Former Greek Finance Minister Yiannis Varoufakis’ crusade to help save the 60 year old European Union from a growing potential disintegration is intriguing. He, and the other activists talk ultimately about the collapse of Western civilization, and more so as if it would necessarily be a bad thing. Some of us –for whom the world is a catastrophe already-, are not so sure.
Coming from a far left perspective, Dr Varoufakis argues that the purpose of the campaign is to prevent the emergence of something worse. That such a rescue mission will inevitably also bolster the economic system upon which the EU rests, not to mention many of the super-rich who derive disproportionate benefits from it, is regarded as a necessary evil.
This could be a mistake.
Certainly, an unraveling of the EU, even partially, would be momentous, particularly in terms of the economic impact on lives and communities there. Those arguing for its preservation –especially those on the Left of the political spectrum- are probably also correct about a resultant vastly increased risk of a return to the earlier pan-European penchant for large-scale war and extreme intolerance as methods of managing political problems.
However, if the matter of the future of the EU continues be treated as a matter for its member states and their citizens alone, then these advocates of progress will find they have become the advocates of the very evils they seek to strike down. Dr Varoufakis may well find himself committing the same kind of betrayal of which he accuses his former boss (Greek Prime Minister) Alex Tsipiras: sacrificing a pig or two so the big bad corporate wolf does not blow the whole house down.
Varoufakis’ country was able to freely elect a government of its own choice, to speak on its behalf against the new economic regime. By contrast, much of the same measures, when brought to Africa by the same EU and its other partners, were agreed to by stealth with the resident dictator/election cheat running the state, and then imposed, without much debate, if any, on the population. What is more, some of these measures have now been in effect for so long (over twenty years in Uganda, where I come from), that the have become the norm for many in the population, intelligentsia included.
The EU is a global power in its own right. It is the major trading partner for a whole host of states, many of which were created by European countries during their empire phase. The vast majority of them, now collected in the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) also form the bulk of the Least Developed Nations list.
The family of trade agreements between the EU and the ACP region are the direct descendants of trade pacts made between then EU’s own ancestor known as the European Commission, and the various fledgling regional trade blocs throughout the South. In 1974, a major sit-down was held where all such blocs were grouped as the ACP region, and all such Agreements became the Lome’ Convention.
Renamed today as Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) their primary features is a lopsided arrangement greatly favouring the EU, particularly through preserving European agricultural subsidies while eliminating ACP ones, and also forcing open the ACP agricultural sector to foreign domination, and commodity dumping.
“These trade and investment agreements serve the interests of multinationals and undermine the legal sovereignty of participating countries. Not only do EPAs hinder the development of many Africans, they lead to growing inequality, violence and migration.” Ugandan trade activist Yash Tandon, author of Trade is War, explains.
Today, the seventy-nine member ACP is locked into a 2000-2020 EPA with the EU, and thousands of young African economic migrants from bankrupted farming and fishing families are making the dangerous crossing to try and enter the Eurozone.
While it is clear that something has fallen apart, this side of the matter seems wholly absent from the European parties on all sides of the ongoing debate. They talk about the EU’s economic crisis, and the African migrant crisis, as if they are two completely unrelated things.
Western economic policy has never just been a matter of skill. It has always been a matter of power. The current global world order was created out of a half-millennial process of the powerful imposing their vision of how things should be, on the weak.
If it were simply a question of implementing knowledge then perhaps Queen Elisabeth would not have had to ask the Professors at LSE why none of them saw the crash coming.
This is how unequal “trade” (for lack of a more precise word) comes in to help resolve some of the glaring contradictions contained within Western economic assumptions: From where will new actual value be created to pay off the ever-lengthening line of credit being extended to the general population? Is it reasonable for societies with massively shrinking manufacturing bases to expect to live to the same, or even better, material standards that existed before the contraction? If your economies are not producing as much new actual value as they did a few generations ago, then what exactly is keeping your currencies “strong”?
Any African wishing to amuse a group of western thinker-activists, could try explaining to them how what appears as trade on their end of the contract looks very much like sophisticated looting on the African/ACP end. This assertion is often met with derision. Nevertheless, there is a lot of data and anecdote now available to show how the gap between what Western economies actually make, and what they actually spend, is bridged by the relentless forcing down of the prices of the basic commodities and labour that they are able to extract from the “developing” world.
