“And he recalled the ancient adage: Who must do the harsh things? He who can.”
Europe is about to faces a series of difficult decisions that will affect its future for years to come. The social contradictions of keeping an expanding globalized economy running, which at the same time disenfranchises millions of workers, are now too obvious to turn a blind eye to. Many efforts towards making a livable European community are in disarray, and most of the benefits accrue to the core EU states of Germany, the UK (for now), and France.
Immigrants from South and Eastern Europe move west to find work, and are denigrated as second class citizens. Brussels imposes harsh austerity on nations already suffering huge debts and high unemployment. Xenophobia and outright racism is on the rise against migrants from Asia and North Africa, and communities in the banlieues of Paris and Brussels face discrimination and crushing poverty. Far-right nationalist parties are gaining ground in parliaments across the continent.
On June 23rd, the United Kingdom will vote on its long awaited referendum to stay in or leave the European Union. The polls have put the Remain and Leave camps in a dead heat. While the issues surrounding the pros and cons of EU membership are complex, both sides continue to use confused and emotional arguments to further their cause.
In general, UK right-wingers and conservatives who advocate leaving the EU focus on the rise of migrants and immigrants who are, to a very small degree, taking away jobs from working and middle class citizens. This is part of a wider rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the US. UK Leavers also believe the onerous regulations and bureaucratic zealotry of the EU is a drag on Britain’s economy. However, the entire tone is nativist and tribalist, whether in regards to immigrants or fellow European nations: the Tories, UKIP, and allies are no doubt consumed by anger against an Other, where no comprises and middle ground can be made.
The Remain campaign tends to focus on monetary matters as well: being in the EU provides many trade and tax advantages with other EU states. The free flow of goods, people, and advanced research benefits citizens throughout the whole Union. Standards for workers rights, manufacturing, food safety standards, anti-GMO laws, and limiting workweek hours in certain public and industrial sectors are just some of the positive legislation the EU has passed. Bolstering their argument, pro-EU Brits rightly point out that reforming the EU will be much easier working with fellow EU states than removing itself from the Union.
The irony of UK politicians and public figures wanting to leave the EU after pleading for Scotland to stay in the UK not two years ago is not lost on the world at large. The selfishness and bigotry on display of the Leavers is absolutely shameful, even though fair arguments can be made to consider abandoning the EU.
Whatever the motives, it appears that many in the Leave campaign do fit the mold of “Little Englanders”. Many have been brainwashed by conservative (ahem, Murdoch) media, and support the vile, dangerous, racist demagogue Nigel Farage. Most of the Leavers seem willing to retreat to an insular isolationism as the world burns and Europe lurches from one crisis to the next. In the Leavers post-truth, magical thinking politics, Great Britain is a sort of island fortress, with the English Channel being a deranged parallel to Trump’s wall shutting out Mexico.
The UK is not the only country facing reactionary nationalism, however. In France, the “Socialist” government of Francois Hollande has passed dread-inducing anti-labor legislation, allowing companies to re-negotiate hours, holidays, bonuses, and corporate layoffs for “poor results”. (1) The emergency powers granted by executive order have also blatantly discriminated against French Muslims. (2) Students, the youth, and civic groups are revolting against this madness, and demonstrations and riots are continuing. Encouragingly, the courageous, upstart Nuit Debout is gaining worldwide attention.
France’s problems will no doubt continue, however, because the 2017 presidential election opinion results show the center-right Republicans and the far-right National Front (FN) well ahead in the polls. We must consider the implications of this neo-populist, authoritarian turn in France. Instead of the fictional satire in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, we should worry about the obverse scenario: a spirit-crushing, boot-licking, reactionary authoritarian National Front regime.
In Germany, Angela Merkel showed great humanitarianism last year by choosing to allow about one million refugees into her country. In 2016, a million more may enter Germany. However, she is being rewarded for this by dropping in the polls, just as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is rising.
Germany has its own set of contradictions. Merkel and Schauble promoting austerity for Greece last year permanently damaged their support among the center and moderate leftists. On a positive note, citizens are speaking out against NATO, and protests have erupted outside the Ramstein Air Force Base, which acts as a major conduit for drone operations and air dominance across Eurasia. (3) German FM Steinmeier has disavowed NATO’s Anaconda 16 exercise, calling for calm and a diplomatic solution to the US-Russia standoff. (4) Yet at the same time, most of Merkel’s coalition, the Bundeswehr, and the BND are complicit servants of NATO and US intelligence. It is unclear whether the Greens or the Left Party will be able to mount a challenge for elections in 2017.
In Poland and worldwide, the imbecility of President Andrzej Duda is well known. Spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric, censoring media, pardoning corrupt officials, and interfering with the judiciary are just a few of his crimes. In Hungary, Viktor Orban continues to consolidate power and thrives on divisiveness, while turning towards authoritarianism and enriching corrupt oligarchs, even as he fends off the neo-fascist Jobbik party. In Austria, this May, the right-wing, immigrant-hating Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in its presidential election. (If there was any doubt as to the more intelligent sex, women voted 60-40 in favor of Hofer’s opponent and the winner, the reasonable Green ally Alexander Van der Bellen, while men voted 60% for Hofer.) (5)
Nationalists and outright fascists will continue to fill a political void as long as moderates and mainstream leftists refuse to confront global capitalism. It is the systemic disruptions and impoverishment that neoliberalism creates which is leading the working classes to accept the comforting lies that populist demagogues throughout Europe are peddling.
What can be done? The EU and national parliaments should embrace the legacy of peace and solidarity that countries have enjoyed post-1945. Yet this is only a beginning, a point of departure: Europeans must embrace the Enlightenment values of universal human rights. In short, supporters of Euro unity must ditch globalization in favor of universalism. (6) This will mean expanding political rights and resources outside of the EU to the developing world. It will mean radically redistributing flows of renewable energy, efficient housing, jobs, social welfare, and global health initiatives to the poorest nations. It will take hard work and sacrifice, and a humbling acknowledgment of globalization’s misdeeds. As Baudrillard points out:
“The establishment of a global system is the result of an intense jealousy. It is the jealousy of an indifferent and low-definition culture against cultures with higher definition, of a disenchanted and de-intensified system against high intensity cultural environments, and of a de-sacralized society against sacrificial forms.” (7)
With the scope of environmental disasters, greenhouse emissions, nuclear disarmament, GMO and pesticide misuse, plus billions living in extreme poverty, solutions can only be formulated and carried out by transnational groups. There is space for the EU, the BRICS, the SCO, ASEAN, OAS, and others. Coordinated with help from the UN, these organizational groups could be adapted to help solve our most vexing issues.
Yet the conservative leadership structure in nations like Russia, China, and India will not choose to help if Europe does not lead. The elites in these countries no doubt respect the stable middle class and environmental protections that most EU nations possess. A UK vote to leave the EU, and xenophobic national parties favoring protectionism and isolationism, would send the wrong message to developing nations. Only international brotherhood, with open and trusting relations, can heal the wounds of global capitalism. While it might appear harsh for Europeans to slough off their capitalist and nationalist nature, bloated and satiated from centuries of imperialism and colonialism, it is the only option. Europe has the resources and at times demonstrates a strong commitment to democracy and human rights. So who must do the harsh things? He who can.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. His work has appeared at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can find his ebook, Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire, on Amazon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org