Et tu, Europa?

Peace Advocate June 2024

Pictured: "prüfung (the Ordeal)" monument statue. Photo by Jeanne Trubek.

By Hoffmann the Organizer

When I ponder what is driving the near-universal resurgence of militarism across Europe in the past three years, I feel a sharp pain in my back.

For most of my life, I looked to Europe as an actually existing model for a better future for the U.S.  The NATO powers were ostensibly cold warriors, but they had large parliamentary blocs and social movements committed to economic equality, ecology, and international peace and cooperation.  Meanwhile, the communist bloc, poisoned as it was by Stalinism and its more banal aftermath, was also committed to economic equality and de-militarization.  Neither always practiced what they preached, but they did as much as anyone to codify these essentials of human progress. 

My favorites, of course, were those neutral, or “third way,” nations like Sweden, Austria and Finland.  The Rehn-Meidner Plan in Sweden was the most advanced achievement of equal opportunity in world history: starting in the 1950s through the use of and extensive equalized wage structure, it brought the health statistics for children under five to the same level for the richest and poorest by the 1970s.  Austria had nationalized all heavy industry yet remained politically democratic and economically efficient.  And Finland’s capital, Helsinki, was a safe space for Cold War diplomatic initiatives.

Since the end of the Cold War, the center left in Europe slid more and more into neo-liberalism, and NATO began to expand rather than fade away. Still Europe remained a relative beacon.  

In 2017, French philosopher Bruno Latour launched an ecological manifesto titled “Down to Earth.” In it, he called on us to save the planet and civilization by descending back down from cyber globalism to real places where we could “tend our gardens” again. It ended with “A Personal Defense of the Old Continent,” in which he declared he would go “down to Earth” in Europe.  Europe, with all its terrible past and present failings, as he freely admitted, still felt like the ground from which a European could best build a better future – with his fellow humans across the globe, to be sure. Strangely, I, American born and bred, felt the same, drawn to the Europe that had nourished both my nostalgia and my hopes.

But then something terrible happened.  Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost the entire leadership of the EU and its member nations rallied around the aggressive expansion of NATO and a demonization of Russia.  These were positions previously led by the U.S. with alternating resistance and acquiescence from its EU allies.  No longer.  Now the EU as a whole, and the vast majority of its members individually, embraced war over diplomacy, expansive military budgets, and increasingly direct military intervention.  Worst of all, those crucial neutral nations like Sweden and Finland rushed to join the NATO alliance and abandon their cherished pacifying liaison role of the Cold War.

The sense of betrayal I felt was profound.  There were always two sides to the Euro coin, but they used to be safely in their places on the traditional right-to-left political spectrum.  Suddenly Social Democrats, who valued human needs over war and created “Ostpolitik” (diplomacy and trade with Russia), even the idealistically ecological and pacifist Greens, were leading the movement to war.  Traditional conservatives, of course, were not far behind, and the marginal “left” was at best apologetic and equivocating.  Only one force spoke out against this military mobilization and that was the growing far-right parties.

Europe seemed to have passed through the looking glass into a perverse political dystopia.

In the immediate wake of the EU parliamentary elections last week, Wolfgang Streeck of the Max Planck Institute in Germany threw some light on the origins and significance of this alignment of pro- and anti-NATO/Ukraine-funding forces.  Streeck pointed out that the Great Financial Crash of 2009, compounded by the COVID pandemic, had pushed the EU to the point of falling apart.  Having an external enemy (e.g. Russia) seemed a way to regain a “unified purpose” — hence their growing willingness to provoke Russia with NATO expansion.  

That’s also why the only political parties that oppose the war are the right-wing parties that equally oppose the EU itself (e.g. Orban’s Fidesz Party, the Alternative für Deutschland or AfD, the Italian Lega).  Once a party rallies to the EU, regardless of its ideological bent (e.g., Meloni’s right-wing Italian Brotherhood Party), it also switches to a pro-NATO position.  In short, every party in Europe, left, right or center, is seeing the war almost solely through the lens of commitment or opposition to the EU itself.  

