Europeans have lived for so long in the warm cocoon of the Community system that we have almost forgotten what our history was like before the astonishing burst of institutional inventiveness that culminated in the Rome Treaty a generation ago. If present trends are allowed to continue we may be brutally reminded, with consequences we cannot now imagine. The demons of European history—chauvinism, xenophobia, irredentism, racism and scapegoat-hunting—are on the march all over the former Soviet bloc. In Community Europe they are still relatively quiescent. But no one who has watched the rise of the French National Front or the German Republicans—no one, for that matter, who watched the 1993 Conservative Party conference in this country—can pretend that they strike no chords on this side of what used to be the Iron Curtain. There is an ample supply of combustible material lying about in western Europe as well as in the east. If anyone puts a match to it the entire Community system may be destroyed.footnote1

To be sure, its institutional structure is not at risk. Institutions, particularly international institutions, often limp on, pale shadows of their former selves, long after events have squeezed the life out of them. The real danger is that they will bombinate in a vacuum; that the mountains of paper, the hours of talk, the agitated comings and goings of self-important personages will be so much spitting in the wind; that, while preserving the forms of a supranational Community, the reality of European life will be one of beggar-my-neighbour attempts to sneak competitive advantages in an ever more cut-throat world economy, accompanied by increasingly raucous chauvinistic drum-beating and deepening national rivalries in politics as well as in economics.

For the current trend in the brave new European Union inaugurated by the Maastricht Treaty is emphatically towards a two- (or even a multi-) speed Europe. Like the currency upheavals which destroyed the snake in the 1970s, the currency upheavals which have inflicted so much damage on the European Monetary System in the recent past have shown that the mere exercise of political will cannot force through the economic convergence which is the necessary condition of a monetary union between the ‘strong’ currency core of the European Community and the ‘weak’ currency periphery. If present trends continue there is not much doubt that the deutschmark-dominated core—with or without France—will continue along the path to further economic and monetary integration. In the periphery, meanwhile, a vigorous ‘race for the bottom’, led by the United Kingdom, is likely to accelerate.

Britain’s social chapter opt-out is a classic example of free-rider politics. In effect, Britain has been allowed to escape her share of the social costs of the single market. She is riding free on the backs of the other member states, in an attempt to make herself that much more attractive to inward investment, and that much more competitive in the cheap and shoddy end of the global marketplace. And she is justifying herself by banging on a peculiarly crass and nasty xenophobic drum. The Community can survive one free rider. It could not survive several. Yet, if John Major’s free riding succeeds, it is hard to believe that all the other member states will refrain indefinitely from following suit. If he is followed, the process of competitive social dumping which the social chapter was designed to stop is likely to start after all. If it does, member states with high standards of social protection will be under enormous—and understandable—pressure to defend themselves against unfair competition from those who have followed the British road. And the lesson of history is that that sort of self-defence quickly spreads, and quickly becomes self-stultifying.

It is equally clear that, on present trends, the institutional framework of the Union will, for the foreseeable future, remain essentially inter-governmental rather than supranational; that an unholy alliance between France and the United Kingdom will continue to block all attempts to correct the democratic deficit in decision-making, as it did before the Maastricht summit; and that, because of this, the institutions will remain weak, opaque and lacking in democratic legitimacy. If this prediction is borne out, the people of what is now supposed to be the European Union will remain apathetic and, at least to a certain extent, alienated from the whole process. All this will create fertile soil for ‘fundamentalist’ nationalism and populist demagogy, of the sort that surfaced in the French and Danish referendum campaigns on the Maastricht Treaty and that the miscalled ‘Euro-sceptics’ in both major British political parties have employed ever since membership first became a serious political issue.

A further and, in some ways, even more alarming implication follows as well. This is that a social-democratic European project, of the sort envisaged by Wolfgang Streeck and Joel Rogers,footnote2 will continue to be, in practice, utopian. It will be utopian because the nation states of the Union have already surrendered too much power to supranational institutions to implement it on the national level, while the institutions of the Union will continue to be too weak to implement it on the supranational level. And if this is at all true, the clear implication is that Europe will continue to be dominated, in practice, by the political Right and centre-right; that capital will continue to sit in the driving seat, with little to fear from the political Left or from organized labour—even if nominally Left or centre-left governments hold office in certain countries, as is the case at present in Spain. Though the Spanish socialists are still in office, it is worth remembering that their programme is not very different from that of the neo-Thatcherites under John Major in this country. And if this is all true, the likelihood is that European governments will continue to respond to international competition by hollowing out the welfare state, arguably the greatest achievement of European civilization in this century.

Last, but not least, eastern Europe will, on present trends, remain outside the new Union, an impoverished hinterland, cut off from the rich and complacent west by a new kind of Berlin Wall—a wall of patronizing indifference, tinged with suppressed fear, rather than of concrete. There is, of course, an argument for keeping the countries of eastern Europe out of the Union. It is a spurious one, but that does not make it any less persuasive to those who want, for other reasons, to accept it. It is that the economies of the eastern countries are too weak to sustain the competition implied by full membership; that if they were to become full members on terms that made it possible for them to escape the rigours of competition, the famous acquis communautaire would be fatally jeopardized in the existing member states; and that this would compromise the whole European project. The premiss is true, although the conclusion does not follow; and because the premiss is true, the argument has great resonance in the capitals of western Europe and still more, perhaps, in the strange Euro-half-capital that clusters around the Berlaymont building in Brussels.