Don Kalb: The EU at 60: the Treaty of Rome is a smoke screen

This post is part of a feature on anthropologists on the EU at 60, moderated and edited by Don Kalb (Central European University and University of Bergen).

The EU commemorates its 60th birthday today (25 March 2017), at a time when the institution is more contested than ever. The 1957 Treaty of Rome was an indisputable step toward undergirding the Western part of the continent of Europe with a set of international institutions that would help to secure peace, prosperity, and shared social citizenship—the sort of internationalism that had been urged by the likes of Keynes and Monnet long before the war. This happened against a historical background of half a century of deep, recurrent crisis, escalating class conflict, rivalry, and revenge that had unleashed industrialized destruction on an unprecedented scale. Without any irony, therefore, two loud cheers, please, for the Treaty of Rome and what it sought to secure. This is the basis of what majorities on the continent still like to imagine, defend, and wish to become part of, as their common and cherished symbolic home.

Yet, the commemoration of the Treaty of Rome as the birthday of the EU as we know it cunningly suggests a continuity where such continuity has long been lost and indeed has been deliberately erased. Celebrating the treaty serves now mainly as an ideological smoke screen. Today’s EU of 27 countries may claim the European Economic Community (EEC) of the 6 as its legal precursor, but the “really existing EU” of the present is anchored in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the Monetary Union of 1999, and the accession of the Eastern postsocialist countries from 2004 to 2006. This really existing EU of Maastricht is forged during the political shocks delivered by the collapse of world socialism from 1989 to 1992. It functions in a global context not of postwar ideological and geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union, itself an outgrowth of Europe’s own historical production of a socialist Left in response to capitalist class conflict from above, but in a globalized world without any such socialism around and a financialized capitalism the only and therefore increasingly turbulent game in town. This is also a postsocialist world in which post-Maoist China has become the new workshop of the world, setting the standard for low-skilled wage costs anywhere. The EU now mainly facilitates the negotiated and coordinated institutionalization of that global reality within each of the 27 nation-states, while it is held to rhetorically equate both this process and its outcomes with the idealized liberal traditions of the handful of countries at its historical core—increasingly an impossibility and indeed ever more often a lie.

Some of those liberal traditions are institutionalized in solid EU procedures: one is the extremely modest redistribution—0.5 percent of Euroland GDP—that the EU disburses more or less 50-50 through the agricultural and structural funds. This is a corporatist rather than a social-citizenship form of intervention, an investment gift based on deservingness with duties attached rather than anything resembling a right. Another is the European Court of Justice, which defends “human rights” but avowedly not social rights. None of them can compensate for the social effects of global, financialized, capitalist markets, as Chris Hann has remarked.

The EU’s high point, or rather the EEC’s high point, was the presidency of Jacques Delors, not insignificantly a Christian socialist. Under his leadership, the European Council (of Heads of State) unanimously committed, in 1983, to “ever greater union.” To the extent that I remember this well, there was nothing exceptional to this deed; it was indeed what most people in my country of birth, the Netherlands, despite sharp political divisions on anything else, were optimistically expecting to happen. It was also what many people in those European countries I was traveling in during my holidays, seemed happy to embrace. It was what the occupiers of Polish universities in support of Solidarnosc in 1981, with whom I spent time, were ardently hoping for themselves as well. The same was true for the squatters of Berlin, where I lived in 1984, not to speak of the Spanish youth that I got to know in Barcelona just after the failed Francist coup in 1983. It was literally common good sense everywhere on the mainland.

In retrospect, it is a mystery that the British government under Margaret Thatcher agreed with that declaration. The British were latecomers who joined the EEC in 1976, held back by the French who did not trust their commitment—rightly so, we now know. They did so at a moment of deep, protracted, economic and political crisis in Britain—one that I observed from up close during numerous hitchhiking trips between 1976 and 1981. Almost at the same moment of entering the EU, the British Labour government had called in the IMF for budget support but in particular in order to circumvent and then destroy the influence of the labor unions, a process finally completed by Thatcher in her war on the Yorkshire miners in 1984 and 1985. In the end, the Brits joined, not to become a member like the others but to lead the European Community away from precisely that politically integrated union, seeking to constrict its remit to the single market. Britain saw its access to the single market, rightly, as a boon to the attraction of foreign capital now that its own capital was running out—US capital seeking to penetrate the continent through the liberalized London Stock Exchange (1986) and the automatic European passporting rights for agencies located in the city (more than 50 percent of banks and funds active in the “the City” are American), and East Asian capital interested in setting up manufacturing industries on the basis of flexible, low-cost labor in the declining midlands for exports to the continent.

