Few European Union summits have been so divisive and rancorous than this week’s gathering of its 28 national leaders in Brussels.
The issue of irregular immigration is the “central battleground”, as the Wall Street Journal put it. But there are a number of contentious issues, including eurozone economic policy and how the bloc should conduct relations with Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron said before the two-day summit in Brussels, “We have a political crisis more than a migration crisis”. He was alluding to the deeper strains within the EU.
There is even anxious talk among EU leaders and observers that the union may be heading for a calamitous break-up, which the British Brexit due to take place next year has prefigured.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week it was “make or break” for the EU to find a solution in its fractious dispute over immigration to the bloc. But the divisive tensions are much bigger and deeper that this one issue.
The problem with the EU political establishment in Brussels is that it is living in denial about fundamental causes for the growing divisions in the bloc. This was epitomized by the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who said this week that Europe must band together to oppose the “anti-liberal policies” of American President Donald Trump.
There is a misplaced arrogance among EU leaders like Tusk and France’s Macron that somehow the bloc is a virtuous model of liberal ideals, while people like Trump and new “populist” governments in Europe are some kind of plague. Macron even compared the rise of populist politics in Italy, Austria, Hungary and other member states to the “spread of leprosy”.
Such conceited thinking is driving Europe into an ever-more divisive direction, which could end up shattering the decades-old union.
The rise of populist parties can be better understood as a genuine popular revolt, however nebulous and diffuse, against an EU establishment that has systematically betrayed democratic needs.
The intransigent adherence to neoliberal capitalism espoused by the EU has inflicted huge damage on the majority of its 500 million citizens, from low-paid jobs, in-work poverty, to unemployment and austerity in public services. Such slavish obeisance to corporate capitalist priorities regardless of the wider social consequences of poverty has inevitably forced a popular discontent with the political class. What needs to change is an overhaul of the entire socio-economic system. Yet leaders like Emmanuel Macron continue to pursue austerity measures and attacks on workers’ rights.
Former Polish premier Donald Tusk imagines Europe to be a bastion of liberalism. What is so liberal about the EU for decades fecklessly following US illegal wars in the Middle East and North Africa? The EU has blood on its hands from complicity in destroying whole nations along with Washington. Now that droves of refugees make their way to Europe, European leaders act as if they are being put upon by hordes of foreigners.
It is futile for the EU to try to cast a dichotomy between liberal, humanitarians on one hand, and on the other xenophobic populist governments. It is actually the former faction that has created the problem of irregular migration to the EU from their unswerving support for American imperialist wars.
For the EU to live in denial about its complicity in criminal wars while trying to scapegoat “anti-liberal” governments is only prolonging the political crisis corroding the bloc. The problem of irregular migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa must be addressed in terms of war reparations and reconstruction of entire regions. That will, again, require a seminal break from the limitations of neoliberal economics and its pandering to elite profits.
As regards relations towards Russia, the EU political establishment has also created its own predicament by, again, adopting wrongheaded policies and antagonisms. Eurosceptic parties have arisen because of a widespread discontent among ordinary European citizens about what they see as the unnecessary, provocative hostility towards Russia. The “NATO-ization” of Europe, turning the bloc into an aggressive front against Russia is costing European businesses and workers their livelihoods.
The EU sanctions against Russia that were imposed four years ago over the much-distorted Ukraine conflict must be revoked immediately. Continual fear mongering by NATO-aligned politicians should be repudiated. Relations between Europe and its biggest neighbor to the East must be returned to normal, civilized, mutually beneficial conduct. It is ludicrous, not to say appalling, that enmity between Europe and Russia should have been allowed to fester because certain EU leaders pliantly appeased Washington and NATO’s agenda for confrontation with Moscow.
On Russia, so-called populist governments in Europe have shown much more sanity in their calls for revoking the self-defeating sanctions. Ironically, Britain’s Theresa May is one of the most gung-ho among EU leaders demanding that the sanctions on Russia be extended. So, as a parting shot to the EU, Britain wants European relations with Moscow to be further damaged. How quaint!
The EU summit this week lays bare the divisive tensions within the EU over illegal migration, but also over deeper politics that have to do with democratic failure by a hitherto dominant political class. The rise of populism is best seen as a popular revolt against effete and undemocratic governance. The revolt may not have clearly defined politics worked out yet in order to provide feasible solutions. But a revolt nevertheless is underway. Snobbish deprecation by EU establishment politicians is a sign of denial. It will only exacerbate the tensions and possibly end up crashing the bloc.
Ironically, Russia has long been accused of trying to undermine the EU and its alliance with the US. The bitter row on display over the EU summit shows that the bloc’s problems are of its own making, from its support for illegal US wars and the attendant refugee dilemma, to the bloc’s destructive pursuit of neoliberal economic austerity.
Europe’s enemy is within in the form of undemocratic elitist politics that seem to be more about satisfying Washington’s interests than the needs of ordinary European citizens. If the European Union is to be salvaged, then it must find a democratic and truly independent system of governance, free from subservience to Washington.