregulation. The weakest members of society have been deprived of even the minimal level of protection that remained to them, such as the right not to be laid off without good reason (now abolished for those newly taken on by small firms). The financial incentives to employers that protected older workers have also been withdrawn.

The glamorous Nicolas Sarkozy, the immensely powerful new minister of the interior, president of the UMP and candidate for the presidency, is now touring the problem suburbs, with a large media and police escort in tow, employing language indistinguishable – right down to the scorn displayed towards the judiciary – from that of the delinquents he claims to be power-hosing off the streets. On the left, things are even worse. Having failed to learn anything from its terrible upset at the 2002 presidential elections, the Socialist Party has shown itself incapable of building a credible economic and social alternative. Faced with the massive rejection of the European constitution by working people, the party can think of nothing more constructive than to expel those who supported the ‘no’ vote, in order to try and rob them of political momentum. None of the major parties is now in a position to give political expression to the French vote.

At the European level, the consequences of the rejection can’t yet be known, since according to the terms of the treaty, two years must pass before any ‘difficulties’ with its ratification are addressed. The French and Dutch rejection has merely given governments threatened with a similar fate at the hands of their own electorates a pretext for putting off their referendums indefinitely. And, to add to the EU’s troubles, there is now a budgetary crisis, with the British government refusing to contribute to a financial scheme to support the poorer countries in the East. This isn’t surprising: it fits the traditional British view of Europe as a place for competition rather than co-operation. Blair’s criticism of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is a way of avoiding paying a penny extra, derives from the same source.

Not that the CAP is beyond criticism. Production and export subsidies, which answered to the needs of postwar Europe, now have disastrous effects, both on the economies of countries in the south (whose food resources and rural economy they destroy) and on the environment of countries in the north (water resources are polluted and over-exploited, the produce is tasteless). Having always indulged the agricultural lobby, Chirac has done his utmost to delay the self-evidently necessary reform of the CAP. This is not to say that Europe doesn’t need an agricultural policy. There are good social, economic and ecological reasons for thinking that every major region in the world should have the means to feed its own population without resorting to imports. The full-scale liberalisation of agricultural markets that the British government hopes for would have consequences just as disastrous for countries in the south as the present export subsidies. In Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), a documentary that should be compulsory viewing for all proponents of liberalisation, Hubert Sauper shows that the countries of the south have become a social and ecological disaster zone, as a result of EU aid that encourages them to grow only a narrow range of crops intended for export.

Agricultural spending as a proportion of the EU budget – 40 per cent, soon to be reduced to 35 per cent – may seem vast; but it’s not unreasonable when considered in relation to Europe’s GDP (0.4 per cent). It’s also worth remembering that the EU is the sole source of agricultural subsidy, whereas other programmes are mainly financed out of national budgets. The problem – one the European Commission has been struggling to address for several years – is to find a way of redirecting agricultural subsidies so as not to damage people or the environment. To reduce subsidies at a time when Europe is opening itself up to rural countries, such as Poland, isn’t a solution. To argue that Polish peasants must be deprived of aid in order to increase the amount spent on training and research is at best a get-out clause, at worst a cynical piece of financial manipulation on the part of governments that don’t want to pay the EU any more than they get back from it. If that sort of thinking becomes widespread the EU can only fall apart.

The failure of the constitutional project has put Europe at a crossroads. It will either be absorbed into a vast global market, losing all political identity, or else it will be reconstituted at the behest of those countries which genuinely mean to make Europe a model of solidarity between nations. Both left and right have failed to come to terms with the vast transformations the world has undergone over the last twenty years. Rather than clinging to the model of the welfare state, or trying to outdo one another in the race to liberalise every aspect of life, the parties of the European left should take on board the critique of globalisation that has been developed in other parts of the world and put it into practice. Instead of insisting on the universal benefits of competition, the European right should acknowledge the bankruptcy of the idea of a uniform global market and set about formulating a true economic liberalism, of a kind quite unlike the anarcho-capitalism that now rules supreme.

Anarcho-capitalism (often promoted by former Maoists who have seen the light, such as the current president of the European Commission) puts the market beyond the reach of the law and makes national legal systems subject to a free market in standards. True liberals have always known, to the contrary, that there is no free market without the rule of law. They ought now to concentrate on formulating and putting into effect the rules that a global system of free exchange requires if it is not to degenerate into a situation in which the strongest always win. Neither indeterminate enlargement nor institutional reform can make up for the absence of ambitious political programmes that respond to the actual conditions in which Europe’s citizens live. Europe now needs projects of this sort, but they won’t work if national experiences and national cultures are ignored.