At the House of European History in Brussels, a long display cabinet sets out the forces that have shaped Europe through the centuries: philosophy, democracy, rule of law, ‘omnipresence of Christianity’, state terror, the slave trade, colonialism, humanism, the Enlightenment, revolutions, capitalism, Marxism, the nation state. For each, a historical image is matched with something contemporary: for philosophy, you get a bust of Socrates and a photograph of Žižek; for revolutions, Liberty Leading the People and the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square; for the slave trade, iron shackles and a Banksy painting about child labour.
To say that von der Leyen was ‘nominated’ by the Council and then ‘elected’ by the Parliament is a stretch. It may be more accurate to say the EU’s new leaders were ‘coronated’, much like after a papal conclave. They weren’t put to a public test, but selected in an atmosphere of intergovernmental informality.
Peter Mair once observed a curious paradox in European elections: people often use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the European Union, despite that being outside an MEP’s purview – the Union is founded on treaties signed by national governments. Conversely, national governments are often elected to pursue policies that are properly the domain of the European Parliament, and so find themselves unable to deliver on their promises – an effect especially pronounced in the Eurozone’s smaller economies.
The European Commission says the ‘migration crisis’ is over. It has published a fact sheet aimed at countering both the far right, who tell lies about migrants and refugees, and humanitarian campaigners who point to Europe’s complicity in the imprisonment and torture of people in Libyan detention camps. It acknowledges that some ‘structural problems remain’.
But what is over, and who is it over for?
From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
The Documenta festival, a contemporary art exhibition that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, is currently in Athens. Its presence there isn’t uncontroversial. The role of the art market in gentrification, the festival’s preference for established or dead artists, the spectacle of a wealthy German institution descending on a city that has been at the centre of economic and refugee crises in recent years – all this has drawn criticism. The curators have made some effort to engage with the political context, but not everything has gone to plan: a collaboration between the artist Roger Bernat and an LGBT refugee group foundered when the participants stole the exhibit in protest at what they saw as exploitation.
The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century. The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU.
Syriza's victory in the Greek general election is a hopeful moment for Europe. It shows how a radical left-wing political movement, brought together in a short time, can use the democratic system to attack three menaces: the rentier lords of jurisdiction-hopping private capital, the compromised political hacks of the traditional parties who have become their accomplices, and the panphobic haters of the populist right.
Yesterday, following the debate – or rather non-debate – on the European Arrest Warrant in the House of Commons, and the press commentary on it, I was surprised that the Julian Assange case wasn’t cited as one of the more contentious instances of the warrant’s use.
Last week Italy brought to an end its year-long search and rescue operation for undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean. Operation Mare Nostrum, which was set up after more than 360 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013, saved around 150,000 lives. It will be replaced by Operation Triton, overseen by the European Union’s border agency, Frontex. Rather than an active search and rescue effort, Triton will be concerned with border surveillance, its remit limited to waters within thirty kilometres of the Italian coast. Mare Nostrum is said to have cost the Italian state more than €9 million a month; the budget for Triton will be a third of that. Those are political choices.
The regional government of Catalonia has backtracked on its promise to hold a non-binding independence referendum on 9 November. Instead it is preparing to hold a symbolic vote, with no electoral roll and volunteers staffing the polling booths. This modest alternative was forced on Barcelona by the constitutional court in Madrid, which agrees that the Spanish government has a legal case against the referendum. Now that it’s gone to deliberation, a real referendum process is automatically suspended. But it looks now as though even a symbolic vote will be challenged.
Everything appears to be going according to plan for Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was re-elected on 6 April; after another week of counting absentee ballots and the votes of newly enfranchised ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring states, it is now clear that Orbán’s Fidesz party will retain its two-thirds majority in parliament – enough to change the constitution at any time it sees fit. Such concentration of power is unusual in Europe. But it conforms to the political vision Orbán outlined in a speech in 2009: Hungary, he claimed then, needed a dominant ‘central force’ to overcome not only the legacies of state socialism, but also what Orbán portrays as a failed transition after 1989.
A striking current feature of the European political landscape is its convergence and separatism. As the European Union expands, secessionism keeps pace. Scotland’s referendum is next September. Artur Mas steps up the pressure on the Spanish government to timetable a poll on Catalan independence. In Belgium, borborygmal noises from Flemish separatists are a ground bass over which national politics plays. Anyone tempted by the thought that secession is always nice has to face the history of Texas.
