The Iron Lady, the film about the life of Margaret Thatcher, should have an age restriction. The only audience likely able to grasp this powerful evocation of old age and the ramifications of politics will be those over 50. The decline takes place in a unique and cruel way one evening in November 1990 in Paris, when Margaret Thatcher, 65 years old at the time, bid a confused farewell to power.
Her announcement was actually a sideshow: the journalists who had come to Paris were there largely to cover the first summit of the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) since the fall of the Wall. The summit showed that there was no room in the new post-communist Europe for the “little Englander nationalism” of Margaret Thatcher. Even Britain wanted to be European.
In a speech to the Confederation of British Trade Unions two years before the departure of the Iron Lady, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, had promised a socialist Europe that would defend the rights of the unions and guarantee full employment. As one man, the British activists had stood up to sing Frère Jacques to the glory of their saviour. During the first five years Jacques Delors was on the job, 12 million jobs were created within the European Union. To be pro-Europe was a natural feeling at the time.
Economic folly and political hubris
What melody might the European trade union confederations hum these days in honour of Herman van Rompuy, the current EU president? Perhaps a tune from his compatriot Jacques Brel – for example, On n’oublie rien (“We forget nothing”). There are currently 17 million without work in the EU.
Last week trade unions all across Europe demonstrated against theEU budget pact, which calls for drastic cuts in social outlays accompanied by restrictions in civil rights and liberties. In doing so, Europe is burying the social ideology of the welfare state, which had been fostered equally by both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the two major parties in European states.
Through the Stability Pact, the EU is imposing a Thatcherite economic blueprint on all its member countries. It must be remembered, however, that the authoritarian capitalism of the former British Prime Minister had received the endorsement of the population by a democratic vote, while the EU makes decisions without even going looking for popular or democratic legitimacy. The high echelons of the EU want first and foremost to save the euro – the currency that symbolises the economic folly and political hubris that is tearing Europe into two parts – the rich and the others, condemned to poverty.
Teacher and leading scholar in European humanities, Fritz Wilhelm Scharpf, wonders whether the reforms of the European monetary and economic union do not mask some hidden agenda. Scharpf depicts a European ideology that promotes privatising the economy, weakening organised labor, and commodifying health and education.
“I want my money back”
Its economic objectives are stability and keeping inflation under control. Full employment, however, is relegated to the second tier. European governments have no other choice but to submit to the rules of economic discipline, whatever the social fallout. The mandatory rules are set by the financial markets – and for their profit.
Invited to speak in the run-down auditorium of the London School of Economics, Scharpf recently sounded a warning against the erosion of democracy within the Union: “Democratic legitimacy requires opportunities to make meaningful political choices.”
The legitimacy of democratically elected governments may be threatened, especially in countries that have only recently come to democracy. “There is no lack of candidates: Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. In these countries, the revolt may arise from both left- and right-wing populism. For now, unfortunately, the populism of the right is on top, armed with xenophobia. The policies to tackle the crisis are encouraging such primitive emotions and obscuring the notion of European citizenship. Instead, prejudices are gaining ground: Greek sloth versus uniformed Germans, southern European corruption against the hardworking menand women of the Lutheran North. The old cliches are flourishing.”
When entering the meeting rooms of the European Union, Margaret Thatcher was in the habit of looking her European counterparts in the eye and then saying: “I want my money back.” This ideology has returned; the only difference today is that it is the banks that are laying down the demands.