In recent days there has been a tiny bit of discussion on this blog about whether a group of 9 unelected philosopher-kings should be able to decide social issues for 330 million people, so it seems appropriate that I turn my attention briefly to the chaos rolling over Europe and the threat of a Greek exit from the EU. From the outside looking in it seems like the three main powers involved in this shit-show (the European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission) have refused to give any serious ground on their demands, even though these demands are obviously not going to help Greece out of its crisis, and have instead decided to essentially dictate to Greece the terms of its fiscal, labour, welfare and banking policies. Given that they are well aware of how much their austerity policies have failed, and know full well that Syriza was voted in on the promise of no more austerity, it’s just ridiculous bloody-mindedness that drives them to force their ultimatum on Greece. The ECB even appears to have withdrawn its standard emergency credit line for banks experiencing instability, without any justification. They’ve basically made clear to Greece that they won’t accept any political options except those that suit their ideology. This is not how politics works, and it’s no surprise that under this pressure Syriza have decided to tell the troika to jump. Paul Krugman (who for some reason I never normally read) has a particularly deft explanation of this referendum decision:

until now Syriza has been in an awkward place politically, with voters both furious at ever-greater demands for austerity and unwilling to leave the euro. It has always been hard to see how these desires could be reconciled; it’s even harder now. The referendum will, in effect, ask voters to choose their priority, and give Tsipras a mandate to do what he must if the troika pushes it all the way

This is how politics should work, and giving Greece a week of grace to sort this out and set a clear future path would be a good way to indicate respect for its political autonomy. This is also the reason that David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum, though insane for Britain, is politically the right thing to do. Tsipras has taken the chance to make sure that his country’s decision is politically validated, and that he can make his final decision about the euro from a position of democratic legitimacy; the leaders of the EU’s main powers are flabbergasted by this, and the troika are confused. It appears that they don’t understand where their authority ends and the democratic demands of the people of Europe begins, and it looks as if a lot of Greek people are going to have to go through a fair amount of pain in order to teach them. This is disappointing, given the states involved are apparently all democratic, and it gives the lie to what I think is increasingly shaping up as the central fiction of the European project: that it can stop another war in Europe.

The EU is a fairweather friend

This isn’t the first piece of brinksmanship that has been deployed by an EU member in recent time. A few weeks ago Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, threatened to issue Schengen visas to refugees coming from Africa and send them on to other parts of Europe, after it was revealed that not only were other countries doing nothing to help, but German, French and Swiss authorities were turning migrants back at their borders, forcing Italy to manage both the rescue and the housing and welfare of tens of thousands of migrants – even though most of those migrants are hoping to move north to other parts of Europe. Basically Italy had to shoulder this whole burden because the rest of Europe has shown itself unwilling to help its members when they face serious problems. The same could also be said for the UK’s welfare and work problems: it is obvious that the UK is a preferred destination for migrant labour in Europe, because everyone in Europe learns English and the pound is so strong, but the EU has absolutely refused to bend the rules for the UK on welfare and migration issues.

You may not agree with the specific governments on any of these issues (I don’t agree with the UK, for example) but I should hope it’s obvious what the problem here is: the EU member states are fairweather friends. They can carefully hammer out a compromise agreement on a shared issue like the free movement of labour or the role of the ECB that will enable them to handle the normal, stable times, but they are completely unwilling to compromise their own interests for the greater good when extraordinary circumstances roll around. The free movement of labour is fine but sharing the resettlement of refugees is impossible, and will be left for the country that happens to be unlucky enough to get them first; shared work and welfare goals are fine but they absolutely won’t consider an exception for a country that is bearing an unusual proportion of the effects of those rules; stability targets are fine but no one is willing to risk either their ideological purity or their own taxpayers (Germany’s constant petty battle cry) when a shared financial crisis hits one of their weakest members unusually hard. Basically, the countries of Europe are behaving like fairweather friends who pat you on the back and congratulate you when you have a success, and are happy to split the bill at your Friday pizza-and-beer nights, but would rather you didn’t come if you’ve fallen on hard times and might like to skip paying for the odd Friday night. They’re happy to talk about helping you move house, or minding your pets while you visit a sick relative, but strangely they’re all busy when the time comes.

This is funny because the regular refrain we hear from the EU’s main sales merchants is that the EU establishes a bulwark against the risk of a future war in Europe. I’m sorry, but if the countries of the EU can’t come up with a mutually acceptable target for distributing 50,000 refugees among a population of 350 million without being threatened with an ultimatum, it’s unlikely that any one of them are going to pause for even the blink of an eye if war is in their interests. Indeed, while the EU rumbles on with its chaotic and obstinate mismanagement of what should have been a complete non-crisis in Greece, certain countries on the eastern edge are entertaining military antics by a non-EU member (the USA) that threatens to involve them in a war so catastrophic that they’ll all be running to Greece. If this is how you construct an “ever closer union of peoples” that will guarantee peace, then peace must be pretty easy to come by.

The reality is that war isn’t going to happen inside Europe because no one wants it, and the major powers are aging so fast that they are no longer able to field a decent war machine. I think this is great, and one of the many untold benefits of rapid aging, but I don’t think it has much at all to do with the European project, which is looking increasingly like a German/French alternative to colonialism, intended to drive down the competitiveness of the European periphery and ensure the centre gets access to reliable markets and a long-term pool of cheap labour. Students of history might suggest that this is exactly the wrong way to go about ensuring a non-chaotic future: the students of Greece are likely to soon provide an object lesson on the topic.

If the EU wants to retain any kind of democratic legitimacy, its member states need to think about how to rein in their executive, and start giving more credence to the (disparate) complaints of countries like Greece and the UK, about precisely how governance should work in such a confederacy. Because right now it’s looking like a couple of people from primarily northern and western powers think that they can dictate political terms to entire nations on the periphery. That’s empire, not union, and I think people are starting to notice …

Addendum: Joseph Stiglitz also seems to think that the EU is behaving poorly, and Krugman has a couple of pieces pointing out that Greece wasn’t as badly off as we are told, and austerity has really done Greece no favours.