Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

John Feffer

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

November 16th, 2011 8:44 AM

Is Europe Over?

What made Europe a compelling political, economic, and social alternative wedged between Anglo-American free marketeers and Soviet nomenklatura is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Europe has always been a rather tenuous concept. A rump continent, Europe represented the barbarous hinterlands for the Greeks and Romans. The first use of the term "European" occurred in a chronicle describing the forces of Charles the Hammer that turned back the northward advance of Islam at the battle of Tours in 732. Long celebrated in Europe as a victory of civilization over barbarism, the Battle of Tours was, as historian David Levering Lewis reminds us in God's Crucible,actually the opposite: "the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy."

For most of its existence, Europe has been just that: a continent divided against itself. From the conquests of Charlemagne to the unprecedented bloodletting of two world wars in the 20th century, Europe saw only brief stretches of unity, and that only by virtue of imperial force.

Europe as a unified, democratic, relatively peaceful, and economically prosperous order has so far only enjoyed a brief lifespan. This conception of Europe dates to the early days of the Cold War and the perceived need to create a bulwark against the Soviet Union to the east. Centuries of Franco-German enmity vanished after World War II, as these two key European countries united against a common enemy at the urging of a common friend (the United States). The resulting economic alliance would expand and deepen over the decades into the current European Union of 27 countries. The EU now boasts a parliament, a council of ministers, a common currency (for 17 of the 27), the largest economy in the world, and even, somewhat ominously, a military force that has intervened overseas a dozen times or so.

Thanks to a difficult-to-contain economic meltdown, however, this ambitious regional project suddenly seems on the verge of unraveling. And the very qualities that began to gather around the concept of "European" in the 8th century – religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy – appear to be returning in the form of Islamophobia, extreme nationalism, and the oligarchy of bankers. It's not a pretty sight.

Two governments – the nominally socialist Papandreou administration in Greece and the substantively insane Berlusconi burlesque show in Italy – have already fallen. The euro is at risk of collapse, and some European politicians are waxing apocalyptic. "If the euro zone were to fall apart then it's hard to exclude the possibility of EU falling apart as well," argues Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski, who holds out the possibility of the return of authoritarian governments and even war.

It's not just Europe's problem. “We are all directly affected by the crisis in Europe,” says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and for once I agree with him. Columnist Robert Samuelson darkly predicts "a slow side into currency wars and protectionism," while the IMF's Christine Lagardewarns of an impending "lost decade" for the world economy.

The proximate cause of the current European crisis is debt. Much of the continent has racked up big piles of the stuff: more than their GDPs, in fact, in the case of Greece and Italy (with Ireland, Belgium, France, and Portugal not far behind). Ordinarily, a country can rejigger its currency, in effect devaluing it, to make exports cheaper and grow the economy. But these countries no longer have their own currency. They have the euro, and, according to agreements all 17 Eurozone countries signed, their national debt cannot exceed 60 percent of their GDP. This rule has not been precisely applied, but if the rate of borrowing rises so high that the governments no longer have any hope of paying back the debt, they have little choice except to appeal to the European authorities and the IMF for a bailout package. Greece, Portugal, and Ireland all qualified for rescue. The bailout money, however, was all tied up with strings. Structural adjustment – once the remedy reserved for the Third World periphery – has now been applied to the periphery of Europe itself.

The debt crisis, according to conventional analysis, results from profligate governments that have maintained high levels of social services without the income necessary to support them. But Europe's current economic crisis is in many ways an aftershock from the financial crisis of 2008, when European banks invested, unwisely, in all the fancy instruments that U.S. institutions created to peddle risky mortgages. Flush with their own bailouts, which even included some U.S. bailout money, the same European banks then shifted into investments in sovereign debt. In other words, the banks were like pushers who, locked out of one drug market, simply turned to another. They made a killing at first, raking in over a billion dollars in fees alone, and they did little to ensure responsible policy by the governments concerned (fiscal responsibility, after all, would have interfered with short-term profit margins).

Marking down the debt means that banks will take a loss. So, for instance, if Italian bonds are written off at 50 cents to the dollar, Goldman Sachs would lose 10 percent of its $3.43 billion in profit for the first nine months of the year, according to The New York Times. If anyone in this sad circus should be shouldering the austerity, it should be the banks. But it looks likely that the 99 percent will continue to pay the penalty for the folly of the 1 percent.

The threat of government default and the prospect of economic austerity are bad enough. The political fallout might be even worse. Europe has been overwhelmed by a rising tide of extreme nationalism. Far right-wing parties have been gaining strength throughout the continent, particularly in places that have been largely immune to such extremism in the last 50 years. The Progress Party in Norway, to which mass murderer Anders Breivik was once affiliated, is now the second-largest party there; Geert Wilders, the flamboyant Islamophobe of the Netherlands, has led his party into third place; the Democratic Party in Sweden, which similarly focuses its wrath on immigrants, made it into parliament for the first time in the 2010 elections.

These extremist successes in the putative territories of tolerance augment the rising support for far-right wing parties elsewhere in Europe – Jobbik in Hungary, the Northern League in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria. Ultra-nationalists have also been effective at organizing on a local level. The far-right-wing Plataforma per Catalunya is making headway in municipalities across the Catalan region of Spain. In Athens, a neo-Nazi recently won a spot on the city council. And these are the polite ones. Right-wing vigilantes have rampaged on the streets of SofiaGyöngyöspataDudley,Warsaw, and other places.

From a thug's eye view, Europe today looks a lot like Europe of the 1930s: steeped in economic crisis and cursed with dithering politicians, with Islamophobia and anti-Roma sentiment substituting for anti-Semitism. Then as now, the far right has employed a dangerous populism to take advantage of the economic downturn. It has identified two primary culprits – immigrants (who compete for jobs and government benefits) and European institutions (which mismanaged the economic situation). These explanations are increasingly persuasive in an environment in which the center left, as in Greece or Spain, has been hamstrung by its own involvement in creating the economic messes and imposing the harsh remedies.

Of course, as sometimes happens as a result of crisis, Europe might be jolted into taking the next step toward even greater political and economic integration. In response to the economic crisis and the rise of nationalism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed such a double- down strategy. “The task of our generation now is to complete the economic and currency union in Europe and, step by step, create a political union,” Merkel recently said. “It’s time for a breakthrough to a new Europe.”

“What she means is that either we get more Europe now or the project will die,” one of her Christian Democratic colleagues explained. “This means that Germany must give up some sovereign rights and some party colleagues and voters may find this hard to swallow. But there’s no alternative.”

In some ways, the Merkel approach is bold and brave, for it aims to steady the jittery markets and puts Germany's own relative stability at risk. But Merkel faces an uphill battle. The cry of Europe that mobilized the armies of Charles the Hammer and proved so effective during the Cold War no longer stirs the blood. And it's not just the ultranationalists who are uncomfortable with the notion of "more Europe." The left, which threw in its lot with European integration, has become disillusioned. The social ideals that once animated the European project are dissipating fast. The continent has simply become a good place to do business, particularly in financial services. The current crisis and the resulting austerity measures have served to further Americanize Europe through privatization, reduction of government services, and the like.

Europe as a continent will, of course, continue. But what made Europe a compelling political, economic, and social alternative wedged between Anglo-American free marketeers and Sovietnomenklatura is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. A much less appetizing European history, whether the dangerous interwar period of the 1930s or the fratricidal melee of the 8th century, now threatens to repeat itself.

Creative Commons License This content is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles