Speaking at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Annual Council Meeting in Paris 29 May, Mr George Soros, entrepreneur, philanthropist and founder of the global Open Society Initiative (OSI) has made a presentation regarding the ongoing economic and social crisis in Europe.
These remarks, and the accompanying proposals described as “audacious” by some Western commentators, have been brought to wider attention through the comments they have garnered. This is how I was fortunate enough to also be made aware of them.
Mr Soros is passionately pro-Europe, and believes the European Union remains the best political initiative to emerge as a guarantor of European stability, but is now under threat. “It is no longer a figure of speech to say that Europe is in existential danger;” he states, “it is the harsh reality.”
Mr Soros says that “the EU seems to have lost its way”, since the financial crisis of 2018, and by reacting through the implementation of an austerity-based fiscal regime, it has “transformed the Eurozone into a relationship between creditors and debtors.” that is “neither voluntary nor equal – the very opposite of the credo on which the EU was based.”
This, he explained, has bred a lot of resentment towards the EU, especially among young people, which “populist” politicians have now exploited.
The refugee influx of 2015 only served to exacerbate matters much as “At first, most people sympathized with the plight of refugees fleeing political repression or civil war”. The challenge was that, “they didn’t want their everyday lives disrupted by a breakdown in social services. And soon they became disillusioned by the failure of the authorities to cope with the crisis.”
He lists three problems: The refugee crisis; the austerity policy that has “hindered Europe’s economic development”; and territorial disintegration, as exemplified by Brexit as being the “pressing” issues Europe faces, and offers the outline of a remedy for each.
Austerity should be ended with a “Marshall Plan” based on Europe using its excellent credit ratings to borrow heavily. Part of that borrowing could go towards assisting African and other such countries to become more prosperous in such a way as to encourage their youth to stay home.
As for refugees (as distinct from migrants generally,) he advocates for a more equitable and humane distribution system to take the pressure off both the peninsula countries, as well as the arrivals themselves.
Finally, he concedes that the Eurozone is governed by “outdated treaties” and could benefit from reforms making it less doctrinaire. Specifically, to accept the reality that a number of EU member countries have explicitly rejected the EU’s goal of “ever closer union” which, he says “should be abandoned” in favour of a “multi-track Europe” that allows member states a wider variety of choices.
In such circumstances, he believes that Britain could be persuaded to “render Europe a great service by rescinding Brexit” the pre-eminent example of territorial disintegration, that Mr Soros describes as “an immensely damaging process, harmful to both sides.”
In this huge task list. Bringing the refugee crisis, which Mr Soros sees as “a European problem requiring a European solution” under control, may be the best place to start, he says.
All this concludes Mr Soros, is best carried out by “a large upsurge of bottom-up pro-European initiatives” to which he pledges all possible support: “I and my network of Open Society Foundations will do everything we can to help….”
These are quite a powerful set of statements and observations, especially coming from someone influential.
I should state early on that I have no doubts whatsoever of Mr Soros’ good intentions for his homeland and wider humanity, and see Open Society as an actualization of that good will.
However, on reading about this presentation, I was immediately struck by my recognition that this was something that required a response from an African perspective.
I have not appointed myself a spokesperson for Africa: I write simply as an ordinary African intellectual and sometime activist over the last three decades, both in Europe and here, in Africa.
What is this Europe that must be saved?
I think when all is considered, we shall have to start not with Charlemagne, the icon of the European Union, but Napoléon Bonaparte, that great artisan of the modern European identity.
Our contemporary understanding of him is bounded by his presentation as a person who, paradoxically as Emperor from 1803 to 1815, when all was said and done, oversaw –by persuasion of possible, but force, if necessary, as the phrase goes- the spread and entrenchment of the of the principles of the 1792-1802 French Revolution all across Western Europe.
These principles (“Liberty, Fraternity, and Equal-ness”) are seen as the root of liberal democracy today. Seeded deep in the civic DNA of European governance concepts, they are understood as the very essence of the best practices of European politics.
Since this Emperor’s wars alone, which may have killed an estimated six million people from a not very large then population to begin with, Europeans have gone on to fight three other significant wars amongst themselves. More specifically, we should say that western European states (and Russia) have driven this fighting.
The significant wars are the Franco-German war of (1870–71), whose results bred such resentment that another war was fought between 1914 and 1918 over the same territorial issues. The subsequent 1939-1945 war was caused by Germany’s repudiation of the terms of surrender as the losing side in the ’14-‘18 conflict.
