This is the first of a two-part series of articles on the European Union that was published in issue 22 of Socialist Alternative. The second part, to be published in the issue 24, will examine the history of post-war British capitalism, the origins of Brexit and the aftermath.
In March 2021, just as the third wave of Coronavirus reached its peak, panic broke out among the ruling elites across Europe. The Italian government refused to allow a consignment of vaccine to be exported to Australia, then European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen threatened to prevent the export to Britain of Astra-Zeneca vaccine manufactured on the continent. Some Eastern European governments, desperate to lay hands on vaccines, opted out of EU arrangements and did deals with Russia for their Sputnik vaccine. Commentators coined the term ‘vaccine nationalism’ to describe this scrambling and hoarding behaviour. How could the European Union fail this vital test of international cooperation? Was the failure a one-off or an indication of a deeper problem?
Origins of the European Union
In the aftermath of WW2 European ‘integration’ began with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), an alliance of six capitalist countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and West Germany – to promote free movement of coal and steel. It had the added intention of acting as a counter-weight to both the USA and the Soviet Union, the two major power blocs emerging from WW2. Ultimately a ‘federal Europe’ would be the goal, and war would be avoided.
The 1950s and 1960s were a period of unparalleled growth among the advanced economies of Europe. The US, anxious about the expansion of the Soviet Union’s influence and the radical demands of the European working class, spent the equivalent of over $100 billion to re-build and modernise Europe’s shattered economies. Post war recovery was further driven by the development of new industries such as plastics, electronics and motor vehicles. The modern capitalist economy was no longer defined by coal and steel and saw the expansion of large European multinationals so the ECSC gave way to the European Economic Community (EEC); this was established formally by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and was aimed at promoting unfettered movement of all goods across the EEC through a customs union.
This was a period of optimism for the capitalist class, despite the limits set on their ambitions by the considerable class struggles of the time such as the general strikes in Belgium (1961) and France (1968). A number of governments applied to join the EEC and there was significant expansion in Southern Europe (eg. Greece 1981, Spain 1986) and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe (e.g. Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, all 2004). A European Single Market was declared in 1993 which enshrines free movement of capital, people, goods and services across the EU. A capitalist heaven on earth!
Right of veto
By 1993 the EEC, henceforth known as the European Union (EU), had accrued a number of supranational institutions – an administrative Commission, a Parliament, a Court – which operated cautiously, initially via consensus, then by majority voting but with a right of veto for an individual capitalist government if they felt their interests were threatened. Even this was possible only on the basis of rising profitability and annual increases in world trade that today’s capitalists can only dream of.
As the EU expanded fissures began to develop. Most of Europe can be regarded as advanced economies, yet serious disparities of income, productivity etc emerged between the more affluent countries of Northern Europe – Finland, Germany, Austria etc – and those in the South and East. From 2011 onwards Greece was subjected to crushing pressure by the European Commission and others to slash state expenditure. The Greek working class responded with a series of over 30 general strikes and elected a left government led by Syriza to challenge the EU but refusing to break with capitalism, gave way to the pressure and capitulated.
However there is an even deeper problem with the EU. There are two contradictions at the heart of capitalism. One is the contradiction between the development of the productive forces – capital, machines, buildings, computers – and private ownership of those means, since the competition between individual capitalists for market share fuels overproduction. Vehicle production, for example, is dominated by a handful of international players – Ford, Volkswagen, Nissan etc – each trying to grab market share from its competitors and carrying spare capacity in the hope of doing so.
But there is a further contradiction, between the development of the productive forces and the nation state. The development of the nation state was a feature of the bourgeois revolutions which paved the way for industrial capitalism. However the boundaries of nation states are just as much a barrier to further development as private property, since capitalist governments represent the interests of their ‘own’ capitalist class. Thus the US government backs Ford, the German government backs Volkswagen and the Japanese government Nissan. This can be seen most clearly in the extreme resistance of the US government – whether under Trump or Biden – to the idea of US tech giants being taxed in the countries where they earn their profits. Each nation state represents the interests of its own capitalist class and each state consists of, in the final analysis and in the words of Engels, ‘armed bodies of men’. While periods of peaceful development can obscure this, periods of crisis bring it to the fore; inter-imperialist rivalries can lead to conflict and even to war.
Super-state is a fantasy
That’s not to say a war in Europe is likely but it does mean the development of a federal European super-state is impossible on a capitalist basis. Nation states are created on the basis of a shared territory, a history, a language, a culture. While such a nation state (e.g the USA or Australia) may decide to adopt a federal constitution with certain functions devolved to regions, there has never been a successful example of a new state covering the territory of 27 (or more) nation states who voluntarily give up their autonomy. Even in the US, on the basis of shared territory, language etc there are enormous and growing tensions between the federal government and the state capitols, which the Trump regime exposed and exploited and which the pandemic has deepened. There is zero possibility of a federal state being formed to encompass the area of the existing EU.
As ‘vaccine nationalism’ has shown the fantasies of a European federal super-state have evaporated and, on the basis of deepening crisis, the interests of each national capitalist class will increasingly come to the fore. The current crisis over Ukraine has shown widely differing responses by EU governments with Germany noticeably less enthusiastic about potential sanctions if Russia invades. Only the working class is the truly international class. International working-class solidarity is the basis for building an international socialist movement which fights for a voluntary, democratic confederation of socialist states of Europe, based on public ownership and workers’ control, as part of a socialist world.