"There was once a dream that was Rome, you could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish. It was so fragile and I fear that it will not survive the winter."
The fictitious (as far as we know) words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's 2000 film Gladiator. The aged philosopher-king was bewailing the slide of the ideals of the Roman Republic into the hands of greedy and corrupt nobles and politicians.
It was perhaps an apt movie to emerge in the Millennium Days. Alongside a decade long boom sustained unsustainably on the debts of the poor, the 2000s saw the rise of the Euro, the international currency adopted by 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union - the first such since Marcus Aurelius' Imperium introduced the denarii as the single currency from Bagdhad to Newcastle. It would of course have been 20 states had Tony Blair and Nick Clegg had their way - but we have old prudence himself, Chancellor Gordon Brown, to thank for keeping the UK out. He was content to hand us over instead to the deregulated City financiers in London and our Eurozone membership (as distinct from our EU membership) was kept on indefinite hold.
The Euro was seen as a huge step forward in the "ever closer union" of Europe. A single unit of exchange, binding economies as diverse in size, social objectives and wealth distribution as Germany and France, Portugal and Cyprus and several of the until recently Communist states of eastern Europe. This would be Europe's dollar, a standard to solidify the Continent's economic power around so that it could compete equally with the declining USA and more importantly the rising superpowers of China and India.
Basic economics however cautioned from the outset against any such optimism. With such a wide range of economies, the Euro would always struggle between rich and poor, between Governments keen to intervene and influence economies to the benefit of their citizens and those favouring laissez-faire market economics. As with the entire banking sector, it was and remains adherents of the second type who control the European Central Bank, the major economies of the EU and the IMF. Consequently, their view has repeatedly prevailed in terms of Eurozone policy.
The impact of this has been manifest on the smaller, poorer economies of the southern states. Portugal, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Greece have all struggled. As members of the Eurozone, unlike the UK, they have ceded their fiscal autonomy to the ECB. Whereas in the past they could print or borrow money in their own right, now they are at the behest of the ECB and when it is committed to austerity and market economics, they have in the end no choice but to comply, regardless of the consequences on their societies.
And so we see this week, the rich states of the north combining under the ultimate neoliberal standard bearer of Angela Merkel to "waterboard" (as one EU official gleefully put it) the Greek Prime Minister into surrendering huge swathes of his nation's wealth to privatisation and at the same time increasing sales tax and cutting pensions, both measures which will directly harm millions of the poorest Greeks. The EU will put up tens of billions of Euros in bailout money, but this will go to pay Greece's debts to German and other EU banks, not to aiding any recovery in the Greek economy.
The corporate thieves in charge of the EU have had their way: a democratically elected left wing government, having had the temerity to stand up to the bully boys of the neoliberal establishment, has had the legs cut from under it. Already, they are looking to install a rightwing regime in spite of the conservative Nea Demokratia's trouncing at the polls. Syriza, once the hope of hundreds of millions across Europe, is now divided and its party banners set on fire by former supporters on the streets of Athens this evening. Spain has been duly served a warning should it be so impertinent as to vote for the wrong people and elect Podemos in its elections in November.
So what remains of the great European Ideal?
Established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, once it was to establish a harmonious, prosperous union across a Continent previously riven by endless centuries of war, almost since the days of Marcus Aurelius himself. Alongside a single market, social programmes would share wealth and protect ordinary people from big business taking advantage of them. Employment laws, health and safety standards, environmental protection, social benefits and consumer rights would be equalised so that citizens were empowered. The European Parliament would speak for them and a democratic family of nations would flourish, a beacon in a troubled world.
How far removed from that we are tonight. The dream has become a nightmare as policy imposes real hardship - hunger, homelessness and despair - on European citizens. The suicide rate has risen sharply in Greece with one university professor so distressed that he died by setting fire to himself in Syntagma Square in a desperate plea to the European leaders to give relief to his nation. But he was of no consequence to the psychopaths in suits.
In the UK, we face a referendum on whether or not to remain in the European Union, possibly as early as next autumn and by 2017 at the latest. The Cameron Government is posturing that it will get a new deal for Britain in Europe - one which, for all the rhetoric, will simply strengthen the power of the rich over the poor in the our country. For Cameron plans to get opt outs on the limited protections in the workplace that the EU even now does guarantee - against long hours, against discrimination and in favour of some basic employee consultation on matters such as redundancy. These are the things the Farage and Cameron want to remove: they will be quite happy for big business to continue to rob the taxpayer and profit from workers and customers alike.
Because of this, Greens and many others on the Left have to widely varying degrees of enthusiasm (or reluctance) favoured staying in the EU. But now, as we see the European Union's mask slipping and its mouth gaping like Saturn's rictus as he devoured his own, it is time to think again.
We share none of UKIP's anti-migrant agenda and so we hesitate to stand on the "Brexit" side of the debate. But ask ourselves, when we talk of a social Europe, where is it? And what possible prospect is there that we will ever see it?
|Goya's Saturn, god of Rome, eating his children|
The European Parliament, perhaps the one crumb of progressive hope in the whole rotten edifice, is as emasculated as ever. We have seen this with the secrecy around the TTIP negotiations - yet another measure that is about to offer all of us up to the wolves of Wall Street and their global buddies.Why would any socialist, progressive, Green or human being wish to continue to be part of it?
I write this with much sadness. All my life I have dreamt of a genuine European confederation, a union of equal nations and equal peoples, finally putting aside the conflicts of the past. Our Continent, for all its claims of birthing democracy and industry, has also been the locus and cause of the worst wars by far in human history. If there was ever to be any prospect of ending that appalling cycle, perhaps the "ever closer union" that was the European dream would have provided it.
But with Greece now probably on the precipice of social conflict akin to the break up of Yugoslavia and several other states facing similar fates, such a Europe is, as perhaps it always was, a dream. In its place, we face instead the nightmare of neoliberalism run amok.
We can play no part in it. What we seek is not on offer. If we are to ever show another way, another Europe and one day another world, is possible, perhaps we do indeed need to leave this Guild of Thieves.