I am currently reading Neil Fligstein’s ‘Euroclash: The EU, European Identity, and the Future of Europe‘ in relation to a project I am hopefully starting next year. I am still in the beginning of the book but it has clarified a lot of phenomena already which have happened since the start of the Eurocrisis. One thing that struck me in particular was that Fligstein awarded a high probability of a scenario of ‘muddling through’. This is in the context of the creation of an European society, but it sounds extremely familiar:
Here, governments continue to be ineffective in combating slow growth and inflation, but keep the EU at its current institutional level. This could happen without increased cooperation across Europe. In this version, each welfare state decides to follow its own path toward economic and social reform.
The kicker, of course, is that due to the EMU (and policies invented since 2008) countries do not have the freedom to follow their own paths. Just the other day the European Commission revealed which countries are up for in-depth reviews (16 out of 17 eurozone members!) which may or may not have rather far reaching consequences (ranging from ‘Recommendations’ to placement under the Excessive Imbalances Procedure).
But my main point is actually that Fligstein probably correctly analysed the basis of EU support prior to 2008 (when the book came out). He argues, in short, that support for the EU is largely clustered around support for trade. This is also a conscious choice by governments – they have wanted to keep control of non-trade policy fields at the national level (pensions, social security, education etc.) So, the original support for the EU, according to Fligstein, comes from those social groups that have interests in issues of trade – business owners, professionals, lawyers etc. Through international interaction also research, higher education and such became more represented through associations. Fligstein argues that in these processes benefits from trade also ‘trickled down’ to the middle classes in the form of the possibility of relatively cheap holidays and the possibility to work and study elsewhere. He argues that one could make a three-fold distinction between ‘classes’ – upper-class, ‘cosmopolitan’ people who have benefited greatly from trade and intra-European social interaction, a middle class which has benefited from the trade but is not so active in terms of social interactions (e.g. in trans-national associations) an finally a ‘lower’ class which has been actually been harmed by the opening of trade – whether through displacement of jobs or unavailability of means to travel and study (simply put).
The developments in the Eurocrisis, and in particular the economic policy components of this, look like the EU (or the EC in combination with the so-called core members who call the shots) is actively breaking down the support it had. Blue-collar workers (within a country) have usually had few reasons to especially like opening of trade, but the citizens which in Fligstein’s argument are the kind of middle class used to be quite important for increasing European integration.
It is an entirely correct observation (e.g. by Yanis Varoufakis) that the EU has been very much an elite project – to which there have been both winners and losers. Current economic policies (e.g. austerity, Macro-economic Imbalances Procedure) do very much to touch upon the issues that the less-engaged groups of society wanted to keep at the national level (broadly the welfare state). But, in contrast to earlier, these policies actively harm the ‘middle groups’ that previously have been instrumental in making the EU palatable in the first place. Why? The economy of many European countries is down the drain, which makes unemployment also a daily reality for those with previously safe jobs (relatively highly educated, salaried employees). The current economic policies are aimed at ‘structural reforms’ and ‘labour market flexibility’ – which are never fully explicated but amount to dismantling many achievements of the welfare state and labour market institutions.
Thus, the groups that previously found benefit from the EU are now also in the category that experiences mostly harm. Therefore it is absolutely no surprise that in many European countries one can observe a surge in anti-European parties, and more on the right than on the left. The EU has, through the back-door, found ways to directly impact on the policy fields that anti-EU groups (i.e. citizens) had wanted to keep out of the European scope. It is very understandable that citizens in many countries are enraged about the EU – which has never been an object of direct love in any case.
Maybe the political implications of current economic policies will dawn on the elites that make these policies before it is too late and the EU disintegrates even before the Eurozone disintegrates.