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Europe is breaking down

2020-05-18 | EU

Italy is reopening. The protests of the angry petty bourgeoisie reflect the rush of the petty bourgeoisie to reopen their businesses. Capital gives them all the media coverage that strikes seeking to maintain safety in the workplace never get. Capital is in a hurry, too. The "new normality" is based on an even more indebted state and on a productive capacity which has dropped by more than 16%. But at this point Italy is only one aspect of a general situation in Europe. The "reopening" is also the reopening of the previous fractures and conflicts between countries and between classes.

Liz Truss, in charge of negotiations with the US and EU on the British side.

None of these fractures are missing. The specter of a "rough Brexit" is back, among other things because it never went away. The British government estimates that the trade treaty it is negotiating with the US could generate sales of 3.4 billion pounds. The break with the EU could reduce demand for British companies by 112 billion pounds. But even if the British government's figures don't add up, Brussels is beginning to think that Downing Street wants to replace the relationship with the EU with the trade agreement with the US. The nationalism promoted by the government at full throttle during the Covid crisis seems to have served, at the very least, to discipline the Tories to the point of bluffing all the way through.

Protest in Stuttgart against social distancing.


petty bourgeoisie|petty bourgeois

Nothing else can be expected now. Because the truth is that the interests of the petty bourgeoisie are already suffering a lot. In France a third of the non-food businesses is expected to shut down. In France itself, as in Spain, Greece and Italy, it is taken for granted that the "green corridors" of tourists and the national aid funds will somewhat mitigate the effect on the big hotel and tour operator capitals, but a mass bankruptcy of small hotel businesses is inevitable.

Workers at a German Volkswagen factory.

But the EU is being broken by more than just the effects of Brexit or the more or less disruptive movements of the petty bourgeoisie. At the bottom is an economic crisis that was never overcome and is now accelerated by the global fall in demand. Very symbolically, Volkswagen, after reopening its German factories, has partially closed them again due to the lack of demand for its star models. A rapid recovery in sales orders cannot be expected. Neither in Europe nor even less so in China or the US, whose prospects are far from the "V-shaped recovery" economists have been peddling in recent weeks.

In this context the EU is more broken than ever. The hopes raised by the press at today's meeting between Merkel and Macron, the idea repeated a thousand times that they will "save the EU" is precisely the proof that the institutional mechanisms for the coordination of the 26 member states are definitely broken and that the EU only "works" under exceptionality and German diktat.

What rabbit will Merkel and Macron pull out of their hats? Surely they will try to get the anti-crisis plan entrusted to the Commission by the European Council out of its impasse, incorporating some dose of joint public spending through the EU budget in the most affected countries, while maintaining the central focus of the programs on access to funding... that is, at a single and equal interest rate for all countries. But even if the music sounds like a correction to the outcome of the last summit and the nordist demands, no truly major changes in substance can be expected. It is quite possible that the volume of the programmes will be far from sufficient to compensate for the redistributive effect in favor of Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries by the European mechanisms. This very weekend, Commissioner Vestager acknowledged that the difference in the amount of the "economic revival" programmes - Germany alone accounts for half of the funds - is a distortion of the European market that could put an end to the EU.

It is not surprising that governments like Spain's refuse to even talk about a European "rescue". They don't want to be a new Greece, even though they know full well that they can't stop resorting to European borrowing, the ultimate effects of which will be adverse.

The EU bans China from devouring it. Cartoon from Le Monde.

But the contradictions in Europe's national capitals go far beyond the continent's borders. They see the crossfire between China and the US looming over them and realize that the European institutions do not have the capacity to accommodate them. When it comes down to it, when they want to counterbalance Chinese capital - like Portugal in EdP, their electricity company - they have to turn to Germany or France. That's why they're once again hoping for a Trump defeat in November... but they realize that the democratic alternative won't open up markets for them either. And it's not even clear that the EU's trade agreement with China will bring them any relief, not even that it will be signed in December with the goals sought by Brussels.

The fact is that Brussels is increasingly powerless in the face of the impetuousness of the imperialist rivalry between the Chinese and the Americans. Hungary's support for China against Taiwan in the WHO has set off alarm bells. Borrell accused China of wanting to "rule Europe by sowing division" and called for discipline among member states, recalling that "even the largest member state has no strength to negotiate as an equal with the US or China". The admission of chaos and fragility spoke for itself. Also that no foreign ministry has ever bothered to respond to it. It is obvious that such "indiscipline" is today the only way for more than half of the member states to assert their interests in EU decision-making processes that are increasingly strongly aligned with German capital and its interests.

Europe is breaking down

In the end, the EU is proving to be an increasingly unsatisfactory structure for the needs of its member states. The recession revives the revolt of the petty bourgeoisie and makes the political apparatuses of the states less and less operative when it comes to providing a strategy to the national capitals. The conflict of interests between capitals keeps the fractures between states within the EU open. And added to that, both things multiply the difficulties of the European national capitals to maintain a common front in view of the rise of the Chinese-US imperialist conflict. Throughout the last decades, as the contradictions at each level gradually sharpened, exceptionality became "institutional normality" by transferring power from the European bureaucracy to the Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers, and then from these to the "summits" among the four largest members first, which after Brexit became three, and now, finally, two: Germany and France.

This evening Macron and Merkel will be presenting their "salvation of the EU". But in today's historical conditions, every step forward is one step closer to a zombie structure.