Europe won't stop being socially progressive

I don't want it to sound like I think I'm smarter than Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect but in his column on Huffington Post today Kuttner makes many of the same damn errors in analyzing European political trends that so many in this country make. Primarily, he's trying to make Europe be a prop for the American left.

Here's the gist of his argument: the European left co-opted the market liberalizations of the last 25 years and have thus lost their ability to serve as a viable opposition to nationalist and conservative parties, thus endangering Europe's sweet sweet welfare state.

In Kuttner's own words,
For a generation, the European center-left has embraced essentially the same version of global laissez-faire and liberated finance as the center-right parties, tempered by only a marginally better version of the welfare state. The common formula is: liberalized capital markets; freer global trade; reduced protections for workers; flatter taxes. The very phrase, "center-left" is an emblem of the capitulation to global finance. Thus, leading moderately left parties have scant alternatives to offer voters at a time when free market capitalism has thoroughly disgraced itself.

First, free market capitalism hasn't throughly disgraced itself, unregulated speculative financial schemes have disgraced themselves, as they do from time to time.

Otherwise, Kuttner's got it about right, with a few caveats. The liberalization of capital markets, at least within Europe, has been an offshoot of the Eurozone and is an expression of Europe's greater social unity, not a corruption of it. Similarly, Europe's position supports free movement of goods but, because it is the largest trading entity in the world, the rules of trade are often set by Europe, so again this isn't tearing Europe apart, it's building it up. Although corporate taxes in post-war Europe have dropped a lot, income taxes remain highly progressive, and labor reforms, like Germany's Hartz IV, remain the toughest political knots to cut. Although it's not classical socialism, it's also not the 1960's anymore. The goal is solidarity now, and Europe's doing quite well at that.

Kuttner's concern for Europe's degrading social systems is unfounded. He further demonstrates unfamiliarity with Europe's political structures when he says,
The EU, once a possible instrument of social democracy on one continent, itself has become something of a Trojan Horse. Its basic document, the Maastricht Treaty, makes free movement of capital, goods, services, and persons a core constitutional doctrine. Social protections are secondary.

Again, fundamental error: the Maastricht Treaty is not the EU's basic document, although it is the document containing several of the institutions we associate with Europe, such as the Euro currency and the European Parlament. Social protections were certainly left out of Maastricht, largely at the insistence of the United Kingdom, to ensure that members at the periphery would not be weighed down by the heavy social systems of the 'engine' of Europe's economy, Germany.

The reason this was acceptable, and preferable to many members in retrospect, is because the social contract of every European country is radically different from America's in one important aspect. The European central state is obligated to maintain the welfare of the citizen. The level of welfare and the means of maintenance vary from one state to the next, but the equation is homogeneous. The state keeps people out of abject poverty and the people stop overthrowing the state. To protect that way of life, Europe has focused on establishing solidarity among the Members, keeping each from meddling in or undermining the others' welfare arrangements.

Kuttner should be thrilled that, in the face of globalization, Europe has found a way to nurture the cherished welfare states of its Members. Instead, he wrings his hands over the left's shoddy performance at the polls. It is true that the right has gained considerable control of the EP and that center-right parties have been successful across the continent. But here again he is conflating European political behavior with America's. Like in the U.S., there are numerous local representative bodies and one central body. They remain independent and assume different responsibilities. In Europe, however, the roles are reversed, with the central body representing local interests.

Case in point, Strasbourg has been the scene of a new strain of European politics, euroskepticism, representing voters' dissatisfaction with Europe's highhanded attempts to co-opt the prerogatives of their countries. Initially it may seem ironic, like sending a states-rightist to Congress, but where else would you want your anti-centralization representative to be? Indeed, the Council and the Commission have been the strongest proponents for greater harmonization among the Members, even in social matters, regardless of whether the constituents of the Council are largely from the right. It's only natural that opposition to this process would find refuge in the Parliament.

Another phenomenon Kuttner doesn't pick up on is the sad state of European liberalism, or what we in the U.S. call libertarianism. The liberals, such as Germany's FDP, were the kingmakers of Europe's post-war political systems. They kept governments of the left from sliding into socialist inefficiency and they kept governments of the right socially conscientious. While the liberal parties are not dead, they've lost much of their ability to influence government, so their ideas have been sold off like outdated furniture at a flea market. The remnants of liberalism have not been fully absorbed into the other party institutions, or they were co-opted by the 'wrong' half, leading to socially liberal nationalists like the Jacques Chirac and free marketeer socialists like Gerhard Schröder.

Other, weirder combinations are possible and likely in the future. Europe's political dynamics have undergone tectonic changes since the fall of the Wall, with longstanding constellations evolving, radically changing their character, or disappearing altogether. The EP's conservative trend is part of this continent-wide process. It's difficult to predict where it will end up or even if the change is going to stop; change could be the new European constant. In the short run, it's a safe guess that euroskepticism (encompassing whatever that signifies) will play a dominate role in European politics, but the end of the contitent's unrivaled social systems is definitely not nigh.

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