The British—a poor nation in the 1970s whose middle classes had loudly chosen, with Thatcher, against the centralized welfare state and its powerful unions and for the resurrection of capitalism pure and simple—were also the greatest enemies of the European “social chapter,” a chapter that was under discussion in the late 1980s but ultimately destroyed during the negotiations that led to Maastricht. The right-wing Dutch government (chairing the process that concluded the treaty) and German government found themselves in convenient agreement with Thatcher’s neoliberals and indeed allowed them further opt-outs on what was left of European labor regulations. The French, lonely social democrats in Northern Europe at that point, whose initial Keynesian push at domestic spending had been annulled by a weakening franc against the Deutsche Mark and consequent steep rises in French interest rates, had been focused on getting Germany to accept a common currency in exchange for their support for German reunification. That promise of a common currency, however, was only finally realized after France and the others had signed the Stability Pact of 1996, which assured the Germans and their Dutch allies that the euro would be a hard and worthy successor to the D-Mark. After Reunification, the Deutsche Bundesbank (DB) had massively mobilized against the integration on soft terms of the East German economy (Ostmark/D-Mark one to one, plus large West to East subsidies). The DB had pushed up the interest rates, thus imposing crisis and austerity on the rest of Europe, and had subsequently convinced the German public that similar political crimes against sound money were not to be made with the euro. The Dutch agreed before the DB had actually spoken and received the prize of the first presidency of the European Central Bank after the Germans had preferred Frankfurt as its location over Amsterdam. These are some of the stories that need to be told if we want to get at a realistic account of the actual EU: with the Soviet Union gone and domestic neoliberalism on the ascendant everywhere, the EU of Maastricht in 1992 was born under conditions that were radically opposite to those under which the EEC of Rome in 1957 had come into being. The apparent continuity of formal identity obscured very substantial, increasingly inescapable contradictions.

The social democratic community of 6 more or less equals has transformed into an unwieldy neoliberal union of 27 extremely unequal members—stretching from some of the most wealthy urban regions on Earth such as Hamburg and Copenhagen to countries like Bulgaria and Romania that are below the averages of Latin America and, with Poland and the Baltics, among the top emigration countries worldwide. Equal status of the members was liberal fiction. To East European members, this had always been clear. Intimately familiar with irony, they liked the sweet talk but had no doubts about the reality. Among the older members, the lie was at last exposed in the course of the recent crises, as the underlying hierarchies—normally misrecognized as “convergence,” “partnership,” “coordination,” and “support”—were openly paraded. The EU has become a semi-imperial, technocratic, debt collection agency for Northern capital and for dictating the liberal rules that suit the core states to their Southern and Eastern vassals—not unlike the relationship of the IMF and the World Bank to the Global South in the 1980s. While the EEC, as Alan Millward has classically argued, enhanced the sovereignty of national states, the current setup makes a joke of sovereign democracy. The Southern publics, participating in the euro and deeply dependent on Brussels, Berlin, and Frankfurt, have generally responded to this reversal in Leftist ways, summoning back the social democratic modernizing promises that the EEC embodied at their point of entry in the mid-1980s. Eastern populations have revolted toward the Right, seeking to revitalize the promise of national sovereignty that they thought to have acquired in 1989. Italy, by far the largest economic liability of the euro system, is suspended in the middle of its unsustainable equations and has generated the hybrid Left/Right/center populist radicalism of the Five Star Movement that does not know where to go except against the euro and, as such, increasingly against the EU. Meanwhile, the illiberal mobilizations in Eastern Europe—Hungary, Poland—find their equivalents in the rising tide of the populist Right in the northwest, with Brexit as its most dramatic and in retrospect rather predictable outcome for now. Everywhere in the northwest, as in the East, and indeed in President Donald Trump’s United States, “white working classes” (see Focaalblog posts from Gill and Ross, Kapferer, and Sampson) in depressed and abandoned regions under the whip of economic globalization and facing foreign immigration amid emigration of their own youth, are being blamed for the right-wing tide—indeed, the Eastern provincial working classes had been suffering the early dying that has now been discovered in the United States much earlier. Under the hysteria around actual or imagined mass immigration, terrorism, and threats to security, class grievances have generally been turned into a cultural mobilization against the cosmopolitan liberal classes and their embrace of multiculturalism and immigrants. In the absence of a Left that works, class has been metamorphosed into culture.

In the course of my international career as an anthropologist, I have come to see myself as a European citizen of Dutch nationality (by default). I have lived and worked for 15 years in Budapest, after a stint in Vienna as the director of a Ford Foundation–sponsored program for Eastern Europe; I am now working on two new global research projects, one based in Halle, Germany, and one in Bergen, Norway, both focusing on the social relationships of global financialized capitalism. I am a European cosmopolitan whether I like it or not, and my life is very literally interwoven with the making of the EU. But I have also walked, as many others, in the global marches in February 2003 against US President George W. Bush’s and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s scandalous attacks on Iraq—and still thankful for the German-French refusal to support them (do consider the cruel irony that the Brits are now leaving the EU so that they do not need to accept the refugees produced by the monster of ISIS that is so much of their own making while Germany remains formally welcoming). I have contributed to alterglobalist and left-wing organizing. And I have in my scholarly work tried to contribute toward a critique of post-1989 globalized capitalism, its production of vast inequalities, its blatant—indeed violent—geographic unevenness, and its intensifying exploitation of the world’s human and natural resources. We now know for sure, as many of us have warned all along, that a liberal globalization of accumulation is not a durable possibility. It will be social democratic/socialist, or national-xenophobic annex fascist. If the EU, as the most intense global effort at transnational governance, built upon one of the strongest and shared social democratic institutional heritages on earth, cannot make the relevant analyses and transform its internal relationships accordingly, things look very bleak indeed.

Don Kalb is professor of social anthropology at Central European University and the University of Bergen. He leads (with Chris Hann) the “Financialization” project at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, and has just started the “Frontlines of Value” project in Bergen.

Cite as: Kalb, Don. 2017. “The EU at 60: the Treaty of Rome is a smoke screen.” FocaalBlog, 31 March.