The deceived children of the EU

On the 1st of May 2004 Poland joined the European Union, together with some other countries which we called “Central-Eastern European”, but which for the rest of the world were just Eastern Europe: the former Eastern Bloc. I was 10 years old. At my primary school we performed songs about Europe and had a special “European education” class, during which we prepared presentations about the EU countries, full of food trivia. The classrooms were decorated in yellow and dark blue.

I liked the colours and the starry flag, and when I turned 12 I became obsessed with Ode to Joy. I was fascinated with German culture out of sheer spite, because yes, Polish kids still thought German was a Nazi language – at least until they went on holiday and befriended German kids who weren’t Nazis, or became fans of Tokio Hotel. We could choose between German and French classes, and French annoyed me since everyone thought it was pretty (I was a tween contrarian supporting underdog languages). I chose German and soon I was listening to Beethoven instead of Tokio Hotel, partially because the plays by Friedrich Schiller (the author of the original Ode to Joy poem) were my chosen edgy alternative to the literary escapism of fantasy books, and partially because I found the 9th Symphony simply really, really beautiful. My dad had the 1963 Karajan recording and I was shocked to discover that there was more music after the initial “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” chorus. Once I got used to the operatic singing, I started listening to opera and then reading 19th century novels, and that’s why I had no social life for the next few years. I should’ve chosen French.

Meanwhile, the Polish pope, also known as the Pope among Polish people, died. My family wasn’t that religious – we didn’t even go to church every Sunday – but suddenly I found myself on the streets of Warsaw with thousands of shocked people, on a very warm April day after his death was announced. I was suffering from eczema so severe that I told my aunt and grandma: “It itches so terribly, I want to die”. They immediately told me off – and rightly so, but it’s their argument I remember: “How can you say something like that, when the Pope has just died, and he was very sick. You should be ashamed. He was suffering so much.”

Suffering. The Pope died in 2005 and exactly five years later, in April 2010, the Polish presidential plane crashed in Russia, near Smolensk, killing the president, his wife and many other worthy people on board, including politicians from all kinds of parties, left to right wing. Of course the right, led by the twin brother of the dead president, immediately announced that the crash was in fact a planned Russian attack. Once again, I was on the sunny streets of Warsaw’s Old Town. But this time, the vague sense of community which I felt with people attending the mass after pope’s death evaporated. A huge crowd was gathering at the presidential palace, waiting for the coffins to arrive, forming a queue to the condolence book. It was exciting; I ran into people I knew, including a former classmate who was now a member of a scouts team helping at the event. I brought him a sandwich from a nearby cafe, and he let me in to an emptier area close to the palace, not accessible even to the media. I looked at the crowd from the other side of the barriers, as I stood among exhausted people assisted by the scouts. At that moment, I didn’t know it for sure, but many could predict that this tragedy will divide Poland even further in the upcoming years. Since then, the supporters of the dead president’s party have been gathering in front of that palace for a monthly vigil and “defended” a wooden cross that the municipality wanted to move away. The events were so grotesque that you wanted to laugh at them, unless you saw these people in person: praying, unhappy, almost always old, often poor. Five years after the catastrophe, in 2015, their party won the election in landslide, forming a government by itself, and the cross vigils have been joined by a delegation of soldiers.

In 2010, I still identified as a Catholic, but I didn’t understand the people who thought Russians were behind the plane crash, just like I didn’t see how all Germans could be inherently Nazi. (True to myself, I chose to learn Russian instead of French in high school.) Gone was the sense of belonging that I felt as a 13 year old, writing that emigrants are traitors (I went through a literature-fueled nationalist phase) or reading the news about my city, Warsaw, religiously (I made a layout for my blog using a photo of a Warsaw bus). The entire history, both of the country and of my city, was full of suffering: wars, uprisings, genocide. The politicians were constantly arguing about history, about this or another holy memory of ever suffering heroes – almost exclusively soldiers – which wasn’t sufficiently honoured. Suffering doesn’t make much sense unless you explain it with some convoluted ideology, such as Christianity. And I couldn’t tolerate the hierarchy, patriarchy and homophobia of the Church any more. By 2012, I just wanted to leave, aimless, frustrated and not appreciating my idyllic high school years: I left the entire country behind.