How does any of this matter? It is because Mr Soros begins his essay by naming the absence of major armed conflict on the European landmass since the end of the 1939-1945 war as a key outcome of the establishment of what is now known as the European Union (EU), leading to the now 70 year period of “peace and prosperity” there.
That basically means that this period we are in now is perhaps the longest ever continuous peace (if we ignore the tribal conflicts that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union) to be enjoyed by Europeans in over two hundred years of sometimes epic bloodletting.
Only 56 years followed Napoléon’s 1815 final defeat at Waterloo before the Franco-German conflict started, and only 43 years elapsed between the end of that war and the outbreak of what is now known as the 1914-1918 World War I. Going further back, history shows that until the EU, Europeans seemed to spend more time at war, than at peace.
So when Mr Soros states that “…..For the past decade, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”, and then asks: “How did a political project that has underpinned Europe’s postwar peace and prosperity arrive at this point?” he demonstrates an ominous concern. With such a history, the grave dangers in what may ensue as a result, are there for all to see. Nine million European soldiers alone perished in the 1914-1918 war, the 1939-1945 conflagration killed as many as twenty million Russians alone, and maybe 35 million people globally.
As I have written elsewhere: Certainly, even a partial unraveling of the EU, would have a momentous economic impact on lives and communities there. And a return to the earlier pan-European penchant for managing political problems through extreme intolerance, epic bloodletting and physical destruction that is a characteristic of the industrial-scale wars Europeans typically fight, could once again suck in the whole world. This, therefore, is a problem for all of us.
In that regard, Mr Soros’s points need to be understood carefully: there are three key choices of wording that really need better examination.
In the first, he refers to the EU at inception as a “political project”. In the second, he writes about a period of “postwar peace and prosperity” for Europe, and lastly, he names the EU as the thing that has “underpinned” this.
These can best be pondered here in the form of questions.
First, how do we understand the fact that perhaps the most lasting peace Europe has enjoyed in three centuries can be attributed to a body established to manage the exploitation commodities, and just two of them at that?
Second, given that such a body then comes to be conceptualized as a “political project”, how must we understand the primacy of economic well-being to European political life?
Third, what is the process by which European “peace” has been translated into material prosperity for Europe?
The Economics and politics of the Europe’s Union
Those three wars, that defined the path the creation of the European Coal and Steel Commission, were over the matter of who, between Germany and France, would own the Alsace-Lorraine region. Up until certainly the turn of the last century, this region held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the known world. Combined with the energy available through the burning of coal, such a bounty could provide a key industrial basis for modern power: the production of steel.
It is not accidental that this region –straddling the borders of Germany and France- forms a “ground zero” of sorts, for industrialization on the continent.
The technical challenge of the iron ore deposits being found on one side of this border and the coal deposits on another, is what led to imperial ambitions from both sides, to try and have both by pushing the other out. France held it up to 1871. Germany took it until 1914 (and briefly in 1940-44). The Coal and Steel Commission was effectively a formula to separate the issue of “ownership” from the issue of use.
All other residual and subsequent concerns have then been historically woven into, and built upon that basic compact.
Europe’s “prosperity”: who will bear the cost?
What is European “prosperity”, and where did it come from?
The Napoleonic era violently resolved the issue of who was to hold political power where, in Europe. What was left was to address the question of where the economic power for which this political power was now available, was going to come from.
If Bismarck, the German statesman of that era, asserted that war is politics by other means, then perhaps we should add that politics itself, is economics by other means.
The use of politics to address economic concerns is what gives rise even to that pivotal moment in contemporary European –African relations: the 1885 Berlin Congress that in turn spawned the infamous 1886 Berlin Treaty that facilitated the European “Scramble for Africa”.
History tells us that one of the motives behind the conference was Germany’s desire to defuse French anger at the loss of the valuable Alsace-Lorraine region as an outcome of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. Germany’s calculation was to divert French energies to the as yet un-colonized African interior.
Perhaps it worked. Maybe, without the African adventures, what became the 1914-1918 “Great War” would have then broken out much sooner than it did.
In that sense, from the African point of view and experience, the 1957 Rome Treaty creating the what is now the EU, along with the original Coal and Steel pact, are in essence an updating of the old Berlin Treaty: An inter-Empire agreement to put aside their home-based rivalries, and work out a method for the mutual looting of the resources of other territories.
That is what Africa is, and has been, for Europe: an outsourcing. Of economic desire, along with the necessary violence to fulfil it.
Perhaps there is something deeply unsettled within the human spirit, which encourages us all to seek things that exceed our actual need of them.
