What Does Europe Want? The Union and Its Discontents

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By: Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat (Istros books (2013) 220 pages, £12)

Review by: Mazin Zeki

A double Freudian quote inspired by “What does a woman want?” plus the title of one of his most important works, raises the curtain on Slavoj Žižek’s (and Srećko Horvat’s) dissection of contemporary European woes. For Europe read EU.

There is growing inequality which predated the financial crash but has been accelerated by it. There is growing discontent and no genuine popular shared vision of what EU/Europe is for, when it cannot withstand the pressures of globalisation of which it is part. This process of creating new divisions of labour produces winners and losers and it is the losers, who have been deliberately ignored by the elites, who are flocking to new parties.

The Greek crisis exposed the centrifugal forces within EU which has expanded too rapidly to be coherent. The theatrical elements, flag, symphony, revolving presidency etc. do not disguise German dominance with the power unilaterally to rewrite the rules. Written in a breathless polemical style, the text read more like a long speech delivered to supporters. In that sense it would be better titled “What Europe should want”.

The EEC /EU is the historical successor to the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon famously abolished it on the grounds that it was not Holy, not Roman and not an Empire. Žižek proclaims a return to egalitarian universalism as the shared project but this is far from being widely supported. For the objective of EU has been the erosion of national identities in favour of a vague European identity, an identity which does not exist at a popular level. The elites do not even pretend to have any national loyalties. Whatever the result of British referendum, EU has dwindling support because most do not benefit from the process of integration and harmonisation. This process itself never had much political legitimacy, in the sense of broad consent.

The EU’s Commitment to the Free Market

The issue of social protection is central to progressive support for EU. Many employment rights have been the result of EU harmonising legislation but they have not created more equality. For EU is also totally committed to a free market dominated by corporate forces and lobbying. Significantly, EU has a falling share of world trade.

Most political parties are pro-EU and have accepted the EU project while voters are increasingly opposed, in spite of the Charter of Fundamental Rights which proclaims certain social goods. The Maastricht treaty constrains the economic freedom of members. Meanwhile there is a growing democratic deficit; the EU Structures Commission and Parliament are not adequate to the sudden expansion which has also included financial union.

Thus the egalitarian direction is eroded in several significant details. The Court of Justice which has legal status (unlike the European Court of Human Rights which has a separate legal existence outside of EU) is increasingly pro free market. Its rulings are highly technical but the general trend is clear. Thus it combines antagonism to monopolies and is pro-consumer but by the same token it is increasingly hostile to trade union rights as ‘distorting’ the free market. It is making trade union action increasingly difficult.

Monetary union, however phrased, implies political union or ceding some vital element of financial control which would be tantamount to giving up political control. The TTIP (not mentioned) being negotiated with USA would weaken, by treaty, state powers vis a vis corporations.

The migration crisis has revealed the contradiction at the heart of Europe. Even the countries which have benefitted from free movement and from outward migration are opposed to inward migration. The costs are not shared by but displaced to a localised level.

Žižek’s Solution Unconvincing

The Žižek solution seems unconvincing. He is seeking a ‘return’ to a more social democratic EU which never actually existed. It is willing the end without willing the means. In fact most people in Europe have little in common. But it has been convenient for the elites to pretend otherwise.

This is the emperor’s clothes issue which may make the EU unravel. Proclaiming ‘a shared project’ in order to unify Europe sounds like a slogan. Žižek can be described as an unorthodox post-Lacanian Marxist. He does not rigidly follow Marxist ideology. But his solution is a classical social democratic one at a time when soit-disant social democracy itself cannot resolve the challenges except at the level of slogans while presiding over growing inequality. In practice SD parties have also abandoned those on whose votes they depended and broadly speaking accepted the dominant neo-liberal consensus. It is not only inequality but in-work poverty which has been on the rise, while tax reform on a multinational platform was postponed.

This is the key reason why social democracy within the EU is on the retreat. The authors’ suggestion is a sort of equality crusade based on a homogenised and largely imagined European identity which has little support. An EU with weakening state powers and replaced with a loose system of federalised structures is unlikely to sustain a European-wide system of egalitarian goals. It would be wildly unrealistic.

Žižek discusses the revival of conservative Christianity and a number of other phenomena in mass psychology terms which would require another book to do them justice. The EEC/ EU was an elite Christian Democrat project from its inception. Many of the founders were devout Catholics. It must be also be accepted, whether one likes it or not, that Christian Democracy is the most successful political ideology since WW2 and at least some of the tensions in EU are due to the accession of countries without this tradition. Such a combination could not withstand the forces of globalisation.

Inequality in Europe is likely to deepen, bringing with it wider social conflicts and unrest. The costs of this project of equality are also not equally shared. Therefore it is unlikely to have any broad political support. Over to you, Slavoj.


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