Austerity vs Solidarity: Democratic Legitimacy and Europe’s Future

EUROPE, 9 Apr 2012

Andrea Mammone – Al Jazeera

Across the EU, there is an outcry – including from economists – about the potential damaging effects of austerity plans.

German sociologist and influential European thinker Ulrich Beck recently highlighted that one of the most (problematic) prevailing contemporary tendencies is to elevate Germany’s “culture of stability” to “Europe’s guiding idea”. While it is necessary that some states take a more conscious and strict approach towards spending, national finances and public debts, this submission to a peculiar form of German Europeanism risks not solving all EU problems, while supranational institutions and democracy are fully bypassed.

The Greek bailout deal, for example, was reached after a night of meetings and talks in Brussels and one of demonstrations and riots in Athens, but the risk is that, in the long run, all this may also generate several other negative outcomes, including for the same harmony of the European continent, and it may weaken the external images of Germany and France.

After Greece, there are signs of rising protests across EU societies. There is an outcry, including from some important economists, about the potential damaging effects of austerity plans – how do they generate growth? What about their implications on people’s lives?

Will a further labour and contractual flexibility, in country such as Italy or Spain, really improve the youth’s (already very precarious) job perspectives? Recent unrest is only the prelude of an escalation of violence and, despite all significant efforts, there are no real signs of a counter-recession.

In Italy this “foreign help” was instead – at least initially – greatly welcomed, but the economic measures seemed “lighter” than the Greek ones. Years of Berlusconism generated a strong disillusionment with existing political parties, and the President of Republic Giorgio Napolitano wanted to resolve the crisis within the wider European frame, beyond the dogma of national sovereignty and aside of all allegations of Franco-German interferences. But what will be the final bill for this? And what about Greece?

Austerity plan

The Financial Times suggested that the bailout would essentially impose controls on Athens, and there are still allegations of the creation of a future technocratic grand coalition to implement the austerity plan. Other important media are openly talking about a malicious EU that is essentially “destroying” Greece and still forcing it to buy French or German armaments, despite the current bankruptcy.

With the growing crisis of the eurozone, it is natural that its strongest political and economic actors are worried by the ineffectiveness of some national elites – especially in Greece and Italy. (And all types of technocracies, in this sense, do represent a tremendous failure for the local political classes.) The problem is now that a growing number of other socio-political and intellectual voices are questioning the deep value of such interferences, and anger towards Germany may become a new mantra.

After the measures imposed upon Greece, conservative commentators in Britain openly called their government to withdraw the support to the eurozone – because this latter is “devastating” a state member. In Athens, people wonder why a German minister of finance should actually decide the future of their homeland, also suggesting postponing elections. Meanwhile, demonstrations took place in Spain against the budget measures, labour reforms and reduction in public spending presented by the new conservative government.

But also in France, writers in publications such as Le Monde sometimes – implicitly or explicitly – seem to wonder if the German economic and fiscal model could work in their country and if it is the best solution for the current European crisis (and what would happen if the socialist Francois Holland wins the presidential elections?).

If a political unity of Europe has never been achieved and the same Germany is not immune from political scandals, the question is about the nature of this “authority” and its legitimacy. Greece is leaning towards poverty, and hungry citizens have started burning German flags.

Protests and “euro-doubts” are rising among Spaniards. In Italy, after the revelations about German chancellor Angela Merkel’s manoeuvre to help dismiss Berlusconi, some of the media and rightist parties immediately called for a parliamentary board of inquiry to investigate the issue, and lamented how “we are not a German colony”. This propaganda is still ongoing (against Mario Monti, Germany, and the EU).

Some Italians are currently questioning why their prime minister should fully implement pension cuts and labour reforms which would not be accepted in other countries, while banks are the only entities helped by the EU.

It is accepted that some EU members need reforms and a better organisation, but there are some limits too. Economist Luis Garicano introduced an interesting point: “If the rest of euro countries keep insisting on treating this problem as a morality play, in which some wayward southerners must be reined in, the tailspin will only become worse … Spain can reform itself, but it requires the support of its European partners to do so. There is a limit to how much pain its people will be able to endure.”

In sum, a feeling of injustice currently crosses the political spectrum (paradoxically unifying the extreme left and the radical right). It is therefore unsurprisingly that across Europe, some are calling to the return of national currencies or are dreaming the establishment of an autarkic world.

This is understandable, but also slightly paradoxical: Europe came out weak and destroyed from two world wars and was peacefully rebuilt on principles of harmony and shared aims and on the basis of a newly (re-)born fraternity among its people and different languages.

Interviewed almost a decade ago by the Dutch writer and journalist Geert Mak in his remarkable In Europe, Italy’s distinguished intellectual and politician Vittorio Foa tenderly recalled this sense of solidarity which crossed both his and the old continent’s postwar lives: “When I first opened my eyes to the light, in 1915, all the countries of Europe were busy slaughtering each other. And each of those countries felt that justice was on its side … Now that my eyes have almost completely dimmed, I see, by that last light, that the countries of Europe are embracing each other and forgetting their borders. That whole turnaround took place within the space of my almost ninety years. I still find that unbelievable. But I also know how difficult it has been.”

European unity

The reality is that, if politicians really want a European unity – of lands and citizens – it is only a supranational power and particularly a more democratic and powerful EU parliament and “government” that have to tackle the critical issues of member states. This embodies a realistic confederation, and the erosion of some important national political powers.

Angela Merkel is instead playing a very risky game. She cannot sack prime ministers abroad, impose policies and, at the same time, lead her country and back candidates (such as Nicolas Sarkozy) in foreign electoral campaigns. Where is, once more, the separation of powers? Economic austerity and success at home is not the only prerequisite to legitimate external influence.

All of this is clearly undermining the same external image of a great and fundamental political actor such as the German nation, but it is also slowing the real process of integration of the EU – at least as the “fathers of Europe” had imagined it.

The rebirth of ethnic-based nationalisms, the rise of right-wing extremist feeling and Europhobia are a likely new threat and will be forged with mounting social and workers’ protests. Yet, the Euro-dream was specifically to bypass these nationalistic divisions and create an all-inclusive porous European citizenship. This led to a reconsideration of concepts such as space, borders and belonging – and is, with some difficulties, aiming to create a European public sphere.

The “market” economy was only one (though very important) of the pillars that had to contribute to build all this, but it was not the unique one. “Solidarity” was the other (at least implicit) pilaster. It is known that Germany was in fact helped after the Second World War without imposing severe austerity plans.

Some of the measures now imposed upon Greece and perhaps tomorrow upon Italy, Spain, Portugal or some central or eastern European nations, may be to some extent necessary – but some political-economic flexibility and democratic legitimacy are essential, too.


Andrea Mammone is a historian at London’s Kingston University. He has also been a political commentator for Al Jazeera, the BBC and Voice of America. He has written for The Independent, Foreign Affairs and the International Herald Tribune. His Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy will be out later this year.

A version of this article was earlier published in Greek by To Vima.

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