How the bourgeoisie united Europe

Submitted by on 14 August, 2002 - 2:31

By John O'Mahony

How did the bourgeoisie, which presided over two Europe-ruining world wars in the first half of the 20th century, come to bring Europe within sight of a United States of Europe?

By the beginning of the 20th century Europe needed unity because the existing big nation states were too small for the enormous economic dynamic which had developed within the borders of the bigger ones. The economies of the great European states, in the first place that of Germany, were stifling within their too-narrow national boundaries. The question posed by history was: who would unite Europe, the bourgeoisie or the working class?

The unification of Europe - under the German jackboot - had been the programme of the Kaiser in World War One, as it was later to be of Hitler. The Kaiser failed. In 1919, the victorious powers imposed a predators' peace on Germany and thereby laid the basis for a second world war, two decades later.

In 1940 at the beginning of that war, Hitler succeeded in achieving European unity. But this was a Europe of enslaved peoples, yoked together by conquering German armies, not a Europe of free nations that had voluntarily come together in a United States of Europe. Yet that European unification, even under Hitler, was a horribly distorted expression of a great historical necessity.

The Anglo-American invaders of Europe in 1944-5 came to destroy German hegemony and to break down the walls of the Nazi prison-house of nations which Europe had become. All across Europe, the invaders were supported by uprisings of peoples seeking national self-determination - French, Belgians, Italians, Poles, Serbs, Czechs. After Germany was beaten and overrun, the peoples of Europe outside of Stalin's new East and Central European empire reverted to independent nation-states under the protection of the USA.

One consequence of Hitler's brutal German-imperialist attempt to override the peoples was to stoke up a new intensity of self-liberating nationalism and its malignant extension, chauvinism, all across Europe. In the East, ethnic Germans were its main victim. Germans to the number of perhaps 13 million were driven out of East Prussia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and other areas where Germans had lived for hundreds of years.

European-wide political unity, even in areas outside USSR control, was politically impossible - less possible even than it had been before Hitler's rapist "unification". Yet European unity was not only necessary, but for the bourgeoisie unpostponable. Russia had control of nearly half of Germany and of much of Eastern and Central Europe. It was universally believed that there would be war with Russia, whose vast army would, with Germany disarmed and divided, advance quickly from the centre to the Western end of Europe.

At this point, the European bourgeoisie (the British stood aside) started work to lay the ghosts of recent European history by drawing on the experience of German history. Most of the big and little early 19th century German states had been drawn together inside a customs union, the Zollverein, in a protracted process lasting from 1818 to the 1840s. The basis was thereby laid over decades for the unification of most of Germany, under Prussian predominance, in 1871. The bourgeoisie of Western Europe resolved on a "Zollverein" strategy for uniting Western Europe. Work to create economic unity - and eventually the rest would follow.

Two factors made the economic unity possible. Those were the unprecedented capitalist boom of the 1950s and 60s, which lubricated the frictions of integration, and the unparalleled dominance of the US in the capitalist world. The US provided the umbrella under which Western Europe semi-integrated. The starting points were the Marshall Plan of US aid and the post-war US/UK/French control over West Germany. The Allies had to allow West German capitalism to grow and provide a bulwark against USSR-occupied Eastern Europe. But they wanted to avoid competition for supremacy in Western Europe between West Germany, France and the UK. The solution was partial European economic integration under US hegemony.

As US/UK/French control ended, the Coal and Steel Commission was proposed and set up in 1951 (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg). Under the 1957 Treaty of Rome, setting up the Common Market, internal tariffs were gradually eliminated and common external tariffs put in place.

Britain refused to join mainly because trade was still heavily directed towards the Empire or ex-Empire.

Britain's trade with the EEC grew, to 31% of the total by 1972 and in 1973,it joined the EEC along with Denmark and Southern Ireland. In 1981, Greece joined ; in 1986, Portugal and Spain; in 1995, Sweden, Austria and Finland. There are now 15 states in the European Union. Expansion to the east is in prospect.

But this Europe, which is at its core economically united, politically still resembles a shanty-town: something thrown together higgledy-piggledy. Democratic politics hobbles far behind economic unification. Over time, a ramshackle growth of Europe-wide political and economic institutions has developed alongside and on top of the institutions of the nation-states, piecemeal, unfinished.

Though it increased its powers not so long ago, the European Parliament is only a feeble shadow of what a sovereign parliament should be. It does not have effective control over the civil servants or the Council of Ministers. Relations between the component states and the EU are disablingly ill-defined. In short, much that the nationalist and other critics of the EU say against it is true.

THE European Union is a great cartel, confronting the underdeveloped countries as a predator and confronting migrant workers from outside its walls as "Fortress Europe". Many things about it outrage the spirit even of serious liberal democracy, not to speak of the spirit of international socialism. It is stamped in the image of the bourgeoisie which has achieved it. The fact that the European working class, which would have unified Europe and created a fully-democratic Socialist United States of Europe, was defeated in the decades before World War Two has determined that.

Yet Europe is more united than at any time since the breakdown of the Western Roman Empire 1,500 years ago. Undesirable aspects of the European unity which the bourgeoisie has created notwithstanding, it is much better than the older Europe of separate, often hostile and sometimes warring nations. In the 20th century, before 1945 European history had more resembled what happened in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s than what it has been in the last half-century. The basis exists now as never before for working-class unity all across Europe; for a Europe-wide working-class struggle to create a democratic and socialist United States of Europe.

There is a great deal to object to in this quasi-united bourgeois Europe. But it is where we are. Our task is to work out what policy will best serve working class interests within this EU of the bourgeoisie and take us forward to the United Socialists States of Europe.

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