Tug of Justice

Jonathan Williams



A majority of Europeans living today have no personal memory of going to war with their neighbours. Considering Europeans have been slaughtering each other for centuries culminating in the 20th century where millions died in two world wars – 60 years of peace (with the sad exception of Yugoslavia) is no small matter. Peace has to be counted as the major motivating force behind European unity and also its main achievement to date.

Human rights

The European Court of Human Rights has had a positive effect on Europe’s human rights record. It has criticized many of the curtailments of civil liberties that have accompanied the ‘war on terror’, including those of the UK. It has been used to further the cause of equality for sexual minorities and put pressure on member states to stop persecuting or discriminating against their lesbian,gay and transgender citizens. It remains a source of hope for sexual minorities in countries with entrenched homophobia, such as Poland or Latvia. European human rights law has also had a restraining effect on the suppression of civil liberties and the application of capital punishment in candidate countries like Turkey.

Regional self-assertion

Northern Ireland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Scotland, Corsica are just some of the European regions that have chafed under the control of European nation-states. Sometimes these tensions have broken out into decades-long violent conflict. As part of the evolution of the EU, regional conflicts have eased as power has become dispersed upwards and downwards with both the IRA (Northern Ireland) and ETA (the Basque Country) agreeing to suspend their armed struggles and Catalonia and Scotland achieving large measures of autonomy.


The EU has engaged in limited re-distribution through its social fund and its much-abused system of agricultural subsidies. New aspirants to EU membership such as Ireland and latterly the states of eastern Europe have been the recipients of transfers of resources in order to achieve a degree of equality under EU membership. The agricultural subsidies have gone to everyone from large English landowners, agribusiness to small farmers in France and Italy. Such subsidies are criticized (in the case of small-scale agriculture sometimes unfairly) for distorting the terms of trade for agricultural products from the Global South. In addition EU support has gone to some of Europe’s poorest regions such as the British northeast and Sicily – 19 of the 25 member countries receive more from Europe than they put in.

End to borders

If you travel from Amsterdam to Rome by train you pass through many borders but you never know it. One of the most remarkable aspects of the EU is the virtual abolition of borders inside Europe. This applies not only to the export and import of goods but also to people. With the exception of a few of the new accession countries of Eastern Europe a citizen of the EU can travel anywhere within the continent and be able to work legally – providing she or he can find a job. This makes the EU unique among the many ‘free trade’ arrangements around the world that apply only to commodities and not to human beings. Particularly for the young of Europe this has proved a tremendous advantage.


Ill-Planned Enlargement

When the EU went from 15 member countries to 25 in 2004 it was faced with a host of difficulties. Its institutions had been set up for a smaller Union and were a bad fit with the expanded one. The new members had wages and incomes much lower than the EU average – Hungary 54 per cent, Czech Republic 59 per cent and Poland just 41 per cent of the EU average. Most of these countries also had relatively low levels of social programmes and a hostility to public involvement in the economy inherited from their days under communism. Despite the fact that most alarmist predictions of Westward labour movement did not materialize (some predicted an annual flow of 335,000 workers) the ideal of a social Europe embedded in the 2000 Charter of Social Rights has come under threat. Social spending as a percentage of GDP in the old EU is 27.3 per cent, while in the new member states it drops to 19.6 per cent.

Social Dumping

A consequence of neocon economics is the strategy /ruse by which corporate investors try to use the lower wages and poorer working conditions in some parts of the EU to exert downward pressure on wages and conditions elsewhere. Possibly the most egregious current example of this is the Bolkestein directive (named after a Dutch EU commissioner) that would have allowed companies to take over and run privatized services based on a ‘country-of-origin’ principle. This might allow, say, a Polish water company to take over watersupply to communities in Holland or Sweden and apply Polish labour and environmental standards to its operations, thus cutting costs dramatically. While the worst aspects of Bolkestein have been defeated, it is far from dead and similar schemes lurk in the wings.

Democracy deficit

The EU has successfully concentrated on building a common market but the representative institutions that provide a democratic and social check on this market have been sorely underdeveloped. The powerful European Council in Brussels is a largely unaccountable institution to which member states cede the power to make unpopular pro-corporate regulations. The European Parliament in Strasbourg has very limited powers thanks to jealous national governments, particularly that of Britain, first under Margaret Thatcher and now Tony Blair.

Fortress Europe

While the internal borders of Europe have been opened up, those around the continent have been tightened. This has been particularly the case due to growing anti-immigrant feeling and the preoccupation with security that has accompanied the US-led ‘war on terror’. Yet Europe increasingly depends on the labour of immigrants to do the work its own population is either unwilling or too old to do. Such immigrants are often excluded from the benefits of Europe’s generous social programmes and are subject to racist discrimination and security harassment. The other face of the European Fortress is the tendency to use military force not inside Europe itself but to bolster the US in its attempts to police the Global South.

Neocon economics

Economic initiatives coming out of the European Commission have more and more come to champion the ‘level playing field’ so beloved by the corporate élite. To achieve this end all social criteria – good jobs, regional development, fighting social exclusion – on which public services or subsidy might be based are being forced to give way. Instead the values of labour flexibility, privatization, fiscal austerity and a rush to the bottom in social entitlements like employment insurance and pensions have become the order of the day. Many such rulings have been embedded in the rules governing the operation of the Europewide market presided over by the European Commission.

Corruption and Over-centralization

The EU often feels remote and arbitrary to Europeans. Faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, deciding on the shape of cucumbers or what you can call a cheese, are just part of volumes of regulation governing cross-European affairs. Member states are often quick to blame EU bureaucracy for policies they themselves initiate and support. The remoteness of European matters and a nebulous ‘European’ identity make for feelings of apathy and hostility towards the EU resulting in low turnouts in European elections. Such feelings are reinforced with news of corruption in the EU such as the scandal of 1999 that forced the whole European Commission to resign for losing control of the EU bureaucracy and allowing corrupt practices to flourish.

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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