Analysis

Europe is not in a good way…

by | 22 Nov 2023

In Scotland we tend to take an excessively positive position on the European Union. But after spending time with experts from a dozen European countries, there aren't many others who share our optimism.

Eight days, four flights, 12 hours on four trains, two countries and four cities with six meetings involving over a dozen different nations – the last week has given me a fairly good picture of what is going on in politics across Europe, and I’m afraid to say it doesn’t really look like the Scottish Government’s latest ‘independence paper’.

That skipped over the difficult bit of actually being direct and open about any of the terms Scotland would have to face in rejoining in favour of an optimistic case for being a member of the EU. Which is of course absolutely fair enough, but I fear that it is doing so without an awful lot of reference to the Europe that we’re living in just now. That isn’t a dreadfully optimistic place.

The first of my group of events was in Brussels where seven ‘trapped nations’ (regions of Europe with independence or autonomy campaigns) held a meeting in the European Parliament. Obviously the story in each of them is different, but there are commonalities – the debate has got stuck everywhere and the big European nations are cracking down on internal democratic debate.

But what is most worrying goes beyond that. It is the political context in most of these countries which is causing the hardening of attitudes, and those political contexts are generally grim. In a number of nations the current political choice is basically between the right and the far right. In some it’s between the far right and a close-to fascist right. Left and centre left parties are basically out of the picture in a lot of European nations. In many places the centre has collapsed.

The issues which are dominating debates in these countries are all the wrong issues – it is the ‘migration crisis’ and various backlashes against environmental reforms which are driving a lot of political debate. On top of this, strings of scandals in various countries are causing further erosion in trust in democracy and public propriety.

But it was my second set of meetings in Berlin that best help to explain this and which should give you sleepless nights. I was in Berlin at a meeting of left and progressive independent think tanks across Europe because we’re trying to develop an effective network.

In part this is being prompted by the effective think tank network that already exists, and which is crucial in understanding the drift-going-on-rush in the direction of hard-right nativist positions. Because that networks isn’t left or progressive.

The Atlas Network was founding in 1981, but it is in more recent times that it’s impact has been greatest. It describes itself as ‘a think tank that creates think tanks’, and while it’s website would have you believe it is only about civil liberties, ending poverty and unleashing entrepreneurship, that is hardly a representative picture.

Where a nation has a politics which isn’t dominated by migration and anti-environmental backlashes, the Atlas think tank network will ensure that one is created

What it is trying to do is reorganise politics globally. That is why it is in the business of setting up think tanks. These act as organising nodes and lobbying capacity to push politics in a consistent direction around the globe. Where a nation has a politics which isn’t dominated by migration and anti-environmental backlashes, it will ensure that one is created. There is loads and loads of corporate money for corporate-friendly think tanks.

And Atlas it is everywhere. It has 150 formal members and 500 partners in 100 different countries. Its members are behind Trump, and Bolsonaro, and Orban, and Meloni, and new Argentinian mentalist Milei. It tests narratives and tactics and policies and when it finds one that works it disseminates and replicates it.

For example, one of its members, the Heritage Foundation, has written a plan for a second Trump term. Basically it involves firing the entire administrative staff of the Federal Government to replace its employees with people who will be loyal only to Trump. They plan the same in the US military. There is even indications that the Insurrection Act might be used to criminalise the Democratic Party as a subversive entity trying to bring down America.

There is serious talk in the US of ‘the last election’. If that petrifying outcome occurred, the contribution of the Atlas Network would be substantial. Remember when Trump strategist Steve Bannon was making high-profile visits to Europe to teach the lessons of the Trump victory? This is all part of the same picture.

The panglossian view of the European Union held by the Scottish Government is already far too much myth and not enough reality. You think the EU is the climate-friendly alternative to Trump? Well the Dutch government just tried to cap the number of flights at Schiphol airport to make a dent in its enormous carbon emissions.

Except those plans have now been scrapped because the European Commission deemed them an illegal barrier to free trade. But we don’t talk about that; in Scotland Europe is a polarising wedge issue in which we refuse to believe there is anything wrong with Europe because, you know, Boris and Brexit and Cummings and all that.

The European Union started out back in the day as an economic union. It transformed over time into being a powerful social union, but it transformed back quite a long time ago. It is one of the most stridently neoliberal places on planet earth, with very substantial retrenchment in the social gains that were used to make this economic lurch to the right palatable.

Because of our national love of simple soundbites and slogans where proper thinking should be, we don’t seem to be anywhere near the real debate which is taking place in Europe

Now we need to start looking at the near future and what is likely to happen next. Because the wave of populist right-wing governments in Europe is not going away. People point to Poland and Spain as signs of hope. Well I’ve just spent a week with various people from Spain and they fear that the way the Sanchez government has been formed may well make the rise of the far right worse.

Put simply, the dynamics which are there to push the European Union further and further in the anti-migrant, neoliberal direction (this is a parliament where there are more corporate lobbyists than there are staff) remain strong but the dynamic behind the social union are largely gone. Bringing in Turkey and the Ukraine will only make that worse.

And if that all isn’t alarming enough, the ‘grown ups’ in the EU aren’t talking to each other just now. The EU has always been driven forward primarily by the French-German axis and relations between the two countries are deteriorating fast. It’s partly personality, but it’s also a consequence of all of the above pressures.

Plus there are signs everywhere in geopolitics of the declining influence of Europe (and the West more generally). A recent report by pro-Europeans highlights the scale of the problem – we can’t just snap our fingers and expect the developing world to comply any more. On top of that, structural economic malaise is everywhere. Even Germany is starting to panic about its economic model.

None of this takes away from the value of proper structures and institutions across the continent to discuss and negotiate and coordinate and agree. Indeed if we were doing what we need to do as a species (tackle climate change), we would need a lot more of it.

The problem is that the slightly daft utopian view of Europe we have in Scotland (as ‘jilted Remainers’) is so far away from the reality of what is happening thatit is hard to see how we can reconcile the two. Progressive forces across Europe are worried about the EU and the continent’s direction. They’re not running towards it with open arms and boundless optimism.

But again, because of our national love of simple soundbites and slogans where proper thinking should be, we don’t seem to be anywhere near the real debate which is taking place in Europe. We’re playing nah-nah Brexit games and scoring cheap points. If we did go rushing head-long into Europe straight after independence, the brutal fiscal hit we’d take would not be our only surprise.

Scotland could have a genuine roll in this debate. It isn’t naïve or ridiculous to see smaller nations as important in a more hopeful reshaping of Europe. But if we’re stuck forever looking at a continent in crisis, telling ourselves ‘but there was this bus which told a lie and there’s that thing where students can study abroad’, failing to face the reality of where things are like a grown-up nation, slogans and cliches about the past will remain our only contribution.

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