Pro-EU activists must ask themselves: who bears the real cost of keeping the European Union together?
The EU’s EPAs EU backstop a whole pattern of economic relations planted through colonial violence. Large areas of fertile ACP land are still given over to the production of crops consumed largely in the west, at prices fixed in their commodity exchanges.
In that context, the EU members, individually and collectively, have done much to shape the contemporary economic landscape in Africa and elsewhere. And guess what? Much of it has been in the form of the very “austerity” economic policies that Varoufakis has heroically battled against both as Finance minister, and after, as Europeans began discovering what Africans have been living with for a generation.
The EU is a vast political safety device formed after the 1939-1945 war that Europeans started. It is based on the notion that it may be harder to start a fight with someone with whom you are locked in a tight embrace. What began as an initiative toward integrated trade in certain key commodities has grown in to complex political and economic system taking in much of the wealthier parts of the European landmass.
In practical terms, this means a greater likelihood of western commercial interests driving war in the oilfields of the Middle East, rather than another one over the vast mineral wealth of the Alsace-Lorraine region . It is the ultimate outsourcing.
The campaign argues for keeping the EU together, but while fundamentally reforming it so that its bureaucracy becomes more democratically accountable to its populations, particularly in economic affairs.
But to us non-Europeans, it would appear that the campaigners’ real complaint is that social democratic compact between the rich and the poor countries and economic social classes that was ruptured with the onset of austerity measures across Europe following the Western 2008 banking collapse, is not being respected.
Dr Varoufakis accuses the wealthy European economic classes of in fact using the economic crisis as an opportunity to abandon the decades-old social democratic obligations under the cover of a fictitious “need” for austerity programmes.
As an African living within an EPA, I believe that no European discussion on how best to recover their economic prosperity, and what then to do with it, will be legitimate and ultimately productive, unless Europeans (and in particular, the former colonial powers in western Europe) also address the basis upon which they acquired and maintain that prosperity in the first place.
Trade indeed is still war, and a direct continuation of the “first real First World War” (1520-1550) when the then European powers fought each other to grab the Americas and first real “Second World War”, when even more European powers scrambled against each other and Asians and Africans for more real estate. We saw it again during the 1947-1990 “Cold War”, which, apart from serving as an excuse to impede the many struggles for progress and emancipation, was anything but “Cold” in the African and Asian theatre.
For the ACP region, with ongoing conflicts over arable land and “blood minerals” being fuelled by Western demand and implemented by western-friendly warlords (sometimes masquerading as heads of state), “there is no past, everything is still happening” to quote native Australian Elder Banjo Clarke.
Short of such a fuller discussion, the “save the EU” campaign will risk looking more like an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, instead of first asking him to think about why, given his fragility, he decided to perch himself so high up on a wall to begin with. Africa, along with the entire ACP region will be expected to retain their “proper” place as a poorer trading partner, so as to help guarantee a certain standard of living for even the poorest European citizen.
This is no guarantee for an end to further economic shocks.
Our challenge therefore is for a change in values and behavior. This applies as much to the formerly colonized world -where the current global economic culture has entrenched a mindset significantly detached from native values, in which the natural environment is seen only as something to be pillaged for cash money – as much as it does to the former colonial powers.
Simply put, the life template developed in Europe and then culturally transmitted to the rest of the world, is not sustainable. Apart from the modern human, no other sentient being on planet Earth elects to create an inherently unstable “life system” and thereafter to befoul its own living space , as we humans do.
But as we strive for change, it is important for all of us to be careful to not fall into the thinking that a catastrophe only really becomes one, once it begins to affect Europeans as well.
Certainly, the austerity programme is doing considerable damage to European society, which is only set to get worse if the current thinking by their established political class remains in force. But there is absolutely nothing in the horrors I have seen and read about being imposed on the Greek people for example, that I have not already seeninflicted, many times over, on ACP citizens , and for a longer period of time, and by the same global institutions.
All this is not an exercise in schadenfreude (to borrow, appropriately perhaps, a German concept). It is a call for a wider, global discussion about how Europe may be kept in peace and prosperity alongside everyone else, as opposed to at the expense of everyone else, as has been, and remains, the case in today’s world.
Mr Kalundi Serumaga is a Journalist, filmmaker and cultural activist based in Kampala.