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The European unification project, administered by the European Union, has suffered a critical blow. The EU’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has to be called for what it is; a political fiasco exposing the lack of a common vision and simmering internal conflicts over the economic and political management of the Union.

The arrival of the novel coronavirus in the EU coincided with the departure of the UK, which in itself constitutes a tectonic shift for the European project. There was a widespread denial about the significance of Brexit when it eventually happened, a lot of downplaying of its consequences, and even a “relief” that they finally left. And now, in the midst of the deep existential crisis of the EU, the time has come to swallow another bitter pill.

It is not just that the EU was slow to react and help its most vulnerable member states such as Italy, or that the Northerners basically left the Southerners to their own devices by refusing to issue eurobonds and jointly bear future economic risks. It is not just that one of the most important member states formally left the all-European integration project. In fact, and here is the bitter pill, the European unification has never even taken place.

Thirty years after its announcement in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall, and more than fifteen years after Central and Eastern European states joined the EU, we are forced to conclude that post-socialist Europe was never united with other parts of the European continent. It was merely the EU that enlarged itself. The formal integration process of adopting the EU law (acquis communautaire) and joining the “club” was presented and accepted by virtually everyone as the unification of Europe.

“Since this [European unification] was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed.” This sentence — with the word “war” replaced with “European unification” — comes from Jean Baudrillard’s famous essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. My argument here is based on Baudrillard’s main premise, namely that the simulacrum of the unification of Europe trumps the painful absence of its real unification. We could not get a better proof for the persistence of this simulacrum than Ursula von der Leyen’s nomination of a vice-president for “protecting our European way of life.” And when we hear the complaints about the lack of European unity in face of the pandemic, we should recall one of Baudrillard’s rules “which says that what never began, ends without having taken place.”

The continuous subordinated political and economic position of post-socialist Europe within the EU makes us wonder whether unification was ever really the goal. After all the fanfare about it, the major symptom of the failure to unify Europe has been there for anyone who actually wanted to see the map. The formal integration of eleven post-socialist countries left out the Balkan ghetto, six countries today entirely surrounded by the EU; Europe’s bad boys kept in a correctional facility for almost never-ending rehabilitation called the EU “accession.”

The subordination of the former socialist countries comes hand in hand with dramatic depopulation resulting from multiple economic collapses despite the good economic standing of some parts of some post-socialist member-states. The loss of workforce involves also an enormous brain drain that in turn only perpetuates socio-economic poverty and intellectual marginality. At the same time, the Balkan and Central European routes have become one of the principal passageways for migrants and refugees towards the West. These migratory flows define many countries of the post-socialist zone today better than anything else. Exploited both by global capital and local oligarchies, they are reduced to the role of EU’s border guards against the unwanted populations with unwanted religious and ethnic background.

The photo of Romanian workers waiting to board the plane for Germany to pick asparagus in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is just one of many illustrations of the bleak predicament of post-socialist Europe and the failure of Europe’s unification. But how did we imagine the unification in the first place?

Europe is an empty canvas

I grew up in the war-ridden Balkans in the 1990s. I had to flee my hometown Sarajevo in 1992 when the first bombs started to fall on the city and I found a relatively safe haven in Zagreb, at a mere 30 kilometers from the frontlines. We saw the collapse of Yugoslavia, destruction of Croatian and Bosnian cities, mass murders and genocide, the four-year long siege of Sarajevo, up to 130,000 dead, millions of people expulsed from their homes on the basis of their ethnicity and, finally, as the long decade drew to a close, the war in Kosovo and NATO bombing of Serbia.

From that perspective, to a young student who just started traveling across Western Europe with an interrail ticket, the EU seemed like a future that was stolen from us. A combination of all the good things Yugoslavia had (supra-national, multi-lingual, multi-religious, diverse), but more prosperous and, in contrast to the criminal chauvinist regimes that proliferated on the corpse of Yugoslavia, committed to the basic rule of law. While we disintegrated in a bloodshed, Europe was uniting itself; whilst Belgrade became a nationalist shadow of its former cosmopolitan self and whilst the spectacular Croatian coast had been deserted, thousands of young Americans and Europeans began pouring into Prague, Budapest, Krakow and Berlin.