But there was another option. I stopped listening to opera that often, but I still thought that Ode to Joy was more beautiful than any national anthem. My support for the European Union remained unquestioned even as my political views became more and more radically left wing. Here the Western Europeans might need some explanation: in Poland, the EU is unambiguously left wing. It is not only bureaucratic and infringing upon national sovereignty, it is a symbol of a foreign, Marxist world populated by “vegetarians and cyclists” (to borrow the words of the current Polish foreign affairs secretary). The economic nature of the EU as a common market isn’t very relevant here, as most of the Polish political discussion remains on a vague ideological level. (Similarly to this post, which somewhat validates the post-truth approach to politics, as emotions keep shaping the way in which I perceive facts.)

Many have repeated, throughout the years, that the EU needs a common sense of identity; I have been upholding that view, even going beyond the EU, thinking about the entire “Western world” in the context of terrorism and immigration. This identity should be based on values, which I took straight from Ode to Joy (and some other old stuff I’ve read, all related in my mind): equality, solidarity, freedom (but defined in terms of the former two). Democracy, economic well-being, fighting real issues such as the climate change. And, to be effective, fighting against the people and organisations which stood in the way of achieving these idealistic goals and caused suffering: the multinationals, the 1%, you know what I mean. Thanks to the EU, its vague aim of peacekeeping, its many subsidies and international institutions, I had a political body with which I could identify, not only that, for which I planned to work in the future. In the end, it wasn’t only the poor Warsaw or Poland that I supported – it was all the losers of this world.

You might remember that I’m a leftist (a socialist, to be precise) and you’re probably also aware that, at least in Western Europe, many left wing organisations oppose the EU as an undemocratic, neoliberal project – look at Greece, look at Germany, etc. Add the intra-EU migration, right wing populists gaining popularity and the whole thing gets messy. The EU as something very different from a nation state is difficult to address at the level of national politics. It seems distant, and yes, elitist – something that many of my potential friendly readers, internationally educated young people, may find a bit puzzling. For them, and to be fair for me, European institutions can be as accessible as the national ones. Indeed, there is a certain freedom associated with the fact that you can contact them, influence them and work for them unaffected by the salary differences between your country and the richer, post-colonialist ones. Your diploma, CV and language skills are the only limits.

Here I would like to describe a certain memory which started nagging me while I pondered these issues. At some point in middle school or high school, in a Polish literature or history class, one of my teachers drew a figure on the board – as you can see, I really don’t remember the situation, except for the figure itself:


(I added the words “Country A”, “Country B”, “The Elite” and “The ~Peopl[e]” myself for clarity.) The figure was an extremely simplified representation of the society before the nation state and industrial evolution: the aristocracy and other elites such as academics or traders could communicate and exchange ideas across the country borders – indeed, they had a status-based sense of community, with various noble families marrying across the continent. The ordinary people, meanwhile, couldn’t read or write and spoke some local dialects, which weren’t respected in the higher spheres. Naturally, there was no sense of community between a nobleman and a peasant.

This changed when the nation states were constructed, more or less according to the following scheme:


The common language, tradition, history and whatever else is included in the symbolic mixture of a nation state is supposed to connect us all and make us different from people born in the other countries, so that we can be convinced to fight in wars for the vague ideal of a nation. At the same time, education and social mobility improve greatly, diminishing the divide between the privileged and the rest.

However, already in the 19th century Marxists simplified the society in a different way (this figure wasn’t brought up by the teacher):


The people, or the proletarians, have a common interest in fighting the oppression of the elites, the bourgeoisie. The national community these two groups might share with each other doesn’t matter, as the society is divided along the class lines. That’s why Rosa Luxemburg’s party wanted international revolution rather than independence for Poland (something that puzzled me greatly at school).

