Brexit is marginal; the real danger for Europe lurking around the corner would be Frexit. Marine Le Pen’s Front National was stopped at the regional elections but she got the highest number of votes ever: 6.8m. Will she be stoppable in the race to the presidential elections? She has promised to organise a referendum on French exit from the EU.
Who will fight for Europe in that referendum?
The French socialists continue to be split on Europe. The French left has marginalised itself since it successfully campaigned in 2005 with stupid arguments against the European constitution, never recovering from that Pyrrhic victory and disappearing from the scene. The French right is divided as well and has no clear view on Europe. The business side might invest in a Yes campaign but the banks and a part of the corporate community are largely discredited since the financial crisis with its legacy of stagnating mass unemployment.
And Europe itself – the new European Commission (EC) and the new European Parliament? To a large extent both continue business as usual and have only changed the spin of the messages. Spin-doctors have taken over the communication business and are writing good-looking texts – which will never be converted into reality. The trade unions might be asked to help but will not be listened to.
The unions have warned for more than a decade that Europe is looking more and more like the best ally for big finance and big business and a threat for workers. The financial deregulation agenda has led to the ruination of many companies and caused persistent mass unemployment. The neoliberal internal market apologists couldn’t care less about jobs. The only topic they are interested in is deepening the internal market, increasing cross-border trade, and in particular e-commerce.
The consequences for employment and work are largely ignored. The ambitious re-industrialisation strategy exists purely on paper – no major initiative has been launched to put it into practice. Recent internal market communications and in particular the one on the digital single market mainly focus on market opening and more trade. The Commission’s silos are looking hermetically closed and protected against any form of criticism. The Commission couldn’t feel less responsible for the shift among massive numbers of the electorate towards the far right.
What’s more, there are other frustrating messages coming from Brussels. Since Jose Manuel Barroso buried the Social Agenda a decade ago, there has been no clear ambition to push for social progress or for a social Europe. MEPs are, generally speaking, more open to social issues, but as long as the Commission has the monopoly on legislative initiatives, they can only pass a growing number of nice resolutions or draft own-initiative reports that are consigned to the waste-basket by the Commission.
So it is no surprise that the working class gets the impression that Europe is delivering results mainly for banks and big corporations while workers are offered everlasting austerity. The EU is undertaking giant rescue packages for the banking sector, permanent deregulation which touches even the small social acquis – as seen in the fitness check for the information-consultation directives (under the banner of ‘better regulation’) – and attacks on collective bargaining and the autonomy of trade unions. This can be seen in, for instance, the establishment of Competitiveness Boards in all Member States, with ‘independent’ members issuing guidelines for collective bargaining so that wages will not increase too much. These Boards are a follow-up to the Five Presidents’ report, which was signed by two high-level European Socialists.
The perception of the Parliament as a support mechanism for the Commission is grounded in the fact that the EP usually welcomes all EC proposals, amends and adopts them. Not even a dozen cases to the contrary, where the EP clearly rejected an EC, can be found between 1979 and 2015. Many characteristics link MEPs to civil servants of the Commission: including European jargon and a European habitus, which replaces the normal right-left divide with a grand coalitionist consensus. The normal democratic divide between government and opposition gives way to a national/European divide. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that the participation rate in European elections fell to its lowest point ever in the last elections in 2014. The normal political fight between left and right is fading away in the Brussels sphere and appears only on social topics.
So, what should a worker think of these persistent attacks on social Europe? This looks like a purely rhetorical question, but it is a fundamental one, because a long lasting trend has materialised: The extreme right establishing itself as the only force which clearly says: ‘We will stop this kind of Europe!’ In German there is a fabulous word for this: ‘Alleinstellungsmerkmal’ (USP)
The position of the other actors has not fundamentally changed: the trade unions and the far left continue consistently to fight for another Europe, a fair and social Europe, but nobody can claim that this combat is a real success story. An increasing number of workers observe what is happening and start to believe it would be more promising to support Le Pen, who offers to put an end to this Europe through a referendum to be organised after the next presidential elections in France. And a French exit, Frexit, would jeopardise the whole European project much more seriously than the Brexit that the media are so alarmed about.
Over past decades, in particular in academic circles, many researchers banked on the irreversibility of the European integration. Today, we know better: nothing is irreversible in history. Europe is no longer only at a crossroads, the European ship is heading towards a slowly approaching iceberg. The success of Le Pen was an accident waiting to happen.
European citizens are giving up the ‘permissive consensus’ – the broad but tacit support for the EU – and starting heated debates on Europe. This is a good thing in itself, but does not find any repercussion in Commission or EP circles, which are more worried about the national/European divide. Inadequate reactions are found all over the place: better communicating Europe, better explaining Europe, or unmasking the far right … They will not work as long as Europe only changes the spin, the image, and not its direction.
What can be learnt from the French regional elections? The absence of political debate on the future of France during the campaign was appalling: no content but an obsession with the Front National, which used the broad media attention to campaign for its own issues. Controversial debates on thematic alternatives – not only at national level but also for an ailing and damaged European project – must be the cornerstone of all elections in Europe, rather than staring, transfixed, like a rabbit at a snake.