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Resisting the Piper: Why Europe’s Coming Waterloo is Necessary

Given that I am absolutely poached in pop music, it’s no surprise I see parallels between big life events, or political earthquakes, and song lyrics. I was only five when I learned from ABBA that at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender, and that poor Agnetha and Frida’s destinies had been met in quite a similar way. Lyrics are part of the way I express myself – shorthand, codes, jokes. So I have been wondering whether European integration is gearing up to meet its Waterloo – a metaphor used in British English to denote a decisive turning point, when one party in a struggle gains incontestable victory over the other.

The thing is, I hope so. When I was reading for my PhD over twenty years ago, many scholars agreed that the EU was experiencing what the late William Wallace called ‘an untenable status quo’: it was muddling along, dressing wounds with band-aids, making progress here but none there. Two decades later, it still is. The Member States and the EU institutions are much more closely interwoven now than then, but the EU itself is still lurching from one crisis to another, and in the process it has made itself deservedly unpopular with many of us on the Left. What the EU did to Greece was and is unconscionable. The EU’s failure to deal with the migration crisis in a civilised, honourable way shames us all. And the EU’s weakness towards Russia and Turkey is pathetic.

Yes, the EU is often blamed unjustly for the failure of the Member States to pony up the required cash or powers that would enable it to act. But by the same token, it has become the emblem of elite failure to grasp with the big issues of our day, and is in danger of being swept away, seen as part of a system that doesn’t work for the everyday citizen. As I’ve argued in previous posts, most people neither know nor care about the intricacies of EU policy-making or law. What they see is an EU that fails to add value to their lives in the ways they consider most important: an irrelevance if not an active harm. And ‘Europe’ is an easy receptacle for blame by those on the Right who are trying to replace liberal democracy with authoritarianism because it is relatively rootless in the imaginations of most Europeans.
We must see this as a clear and present danger. The EU could unravel, not because of Brexit but because of the return of the fascists, or because those on the Left like the UK Labour Party hold on to the dreams of the past in which socialism can be built in one country. On the 1980 album ‘Super Trouper’, ABBA also sang of the power of demagogues to enslave the people in a song called ‘The Piper’.  In many European states today, the Piper is playing a seductive update of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, the chillingly authentic representation of Nazism in song from the movie Cabaret, and many on the Left seem to be tempted by it insofar as they yearn for a return to the nation-state. What we need is a better tune, a narrative of hope and justice and progress that makes working together across borders an obvious part of the way forward.

This means getting openly political about Europe, and accepting that the conventional pro/anti positions on European integration are fit for yesterday but not tomorrow. We need instead to realise that this is a fight about basic values, about beliefs in diversity, about living and working together so that our friends, families and species (as well as our planet-mates) can prosper sustainably. The Right has taken up residence in opposition to these values; we must be brave, and we must promote them. It’s time for an explicitly Green-Left fightback as part of a struggle for the future of Europe and its states. I will close my contribution to this blog with a few hopeful suggestions about how this could be begun.

  1. Acknowledge – really accept – that the politico-economic settlement of today has created growing inequality and not done enough to help those at the bottom of the ladder. No mealy-mouthed huffiness. It’s true. The status quo doesn’t deserve to be an option. As Greens, we know this, and we need to convince one part of the Left that there is no future in bland New Labour/SPD-style ‘third ways’. We also need to convince more radical colleagues that the future is not a retreat from the supranational. Perhaps the likely failures of the UK Labour Party under its current leaders will be helpful here.
  2. When the Right seeks to co-opt ideas of decency, fight them using moral language. Decency does not mean ‘traditional values’. It means finding ways to live together in a civilised manner, while helping the most vulnerable rather than scapegoating them. I have done this at hustings, and it works.
  3. Don’t try to defend everything about the current EU. Too much of it is indefensible, even if the EU per se is indispensable. Envision a radically different EU, in which what it is and does is really driven by ethics of sustainability and social justice. Fight for this, because it’s necessary.
  4.  Accept casualties. Some Member States may wish to leave if they genuinely prefer to regress into fascism: let them, while being open to their return should they wish to under subsequent honourable governments. Much better to do that than allow them to hold the EU hostage. Some EU policies or even competences may have to go if others are to come. So what? Better that than death by ossification.

The future will not be the same as the present, and we should not expect that. But if we are energetic and courageous, we still have time to make sure Europe goes back to the future, and not forward to the past.

You can download the article in PDF here.

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