My girlfriend and I had a hard time explaining to our fellow interrail travelers that we were “normal,” just like them. But, while our peers were doing their third Erasmus exchange, we still had to deal with the likes of Tuđman and Milošević. It was thus too tempting to project our desires on “Europe,” conflating it with the European Union. But this twenty-something student from the Balkans was not the only one making this error.

In 1991 Jacques Derrida, at that time one of the most celebrated global philosophers, published a short book L’Autre Cap, advocating a Europe that will take the other heading, another direction, fully responsible when it comes to its power but also aware of the burden of its history. In one of his final public talks, from 2004, entitled A Europe of Hope, he underlines again the need to fight for Europe, “for it to become more than a market or a single currency, more than a neo-nationalist conglomerate, more than a new armed force.”

The uncrowned king of German philosophy, Jürgen Habermas, famously contemplated the “postnational constellation” that the EU would bring about as a unified, peaceful continent, presumably about to leave its bloody 20th century behind. What was there not to like? In 1994 fashionable cultural theorist and provocateur Peter Sloterdijk wrote an essay titled “If Europe wakes up,” in which he offers his “thoughts on the program of a world power at the end of the period of its political absence.”

And that Cold War “absence” came to an end, curiously, with the siege of Sarajevo. Needless to remind that the siege and the war continued for another two years, with “world power” Europe incapable of stopping neither the siege nor Srebrenica’s killing fields.

Back then I was hugely inspired by French Marxist theorist Etienne Balibar’s continuous and sharp analysis of Europe ⁠— so much needed on the left ⁠— which remains the most profound critical engagement with the situation in Europe after 1989. I was inspired by his concept of trans-national citizenship and his idea of the “citoyens d’Europe,” so that at the beginning of the 2000s I wrote my master thesis at the University of Paris 8 titled “European citizenship and supranational identity.”

I believed that there was a potential for something radically new and emancipatory in Europe, in spite of the neoliberal dogma that started to dominate the EU to the degree that the “European social model” gradually disappeared from the EU esperanto.

But, there was also Baudrillard and his, for me, painful article in Libération, titled “Pas de pitié pour Sarajevo,” published in January 1994. He commented on the tragic situation of the besieged city and its citizens, angry at a Europe that did not  help them, in spite of the fact that their lived multiculturality represented what Europe itself aspired to become. Sarajevo, for Baudrillard, was a symptom of how “Europe is disintegrating just as the discourse of united Europe flowers.”

Contrary to Sarajevans’ naive ideas about Europe, Baudrillard argued that the Serb extremists were actually the real representatives of that Europe in the making, “a white Europe, a Europe made white, integrated and cleansed, in the moral sense, in the economic sense, and in the ethnic sense.”

I lived for many years in Europe’s center (Paris) and at its north-west corner (Edinburgh) and could hear different visions of “Europe,” always indistinguishable from the EU. Once I heard a story about parallel and perhaps irreconcilable narratives of the EU: for the Germans it was just an extension of their own bundesrepublik with Germany’s “natural” economic dominance; for the French the EU was the embodiment of their own values with France as its military and cultural leader; for the Italians it was a necessary superstructure to their own structural problems; for the English a Union to which their own Union somehow belongs but not quite… At the same time, for the Scots the EU still represents cosmopolitan aspirations of their civic nation in the making that wishes to escape the grip of English insularity. The story, of course, never said anything about post-socialist visions of Europe.

What did the “other Europe” hope for?

The liberals in most post-socialist countries dominated the “transition” for about two decades. Their hegemony started to be questioned only after the EU enlargement took place. Since then they have had to compete with the nationalist-populist visions of Europe that would soon triumph in countries like Hungary and Poland and find more than one ally within the “old Europe.”

But what was it that this liberal vision offered to the East after the fall of socialism? In essence, it came down to the following: the former socialist states should without negotiations and much delay adopt the neoliberal model of their capitalist transformation. They should satisfy all economic, administrative and political demands required to join “Europe” as quickly as possible. What was offered in return? Well, the simulacrum of their “Europeanization.”

