Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Oddly enough, there don’t appear to be any high-profile celebrations of this milestone. No fireworks, no street parties, no parades through streets lined with flag-waving children. Instead there’s an almost embarrassed silence. Certainly the Greeks are in no mood to party. Even if they were; what with sky-rocketing unemployment and an unprecedented increase in urban poverty; it’s unlikely they’d be in a position to spend much on bunting and streamers.
Here in Ireland the mood is similarly sombre. It seems like every week the news brings us a fresh story about poverty becoming more widespread, companies shedding jobs, or another public service becoming even less fit for purpose. And as bad as these stories tend to be, they are made even worse by the accompanying tales of bondholders syphoning yet more money from the pockets of those who never owed them anything. Or new government plans to inflict further suffering upon the vulnerable while trotting out insultingly transparent nonsense about why the wealthy are being coddled.
It would be entirely wrong to blame the disaster on Europe. The original goal of European integration was – as I wrote when I discussed the Maastricht Treaty over at On This Deity last year – a noble one. It was a well-conceived and entirely sensible response to half a century of conflict which had seen some of the worst atrocities in history perpetrated on European soil. After two world wars which had visited horrors upon the continent… the horrors of the trenches, the targeting of civilian populations in massive aerial bombing campaigns, and the concentration camps… after all that, Europe wanted peace. And they wanted to make sure it lasted.
Which is why, within a few short years of the end of second world war, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed a treaty that essentially marked the beginning of what was to become the European Union. It was a remarkable decision and even as the EU strains under the weight of morbidly obese financial institutions determined to bleed the continent dry while externalising their every mistake; and even as our political classes permit this obscene injustice – nay, encourage it; even now, despite all of these things, we should applaud that decision back in 1950 to set aside the enmities of the recent past and work towards a shared future.
And it’s fair to say that while mistakes were made in the decades that followed, the closer integration of the European economies was a positive development. There was a stability and a strength in the union. Resources were redistributed from wealthy areas to those suffering poverty. Human Rights were placed at the centre of the political agenda, and as internal borders began to dissolve, so did much of the distrust and suspicion that had festered in Europe for so many years. It didn’t disappear completely of course, and like so much of the gains made during those early decades, we seem determined to undo that particular achievement. Nonetheless, the original spirit of European Unity was a profoundly positive one, and we should work hard to salvage what we can of it, even as it is undermined by those who hijacked the European project for their own personal gain.
Which is the problem we face today. I’m not claiming that a united Europe was ever an explicitly socialist project, but it had at its heart a yearning for justice, for greater equality and for a kind of collective progress… a road that led away from poverty and war. That yearning is still there, but it has been sidelined by an unregulated rampant capitalism that threatens to destroy any good that emerged from half a century of work. Our political leaders – perhaps deliberately, perhaps through incompetence – have allowed a financial elite to infiltrate the corridors of European power and redirect the entire project. The European Union now works in their interests and explicitly against the interests of the majority of European citizens.
Instead of leading us away from poverty, we watch as wealth is drained from the general populace into the hands of reckless gamblers who lost their own money and then somehow convinced our representatives to give them ours. Instead of leading us away from conflict, we are forced to watch the rise of the Far Right in a number of European nations, to watch as suspicion of The Other sees a resurgence in our society, and to watch as the Irish and Greeks blame the crisis on an undemocratic French and German economic assault on their citizens, while Germans and French blame the crisis on the profligate spending of the peripheral nations. And all the while the real culprits continue to gather the spoils.
I have a quick word of advice for the German, Dutch and French populations… be very very careful how you handle this situation. Once the financial markets have bled Ireland, Greece and Portugal dry; once they have stripped our assets and plunged us even deeper into poverty; they will move on to fresh fields. There is no limit to the greed that has seen them subvert the political institutions of Europe. Out here on the periphery… we were just the softest targets; easy meat. Once they’ve picked our bones dry, they’ll move on to Spain and Italy. And then… then it’s your turn.
Which is why, in the end, there is a need for European Union now more than ever. Where once it was the horrors of the past we sought to escape; now we must unite to ward off the horrors of the future. This rampant capitalist beast cannot be tamed by Ireland. Or by Greece. Or by Portugal. Even together, the catastrophically weakened economies of the “bailed-out” nations simply can’t do anything about it. It’s not within our control. Sure, we could simply turn our backs on Europe altogether, and while I fear it may yet come to that; would it not be better to face down this destructive enemy rather than allow it to run roughshod over that original European ideal?
I’m not proposing some sort of radical pan-European anarcho-syndicalist revolution (as much as I’d like to see it happen, I’m realistic about the chances). Instead I’m simply proposing that Europe glance back 20 years to Maastricht. Even though the capitalist infiltration of our project began before that treaty, there’s a sense in which we were never more united than when we met in that Dutch town and pledged ourselves to a greater union. Hell, we even managed to drag the British tories along with us, which was no mean feat. So let’s try and recapture that sense of solidarity. Let’s realise that swallowing the lies of gangster capitalism will only impoverish us all in the longterm. And let’s unite once more to assert our togetherness in the face of an enemy that seeks to divide and conquer.