‘Where are all these East Europeans flocking from?’ That was the question Gillian Duffy asked Gordon Brown in 2010. Brown would have got into trouble if he’d answered ‘Eastern Europe’, though probably not as much as he got into for describing Duffy as ‘just a sort of bigoted woman’. Her prejudices, or fears, are widely shared. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition against the lifting of labour restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians next year. According to the petition, ‘there is currently an estimated 1.5 million people seeking work within the two countries.’ But how many of them might actually move to Britain?
Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.
When people ask why I left UK academe for Brussels, I usually say I came here to escape bureaucracy. Belgian universities are hardly free of red tape, but they seem much less bad than the UK, where commercialisation and endless government-monitored performance indices give rise to the bureaucratic version of the categorical imperative: that committees be treated never merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Still, the myth persists, and nowhere more so than in Britain, that Brussels as the EU capital pullulates with Eurocrats living high on the hog.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that 'the union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.' Writing in the LRB five years ago, Perry Anderson observed: The integration of the East into the Union is the major achievement to which admirers of the new Europe can legitimately point. Of course, as with the standard encomia of the record of EU as a whole, there is a gap between ideology and reality in the claims made for it.
‘Death to the Euro.’ The handmade sign was pinned to the wall of a community centre in San Luis, a gentrified neighbourhood just inside the boundaries of Seville’s old city. It was a balmy Friday evening, but inside a crowd of around a hundred people were listening to a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on puma, a new local currency for San Luis launched last month. Puma is the third local currency to be introduced in the Andalusian capital this year. Pepa and jara already circulate in Macarena, a working-class district on the other side of Seville’s city walls.
Is there a more self-serving verbal alibi than ‘Eurosceptic’? A sceptical person has doubts, is unsure, ponders an issue. The people seeking a referendum on membership of the EU have none of that hesitancy. They stand in the enraged tradition of the men who fought the Reform Act and Irish Home Rule. They talked in the 1990s of ‘a German ramp’ and ‘the Fourth Reich' (they're still at it). They also made prescriptions. Europe, if it had to happen, should be as big as possible to mitigate enemy domination. There must also be no central tax-and-spending power over the eurozone. And now Greece falls and others totter.
As Wynne Godley observed in the LRB nearly twenty years ago, the current crisis in the EU, and governments' inability to deal with it, were inevitable given the terms of the Maastricht Treaty (yes, we've linked to the piece before, and may well link to it again): The incredible lacuna in the Maastricht programme is that, while it contains a blueprint for the establishment and modus operandi of an independent central bank, there is no blueprint whatever of the analogue, in Community terms, of a central government.
You can understand how they might be grouchy at UBS, the Swiss bank that reckons it has lost $2.3 billion through alleged jiggery-pokery by one of its employees, Kewku Adoboli, only three years after the bank was bailed out by the Swiss government. When one of UBS's economists, George Magnus, says that French banks are now the ones that need to be bailed out – as he did this morning in the Financial Times – you might suspect a tinge of schadenfreude.
The problem is plain. If new loans to Greece are arranged, even at lower rates of interest, its debt will rise. If its existing loans are rolled over or sold, the rating agencies may declare default and jittery banks and other investors will expect more interest on new lending. But the solution this week is likely to involve a degree of both, in the hope that the compromise will not be too unpalatable to too many. The alternatives – for Greece to default completely and leave the Eurozone or for the zone to announce that it will move to a common fiscal and spending policy – are next to unimaginable.
As if there weren't already enough reasons to think it a bad idea, Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his weight behind the campaign to install his old friend Tony Blair as the first president of the Council of Europe. It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing (and so depressingly unsurprising), that a demagogue of the right who absurdly claims to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy involving judges, politicians, journalists and anyone else he cares to name, should count a former British Labour prime minister among his allies rather than his opponents.