Many believed sincerely that they would sit at the same table with Western European countries and decide the matters in the spirit of equality and unanimity. Others were only interested in lucrative bureaucratic positions in Brussels. In a similar fashion, upcoming new strata of the young and educated, located mostly in capital cities, benefited from mobility, financial injections and nicely paid jobs, outsourced from the West. Many indeed flourished under the umbrella of the European integration. But many, in fact the majority, did not. They saw EU citizenship as just another name for work visas for the West and were happy to change their depressed former industrial cities for working at fish-and-chips stands in Glasgow or Newcastle.

Those who could not leave and could not feel palpable benefits remain angry at the entire world and ready to embrace nationalist myths and conspiracy theories. For the right or wrong reasons, they simply cannot believe in the liberal vision of Europe nor can they trust some unknown people in grey suits in Brussels making decisions about their lives. They thus return to what has always been there and what was very useful when communism had to be brought down: nationalism.

After all, people need a convincing narrative about the confusing world we live in, and nationalism paints a simple picture of an external domination that joined forces with treacherous minorities and liberal cosmopolitan urban elites against their own “tradition,” victimized nation and its faith. They rarely question capitalism as such — after all that would suspiciously smell of socialism — only the issue of who should manage it. The solution is thus found in national capitalism in which social equality is traded for protection from external and internal enemies.

There is Yugoslav exceptionalism, during and after socialism, in this whole story. In that region, at the end of the 1980s, the unholy alliance of anticommunist nationalists and the former communist nationalists formed to bring down not only socialism but its entire legacy of social emancipation and brotherhood among Yugoslav peoples. The liberal vision of economic reforms, coupled with the prospect of joining the EEC, united a weak coalition of the reform-minded communists and liberals. It was defeated by the ethnonationalist vision busy with the “national question,” border adjustments and ethnic cleansing. Europe was something to deal with once the dust settled.

The liberal vision reappeared again in the 2000s, after the removal of the Milošević and Tuđman regimes, coupled this time with neoliberal privatization frenzy. In the 2010s it would gradually lose — like elsewhere in post-socialist Europe ⁠— its power of persuasion. The EU today is at best seen as a provider of the structural funds whose tangible benefits cannot stop the resurgence of virulent nationalism such as in Croatia, that joined the EU in 2013; for others, the EU is a distant (Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia) or, finally, both a distant and suspicious destination (Serbia).

The so-called “transformative power” of the EU over the post-socialist zone has disappeared. It was based on the historic uniqueness of the European unification and it worked as magic, as long as enough people believed in it. Eventually it did not take place because it could not take place under the conditions of defeat and subordination.

The “self-incurred immaturity” after socialism

Post-socialist citizens, naturally, do not see their “velvet revolution” as defeat, but as liberation from double burden: Soviet control and the ideology of socialism. They see themselves as “victims” — even 30 years later, right-wing MEPs keep on drafting EU parliament declarations equating Nazism and communist anti-fascism — who recovered their long lost national freedom, and some of them even achieved independence. This was a suitable narrative to calm the spirits during the turbulent post-socialist times. The “defeat” here refers not to the unbearable lightness of the disappearance of the socialist regimes but to the self-inflicted loss of agency the day after. In other words, the victors of the long Cold War not only treated the former socialist citizens as the losers but they themselves unconsciously subscribed to that role.

How is it possible that courageous fighters against Soviet totalitarianism and Asian despotism ⁠— as it was often called ⁠— laid their arms and gave up on their thirst for independence, immediately after their glorious revolution? This is, indeed, a curious historic phenomenon. As soon as they recovered autonomy, they were ready for uncritical adoption of the EU acquis — the laws and rules designed by someone else — and they embraced new foreign tutelage with fervor. After stepping on the historic stage in 1989, as Boris Buden reminds us, they regressed quickly to, in Kantian terms, “self-incurred immaturity.” They became “children” that have to be guided by the paternal West into full adulthood.

