The future of Europe – Some thoughts on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome 23/3/2017


Giorgos Katrougalos und Axel Troost

The future of Europe – Some thoughts on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome

Sixty years after the founding Treaties that led to the creation of today’s European Union, Europe is at a crossroads, it is facing an existential crisis. This was made all the more evident since the British referendum and the decision for Brexit. The disenchantment of the peoples of Europe is not an isolated but a paneuropean phenomenon, reflecting hard and generalized objective conditions: erosion of the middle class, dismantlement of welfare state, and explosion of inequalities. Furthermore the recent rise of nationalism, populism and xenophobia, nourished by the rhetoric of the extreme Right, goes counter to the founding principles of the European project: a political project promoting a peaceful, prosperous, open, inclusive, tolerant society based on rule of law, respect for fundamental rights, and solidarity.

It is hypocritical to attribute these trends vaguely to the consequences of globalization. The latter is not a natural phenomenon, a natural catastrophe, which cannot be avoided, but a set of economic, political and societal processes that can be addressed with different sets of policies.  We must admit it: the European reaction till now was not adequate. It has lowered the collective welfare, it has increased the inequalities, it has left unprotected the most vulnerable European citizens without improving economic performance.  Quite the opposite: the recipe of austerity delivered much worse results both regarding growth and jobs creation than e.g. the expansive policies of the Obama administration.

The austerity policies and the diktats of the neoliberal orthodoxy have failed in providing the right answers, promoting growth and, above all, catering for the peoples, especial their most vulnerable groups. Labor market deregulation and accentuated flexibility have benefited the rich and powerful, by reducing the bargaining power of middle and lower-income workers. Lower minimum wages relative to the median wage, and less prevalent collective bargaining and trade unions have produced a much higher market inequality. The progressivity of tax systems has declined and, due to lack of investment to infrastructure, a generalized deterioration of provision of public is now the rule.

A majority of the population lost confidence in the European social democracy, although time is ripe for a social and democratic agenda. The election results of Nederland’s show that right wing populism can defeated, if political forces can give convincing answers to the electorate in the era of inequality. Feelings of fear, concern and anger as well as prejudices and resentments, which have been dammed for a long time, are politically exploided by right wing populism. The established parties  have forgotten to deal with ghettoisation, advancing parallel societies or the spread of islamism – and to offer alternative solutions. People don’t vote for populist parties because they are satisfied.In contrast: they are dissatisfied how things develop. This has to do with the feeling that they are not represented any longer  by mainstream parties. But they still believe that it’s possible to restore the system.

The current political juncture represents yet another piece of the intricate puzzle regarding the way ahead for Europe. As demonstrated over the last years, the EU has been lagging behind in addressing effectively and speedily the root-causes of the multiple crises that arose, both in our immediate neighborhood and globally; Tackling effectively globalization in favour of the majority of the society remains a key issue. Social imbalances, both among core and peripheral states and within our nations, are a much greater threat to the EU than mere economic imbalances.

Notwithstanding the dire situation the EU is currently facing, it is a relief to notice that EU citizens, especially in Germany and Greece, support the European project. This is an indication that the latter is still salvable, but not unconditionally. It is high-time to change course, to turn our European Union into a social union, with strong workers’ rights, gender equality, secure jobs and income, and drastic measures to tackle youth unemployment, wage inequality and the vast differences in living standards and social security. Social rights and inclusion must be at the center of the European Project, not just an afterthought.

A new progressive European alliance must seize this opportunity to turn the crisis that Europe is facing on several fields into an ambitious reinvigoration of the European project, aiming at revitalizing social rights and the aspirations of the European peoples for equality and inclusive growth. Austerity without growth is a dead end. Growth whose profits benefit the few does not undermine only equality, but also political democracy.  More growth and more investment, especially in infrastructure and social services, are required to overcome the economic crisis, create new jobs and protect our social model. We should work even more in the direction of a more social, more just, more value-based Union. Democratize the economic governance, introduce social indicators to the European Semester, fully Europeanize ESM.

The European project, in order to survive and be further enhanced, has to remain open to all member states, to the benefit of European peoples. It must also allow for the ones who have the political will for further integration, as foreseen by the Treaties, to do so, especially by promoting the social dimension of the European Union. Social progress must always mean upward convergence.

One thing is clear: The current status quo cannot be upheld.  It could be overcome, however, either by the left or the xenophobic and reactionary right. The left and progressive forces in Europe have a historical mission: we always stood for democracy, freedom and equality, solidarity and fundamental rights. These values are at the heart of our shared European identity and they are the foundation, on which we must keep building.