Although everyone is denying it, European public opinion is obviously being softened up, especially by the Kinnockian wing of the Labour party, for Blair’s emergence as the first full-time president of Europe. And although in a rational world his election would seem self-evidently absurd, given his record, it is being put about that many European leaders – including, improbably, Sarkozy – are enthusiastic. If they are, they should ask themselves what a Blair presidency would actually mean. Blair does not share the Conservatives’ blockheaded hostility to ‘Europe’ but he would nonetheless be the candidate of the United States – and that is what the Tories want. America has never shared the Conservative Party’s extreme Atlanticism. It believes in ‘Europe’ and always wanted Britain to join the EEC, now the EU. But it certainly does not believe in the European ideal.
Any self-respecting electorate in an EU member-state prefers a presidential to a European parliamentary. In France, enthusiasm and interest were at fever pitch. The challenger to the incumbent looked impressive. According to Le Figaro, he was a winner with younger voters, and an instinctive liberal in ways that matter – an aerosol solution to the fug in the country's political institutions and the clammy hold of the Republic on the lives of its citizens. His wife was said to be 'a star' in the political firmament. If the French had been eligible to vote in Iran, they'd have turned out in force for Hossein Mousavi and his non-singing, non-dancing not Carla Bruni. And they'd have wanted to be on the streets of Tehran denouncing the rigged results.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the traditional left is alive and well in Berlin. My neighbourhood is full of posters printed with Marx's picture and slogans such as 'Marx is Back' and 'Permanent Crisis: we're not paying!' Thanks to the recession, Kreuzberg's May Day demonstrations were livelier than they've been for some time: more flaming mattresses, more paint-bombed buildings, more arrests. And at the Freie Universitaet the only party with any discernible campaign presence in the run up to the European elections was the uncompromisingly anti-capitalist Die Linke, a part-successor to East Germany's old SED.
There seems to be one clear message from last Friday's voting in Ireland: people liked their Celtic Tiger, and now that it's gone, they want somebody to pay. Elections for the European Parliament were held alongside local council polls, and there were a couple of Dublin by-elections thrown in for good measure, so the opportunities to stick it to the ruling coalition were delightfully varied. Fianna Fáil had an awful day, their worst since the 1920s. They were overtaken by Fine Gael on a national scale, but the details of the defeat must have made it particularly galling for Ireland's one-time vote-harvesting machine.
There wasn't much excitement about the European elections in Spain. A couple of vans with loudspeakers came round my district advertising the main parties, the PSOE (left) and the PP (right), but they caused far less interest than others announcing vegetables, wine by the litre and cheap trousers. I went down to the local polling station at eight, when it was supposed to open. It was indeed open but the police informed me that no one could vote before nine. At nine I was leaving town with a party of friends from my mineral club. And so I spent most of election day en route for the tiny mountain village of Navajun, in the Rioja region. I once saw two pensioners, one of them disabled, get into an undignified physical fight in a village bar over a general election. Local elections, too, can cause feelings to run high. Europe is a different matter.
Sweden starts to wind down about now, preparing for the short – but glorious – summer. So, not much excitement over the European elections here. The quality dailies carried some serious articles on them, of course, but that's just the political class. A few party posters appeared, very late, all almost identical (just faces), and in pastel shades. Swedes have always been ambivalent, at best, about the EU, joining it very late (1995), resisting the euro, and endlessly carping about the way Brussels seems to want to interfere with their cherished customs, like the state liquor-store monopoly, snus (vile little cushions of tobacco you put between your bottom lip and your gum), paying immigrant workers decent wages, and – well – democracy generally.
Like a complete idiot I assumed that informing the ufficio anagrafe I'd changed my address would automatically mean the electoral register would be updated too. Residency is a big deal here: the police are supposed to come and check that you live where you say you do before the town council will update the official record, and all sorts of things – from being taxed and getting an ID card to buying a car or paying lower (domestic rather than business-rate) electricity bills – are dependent on it. I thought the right to vote was one of them. By the time I learned a couple of weeks ago that the ufficio elettorale is distinct and down the hall from the ufficio anagrafe, it was too late to register for the weekend's ballot. (I'd have been just as stuffed in the UK, where the deadline was 7 April.) Even for the local elections? Even for the local elections. Oh dear.
Maybe one should be tremendously worried about the electoral victories of the British National Party. Maybe not. 'Leading historians' say there's no reason to panic. Still, worry seems to characterise some of the reaction. Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling both say that their party is responsible because – oh no! – the Labour Party has let these voters down, though only Labour, they also insist, can now rescue them from the clutches of the wicked Nick Griffin.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.