Perry Anderson, Britain's most respected Marxist intellectual, has embraced Eurosceptic populismby / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The sad saga of European institutional reform continues. Having initially spun the reform treaty as a “constitution,” many of Europe’s leaders have been obliged to re-spin—telling the public that they have fundamentally revised the document, transforming it into a mere treaty amendment. The Eurosceptics are correct to insist that the document remains largely unchanged. But the deeper truth is that the reforms are modest and pragmatic. Euro-spin has piled up so thick over the past six years, however, that no one believes ministers when they say this.
Even smart guys are confused. Take Perry Anderson, one of the most creative of British Marxists in recent decades, who recently tossed a tubful of Euroscepticism out the window of his ivory tower on to the pages of the London Review of Books. His critique is aimed at those—among them Mark Leonard, Tony Judt, Jeremy Rifkin, Jürgen Habermas, Marcel Gauchet and myself—who argue that Europe is emerging as a model of world-historical significance. Despite our differences, all of us believe that the old continent strikes the most admirable balance to be found in today’s world—superior to the US, Japan, Russia or China—among the three fundamental elements of modern democracy: market economics, social democracy and multilateral institutions.
Anderson’s response reveals a bit that’s wrong with Europe, but a lot more that’s wrong with leftist thinking about Europe. To be sure, he displays some of the virtues of old-fashioned Marxist history—a hard-headed, fact-based focus on material interests. He shows, for example, how the single market, the single currency and even enlargement, while important achievements, are often oversold. He exposes the distributional conflicts that underlie the EU: Europe is about national interests, and the bargaining is tough. Just ask German car workers about Slovak competition, or Poles why their subsidies are smaller than Spaniards’.
Anderson devastatingly dissects naive left-wing geopolitics, notably Habermas’s 1968-er scheme to forge a European identity around an anti-American crusade. Leaving aside the obvious lack of pan-European consensus, European governments in fact broadly support US military intervention everywhere, except Iraq, and quietly back legally questionable US anti-terrorism policies, sometimes even including “rendition.” It is in their interest: Europeans and Americans face the same challenges from terror and rogue states. Divisions over Iraq are not the rule, but exceptions wrought by foolish blunders in Washington.
So far so good. Yet Anderson goes off the rails when he moves from material reality to politics and institutions—from base to superstructure. Like many Europeans, he is haunted by the spectre of Europe’s so-called “democratic deficit.” He believes that Eurosceptic criticism, the French and Dutch referendum defeats and the current constitutional crisis have all occurred because the European masses are rising up against the “conclaves at Brussels” with their “closed world of chancelleries,” “impenetrable scheme for the redistribution of oligarchic power” and “untrammelled… executive discretion,” designed to “short-circuit… national legislatures.”
Here, Anderson has entered a fact-free zone. His indignation is fueled by naive populism, not analysis. But the claims merit close inspection, if only because so many European leftists—and not a few on the right—talk the same way.
Europeans, Anderson says, are disillusioned with the EU because it is an “arrogant, opaque system” that circumvents national legislatures. This is untrue. Polls show that across the continent, support for the EU is roughly equal to that for national institutions. Anyway, more democracy does not mean more legitimacy: data shows that citizens do not, as a rule, dislike “opaque” courts and bureaucracies, and that they loathe parliaments and elected politicians.
Did the French and Dutch referendums signal a “popular repudiation of Europe”? Hardly. Exit polls and voting studies reveal that few French or Dutch votes were cast with regard to European issues (modest concern about Turkish accession excepted). Despite intense Euro-debates in places like Le Monde, the average voter was motivated almost exclusively by national political concerns.
What about the claim that the EU functions with “untrammelled… executive discretion,” free of democratic checks? Wrong again. In area after area, EU wonks are pursuing policies they dislike because voters make them do so. Last year, left-wing populists successfully diluted EU services liberalisation. Turkish accession, probably the EU policy that would contribute most to global peace and security, is stalled in the face of public opposition. Pressure from strong green and farm voting blocs stands behind the EU’s opposition to trade in genetically modified organisms. Policies to let in foreign workers desperately needed by European economies is impeded by popular concerns about immigration. The EU responds to such pressures because everyone in the system, except the ever-weakening commission officials, is elected: national ministers, heads of government, Euro-parliamentarians.
Anderson says that national legislatures “are continually confronted with a mass of (EU) decisions over which they lack any oversight.” Incorrect. Any country can mandate its national parliamentary committees to impose real-time oversight. Denmark and Sweden do so. Yet little deliberation results. One parliamentarian recently told me why: his colleagues find EU issues far less compelling than national issues like taxes, pensions, health, education, social benefits, transport, immigration and environmental enforcement. “They don’t like to be woken up at 2am to approve an EU agricultural subsidy.”
Citizens feel the same way. They have many opportunities to influence Europe, but choose not to use them. They shun Euro-elections and refuse to debate EU matters in national elections. The issues they care about remain national. The essential truth is that the EU is just too tedious to motivate political action.
Federalists and left-wingers alike hate to admit this. Federalists, who spend lifetimes inside the Brussels beltway, are reminded that Europe is not becoming the superstate of which Jean Monnet dreamed. Left-wingers, who still harbour dreams of spontaneous mass action, are reminded that the working class is not the motive force of history. As Anderson himself ruefully admits, the transcendence of the nation state or, more properly, the limited, pragmatic, essentially nation state-based multilateralism that prevails in Europe today has turned out to be the project of boring bourgeois elites, not the proletarian masses.