2007 - 2021

Critical Perspectives of the European Union and a Potential Brexit

The following is an excerpt of Hartmut Elsenhans and a Critique of Capitalism: Conversations on Theory and Policy Implications. The book is based around interviews with Prof. Hartmut Elsenhans edited by Neil Wilcock and Corina Scholz. One of the chapters of the book considers the subject of the European Union, and in the following passage Elsenhans answer questions on the logic of European Union integration, the United Kingdom’s potential exit and the problem of a business-dominated politics at the supra-national level. The excerpt has been revised and updated since its publication to take account of recent events.

The European Union despite it’s obvious, and sometimes inevitable, problems has always found a way not to fragment. Taking the Euro currency as an example, how has it been able to survive?

Well, everybody knew that the Euro was problematic at its inception; there are libraries full of presentations predicting we would run exactly into this crisis. The response from François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl and many others was ‘that may be so but the European integration process has always been there as a solution’; they were saying ‘our successors will find a solution because they will not go backwards’, meaning that today we are not able to impose a political solution for tomorrow’s problems. You see this argument is still in the minds; this was why Greece was not allowed to leave the Euro – the big worry of the European decision-making elites was that we are losing the uni-linear process of always more integration.

The European integration process exists on the basis of contradictions and continues to run on imperfect measures. In what I call an overarching elite consensus, leaders agree integration is necessary in the direction of European nation-building. Contradictions that become threatening are overcome by intensifying European integration. I think it’s been the basic logic of the EU to expand; all elites see any problem as solvable by more integration. Yet there is a challenge on the horizon: leaders in a bid to assuage public discontent have made promises to their populations not to blindly follow this integration consensus – your country, the UK, are leading on this.

To create a successful union, one has to go incrementally with such an elite project where you test what is possible and progress only on a social basis of support which will emerge amongst the contradictions.

What are the political realities in Europe which emerge from what you call the overarching elite consensus, the response of further integration to overcome problems?

This political class has one priority: make Europe work because no country by itself can exercise influence. It is the conviction shared by the French and German leadership. The generation of Kohl was single-minded in pursuit of the European dream; Kohl said ‘you have to bow three times before the French flag before you bow once before the German flag’.

If one European government is not pro-European, the others do everything to make its life difficult. If it is openly un-European, like Mr Haider was in Austria, they are actively isolating them. If they are more respectable Eurosceptics, like the Kaczynski brothers used to be in Poland, then you do everything to ensure they don’t succeed so they lose domestic support. But if you are very much in favour of Europe, like Mr Tusk was when prime minister in Poland, everybody treats you as if you were an archangel and you are earmarked for a future big job in Europe after you retire domestically [Donald Tusk is the present President of the EU Commission]. They receive eulogies from abroad from other leaders, which can improve the public opinion at home where everyone thinks they have a very good prime minister, and he will return the favour to the others. That is part of the overarching elite consensus.

It seems the UK does not take part in this cross-border favouritism, wishing to go in the complete opposite direction?

Yes, the UK has opted out of the back-slapping; in fact, it prefers to present a defensive front to European partners as if they weren’t partners at all. The Eurosceptics in the UK see for the first time an opportunity to stop a one-direction train to integration and halt it.

However, the political postures of the UK government under Cameron have not been taken in reference to how the EU works; if he thinks the UK will be able to influence by being outside the EU, he is being unrealistic. If you are outside of the consensus, you are not able to influence much. The basic calculation is that even if such a situation transpires, the UK will be totally out of any decision-making in the EU. The UK is currently playing power politics and that’s not so successful in this different realm of politics.

The EU overarching elite consensus could head very strongly in the opposite direction to the UK if it decides to leave so that if it wants to join once more, it would have to accept the acquis communautaire, a repeat of the UK’s experience in the 1960s. In the 1960s, the UK tried to negotiate very hard for its terms, but de Gaulle was content to see it excluded. De Gaulle was considering whether by removing the UK, France would be the natural leader of the EU, putting France in a very powerful position. When the UK entered the EU in 1973 after de Gaulle had left office, it had to accept the complete acquis communautaire; it could not influence the rules but only say one or two terms were not applicable to them, for instance some variations in the Common Agricultural Policy. The UK was scared that the EU would develop so much faster without it so it joined, but it could repeat the same mistake with a potential ‘Brexit’.

