In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Russian Emperor Alexander I met on a raft in the middle of a river to sign the Treaty of Tilsit, an agreement that ended the war between the two empires and brought them into a secret alliance. During the ceremony, Napoleon ranted for quite some time about what Europe needed when the Tsar butted in to ask, quite reasonably, what he meant by “Europe.” Across this small, crowded, bloodthirsty continent, ruled by despots and riven by poverty and political turmoil, just whose interests counted?
A little over two centuries later, I’m standing under the clock on the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels, outside the European Parliament buildings, waiting to ask the same question to a mystery man in Spandex.
Captain Europe arrives ten minutes late. The phone booths have been removed from the Place du Luxembourg, so the EU’s own caped crusader had to find somewhere else to change into the blue-and-yellow gimp suit he wears for official engagements and to talk to the press.
He looks like a classic superhero, sporting his underwear outside his tights and wearing a matching utility belt. But he doesn’t carry any weapons—his way of symbolizing the European Union’s commitment to peace. Instead, he’s equipped with leaflets explaining the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Commission and what that means for various trade deals. His technocratic knowledge is positively superhuman, but I need to know about the soul of our Union. What the hell just happened in Europe, and why do we still have Nazis?
There are several specters haunting Europe. This small landmass has always been swirling with ghosts. But the scariest ones are the revenants of representative crisis and the phantoms of fascism. This week, European voters elected a large number of far-right and racist Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Every five years, the 28 member states of the EU hold elections to decide who will represent their nations in the 751-seat European Parliament, the EU’s legislative body, and this time Marine Le Pen’s fascist Front National was victorious In France. In Britain, the xenophobic, homophobic UK Independence party took home the most votes. It was a similar story in Denmark and Austria. And in Germany, a neo-Nazi MEP was elected. The Mediterranean nations that have been hit the hardest by austerity measures imposed after the crash of 2008 managed to hand majorities to the left, although Greece elected three MPs from the openly fascist Golden Dawn party, which has been implicated in racist murders and homophobic assaults.
But in truth, nobody won this election. I mean that literally: Nobody won. With fewer than 50 percent of the electorate turning out to vote, with some countries reporting turnouts under 30 percent, the greatest number of votes went to... nobody at all. The European elites are panicking not just because they seem to have lost the ground war to the far right, but because they have all but lost their democratic mandate to govern the world’s largest economy.
How did all this happen?
It happened because people got poor and angry, and because those in power didn’t listen. Since the economic crisis, Europeans has seen rising inequality; years of economic hardship and enforced austerity; a feeling of humiliation and hopelessness as the interests of big business have been promoted, time and again, at the expense of the people; 50 percent youth unemployment; and widespread housing evictions. These are the conditions under which fascism has historically flourished. And it was in the aftermath of the fascist swell of the 20th century that the EU was created. Ironically, it could become the crucible of another fascist wave.
By the time Captain Europe swishes over to meet me, his canary-yellow cape billowing in the sunshine, I am in no mood for equivocation. I’m hoping that the good Captain will give me some answers instead of more leaflets. So I take him for a gin.
The main way to combat the rise of fascism, Captain Europe tells me, “is to reinforce the idea that parliament actually matters. Right now it’s seen as a protest vote.” Captain is quite skinny and has a wide mouth and dark, curly hair under the blue mask, which he doesn’t take off to drink his gin and tonic. He speaks with a refined British Home Counties accent. Rumors abound that in real life he works for the civil service, or the Commission, or that he is a spy; that he is the child of diplomats; that he served in Afghanistan; that he once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. All I can discover is that he is English, he is 40 years old, he works in politics, and at some point, he was “a sergeant.”
He isn’t the first European superhero/marketing gimmick. His predecessor was Captain Euro, a character dreamed up, fittingly enough, by a consulting firm in 1999. It was just around the time that the European project was expanding, with new member states and a single currency. Captain Euro was a blond, blue-eyed diplomat's son who stood for peace, harmony, and shape-standardization of all imported fruits. His nemesis was Doctor D. Vider, a villain with a suspiciously Semitic mien whose greatest wish was to break up the union into separate warring fiefdoms, although what D. Vider and his henchpeople stood to gain by this was never clear.
Nobody was interested in Captain Euro, or in any of the other efforts to drum up interest in a sense of European identity, and the first Captain hung up his cape. The new Captain Europe first put on the tight pants as a prank in 2009, and has now found himself talking to foreign journalists about why austerity has caused a collapse in democratic faith.
“Well, there is a very real difficulty there,” says Captain Europe, sipping his drink, equivocating. “It’s true—the response to the crisis has favored the banks too much and not done enough for ordinary people.”
Smooth jazz wafts over the Place du Luxembourg. The sun is shining, the drinks are cheap, and the soundscape is peppered with polite conversation from the little cafés around the square. Here, mass unemployment, the collapse of public health, and incipient street fascism are abstract issues—things to discuss over beer and waffles.
You would not think that just a few hours ago, in this square, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was symbolically snipping yellow stars out of a European flag. Why was he doing that?
“Because he’s a twat,” says Jen Baker, a Brussels-based journalist who joined our table. “Which is probably not the most sophisticated response to intra-state nationalism you’ve ever heard.” It does, however, capture the essential point.
Brussels is dull. It smells of bland, deep-fried things and traffic. The people are quietly friendly. The staple foods are claggy and soporific: beer and french fries and chocolate and more beer. Its short, stocky buildings resemble every medium-size European city that hasn’t been flattened by bombs at any point in the last century, with the interesting bits shaved off, and its most popular tourist attraction is a small statue of a little boy pissing into a fountain. Brussels is very, very dull. That makes it the ideal headquarters for the European Union—the presence of which has shaped both the city and the institutions. The purpose-built city center is a monument to the business aesthetic of the 1980s, all neo-Roman arches and gray stone. It is not precisely a concrete jungle—more a concrete vegetable patch.
