Europe and America

21:00 Thu 25 Oct 2007. Updated: 08:31 09 Jun 2009
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Perry Anderson’s ‘Depicting Europe’in the London Review of Books is an excellent overview of Europe’s current political condition, its recent past, and its near-term direction. Anderson makes clear the widening democratic deficit in the European Union, an unsurprising outcome of having elites create new layers of separation between them and those they rule. He also argues forcefully against the idea that the EU and the US are at loggerheads, or that they represent two markedly different political philosophies, and that despite surface appearances, Europe is politically more a US pawn than it has been for decades.

That the creation of supranational institutions without corresponding true supranational representation (the European Parliament does not control the important EU decision-making functions) would lead to less meaningful democracy is fairly obvious. Those decision-making institutions (such as the Council of Ministers) are really intended to be a further buffer from the annoying interference of the masses, which suits the rulers quite well. The completely shameful (and shameless) conduct of the European elites in response to public rejection of the EU Constitution makes this extremely obvious:

The Constitution—more than 500 pages long, comprising 446 articles and 36 supplementary protocols, a bureaucratic elephantiasis without precedent—increased the power of the four largest states in the Union, Germany, France, Britain and Italy; topped the inter-governmental complex in which they would have greater sway with a five-year presidency, unelected by the European Parliament, let alone the citizens of the Union; and inscribed the imperatives of a ‘highly competitive’ market, ‘free of distortions’, as a foundational principle of political law, beyond the reach of popular choice. The founders of the American Republic would have rubbed their eyes in disbelief at such a ponderous and rickety construction. But so overwhelming was the consensus of the continent’s media and political class behind it, that few doubted it would come into force. To the astonishment of their rulers, however, voters made short work of it.

[... P]opular repudiation of the charter for a new Europe, not because it was too federalist, but because it seemed to be little more than an impenetrable scheme for the redistribution of oligarchic power, embodying everything most distrusted in the arrogant, opaque system the EU appeared to have become, was not in reality a bolt from the blue. Virtually every time—there have not been many—that voters have been allowed to express an opinion about the direction the Union was taking, they have rejected it. The Norwegians refused the EC tout court; the Danes declined Maastricht; the Irish, the Treaty of Nice; the Swedes, the euro. Each time, the political class promptly sent them back to the polls to correct their mistake, or waited for the occasion to reverse the verdict.

Either they made the electorate vote again until they got it right, or they simply altered the rules so as to not require any direct measure of the public’s opinion. So what has taken shape as the European Union is fundamentally ademocratic, corporate-capitalist, dedicated to stripping away the rather popular constraints on “neoliberalism” while giving national elites cover to do so. This is led by Germany, with results that can be seen in this article about the novel appearance of soup kitchens for the poor in the Federal Republic.

These elites, then, are hardly the enlightened rulers of a fully-democratic federation that will defend all its people against the cruelties of American-style “free markets”. As for other forms of resistance to American imperialism, these are taken mostly to assuage, where necessary, the animated throngs:

[T]he extent of European opposition to the march on Baghdad was always something of an illusion. On the streets, in Italy, Spain, Germany, Britain, huge numbers of people demonstrated against the invasion. Opinion polls showed majorities against it everywhere. But once it had occurred, there was little protest against the occupation, let alone support for the resistance to it. Most European governments—Britain, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal in the West; all in the East—backed the invasion, and sent troops to bulk up the US forces holding the country down. Out of the 12 member states of the EU in 2003, just three—France, Germany and Belgium—came out against the prospect of war before the event. None condemned the attack when it was launched.
Chirac and Schröder had a domestic interest in countering the invasion. Each judged his electorate well, and gained substantially—Schröder securing re-election—from his stance. On the other hand, American will was not to be trifled with. So each compensated in deeds for what he proclaimed in words, opposing the war in public, while colluding with it sub rosa. Behind closed doors in Washington, France’s ambassador Jean-David Levitte—currently Sarkozy’s diplomatic adviser—gave the White House a green light for the war, provided it was on the basis of the first generic UN Resolution 1441, as Cheney wanted, without returning to the Security Council for the second explicit authorisation to attack that Blair wanted, which would force France to veto it. In ciphers from Baghdad, German intelligence agents provided the Pentagon with targets and co-ordinates for the first US missiles to hit the city, in the downpour of Shock and Awe. Once the ground war began, France provided airspace for USAF missions to Iraq (which Chirac had denied Reagan’s bombing of Libya), and Germany a key transport hub for the campaign. Both countries voted for the UN resolution ratifying the US occupation of Iraq, and lost no time recognising the client regime patched together by Washington.

And if one puts both economics and foreign affairs aside, looking at a narrowly-constrained conception of human rights, is Europe then an enlightened counterpart to the torturing and interning Americans? No:

Poland did not transmit captives to their fate in the Middle East, but incarcerated them for treatment on the spot, in torture chambers constructed for ‘high-value detainees’ by the CIA at the Stare Kiejkuty intelligence base, Europe’s own Baghram—facilities unknown in the time of Jaruzelski’s martial law. In Romania, a military base north of Constanza performed the same services, under the superintendence of the country’s current president, the staunchly pro-Western Traian Basescu.

The British, Germans, Irish, Italians, Swedes—they too all cooperated in funnelling people elsewhere for torture or illegal imprisonment. These two reports detail European involvement in human rights abuses at the behest of the United States.

Does this mean that Europe isn’t any “better” than the US? It’s not clear what such a question would really mean, but Europe stands in distanced complicity with US actions most people find reprehensible, not in active and outraged opposition. While public opinion is certainly important, and it’s obviously better to live in countries whose populations are staunchly against the commission of war crimes, the gap between that public opinion and government action is quite appalling. On both sides of the Atlantic, “the West” is moving steadily away from relevant democracy, and towards entrenching economic inequality and the power of the elite classes. The European rulers might in private be grateful to Bush, for while he makes their public roles awkward with his open contempt for international law (and the environment, human rights, human life, democracy, the list goes on), he also makes them look like shining beacons of reason and democratic accountability while they move closer to oligarchy (with “democratic” trappings).

Also on both sides of the Atlantic, the only real force in the way is popular will. The US and EU are still democratic in nature, in that it’s still possible to impose the will of the people on the elites. But this requires constant vigilance, effort, and education—none of which are in ready supply. From 1950 onwards, I think that citizens in the West enjoyed privilege (particularly economic) unmatched since the dawn of nations, and so far we have frittered it away, preferring not to ask questions about the origins of that privilege or about the increasing power of our rulers. We let ourselves be lulled by the idea that things would simply get better, because that was the nature of “progress”, and keep believing that even as certain things—vastly important things—grow worse. If mostly things seem okay, and progress is just going to happen naturally (and fighting the current can be dangerous), why risk our comforts? Oh, hello, Tyranny—I didn’t recognize you, you look so much softer and gentler than I expected.

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