The EU on the other hand had to figure out how to integrate these provinces that willingly accepted its leadership. The real practical solution, I argue, was found in the East German model. The swift colonization of East Germany through the “unification” process amounted to nothing short of an Anschluss through political and administrative control and through the economic shock managed by the now infamous agency Treuhand. The agency was established in 1990 with the goal to rapidly privatize the former GDR’s assets. Destruction of the existing East German economy went through merciless fire sale privatizations favoring Western capital and not paying the slightest attention to the wants and needs of East Germans. The results were soon visible: economic depression followed by massive emigration to the West, demographic decline, social depression and the rise of the extreme right.

Only recently the Ossies started talking about the social and personal consequences of the tsunami that hit them after the Wall came down. The reason for this silence might be found in the collective guilt. West Germans “saved” them from failed socialism and the good Wessies still have to pay for their economic well-being. Therefore, they themselves had no vocabulary to actually speak about it and, besides, no one wanted to listen. At the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, German journalist Sabine Rennefanz wrote openly about the Treuhand disaster capitalism, about her father losing a job and minimal security, about the destruction of not only a political regime but of a really existing society under the banner of the unquestioned German “unification.”

This was turned, with variations and various sequencing ⁠— depending on the country in question ⁠— into the model for the rest of the post-socialist zone. The process of “Europeanization” was administratively organized via the so-called “accession negotiations,” which was just another deceiving term for what amounted to more or less a very long translation process. The EU member states were free to interpret the famous Copenhagen criteria as they liked, and many still complain that letting them in too early, without a consolidated EU that would show them their real place, was a serious mistake. The goal was to measure the “suitability” of new candidates via the foucauldian mechanisms of discipline, control and punishment.

The convenient side of the story was the fact that political elites of the candidate countries would implement all necessary reforms and “structural adjustments” themselves. The results were strikingly similar to those in East Germany: economic depression, depopulation, social despair and the rise of the nationalist right and the extreme right. We have to mention, however, that, like in East Germany, there are also zones of prosperity and a minority of prosperous citizens that in semi-peripheral economies managed to communicate with globalized markets, the core countries’ industries and their consumers’ needs (especially in relation to Germany).

We should not be surprised to read a recent lamentation of a French-Romanian liberal MEP, Clotilde Armand in Financial Times. In the midst of the severe clashes between EU member states over the bloc’s post-Brexit budget — they fight each other as “ferrets in a bag” in the words of a EU diplomat — Armand complains about the intentions to further slash the structural funds for the Eastern states at the moment when they are losing highly educated people — and thus their wealth — en masse.

She enumerates all the financial benefits that the Western banks and firms get from Eastern Europe, surpassing by far the allocated funds. In a telling passage she describes how everything in her life is owned by the Western capital, in this case French. “At home in Bucharest, I shop in a French-owned supermarket, and my phone operator and my water company are French. I pay my gas bill to a French multinational, through a French bank of course.” She concludes her plea to maintain EU funds for poorer regions by the following words: “If the west starts reneging on these promises, they risk tearing up the European social contract.” One could almost laugh faced with such naivety — there is someone who still believes that there is a “European social contract”! — had it not been tragic all together.

Thirty years later: intellectual poverty, depopulation, fragmented resistances

Havel, Kundera, Milosz, Konrad, Michnik, Heiner Müller… the names I learned to respect when I was still a kid. But where are the Eastern European literary and intellectual giants today? Force yourself to remember one or two names — save Slavoj Žižek — that have a profound influence on global debates? You might have a hard time and you will eventually come back to Žižek as indisputably the only post-socialist thinker to have an impact on the international intellectual and philosophical stage.

Here Žižek only confirms the above-mentioned Yugoslav exceptionalism within the Cold War order thanks to its own road to socialism. Žižek could become relevant in the West because he knew the West already back home in Yugoslavia. It massively imported American and Western popular culture, literature and philosophy, whilst its citizens could freely travel and work abroad. He triumphed at Western universities in the 1990s and the 2000s with his entertaining de-masking of the capitalist ideology mixed with a disarming charm of Balkanic political incorrectness. He showed no inferiority complex and was hailed as the “Elvis of philosophy.”