There may be parallels to when de Gaulle removed all French forces from NATO control and shut down its headquarters in 1966 amid suspicion they were being stitched up by the US and Britain. France had a volte-face and over the decades had to try to re-integrate itself at the top end of the defence organisation, releasing the futility of its European isolation.

Why do you think Britain does not consider itself, and is not considered by others, as one of the core European countries?

Most of the nations in Europe, as far as I can see, can identify to some extent with France, namely Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain. The French image of history is very European with all the compromises and chequered episodes, and whatever else. One does not so much identify with the British version of history; it remains isolated and exclusive – still very British. If you have such a brilliant history as the British, having defeated fascism, it is not such a tremendous gesture to leave. But if you have a more blotted history like France, which collaborated with the Nazis; Italy was a fascist country; Spain was a fascist country; and Germany we don’t have to talk about – none of these countries has the same sentimental and glorified relationship with history as Britain. The other European nations look forward; they want a new age where they don’t have to be ashamed because of the deeds of the past – there exists a totally different sensibility.

What areas do you think France is showing that could be the natural leader of Europe?

Others often follow their policies – foreign policies for instance. The Germans are very reluctant to separate themselves from the French in foreign policies. Take the interventions in Africa or the deal brokered in Ukraine or the decision not to go into Iraq – the Germans have followed. France is also much more prudent than Britain; one does not want to lose Putin, and that’s also a position of the Germans. The French realise if they play this game of the new modern nation, they can be the political leader of Europe. Perhaps I have spent too much time in France and am overestimating this, but I think there is something to it.

And you don’t see a European foreign policy emerging with a particular German or British complexion, but a French one?

There is a big difference between Britain and Germany. Despite the UK’s economy weakening over the decades, its foreign policy still has a wide reach. In Britain you have an old colonial tradition of cadres speaking the languages of the colonies and vice versa, having SOAS, Oxbridge and the LSE. You have nothing comparable in Germany. International Relations departments in Germany are much less developed than in the UK.

There is something comparable in this international mentality in France, so the Europeans will perhaps, especially the Germans if they can find this resolve, arrange themselves behind one of the two countries – France or Britain. However, it looks as though Britain will opt out of any such role because it does not seem to want to lead anyone except itself; that being the case, it automatically falls on France.

Back in 1990s, I was saying that the Germans would be well advised to be something like the stomach of the EU and leave the leadership in foreign policy to the French. There is no other country in the EU that could challenge the demand for leadership of either France or Britain.

If Britain was to fully commit to the EU then it would become interesting because many countries in Europe would prefer British leadership over French leadership, particularly the Eastern European countries. But I don’t think that Britain has any aspirations to do so, possibly they don’t even realise this leadership opportunity exists; their position has always resembled membership of the EU only to slow it down. I think Tony Blair understood this opportunity for the UK to be a leader in Europe, but Cameron has absolutely not.

UK leadership of the EU currently seems a distant possibility culturally and politically…

That is the drawback of having been happy – you do not realise you have to invest in future happiness if you are living on past contentment!

Much of the opposition on the left to the EU is that it is regarded as a rich man’s club. Are you in agreement that big business exerts undue influence at the EU decision level? Indeed, big business has unified successfully around the extension of the market, whereas labour unions across Europe have not found a unifying goal to organise around. That’s why the EU is so neoliberal – the motors of the EU are big business and from the other end single-issue NGOs. Business lobbies that organise at the European sphere have been very successful in Brussels; it’s a tremendously fertile environment for big business. Go around the district of the European institutions and look at the name plates of the offices, there will be many head offices of business lobbies representing a coalition of conglomerates but you will be searching a long time to find equivalents in labour unions.

