Europe is a high-speed train with no passengers aboard

18 February 2012

Europe is a high-speed train with no passengers aboard

The Left should be working for a democratic, not a neoliberal, Europe, says SP leader Emile Roemer.

In a recent Dutch TV programme a journalist asked me if I felt ‘European’. No, I feel Dutch, an inhabitant of Boxmeer in the Dutch region Brabant, but not really European. Just like many of my compatriots – as well as many Flemish people – I have mixed feelings about the existing European political set-up. Cooperation between European countries has in the past contributed to peace and wellbeing, and this must continue, yet this Europe isn’t really ours. It’s a high-speed train between Brussels and Frankfurt, but a train with no passengers on board.

The current financial crisis clearly reveals the problem of European politics. The prime ministers of our countries respond to proposals from European officials and look above all at the results that their comments will have on the financial markets, with no concern for the public. It was, I have to admit, in the Netherlands that Europe came off the rails, in Maastricht, where in 1992 the European Union was established.

After the Second World War the European project was principally directed at cooperation between countries. By sharing knowledge, expertise and raw materials we could reconstruct our countries together. With the Maastricht Treaty, however, Europe became in 1992 a political project. The European Union has since then pursued a neoliberal policy of more market and individual responsibility. Remarkably enough left parties in the Netherlands and Belgium have, virtually without criticism, embraced this policy.

In many member states far-reaching measures were taken to cut back social provision, farm out public services and reduce supervision of financial markets, measures which were justified by reference to EU directives and for the most part with no consultation of a country’s own population. The low point came in 2005, when two-thirds of Dutch voters said ‘no’ to the European Constitution, yet a little later many left parties simply went along with the almost identical Lisbon Treaty.

The measure which did most damage to public confidence in the EU was the introduction of the Euro. The decision to adopt a single currency was taken in Maastricht in 1992, and the euro was actually introduced in 2002. Ten years later this common currency is causing deep divisions in Europe. Even those on the left who were supporters of monetary union at the time, including Labour’s then Prime Minister Wim Kok, now admit that they made massive mistakes, that they launched an experiment without knowing where it could lead. And I would add, once more, without consulting the public.

Their discussion of the present crisis has shown that Europe’s leaders have learnt very little. Their proposals appear to be aimed principally at pleasing bankers, investors and speculators. Our prime ministers perform conjuring tricks with figures and squirm around in an attempt to calm the people. Measures are taken to give financial support to banks and to maintain share prices. Yet none of this works, and confidence fails to return, certainly now spending cuts are hitting the people so hard and standing in the way of repairing our economies.

The same European neoliberal policy which has damaged people’s confidence cannot possibly restore it. It’s not enough to say that politicians must explain EU decisions better, as the former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene argued yesterday in this paper. Confidence will only be restored if and when European leaders turn their eyes from the stock market to the man and woman in the street. By drawing up an action plan against speculation, increasing surveillance of the financial sector and involving the public in the decisions being taken at European level, but above all by making a Europe possible in which people feel at home, by as far as possible organizing things as close to them as possible.

European countries must act together when it comes to the environment, security or economic development, but leave each other space in relation to matters such as social security, public services and cultural differences. No European diktats should be laid down where the people don’t want them, but we should cooperate where the people expect it of us. And left parties must in the end stop defending neoliberal European policies and work towards a humane and social Europe. Not more market, but only more democracy can save Europe. Perhaps then, in the future, more people will feel themselves to be European.

This article first appeared in the original Dutch on 18th February 2012 in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

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