Leaders from across the troubled European continent gathered in Oslo, Norway to collect the Nobel peace prize that was awarded to the European Union. The criteria for this prize was that Europe’s great powers have avoided a regional war for 60 years, something several continents like North America, South America and Australia can claim. Not sparing us a foolish overstatement, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso declared: “The last 60 years have shown that Europe can unite in peace. Over the next 60 years, Europe must lead the global quest for peace.” Yes, having succeeded in not annihilating themselves for a mere sixty years, Europeans will now extend their project’s success across the globe.
This of course brings us beyond the shaky merits of the award and to the gathering catastrophe that is the European project. While accepting this Nobel peace prize, Europe’s political elite have been implementing economic policies across the continent that wreck social services and send millions to poverty, unemployment and hunger; this opens the door to extreme nationalists like Greek Golden Dawn and create grievances among European nations through which new conflicts may spark. German taxpayers are currently exposed to tens of billions of euros in loans to southern European countries like Portugal and Greece that can’t be repaid even with immense social suffering through successive waves of austerity. This is a policy that can only divide Europeans in resentment, not unite them in new found prosperity.
The reality of the European project is that the continent’s elites have brought their people into a dysfunctional currency union that reaches painful and half-baked policies as a product of long negotiations between 17 Euro Zone member states, Germany having the greatest influence as creditor to indebted nations. The product of this dysfunctional governance is European leaders first declaring that Greece won’t default on its debt, then arranging a partial default that is too little, too late. This partial default then hits Cyprus’s banking system hard, prompting the country to now seek a bailout from Europe. After all of this, Greece is still perpetually on the brink of default and still dependent on loans from Europe that are loaded with austerity measures that savage what remains of the Greek economy.
The thought of being condemned to this purgatory of short-term fixes followed by ever greater crisis would suggest exit as the obvious solution. This may be the rare point of agreement with European leaders, that a break-up of the Euro Zone would be disastrous. Even in Greece, with 25% unemployment, politicians just passed yet another round of public sector lay-offs, wage and pension cuts for 2013 simply to avoid an exit from the currency union. Syriza, the left-wing party in Greece that has surged politically from opposition to this austerity, doesn’t even purpose an exit from the Euro Zone.
As awful as austerity is, political leaders in Europe are right to fear a break-up. During a default and currency devaluation a decade ago, Argentina experienced deadly riots that resulted in at least 25 deaths across the country, far worse than anything yet witnessed in Athens. While Argentina went on to recovery following its crisis, the Euro Zone is so large that it would sabotage any post break-up recovery. A German think tank warned that exits by Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece would cost the world economy 17 trillion dollars by 2020. But the crisis isn’t so purely economic as it was in 2012. Spain now faces an existential crisis as Catalans and Basques vote for pro-independence parties in larger numbers. In Greece, neo-Nazi militias are on the streets, terrorizing immigrants and gays. Even before the crisis, nationalists and xenophobes were asserting themselves across the continent. A break up of the Euro Zone could very well unleash them as the center-right and center-left that purposed the Euro are punished for walking Europeans into this tumult of human misery.
If I sound like i’m making the case for austerity to avoid a break-up, that’s not my purpose here and certainly not my intention. My intention is to condemn this group receiving the Nobel peace prize. Success and peace for them mean sacrificing Portuguese, Greeks, and Spaniards to homelessness, poverty, and hunger. The failure of their currency union will cause further human misery. In short, in every move they trample upon the well-being of countless Europeans. Their ideology is defeated, having pursued unified markets and currency before Europeans achieved an authentic political union to craft common European policy.
The rising forces of the left like Syriza in Greece must acknowledge that simply winning elections and throwing out pro-austerity parties won’t end austerity, that austerity is embedded in the structure of this project. The victory of Francois Hollande in French presidential elections proves as much, hyped as a defeat of pro-austerity forces by anti-austerity forces, Hollande hasn’t reigned in German pursuit of austerity, instead, he is bringing the austerity to France. The scale of the crisis doesn’t demand new leadership in the European Union, but a radical new project to succeed it. Without that new project by left-wing forces, the continent risks regressing to the old rivalries of European nation-states.
I have little doubt that European figures like Merkel, Monti, and Borroso will rally around austerity again, delaying by months or at best years that day when they are consumed by history. That history will be birthed in conflict, but the form of that conflict is undecided. The swelling ranks of precarious generations can make that conflict against the continent’s political elite and bosses, avenging lost labor rights with worker emancipation, low wages with debt cancellations. Europeans can fight for a better life or they can wait, postpone history and their role in it until the hour comes when nationalists seize it, initiating conflict among Europe’s nations instead of between its privileged and oppressed.