Europe’s Coming of Age
Author: Loukas Tsoukalis
Publisher: Polity Press, UK
When the Russian army launched its attack on Ukraine in February 2022, it apparently caught the EU entirely off guard, even though everyone could have foreseen what was about to happen. In Brussels, the matter was considered a question of association agreements and adaptation. The European community was not coordinated to handle a major political crisis of the kind that Ukraine quickly developed into.
Loukas Tsoukalis, an emeritus professor at the University of Athens and former professor at Science Po in Paris, as one of the leading European experts, has written a provocative book about European integration, or perhaps more precisely, the lack of it. In his view, while the EU is a success story in some respects regarding the challenges posed by a heavily armed and aggressive power, it quickly becomes clear that the formulation of a common foreign and security policy has never progressed beyond the sketch phase.
China’s GDP grew 70 times larger over forty years
Balancing state and market
European integration began as a project to create peace and mutual understanding in the post-World War II era. And because economic instruments were chosen to achieve a number of political goals in that direction, the leaders of that time saw welfare increase as the best way to convince citizens that it was a good cause.
At the signing of the Rome Treaty in 1957, the six founders of the first European Community (EC) established this principle by introducing the free movement of four important components: goods, services, labour, and capital. However, the system also had an inherent paradox. The prevailing trend of the time was social democracy, while the principles of growth were largely pure liberalism. This balance between state and market could be maintained as long as growth remained stable and worked well for almost three decades.
The problems began with the rising inflation of the early 1970s, combined with the oil crisis. This, in turn, was a catalyst for the fierce liberalism that came with Reagan and Thatcher, and at the same time, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began to open up the world market. He introduced a sort of capitalism under communist leadership, which pulled millions of Chinese out of poverty. But as this was also the peak of a period where China’s GDP grew 70 times larger over forty years, it also created deep social disparities. Although under very different conditions, something similar happened in the US, where the wealthy became richer while large parts of the working class fell behind.
At that time, the EC had gained more members, including Denmark, and was working towards the Single Market and the Economic and Monetary Union. But, according to Tsoukalis, these initiatives did not get off to a good start precisely because they coincided with rapidly increasing globalization in the name of liberalism. Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission between 1985 and 1995, was a socialist who believed that national governments should control market forces. But he also believed in the EU as a political project. He strongly advocated using development aid from the EU budget to convince poorer member countries and regions of the benefits of accepting more competition and breaking down national economic barriers.
The structural funds did indeed provide some levelling between the countries, but critics described it as bribery. At the same time, it led to extensive resource waste, which the EU, with its very loose structure, is poorly equipped to control.
The project of the elite
Loukas Tsoukalis argues that one should approach the European project with great scepticism. Over the years, a clear majority of Europeans have viewed greater integration as a good thing, but it has never been a top priority for the so-called broader population. Instead, it has largely become the project of the elite, who have been able to do as they please with reasonable certainty that citizens would accept everything as long as things went well.
Against this background, one could describe it as a clear success story when a large number of Eastern European countries sought membership in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new members saw the structural funds as a useful aid to a new start in life. From a broader perspective, it could be seen as an important step towards continued European integration, aided by hopes of democracy and a market economy.
As the rest of the world developed parallel to this, the transition to democracy and a market economy proved far more difficult than many had expected. Democracy does not take root immediately. It takes even longer for pluralism and tolerance towards people with different views to settle in, especially in societies that have lived under totalitarian regimes.
the EU was at a loss as to how to deal with an armed conflict on the continent
An oversized bureaucracy
Part of the problem is that the Cold War froze the inherent regional conflicts in much of Europe. When the Soviet Union broke up, a lot of pent-up anger was unleashed, leading as early as 1991 to the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia.
As is the case today, the EU was at a loss as to how to deal with an armed conflict on the continent, so the means of creating fragile peace in the seven republics that arose from the ruins of Yugoslavia was the prospect of EU membership. As a result, Croatia and Slovenia became members, while the rest remained outside, and this mishmash created further energy in the nationalist tendencies that arose in many different varieties around Europe at the same time.
Tsoukalis, who himself comes from one of the community’s problem children, Greece, thus paints an intense picture of a Europe that has never become a mature and responsible player in a multipolar world. In his eyes, the EU remains the project of the elite, and one of the points he makes is that the many support measures have mainly led to an oversized bureaucracy and prosperity with growing social differences. And this is a weak starting point when there is a real need for European action from a common standpoint in the face of a crisis in the world.