What makes this a tragedy, is when this aspiration is raised to the level of a culture, and then embedded and codified into all manner of laws, prerogatives and protocols. This, is the real story of Europe, and the now precarious world she has shaped for all of us in her half-millennial adventure.
Therefore, the deep and intimate relationship between European wealth and violence overseas must be understood by all concerned with economically and institutionally reforming the continent. What has been its long-term impact on those at the receiving end? And what does it portend?
The English poet John Keats was making allusions to the overseas sources of the great wealth held by prosperous European families, as early as 1818 in his poem The Pot Of Basil that embellishes a 14thCentury Italian folk tale condemning wealthy trading families:
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
|And went all naked to the hungry shark;
|For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
By the time of industrialization, these inventories of real estate, militarily protected trade routes, financial institutions, credit owed, industrial enterprises, ports and plantations are formally known as one or other of Europe’s empires.
Which bring us to the question: how much of Europe’s economy today–the elements of its GDP- is physically located outside the boundaries of the EU?
In a UK Guardian article of 22 Sep 2011, British Admiral Lord Alan West is quoted in his criticism of the then proposed cuts to the UK defence budget:
“We are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world. We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports … we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south-east Asia [and] the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.”
It is significant that it is a military officer deploying economic points to make a political case. It is even more significant that his entire point is that value and purpose of this military lies precisely in its capability to protect the inward flow of wealth from beyond its borders.
A navy, by definition, exists to function overseas, far away from home. It is therefore perhaps yet even more significant again that a naval officer is the one making these arguments. Even today, navies, along with their originally ship-borne, land-fighting soldiers known of course as Marines, enjoy a particular place of esteem within Western military culture and wider folklore.
My point here is straightforward: Europe “saved” itself once before, from poverty and backwardness through the widespread exploitation of the riches of the planet. This process is what laid the foundations for the great ports and cities and industries that bolstered modernity in Europe.
As the Admiral has pointed out: even today, that history means that the total aggregate of a western European country’s wealth is not generated from within the physical borders of that country: a significant portion comes from without.
Therefore a discussion about reforms to European economic life cannot be reduced to the physical confines of the continent. Europe matters globally: it is not just the physical territory named after the Greek god Europa: it is also both an idea, and a physical projection of that idea, reaching right around the globe. And just as the violent Zeus abducted Europa, her continent also remains hostage to its violent ways.
My intention is not to gratuitously dredge up the horrors attendant to the then European empire building project. My point is that those of us not originally European will therefore understand any proposal to “save” Europe with a somewhat different sensibility, to say the very least. This calls for a long and detailed conversation.
This is not semantics, or sophistry. There is a significant but often unseen gap between the ideal, and the practical, application of European values.
Europe’s union understands itself as the organizational expression of the spirit of Charlemagne: devout, a bringer of order, curious, diligent, modernizing, a bulwark against dark paganism, pan-European; a fastidious, introverted devotee of the busy details of currency, money supply, trade and education that still occupy the technocrats of the EU. Indeed this medieval King serves as the foundational talisman of that pan-European ideal, as seen in at least one official EU buildings and in awards.
The world, however, has experienced Europe more in the image of Napoléon: uncompromising, extrovert, imperious, a desecrator of sacred things, mendacious, self-righteous, daring, immensely ambitious, cynical, efficiently avaricious, calculating, and unceasingly violent.
This gap has had, and continues to have, enormous implications for the lives of people of non-European descent globally, and including those, like the Jewish communities, who had been resident there for many centuries. These people –us- nevertheless find their fortunes wedded and bound through history, to the fate of the European project.
The clearest way to illustrate this perception gap, is to turn to Haiti.
The Haiti Conundrum
Here is the legacy of the French Revolutionary ideals, as applied to Haiti, in four short paragraphs:
1. After the enslaved Africans on the French Caribbean colony of Haiti rebelled in 1791, killing off most of the enslavement-plantation managers and defeating the resident French forces, the revolutionary government of France sent reinforcements at the request of the enslavement-plantation owners. These forces were also defeated, and the formerly enslaved of Haiti declared an independent republic in 1804.
2. Back to Napoléon. History tells us that he, was the then head of the French government and that his then wife, Josephine de Beauharnais was part of a slave-owning family.
3. In 1825, a decade after the end of Napoléon, twelve French warships armed, it is said, with 528 cannon, sailed to Haiti and delivered a demand: France was willing to finally recognize the new independent republic, on condition that Haiti committed to paying France 150 million French francs in gold for the “loss of property” incurred during the rebellion. What is more, this was to be borrowed from French banks. Haiti, faced with the prospect of a naval blockade, accepted.