A soft blanket of boring seems to have settled over this city and the European institutions it hosts. But after 20 centuries of slaughter, of religious persecution, of invasions, genocides, dramatic regime changes, and uprisings, of borders flickering over the continent like the bloody spokes of a Catherine wheel, people are ready for boring. Boring doesn't send you to war and kill your whole family, although sometimes it sends you a polite letter informing you that you no longer have a job or a home.
Brussels is also complex. The institutions of the European Union—the Commission (civil servants), the Council (leaders of member state governments), and the Parliament (directly elected representatives)—overlap in curious ways. “There’s a perception that the European parliament is undemocratic, that it’s unelected, and so on,” says Captain Europe. “People don’t seem to realize that there’s an elected parliament! I was in plain clothes, in debate with a UKIP member, and he didn’t even know how it worked. I don’t think many of them do.”
It’s simple enough to understand once you sit down with a pen and paper and a new friend who happens to be a superhero, but most voters don’t get that. There is no strong story being told about what the European Union means, or what it does. That means leaders of member states get to blame Europe for every unpopular decision taken at an international level, like the Human Rights Act, while taking credit for the popular ones, like consumer protection protocols and mobile-phone roaming charges. Are you glazing over already?
My point exactly.
"What is this Europe that you keep talking about?"
In his reply to the Tsar, Napoleon Bonaparte was quite clear. "L’Europe, c’est nous!"
Europe, he said, is us.
He wasn’t talking about the people of Russia and France. He wasn’t talking about the soldiers who had died by the thousands. He was talking about himself and the Tsar, emperors, tyrants, and the aristocracy. “In other words,” notes the historian Norman Davies in his collection of essays from 2006, Europe: East and West, “We, the leaders of the great powers, we are the incarnation of Europe.” Centuries later, apart from a laying-down of arms in the central nations, what has changed?
Dr. Klaus Sühl is a political scientist and the director of the Brussels Branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a left-wing think tank. Over coffee at his office, he told me that after five years of austerity, the ordinary men and women of Europe have learned in practice what, in the boom years, they understood only in theory: Their needs and welfare come very far behind the needs and welfare of business.
"The new policy of the EU is absolutely clear: to ignore social standards and welfare in the member states," said Sühl. "They do not even try to take care of those who suffer terribly under the new social circumstances since 2007. Instead, as German chancellor Angela Merkel said at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2013, the main point is to be 'competitive.' And what that means is simply to be stronger than all of the others—in trade, in finance, in business, in making money. The TTIP seems to be one of the instruments to implement this new regime."
The TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is another one of those murky international deals that are being carried out behind the fortress of leaflets in front of the European Parliament. Those who know about it are extremely worried: Without consulting the electorate en masse, Europe is about to sign a deal that will give corporations even greater rights to punish poorer nations for not respecting their profit margins, and cut taxes on international trade. Almost nobody outside Brussels has heard of this deal, even though it has the potential to reshape how business is done in the Western world. Perhaps the greatest trick the Devil ever played was to convince the world that he was really boring.
"As always, it’s important to see that [the European Union] was always and especially a project of business," says Sühl. "It was from the beginning an anti-communist project. It was against alternative ways of thinking about the economy." As a young man in West Germany, Sühl was a supporter of the European project, and he still is. He believes that at its heart, it should be about international solidarity. But right now, he says, "the freedom of capital and the freedom of business is there, but the freedom of social welfare is not."
The oligarchs of Europe have found a way to formalize their power, increase their wealth, and beat the other guy without massacring millions of their citizens in the process. Few would disagree that this is, at least, a slight improvement. But corporatism kills just as surely as military invasion, if more slowly and indirectly. Between 2007 and 2010 there were 10,000 extra suicides in Western countries affected by austerity, over and above population increases. In Greece, the decimation of the public health budget and the withdrawal of state-subsidized needle-exchange programs for cost reasons has led to a 200 percent rise in HIV infections.
Europe has a deficit of heroes right now. That is, real heroes, ordinary politicians and activists and organizers willing to stand up for the interests of citizens and immigrants, heroes who do not need a shiny Spandex costume to fight for justice, although what they get up to in their own private time is their business. Captain Europe is a nice enough guy, but he couldn’t stop the authorities from water-cannoning around 400 people protesting Europe’s trade pact on May 15. Opposition to the ruling class sometimes spills to the streets.
In place of those heroes, in place of sustained people’s alternatives, thugs and far-right spivs are exploiting popular unrest to secure their own power base. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Nigel Farage mouth the rhetoric of being leaders of the people but are in fact consummate insiders: Farage himself has been pulled up for overspending on his expenses within the very European parliamentary system he decries.
Political disillusion takes many forms. Europe, for all its supposed stability, has seen how quickly and virulently dissolution can become hatred. If the twin forces of corporatism and austerity aren’t stemmed, and the lives of everyday Europeans remain an afterthought for the continent’s institutions instead of their main interest, then this Europe that we speak of will be little more than an empty promise.
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Topics: Europe, European union, European Parliament, European Parliamentary elections, Captain Europe, Laurie Penny, Brussels, Treaty of Tislit, Napolean, Alexander I, war, poverty, xenophobia, who won the European Parliamentary elections, Golden Dawn, Marine Le Pen, unemployment, fascism, European history