The European Project has always been to further capitalism, not to foster peace

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My appreciation of Syriza has not really changed since the Greek capitulation to the Brussels-Frankfurt Gang. Syriza used to be Synaspismos, and the majority in that party never did really ‘get’ the European Union, what it is, what it’s for, and how those things make it unreformable. No matter. Until ten years ago I worked alongside them in the European Parliament, and they consistently voted against neoliberal proposals. The same goes for the party I represented on the secretariat of the United European Left, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), though they were and remain much closer to ‘getting’ the EU. Others in the group varied in their views, but continued to vote consistently – and to organise - to oppose the increasingly extremist plans coming out of the European Commission.

Yet in the last few years, as criticism of the EU from the radical parliamentary left has become better informed and more acute, a position has developed which sees the honing of ‘Europe’ into a hugely effective weapon of corporate capital as a recent activity. It is no such thing.

The position is based on the dangerously erroneous belief that the ‘European project’ was originally motivated by a desire for peace. The story goes like this: after the Second World War a number of countries in Europe decided to move towards a partial integration of their economies. Hitler and others had tried this at various times in the past, but always by violence. This time democratic countries would cooperate of their own free will. The goals would be freedom, peace and prosperity. And so, in 1957, with the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community was born, and a gradual process of economic integration began, accompanied by a cautious political integration. Everything changed in 1992, with the Maastricht treaty which established the European Union as a vehicle for a specific form of politics, a neoliberal politics aimed at holding down wages, running down social security and deregulating markets. Since then democracy has been increasingly revealed as window-dressing, as a series of popular votes against EU plans (France and the Netherlands, 2005, Ireland 2008, Greece 2015) has been ignored, or worse.

The main impulse behind this false view of the European project is a desire to counter the accusation – common enough – that to take an EU-critical position is to be a nationalist. That’s why I have always described myself as ‘opposed to this European Union’. To go further than that, however, and to suggest that the EU is a good idea gone bad, is very misleading, perhaps dangerously so.

The EEC was not established to foster peace. This is not to say that there was no impulse to create a peaceful community of nations in place of the warring tribes who had been at each other’s throats, on and off, since time immemorial. This was a widespread feeling amongst ordinary working- and middle class people, but it was not something which particularly motivated the ruling class. The impulse to economic integration was instead done under pressure from the two postwar superpowers. On the one hand, fear of the Soviet Union’s appeal to working people in the west – evidenced by mass Communist Parties in Italy and France – meant that it was imperative that as Europe recovered from war, organised labour got a share of the spoils in the form of rising standards of living, solidly social democratic welfare states, and most importantly full employment. On the other, European integration and the creation of accessible markets and opportunities for investment were vital to the postwar programme of the other superpower, the United States.  Indeed, the idea of a Soviet military ‘threat’ to Western Europe was largely an American invention. It allowed them to establish not only the EEC but NATO, a sort of protection racket which would enable them to subordinate former enemies and allies alike. The European bourgeoisie had no problem with this, as it consolidated their own hold on power.  But as the economy hit the buffers in the 1970s and the rate of profit began to decline, the welfare state could no longer be afforded. Elements which have been retained are either those to which people (including many ordinary Tory voters) are most attached – the NHS, for instance – or those, like the benefit system, which have been retooled as disciplinary mechanisms. Neoliberalism, a fringe philosophy until then, had come into its own.  

Capitalism gives only what we can extract from it. Working men and women in many countries died fighting for parliamentary representation. So if they give us a European Parliament which no-one ever asked for, let alone demonstrated for, you should smell a rat. Only fear of our power has ever made them use their power to give us what we want.  That fear has long been at a low ebb. As Thatcher and Reagan successfully stuck the boot into the labour movement, the right went on the attack. As the Soviet Union collapsed, taking most western Communist Parties with it, capitalism suddenly found itself without serious organised opposition. The Maastricht Treaty was the consequence of all of this, and it was indeed a harsher version of neoliberal economic integration than anything which went before. Yet it is also a logical development. Like the welfare state, it is a tactic to preserve capitalism. This is the EU’s only real function. Tsipras and Varoufakis approached the Brussels-Frankfurt gang as if they were negotiating with reasonable people who wanted the same as they did – to restore the Greek economy and save people’s lives – but had different ideas about how to achieve it. In reality they were engaged in class war.

To stand on a battlefield convinced you’re a diplomat and not a soldier at all is unlikely to end well. That’s what the Greek government did, and that’s why – for the time being - they lost.