But what happened to the others and to one of the previously most intellectually vibrant regions of the world? Do Eastern Europeans have nothing to say to the world after 1989? The economic and political subordination, achieved through uncritically importing the Western model of liberal democracy and neoliberal economy, translated itself into cultural and intellectual submission as well. As in economy or consumerism, Eastern Europeans rushed to “catch up” with the West they envied so much.

They imported and translated the classics of liberalism and the contemporary priests of the neoliberal thought on a mass scale — skillfully avoiding Western neo-Marxist and critical theory — whilst at the same time busying themselves cleaning their shelves and libraries of all that Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs and Brecht, including their own autonomous philosophical schools developed during that unfortunate “pause in history” called socialism.

The staggering intellectual poverty of the post-socialist region today means only one thing: a surprising incapacity of its intellectuals, writers, artists and scholars — with notable expectation of some marginal rebels — to originally analyze socio-economic and cultural condition of their societies today and to create an independent public position that could have wider social and political relevance. But to do so, they would need to critically analyze the contemporary European capitalist order and would thus need to check if somewhere in the basement some of the prohibited old leftists somehow survived.

In the unlikely event that this happens any time soon, the real consequences are already there and involve “people on the move,” which are not only the migrants or refugees escaping global pogroms and economic devastation, but Eastern Europeans themselves escaping post-socialism. Almost all post-socialist states recorded population losses between five and 25 percent in Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Only the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia registered moderate gains. In thirty years Bulgaria will have nearly 40 percent fewer people than in 1990, and Romania, Serbia and Croatia roughly 30, 24 and 22 percent, respectively. Some observers already link the demographic disaster to the erosion of democracy and the triumphant nationalist right.

Whilst Eastern European NATO members ⁠— with the help of the Ukrainians ⁠— exercise for a potential clash with Russia, the Balkan states got the dirty job of EU’s border guards. Under the undeclared state of exception, they have freedom to break all international humanitarian conventions and to “push back” migrants on their borders. A series of filters have been created to minimize the number of immigrants who manage to pass through despite the multiple razor fences.

At the beginning of March 2020, the crisis escalated on the Turkish-Greek border. EU president Von der Leyen visited the area and congratulated the Greeks for sending the army against civilians to “protect Europe.” After severely punishing Greece in the previous years, the EU establishment expressed firmly that in this critical situation, it “stands with Greece.” The defeat and subordination — austerity-hit Greece has been relegated to the Southeastern inferior league — has acquired a new twist: the job of the subordinated, as it is often the case, is to turn against the unwanted.

So, how to resist, on one hand, the structural subordination, and on the other the predictable nationalist and neo-fascist reaction? In the context of rampant historic revisionism and near-total de-legitimization of the entire modern tradition of socialism, it is not easy to oppose both neoliberal capitalism and nationalist mobilization. The intellectual poverty described above means that an alternative to the two dominant forces —  liberal and nationalist-conservative —  can rarely be heard. Furthermore, progressive forces must often make coalitions with liberals to protect endangered rights, especially minority and women’s rights, and minimal democratic values from the onslaught of aggressive nationalists. Depopulation makes it even harder to develop progressive social and political movements, while at the same time reinforcing intellectual poverty through an unstoppable brain drain.

However, one can notice some partial successes such as the rise of social movements in the Balkans over the last decade, especially in the post-Yugoslav region, including the strong electoral performance of the Left party in Slovenia. It is again due to the aforementioned Yugoslav exceptionalism and to the fact that the strong tradition of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism, coupled with the unquenched thirst for social equality, still reverberates throughout this region. It also means that the death of the left in post-socialist Europe might have been prematurely announced.

Beyond reformism, towards a different unification in Europe

In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, one could not fail to notice a huge scaffolding with one sentence illuminated with electric light bulbs. It says, “There will be no miracles here.” The artist behind this work, Nathan Coley, found this sentence in a 17th-century French royal proclamation in a town where allegedly many miracles had occurred. It could be displayed on every political institution, their role always being to prevent miracles within the given order.