The EU could come up with policies to negate that undue influence, but it has consistently not favoured wage convergence across the member states, it hopes that convergence will result from labour costs differentials alone. If you look in the EU Economic and Employment Policy Coordination, there is no attempt of unifying European wages. That’s one of the reason why labour is not organised at the process level so much, because we have no European wage bargaining akin to the nation¬wide wage bargaining in member states. That inability of labour unions to organise at the EU level has allowed business to ruthlessly capture the policy process.

Given that, can we really talk of a social basis of support for the EU then?

Not in it’s current form. Here’s the crux of the matter, and explains why the EU seems so distant to people’s lives, those at the vanguard of the European project are not promoting a workers’ agenda. Instead, you have a postmaterialist opinion – prioritising values ahead of material gain, for example the rights agenda – all over Europe. Green parties are being aided by this movement currently. It’s not that a social justice agenda is not important, just that what it too often excludes – economic justice – has been left behind.


Emeritus Prof. Hartmut Elsenhans is a renowned economic theorist on the left working at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and has worked as an advisor to the Algerian Government.

Neil Wilcock is a researcher based in Glasgow who works assisting Hartmut Elsenhans. Corina Scholz works for a NGO in Berlin.


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Comments (3)

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  1. John S Warren says:

    It seems to me that British Euroscepticism, in the form of the referendum, is mere political opportunism, as perhaps Elsenhans seems to imply; but I would wish to suggest that British recalcitrance towards integration is much older than the European Union. The origins of British resistance to European political integration is rooted in a very old British fear of and hostility to ‘Universal Monarchy’; which manages to survive even today, particularly in the Conservative Party, and finds its way out into the world in the intemperate language and hysterical arguments to which so many leading British Eurosceptics have resorted to further their vitriolic, lurid and over-heated anti-European case. The case for Europe, from any fair reflection on the French or German or Dutch, Belgian or Italian (European mainland) perspective of politics and history among the oldest members of the Union, is both understandable and rational.

    There can be no justification for any claim that the British somehow did not understand (or were duped about) the intent and purpose, or justification of ‘ever greater union’ after 1945; especially as the British have quite deliberately, and with calculation, contributed so little intellectually or politically to the creation of the precise model of political integration being pursued by the EU, then or now, on the vain defence that the British only joined a free trade/common market. What a lost opportunity we left in the dust of a history we did not bother to write.

    Britain, which lives in a permanent state of nostalgia for a past grandeur of purpose that is at best of somewhat doubtful veracity, would prefer to be a leading counterweight to ever closer European Union, rather than playing any constructive part in creating it (to be the final arbiter of the European ‘Balance of Power’, shifting the key weight at its discretion and in its own exclusive interest, is now and has always been the prime British aspiration in Europe). This implies that Britain joined the EEC on a false prospectus, or at the very least deceived itself. In any case, Britain realised quite early, after refusing to join the formative EU institutions in 1948 or 1957, that is easier to do such destructive work from the inside than the outside, when EFTA finally failed spectacularly in the 1960s. In any case the UK has proved most effective, and most determined, as a negative, disruptive influence on the EU’s development throughout our membership. In truth, it is not much of an achievement: to be a half-hearted member for forty grudging years, then vote to leave Europe in the lurch at its gravest time of need.

    One final point: since the British have been so effective undermining the European project from the inside, one may wonder why the Eurosceptics suddenly wish to leave now?

  2. David Allan says:

    A last an article that explores and sheds light on some of the other issues not a reference to immigration.

    The final para “crux of the matter—” . For me it’s about the future direction of travel it’s not in existence to serve it’s citizens it’s there to serve the elite.

    This whole debate has been purposely distorted to focus on immigration there are far more fundamental reasons to consider a leave vote.

    This is an example of how the debate should be conducted.

  3. David Allan says:

    At last an article that explores and sheds light on some of the other issues not a reference to immigration.

    The final para “crux of the matter—” . For me it’s about the future direction of travel it’s not in existence to serve it’s citizens it’s there to serve the elite.

    This whole debate has been purposely distorted to focus on immigration there are far more fundamental reasons to consider a leave vote.

    This is an example of how the debate should be conducted.

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