Will the undemocratic EU survive?

April 14, 2016

The upcoming referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union (EU) has produced intense debate among all political forces in Britain, including the radical and revolutionary left. In this column for the Irish Times, Eamonn McCann, a veteran socialist who lives in Northern Ireland, looks at the fracturing of the EU that could lead to its collapse, with or without Britain as a member.

PRIME MINISTER David Cameron says that if the referendum on British membership in the European Union returns a majority for leaving, it would take two years to negotiate the terms of a new relationship. Others argue that the process could take 10 years.

If the 10-year estimate is right, the assumption that there will be an EU to leave may turn out to be ill-founded. The union is facing a series of challenges coming together in grim coordination.

Early in April, WikiLeaks published the minutes of a meeting on March 19 at which two leading officials of the International Monetary Fund discussed how to deal with the Greek debt crisis. It has been popularly assumed that this crisis had come to an end last July when the SYRIZA government capitulated to the EU and accepted an austerity package more severe than measures rejected by a substantial majority of the Greek people in a referendum just a week previously.

The government of Alexis Tsipras was humiliated, the result of the referendum tossed away like a used tissue, and the Greek people told to tighten their belts another notch. Who could ask for anything more? The IMF, as it happens.

Outside the European Commission's building in Brussels
Outside the European Commission's building in Brussels (Xavier Häpe)

The officials involved in the March meeting were Paul Thomsen, head of the IMF's European section, and the fund's "mission chief for Greece" Delia Velkouleskou. The meeting concerned the possibility of the Greek difficulty escalating into another full-blown crisis. Fresh austerity measures were needed, the two officials agreed--specifically, raising taxes, cutting pensions and reducing working conditions.

Thomsen complained that the Greeks "are not even getting close...to accepting our views." Velkouleskou suggested that the Tsipras administration might climb down and swallow the bitter medicine "if they get pressured enough."

As to whether the Greek people would placidly yield to pressure in the form of yet another forced reduction in their living standards, we may find out soon enough.

THE GREEK crisis reflects a broad rumbling beneath the surface. The notion of every country for itself is becoming the new common sense, in direct contradiction of the intended basis of the EU.

Crude nationalism is on the rise. In Greece, the anti-EU, anti-migrant, anti-Semitic Golden Dawn is taking easy advantage. Campaigning under a flag with a symbol resembling a swastika, the neo-fascist group recorded 500,000 votes in last September's general election, 7 percent of the poll, returning 18 MPs. Five years ago, it was stuck on less than 1 percent, with no representation in parliament.

More than 500,000 migrants arrived in Greece last year. In the first three months of this year, another 150,000 made landfall. The EU plan to deport those who haven't established or claimed asylum, and to replace them on a one-for-one basis with "genuine" refugees, has begun to be implemented.

The numbers affected so far have been small. No violent resistance has been reported. It's hard to see this continuing.

Huge numbers fleeing violence, poverty and oppression are massed at the borders of the EU, fenced out with nowhere to go. They will keep coming, unceasing and uncontainable. They cannot be expected to huddle in camps dependent on frugal charity without complaint. We may all hope for a resolution without tear gas and worse. But only a cockeyed optimist could be confident that this is how it will be.

The difficulty in handling debt problems and the needs of migrants is compounded by the thoroughly undemocratic nature of the EU. In the Guardian earlier this month, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis recalled his attempts last year to find common cause with EU colleagues.

After he made a plea for an easing of the terms of the bailout, explaining that this was the devout wish of the Greek people as expressed in the recent election, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble made a reply which should send shivers up the spine of every democrat: "Elections cannot be allowed to change the economic program of a member state."

Another finance minister consoled him: "Yanis, you must understand that no country can be sovereign today, especially not a small and bankrupt one like your own."

Varoufakis commented in his Guardian article: "The true meaning is that sovereignty is passé unless you are the United States or China or maybe Putin's Russia. Moreover, the Eurogroup, where most of Europe's important economic decisions are taken, is a body which doesn't even exist in European law, keeps no minutes of its procedures and insists its deliberations are confidential--that is, not to be shared with the citizens of Europe."

There is no democratic redress for any of the problems afflicting the EU. Discontent will either be bottled up or will erupt on to the streets.

The EU may not survive.

First published in the Irish Times.

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