Of course, the end goal of Marxists (and many others with utopian tendencies) looks more like this:


But how do these schemes relate to the European Union? We need to keep in mind the competing identities associated with our nationality, social class and the EU itself.

The working title (lol) of this post was “Can the EU be a left-wing project?” – and this is the question which, after this lengthy self-centered story, I would like to investigate. At the heart of the leftist ideology lies the idea of fighting the capitalist exploitation, and, with the capital globalised more than ever, production chains spanning several continents, one would expect internationalism of the left to become more and more crucial. Yet, almost all political parties – a party being the most effective and developed form of political organisation – operate at the national level. Even in the European Parliament, the MPs are elected from the lists of national parties. That makes sense, since most of the legislative power remains at the national level. But the biggest issues – climate, the refugee crisis, global hunger; from the leftist perspective, international exploitation and corporate power – are something far beyond the capacities of a single country. This is why some left wing and progressive movements still hope for a positive role of the EU, especially after demonstrations of its anti-corporate actions such as protecting our privacy from Google and stopping Apple’s tax evasion.

At the same time, the very foundation of the EU, the free movement of capital and people, is creating more and more inequalities across the continent. Read the first part of Marta Tycner’s amazing article for a description of how these huge migration flows (with 25% of Latvia’s population emigrating) influences both the Western, rich and Eastern, poorer countries, not to mention the already unstable South. Tycner is a euroenthusiast, proposing a European minimum wage and political rights for EU migrants in their country of residence as solutions. But how can we agree on such a minimum wage, when it would almost certainly mean lowering the already existing minimum wage in the West? Does it make sense to not only stop the migration, but even encourage it by more political rights, if that will bring down wages in the richer regions and motivate people to leave the poorer ones? The Polish leftists I know are surprised by the euroscepticism of the Western left, but once we realise that these parties operate, de facto, almost exclusively on the national level, we will understand their position. By criticising the free movement, they not only avoid the alienation of their natural electorate – the Western working class – but also remain pragmatic about the nature of the EU.

The EU is neoliberal. I have been blind to it for a long time, and you can read in the first paragraphs of this post why. My idealistic vision of the EU as a noble project was so strong that it took me a year at least to truly realise that the EU as an institution is pushing for TTIP, something I was actively campaigning against. And in the same way as the imagined community of a nation is often used to promote certain interests, the European community can be used – I am one of the children who have fallen for it.

Now, I don’t want to say that every person identifying with a certain nationality is a puppet of the capitalists, and that nothing good has ever come from the EU. The reality is much more nuanced. There are many good people working in effective EU institutions. But it will be of great benefit to the euroenthusiastic left to start approaching the EU pragmatically, and to ask honest questions about the degree of changes we would need to turn it into a leftist project. Sometimes, at a national level, our strategy may include going against the EU. Internationalism is a beautiful ideal, and we should stick to it, but in its current form the EU is contributing to all of the divisions in the figures above: between the nations and between the working class and the elites. Young, higher educated euroentusiasts often miss that, since, despite our precarious jobs and unsure future, in our minds we do belong to this internationally connected, flexible elite – even if one career misstep can remind us that we have a certain passport and very little money, and suddenly our career prospects turn out to be just another neoliberal illusion.

On the other hand, I do wonder where the eurosceptical leftists see their grassroots, working class structures that would be a viable alternative to the EU, or otherwise how do they plan to keep fighting in their crumbling nation states against the globalised capital. The current line of these leftists is to criticise the EU harshly while simultaneously focusing on the interest of the workers in their respective nation states. This is obviously a strategy intended to discourage people from supporting shallow right wing populists, which however doesn’t seem to have a long term goal.

It has always been difficult for the left to navigate the maps of identities, because most of us just respect people regardless of them. In the times of Trump and Brexit, it may seem bold enough to say that people should be able to earn a decent wage regardless of where they were born. But I’m afraid we need to work much harder, to come up, together, with a plan how to get to that point. In this endeavour, it is important to be both very sceptical about the tools we’re working with and enthusiastic about our work itself – to quote Gramsci, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned”.