The European Union closed its external borders. The internal borders have fallen one by one, from Germany to Spain. Now only goods and those who transport them can move around Europe. Although these are temporary measures, the closure of internal borders has been preceded and accompanied by a real display of meanness on the part of Germany and France. Today, the European Union can no longer hide its nature and more and more voices are presenting it as the first major political victim of the coronavirus.
When governments accept “hundreds of thousands” of deaths in order to keep capital profitable…
Thomas De Quincey warned in a famous satirical essay that if you allow yourself to murder someone you may end up “failing to be polite and leaving things for the next day”. And that seems to be the most accurate description of what is happening in Europe. Britain now “finds out” that its “strategy” for the epidemic -to let it unfold- will cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, exceeding the NHS’ capacity to treat patients by more than eight times. Britain is no longer part of the EU, but its strategy is the same as that actually being pursued by Germany and followed by France until yesterday.
The German government is delaying far beyond reason the confinement and closure of businesses. Merkel’s statements asserting that between 60 and 70% of the German population will suffer from the epidemic is an open confession that as long as the productive apparatus does not stop, the state accepts with no hesitation a minimum of 150,000 deaths.
The pompous brutality of the German press was ready to cheer Altmaier, the German Minister of Economy, when he presented his “bazooka” against the economic effects of the coronavirus accompanied by a call to restructure production chains in order to reduce dependence on China no matter what, even opening the door to the nationalization of key sectors. It was overkill, the press of all kinds had been exhibiting a “strategic sinophobia” since the start of the industrial recession in the last quarter of last year. War-geared state capitalism in its purest form. A show of force of the capacity of centralization of national capital. The German bourgeoisie seems willing to do everything… Everything but confine the workers to avoid the spread of contagion.
Macron delayed action until yesterday, multiplying the danger of contagion in order to hold elections last Sunday. And only yesterday, as soon as the recount was over, he brought out the war speech – “we are at war with an invisible enemy”-, blamed the population for trusting in the trivialization of the epidemic that the government itself and its media were encouraging, and decreed the confinement. Like Sánchez with 8M… but a week later, which is a double crime.
…no international “solidarity” can be expected
Had Macron and Merkel really done nothing? Actually, they did, and their “measures” are the key to what’s to come. Their first reaction was to isolate Italy and soon after close their borders. The second was to ban the export of medical materials and even masks… despite Italian appeals for help. The famous “solidarity” between countries came to nothing as soon as Italy asked for help.
Brussels, threatening fines, got both Merkel and Macron to reconsider their ban on the export of masks. But the original gesture, as much as it had been corrected, and the borders, which are still closed, made it clear that the EU had not attempted even the minimal basics of a joint policy against the spread of the epidemic. On the contrary, each state has tried to “hold out a little longer” than its European neighbors and its global imperialist rivals (the U.S. and China) in order to gain “competitive edge”.
Reaction times have depended only on the strength of the political apparatus. Conte and Sánchez, in the utmost precariousness, have been the first to take -although late- measures. Johnson, reinforced by a parliament tailored to his needs and a purged party, is heading for a mass slaughter by inaction. Macron held out as long as he could until the elections and Merkel is trying to navigate as usual: affirming as a misfortune without alternatives the primacy of the national interest, that is, that of national capital, even if it is a direct danger to the lives of the great majority.
But there is something else that stands out. When the US closed down flights to Europe, Brussels made it look like “one-sidedness”. But in reality, it was the same thing that Europe had done with air traffic and would immediately afterwards do with the land borders of Austria or France with Italy and what Germany would soon do with France and Austria.
As the epidemic spread and the measures that were not yet in place became more and more urgent, there was more incentive, not only for “erasmus” (international exchange students), but also for retired people living in countries other than the one where their passport was issued and for a large number of displaced workers, to “go home”. The deliberate delay in imposing confinement thus reproduced between countries what had previously happened between regions within each country: by failing to restrict mobility, the regions with the highest number of infected people sent thousands of people to those regions that had been relatively safe … further spreading the epidemic.
Not least, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia… began to receive infected nationals from Spain while the Sánchez government delayed confinement in order to celebrate 8M and keep businesses open until the last moment. The same thing happened in the Maghreb and in half of Africa from France. The experience of previous pandemics made it perfectly predictable. An airborne virus tends to reproduce in its contagion family and personal relationships, which in turn reflect previous commercial and migratory flows, that map of migrations and exiles that has historically shaped the working class beyond national borders.
The family and personal fabric of millions of people in Spain and France with South America and Africa made it even more important to stop the spread as soon as possible. But no government, neither the Elysée, nor Moncloa, nor even less the regional governments of each country, counted among their risks what the extension in their territory would mean for those who do not live in them. The flight and border closures, the mass repatriations, encouraged or directly organized, by the states and regions were done under a nationalist implicit: to blame the spread on the “imported” cases from abroad in order to present as ” yet” unnecessary the confinement that was coming too late. Thus, nationalism once again covered up the subordination of people’s lives to the reproductive desires of capital… and became a justification for an even greater spread and internationalization of the epidemic.
Workers, not governments, fight internationally
It is already clear to everyone that little can be expected from the EU and its governments in the face of this epidemic. They aim to minimize the damage to national capitals from declines in activity and consumption, and willingly accept as necessary a certain number of deaths among workers, in some cases, as we have seen in Britain or Germany, even in the hundreds of thousands. To keep factories and workplaces open even during confinement is simply to concentrate disease hazards on the workers.
That is why the spontaneous strikes that began in Italy demanding the closure of workplaces are so important. First of all because they are not “national”: just yesterday a series of outbreaks in large Spanish factories (Mercedes, FASA Renault, IVECO…) gave the signal for thousands of workers to join the struggle in Spain. Today the workers of Balay joined the strike. A struggle that is internationally emerging in Italy, France, Belgium and Great Britain and that makes it clear that it is time to go on strike in all workplaces that are not dedicated to the essential production to demand:
- The closure of all non-essential production and the implementation of general confinement.
- Reversal of all dismissals, both permanent and temporary, and compensation as medical leave for workers throughout the period of confinement.
- The extension of testing to the entire population with symptoms.
- The urgent reinforcement of medical and health teams, and the setting up of a large enough number of emergency structures and hospitals to allow the monitoring and isolation of patients at risk.
What we mustn’t forget
What we are witnessing is that in the face of a global danger, the bourgeoisie and its governments are incapable of acting not just globally but even regionally.
The main lesson that the development of the epidemic must teach us as workers is that the threats we face as a class are global: the virus, like the crisis, knows no borders, and what happens in each place affects the rest. There are simply no national solutions. Even “coordination” cannot be expected; the interests of individual national capitals prevent the ruling classes from providing truly global solutions. They will always have an incentive to “wait a little longer”, to call us to “get on with life” first and then to “individual responsibility”… as long as they do not lose their competitive edge.
If anyone ever believed that the European Union could serve to moderate the appetites of national capitals and put the most basic universal human needs first, they can see their hopes refuted today, once again, with absolute clarity. On the other hand, those who doubted the ability of the working class to stand up to the barbarity of capital across national borders have a palpable demonstration these days of how the working class not only exists as a universal class but that its struggle is the only one capable of affirming the primacy of human needs effectively and across borders.