Europe: The South America of the 21st Century

In ten years time, Europe will have become the South America of the 21st century. I am not saying this as a punch line, but as a serious, analytically backed prediction.

In the 1920s South America was a prosperous region, with Argentina being a bigger magnet for migrants from Europe than the United States. The prosperity period lasted for a few decades; in the ’60s there had been a shift away from free-market economics and limited government toward an increasingly elaborate welfare state. During the ’70s the continent suffered from ill-designed economic policies that were put in place to save the welfare states, but the end result was hyperinflation, increased social instability and withering prosperity.

The “solution” was military intervention. Military dictatorships took over in, e.g., Chile, with the explicit intent to stabilize the country and put the economy back on track again. But oppression can never compete with freedom, and the end result was a double loss for the people: what the welfare state took away in economic freedom, reprehensible dictatorships took away in individual freedom.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the decline of South America began long before Chilean president Salvador Allende was executed in Santiago in 1973. By the same token, Europe’s problems today have not materialized out of thin air. They are the result of a long series of bad policy choices. This is not an excuse for what the military did in South America, but it is part of an important explanation.

The same pattern that brought juntas to power in,e.g., Argentina, Brazil and Chile is now emerging in parts of Europe. Right before our very eyes, Greece is leading the way with the growing, hard-line Golden Dawn Nazi party.

As part of the process where democracies in Europe decline into totalitarianism, more and more relevant aspects of nation-state independence are being lost. In the case of South America, the loss of independence came in the form of destroyed currencies that led to IMF and World Bank intervention – or, as in the Chilean case, the intervention of an uninvited military power (the Soviet Union were deploying military personnel on Chilean ground through their Cuban proxies). In the case of Europe, the loss of national independence is driven by an ever more powerful, ever more authoritarian European Union.

There are already signs that the EU is becoming an intolerable burden on nation states. Not only do we see nationalist parties gaining ground all around the EU, but there is also an emerging threat to nation-state survival in the form of provincial separatism. This separatism is in direct response to the loss of democratic sovereignty at the nation-state level. As the EU Observe reports, this provincial revolt is a bit more serious than mainstream European media is willing to recognize:

Four Catalan MEPs have asked the European Commission to tell Spain it cannot use military force to stop Catalonia from splitting away. The deputies – centre-left MEP Maria Badia, Greens Ana Miranda and Raul Romeva i Rueda and Liberal Ramon Tremosa – wrote to EU justice commissioner Vivianne Reding on 22 October. The letter says: “We are writing to you to convey our deep concern over a series of threats of the use of military force against the Catalan population … In these circumstances, the European Union should intervene preventatively to guarantee that the resolution of the Catalan conflict be resolved in a peaceful, democratic manner.”

This conflict between the provincial government in Catalonia and the central Spanish government does not come as a surprise. I have discussed this situation earlier, with reference to the austerity policies that the Spanish government is imposing on its people, upon direct dictates from the EU.

It notes that politicians from the centre-right People’s Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy have spoken of article 8 of Spain’s constitution, which says the army can be used to protect Spanish sovereignty. It adds the commission should: “Make a public statement insisting on the withdrawal from the public debate of any military threat or use of force as a way of resolving this political conflict.”

I have been following European politics ever since I was a candidate for the European Parliament in 1995. I have never heard of a similar request from a provincial government for help from Brussels. This is indeed a tense situation, and the reaction from the national Spanish government only adds to this image:

The letter met with ridicule in Madrid.  Rosa Diez from the centrist Union, Progress and Democracy Party called it an “insult” to Spanish democracy. Opposition Socialist Party leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said it “does not bear any relation to reality.” But for his part, Spanish centre-right MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras told Spanish TV just two weeks ago: “They [the government] should be briefing a general of the Civil Guard … the government should think of intervening in the rebellious region if they persist.”

Guardia Civil is a paramilitary national police force, with equipment and training somewhere between the police and a regular army. It was used frequently against ETA, the Basque separatists who terrorized Spain in the ’80s with the goal of creating an independent Basque republic (presumably run as a dictatorship). Fortunately, the Basque conflict was resolved peacefully and both the Basque and the Catalan provinces enjoy more independence than other Spanish provinces.

This, however, is not enough when their government budgets are taking beating after beating to comply with EU austerity requests. It is increasingly likely that the Catalan people will get to vote on independence in 2014.

That year the Scottish will also vote on the same issue. This raises the stakes in the separatist issue, and it gives EU-skeptical parties and nationalist movements across Europe more reasons to question – and politically resist – further concentration of powers to the Eurocracy. At the same time, attempts from Brussels to suppress this reactionary force could easily raise tensions even further: the advancement of nationalism in Greece and separatism in Spain are examples of how regular Europeans respond not to the democratic deficit in the EU – that has been around for two decades now without stirring conflicts – but to the ever tougher austerity policies that Europe’s leaders are shoving down the throats of more and more member states.

Austerity bites harder than lack of representation. This does not mean that the democratic deficit is of no consequence. It is – in fact, the lack of working parliamentary democracy is precisely what has brought about Europe’s current crisis. But people have a tendency of not caring about how to influence, or not influence, government until government makes their lives miserable. That is happening with austerity.

When people want to respond to austerity, they discover the democratic deficit that is built in to the EU structure. Rather than banging their heads against the Eurocratic brick wall, they respond by supporting nationalist and separatist political movements.

It remains to be seen how far this reaction will go. We can hope that the Eurocrats will take notice and stop pushing for themselves to have more undemocratic power. But a more realistic assumption is that the opposite will happen: the EU leadership will push ahead with its new budgetary superpowers and euro-zone parallel budgeting mechanisms.

That will only raise tensions across the continent. And so long as tensions keep rising, Europe will be torn apart, not brought together. At some point, the tearing-apart will lead to conflicts of a kind that will remind us eerily of South America in the mid-20th century.

One comment

  1. efgd

    Very scary indeed. Individuals tend to either be very apathetic till it hits hard or they are active politically, most tend to be of the former description.

    Nationalist parties seem to be the option when it gets bad because they “do” things locally that people can relate to. Local people seemed to state they were safer with the actions of the Golden Dawn Nazi Party – safer areas and less intimidation.

    I think, sadly, nationalism will be the next political status. Austerity causes real poverty which makes people look for active counter measures, and of course, someone to blame, apart from the elite who imposed the austerity programmes, who really should be ousted out of power; they are of course when the nationalist party starts getting into governance.

    Very informative blog – cheers.