4. This “debt” was kept in force until the final payment was made in 1947. That is a period of 122 years. To complete it, Haiti had to take on additional debt from the United States. As a result, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
The question must be asked: why was France so incapable of recognizing the mirror image of its own revolution, as presented by the Haitian one? And how should we understand how such rancid vindictiveness becomes promoted to the level of state policy?
The answer lies in the European mindset, shaped over a long period of time, and still in place.
It would appear that Europeans have developed a sensibility that imposes the expectation of a certain style of material life as the standard for “prosperity”. Somebody has convinced Europeans -particularly the ethnic white ones- that they are entitled, as a matter of course, to a more elevated standard of living than the rest of the peoples on the planet. At its most prosaic, this expectation of prosperity was asserted through ethnic white chauvinistic notions of racial superiority.
So, can any serious European discussion on how best to recover their economic prosperity be legitimate without Europeans (and in particular, the former colonial powers in western Europe) also addressing the basis upon which they acquired that prosperity they now wish to maintain, in the first place?
Or could it be that the only thing ensuring Europeans will keep the peace amongst themselves, is the promise of more and more “prosperity”?
These are not idle musings. There exists a whole array, a virtual alphabet soup, of supervisory fiscal protocols dedicated to the monitoring and enforcing of our debt obligations to the European polities.
Whichever it is, it comes at a cost: the necessary violence has been outsourced. This seven-decade absence of typical war on the European mainland masks the numerous conflicts and brutal repressions in the South that have kept the European investment-and-debt machine running productively.
But we are all Haiti now. Even southern Europe, (and the Balkans which, perhaps, always were, in a sense).
The African basis of Europe’s current crisis
Mr Soros, has talked about the economic crisis in Europe, and the influx of migrants to Europe as though they are two separate things. This is a critical misconception. The issue of the migrants is completely bound up in the issue of the European practice of economics in Africa.
Western economic prosperity has never just been a matter of skill, but it has always been a matter of power. The current global world economic order was created out of a half-millennial process of the powerful imposing their vision of how things should be, on the weak.
Europe’s African migrant “problem” comes out of the hugely begrudging and mean-spirited way in which the European empires conceded Independence to their African colonies. Much as they ceded the diplomatic sovereignty, they then embarked on a (now) half-century strategy of behind-the-scenes manipulation to maintain their economic holdings and advantages within the former colonies. Where this was threatened, they would even resort to sabotage.
Many of the states created by France in West Africa serve as a particular case in point. Despite five decades of formal independence, they remain –by law, policy and sometimes armed force- wedded to the French economy and banking system through their regional currency zone known as African Financial Community (CFA) that was created in 1945. France reportedly sits on the boards of two central banks in the region, where it holds veto powers.
It would be superfluous to provide any figures illustrating the level of duplicitous swindling famously known as franca frique, at play there for one simple reason: these Africans are the blood relatives of the Africans in Haiti whom France forced into debt for well over century. France clearly holds a fundamental hostility to the very idea of an independent black African republic, no matter which side of the Atlantic it is located. Why should the level of such thieving Gallic malevolence and contempt be any less, in the case of West Africa?
This generally disgraceful state of affairs is underpinned by a series of lopsided and invasive trade agreements. In current form they are known as the “Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs in short) signed with various states of the seventy-nine Asia Caribbean Pacific (ACP) region, for whom the EU remains their biggest trading partner, and inked by regimes beholden to European machinations. Only one ACP country, Cuba, declined to sign.
These EPAs require special attention.
They are, as a family, the direct descendants of trade pacts made between then EU’s own ancestor known as the European Commission, and the countries of the various fledgling regional trade blocs throughout the South. In 1975, a conference was held in Togo’s capital, where all such blocs were formalized as the ACP region, and all such Agreements became the Lome Convention.
Whatever amelioratory clauses that were contained in this Convention’s treaty (and in another held also in Lome in 1979), were then jettisoned by a new EU-ACP trade treaty made at a conference in Coutonou Benin, in 2000, where the task of economic development was reframed as a “partnership” between the parties concerned. It is these treaties that were therefore named Economic Partnership Agreements. Key features were the much greater say by the donor on where and how aid is spent, a heavy focus on private sector participation in “development” (which basically means liberalization and privatization), and the removal of Lome-agreed price stabilisation facilities (STABEX and Sysmin) for agricultural and mineral exports from the ACP.
The outcomes have been the collapse of domestic artisanal economies, such as the once robust domestic fishing industry in West Africa, as the EPAs facilitate European capital to forcefully supplant unprotected local commerce.