The role of the EU as it stands is to prevent the miracle of its unification. The reason is simple, it was always a supra-national organization with an economic agenda that never presupposed equality. And there can be no unity — and thus unification as process — without equality. More concretely, the first condition for unity is political and socio-economic equality both within, and among political communities. The second condition is to look in the same direction when the future is concerned —  and this is impossible without the first condition. I am aware, like everyone else, that equality does not come by a magic wand or a revolutionary decree. But it has to be the guiding principle of our actions.

It is clear by now that the major intellectual and thus political mistake was made to conflate “Europe” with the European Union. It imposed itself even stronger with the waves of the EU’s Eastern enlargements when it had become almost possible to geographically equate the EU with Europe — everyone learned in the 1990s already to overlook the Balkans. Now, with Brexit things are slowly getting back to normal and we will, hopefully, more carefully distinguish between “Europe” and a political-economic inter-state organization covering large parts of the continent of Europe.

But old habits die hard. The Guardian‘s editor in chief, Katherine Viner, proudly proclaimed: “Britain is leaving Europe. The Guardian is not.” The obvious truth is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has just left the EU, but that does not sound so appealing, hence the obfuscation, “Britain” for the UK, “Europe” for the EU, and an entirely false conclusion that the island of Great Britain and the northern part of the island of Ireland are no longer part of Europe. Little wonder then that in the same article, the author boasts that the Guardian was there “at the collapse of communism and reunification of Europe.”

The consequences of words, terms and platitudes we use are far-reaching. In a similar fashion, any criticism of the EU as governing body is often branded as “euroscepticism,” which comes to an amalgam of insane nationalists and leftist extremists. This article, for instance, has been written by someone who firmly believes that any progressive future on this part of Eurasia must be European. This does not necessarily involve the EU as it stands, but it might.

I find that the belief in “national” politics and sovereignty as we knew it in the 20th century is a dangerous delusion. It is disturbing that this myth persists among some parts of today’s left. An illusion that you can fight against global capitalism by recapturing old-fashioned national institutions, devoid of real power, cannot turn the left into a true transformative political movement. Its internationalist spirit demands a pan-European approach without fabricated dichotomies, geographical fatalism, and arbitrarily constructed borders of what Europe is — and what it is not.

But there is another problem with the progressive left in Europe today. Faced with the EU as the greatest historical effort to integrate the continent, it is important to avoid a false dilemma between its reform and — convinced that no reform of such neoliberal entity is possible —  its destruction that should eventually, in apocalyptic accelerationist imagination, unleash a class revolution on its ruins.

When it comes to reforming the EU, it seems that everyone has been busy writing manifestos, from Diem25‘s European New Deal, The “Manifesto for democratization of Europe” launched by Thomas Piketty, to the “Manifesto for the Founding of a European Republic,” written by Robert Menasse and Ulrike Guerot. The problem is that they do not take into account that the European unification did not really happen in Europe by the sheer power of the acquis communautaire and through the EU enlargements. Even worse, they do not even mention the subordinated post-socialist Europe, nor what to do with yet non-integrated Balkans.

Another inconvenient truth is that, realistically, no profound reforms of the EU as it is seem possible and, at the same time, its further erosion — and the COVID-19 crisis gives us a taste of it — might bring devastating consequences out of which no progressive outcome could develop. The vultures of souverenism, nationalism and neo-fascism are there and have already convinced large groups of European citizens, including moderate ones, that the world is basically a jungle in which only your — national — community could protect you. The “Europe of peoples” would for them only mean a temporary alliance of European chauvinists against global threats, from outside and from within. This horrifying vision, sadly, today has greater political resonance among Europeans of all classes than the old leftist hope that “another world is possible.”

We are standing today between the yet unacknowledged impossibility of European unification under the existing institutional arrangement, and the tempting abandonment of any attempts at unifying Europe. This offers, I believe, a real possibility for the truly emancipatory left to, beyond reformism, decry the non lieu of the European unification without abandoning Europe as space for a future unity based on equality. Under the circumstances, this will surely be a minoritarian position whose power lays in audacity to confront the reality as the first step to reshape it. Only then we might see miracles in Europe, again.

This article was first published on ROAR magazine.