As the next European Parliament election approaches, fear of a nationalist backlash and right wing extremism is spreading. The awakening of the ghost of nationalism is the result of a double failure of the European Union and its leadership. The financial crisis and the immigration crisis that hit Europe during the last decade have proven the unsteadiness of the unification project. In both cases, European leaders’ capitulation to business elite interests have eventually turning the Union into an arena where the national political agendas of member states can be played off against each other.
But the elite commitment to democracy is hardly sincere. They most often remember that commitment when the interests they represent are under threat. At the beginning of February, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble leaked a position paper about the future of the Greek bailout programme.
The plan was to add a sum of 15 to 20 billion euro onto the current deal, avoiding a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), given the delegitimisation these have lately faced throughout Europe. For the same reason this would be connected to those terms that emphasise structural reforms and downgrade fiscal measures. Meanwhile, by lowering interest rates and extending repayment terms for over 50 years, a virtual impression could be created to the effect that the Greek debt is still being paid in full.
In this way Schäuble hoped to rescue the Greek pro-austerity coalition government from potential losses in both the municipal and European elections this May. To put it simply, his problem is that democracy might work and drive things out of government control. So he is hurrying to exercise preventative measures against any derailment of his strategy.
Schäuble’s example of strategic thinking is the embodiment of the kind of European politics that has prevailed since the beginning of the debt crisis in 2009. It is also the kind of thinking that has failed Europe.
Austerity and the international institutions created to implement it, most notably the Troika and the ESM, has turned into a structure through which some member states, with the participation of the European Commission and the ECB, critically undermine the sovereignty of other member states, while any corrective mechanism – like the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament – have become marginalised in the process.
The immigration crisis evolving since the end of the 1990s on the borders of Europe has also degenerated into brinkmanship between south-eastern and north-western member states.
When xenophobia began to dominate the debate on migration, rather than a humane immigration system with regular controls, European leaders, distant from any kind of public scrutiny, chose to build xenophobic high-tech fortresses. This project is energetically promoted by the emerging security-industrial complex which today actively co-dictates European Immigration Policy.
What has this produced? On Monday January 20, a boat capsized killing eleven refugees in the Aegean Sea, during what the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks has described as a ‘failed collective expulsion’.
The Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, who asked for an investigation has vehemently denied any accountability for a policy that has resulted in this shameful tragedy, despite having publicly acknowledged that she knew about the push back operations and failed to act.
While in office, she has extended funding for detentions and utilised Frontex (European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) to pave the way to the militarization of border controls.
In both cases, there were other options. The Eurobond or a controlled debt restructuring were both viable possibilities that would have changed the course of the Eurozone crisis from early on. The Dublin regulation was created in 1997 to identify the country liable for accepting and considering an asylum application. The Common European Asylum System, setting out common high standards and stronger co-operation to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system, was put on paper in 1999. Instead of utilising these further to create a just burden distribution system, member states came up with an externalisation mechanism that passed the responsibility onto others.
Now, at the peak of the crisis, Europe’s technocrats are once again reacting sheepishly. In an attempt to safeguard the future they have chosen for Europe, they are, in effect, willing to risk gambling it away. They watch as Greece begins to turn into an authoritarian state where journalists are persecuted and racist neo-Nazis have been offered extraordinary impunity, all as a result of governmental obsessions with fiscal consolidation.
During the boom years, European leaders promised that if we all run faster away from our history, unconditional and unlimited progress would wait for us around the corner.
What we managed instead was to start repeating Europe’s historical mistakes, surrender democratic functions to turbo-capitalism and unlock the door to a racist and violent authoritarianism.
Europe’ future has been captured by sort of people who pay lip service to its vision while they do the business on behalf of themselves and their patrons. We shouldn’t let them destroy Europe and give in to nationalism; we should fight to recapture it and reinstate its purpose: Europe belongs to us.
This text was initially published in the Open Democracy