This vulnerability of the EU to collapse that Streeck speaks of has deep roots.  After all, the charter of the EU is a shocking leap backward in the history of the Democratic Revolution it purports to represent.  The core tenet of that Democratic Revolution, which has been unfolding for centuries, was most precisely coined in the 18th Century as “No Taxation without Representation!”  In other words, if a people are asked to contribute to their government, they must have a say in shaping its policies.  The boldness of the U.S. Constitution’s system to actualize this goal was striking for its time, but already revolutionary constitutions that followed went even further.  And certainly the Western European post-war constitutions made the old “We the People” look a bit crusty.  Such is the “law of uneven development,” by which the political or economic progress of one generation in one nation is superseded by a later one elsewhere.  

That’s why the formation of the EU as a rejection of the principle of “No Taxation without Representation” is so jolting and unprecedented.  As a result, nations and peoples are still contributing their revenues and ceding increasing sovereignty to a government which has no popular or representative process to tax or spend.  

And it was this strange hybrid of “Taxation without Representation” and “Representation without Taxation” that made the EU so vulnerable when confronted with major crises.  While the US was able to respond to the Great Financial Crash of 2009 with a range of fiscal tools and aid to states and localities, banks and businesses, the EU could only resort to further demands for austerity, increasing the pain of the crisis for the majority of their nations and people.  When the US met the COVID crisis with New Deal levels of federal support for workers, businesses, and states, the EU was telling their members that they were on their own.  

These crises exposed the original sin of the EU: reducing popular sovereignty in the name of unity.  But unity for whom?  I think we know.  Their last refuge has always been war.  A strange turn of events . . . and a strange time to assert the democratic superiority of Europe.  The decline of left-wing values and the rise of angry populism are both symptomatic.  And their debates over war, which are not about war and peace, but which war when (the anti-Ukraine rightists, like their Republican counterparts in the U.S., support aid to Israel’s war in Gaza), are signs of impending necrosis.

That’s why this slide of the EU into militarism recalls The Strange Death of Liberal England. That classic work on England tells of how the liberal political mandate of the nineteen-aughts started to fall apart after 1910 due to three crises: around labor, women’s rights, and the Irish question.  The brutally exploited English working class had finally risen up in a wave of massive strikes that closed down much of the economy; the Suffragettes became so fed up with official indifference to, and increasing repression of, their cause that they turned to a campaign of terrorist bombing; and the Protestant Unionists in Ireland decided to end the drive for Irish independence by armed force.  In other words, the left, the center, and the right were all turning to revolutionary means and were threatening the coherence of an English society ruled in the name of an increasingly hollow liberalism.  

At the height of these tensions, the government plunged the nation into World War One (which they could have stayed out of); and lo and behold, the striking workers were sent to fight in the trenches, the Suffragettes as nurses in the military hospitals, and the Irish Unionists as officers to run the front lines.  And everyone was happy and there was peace in Merry Old England . . . as war and slaughter raged across the continent and a generation was sacrificed.

As Chris Hedges has noted, ideals betrayed in reality are reasserted in illusion by the violence and sacrifice of war.  Yet again, we are good, and the Hun/Russian is bad; yet again, we fight for freedom and democracy (whatever the actual levels of each within the societies of ourselves, our allies, or our enemies).  

How could the Europe that arose from the ashes of World War Two, that seemed to have repudiated this dangerous ideology, be at the center of this new global military struggle?  Have too many of those who remembered that cataclysm passed on?  The US embrace of aggressive foreign policy has a fairly unbroken pedigree, so the new round of wars is disappointing, but not so surprising.  But you too, Europe?

Hoffmann earned his pen name and sobriquet “the Organizer” through years of work on campaigns for peace, economic justice, and environmental sustainability in numerous cities and regions of the US, as well as in Europe.