These African “migrants” are just the children of those artisanal families economically destroyed through such trade fiats. They are not invading Europe. They are simply following the incomes taken from their grandparents and parents, as their elite regimes looked on, or turned to credit extended by China.
“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.
The crisis has simply come to the point where the EU can no longer hold the injustices inherent in the trading system that it enforces over large parts of the world, at arm’s length. The neo-liberal chickens, as visited upon Africa, are coming home to roost, by boat, and on foot.
What is more, having been subjected to a lifetime of cultural propaganda that has presented the European lifestyle as the essential norm, it is logical for Africa’s youth to finally come to the conclusion that if European standards will not come to Africa, then the African will have to physically go and become a European.
The deeper real crisis is that the life template developed in Europe and then culturally transmitted to the rest of the world, is not sustainable, as even the natural environment has begun to testify. The exploited parts of the world cannot take much more, and the response is now rebellion (however confused), exodus, collapse and stagnation, as the EPAs seek to squeeze blood out of a resentful stone.
As a solution, it is Europe, and Europeans that will just have to adjust to the new global reality, namely that is not African, Asian and the people of the Pacific that are poor; rather, humanity as a whole, is poor. It is just that part of that humanity lives within the wealthier economies of the world.
We are, all of us, very much in favour of a prosperous Europe. However, the shape of Mr Soros’ proposals call for a wider, global discussion about how Europe may have such prosperity in a manner sustainable for itself, and everyone else.
Ideas for a way forward
Mr Soros calls for ideas for a way forward towards a necessary “reinvention” of Europe, and offers his OSI Foundation as a supporter.
As I have said, Europe’s problems are not for Europeans only. We in the ACP region have been living the dark side of European prosperity for a very long time now. We therefore also have our experience and knowledge of the European ethos. To expect proposals –as could be imputed- from the European-located OSI Foundations only, is to call for only one half of a necessary dialogue.
The “reinvention” Mr Soros’ calls for must look at two things: Europe must reinvent its idea of itself, as well as its relationship with those parts of the world that suffer the burden of European prosperity.
This means mobilizing activists in Europe, but in a particular direction, aimed at addressing long outstanding concerns that they are best placed to tackle.
Instead therefore, of looking at Africa (and elsewhere) as being in need of “Marshall Plan”, -something that might just have worked had it been done in good faith immediately after the colonial occupations, but no later- we need to think more about how Europe can take a lot of physical and economic pressure off itself, by cleaning up its legacy still weighing down large parts of the world.
Such focused initiatives would contribute –as is Mr Soros’ stated hope- to reducing the impetus for young Africans to think about leaving their homeland in large numbers.
In Africa, our predicament is caused by poor governance, unregulated resource exploitation, and therefore: conflict.
The youth are leaving Africa because they are badly governed, and correctly see no future for themselves if nothing changes at home. Such a demographic existed even in the time of the Cold War. However, back then, they would have simply ended up as foot soldiers in the various rebel armies of the period.
European institutions, public and private, promote and benefit from this poor governance in Africa. The ordinary people of Europe could be mobilized to do a lot of work on such initiatives aimed at exposure, seeking accountability, stopping the facilitation of bad governance, and finally compensation.
In the spirit of the French-British activist E.D. Morel, that great European who almost single-handedly exposed the Belgian King’s rape of the Congo, ordinary Europeans must help dismantle the exploitation machine that has been killing us, and is now about to resume killing them.
Tasks for EU civil society:
1. Change the way Europeans expect to live
2. Find out what your countries truly owe, and make them pay it back
3. Stop your institutions from facilitating bad governance in Africa
4. Repudiate the exploitative trade treaties your leaders have imposed on Africa/ACP.
I welcome the idea of bottom-up pro-European initiatives, as proposed by Mr Soros. I am a lot less sure of the notion of simply “aiding” Africa –in this case- once again. What is needed is a much focused set of initiatives that work along the combined experience: of Africa by Europe and the experience of Europe by Africa. These are not separate issues. It is one issue.
To speak of a “Marshall Plan” for Africa is to perpetuate the notion that one is dealing with a somewhat feckless people in need of a handout, as opposed to a people with an as yet unaccounted-for lengthy inter-generational experience that has impacted negatively on their own lives.
I will make the repetition: the crisis of Europe cannot be solved from within Europe’s mental and physical borders. Further, an unstable Europe is a danger for the whole world.
It is time for the North to (once again, after Ancient Egypt) learn from the South.