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What Do We Mean by Europe?

This month's Red Library explores Europe’s borders, from Ireland to the Balkans, and the prospects of a pan-European left.

One of the unexpected publishing successes of the last few years is a weekly called The New European. In a typical article, the former editor of the New Statesman sits in ‘a traditional pub in Aachen’ — this ‘beautiful old German city [that] symbolises the European dream’ — reflecting on the European parliament elections. This may be the house journal of people who put EU flags out of the windows of their townhouses, but it fills a real gap. The British media class is less Eurocentric than Atlanticist, and the New European’s Bollocks to Brexit via Year in Provence pap is the result of these people being asked to write about ‘the Continent’. The books in this issue’s Red Library, for all their sharply differing viewpoints, move us beyond Alastair Campbell’s city breaks.

The aspect of the European Union that the ‘New Europeans’ are most unwilling to think about is that their ability to traverse it seamlessly is the result of a border that has moved elsewhere; as the EU’s top bureaucrats proudly proclaim, the concomitant of Schengen is FRONTEX, the border agency responsible for the deaths of thousands in the Mediterranean. The most quietly powerful of the books with ‘Europe’ in the title published in Britain over the last year is Daniel Trilling’s The Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe. It calmly but devastatingly describes the effects of this border regime on some of those who survived it, whether they crossed the Med in leaky boats, were driven in crowded cars across the Sahara or clung to buses in Calais or the Carpathians. It’s a horrible indictment of the EU’s policies, but it’s also of little use for most available ‘Lexit’ positions — how could another border help?

Of the many books on Brexit itself, the Irish economist Kevin O’Rourke’s Short History of Brexit is one of the more serious. Its virtue is zeroing in on the specific border that has so far prevented Britain from leaving the EU. O’Rourke’s account of EU membership’s marvellous effects on Ireland is blandly apolitical, but he is surely right in his focus on the total ignorance of the Irish border within Britain itself. Breathtakingly, Cameron specifically vetoed any mention of the EU’s role in facilitating the Good Friday agreement during the campaign. Another recent example of using economics to explain European politics is Michel Aglietta’s The Reform of Europe, newly translated from the French. This dry book of graphs and abstractions advocates a reformulation of how the EU works, largely through ‘completing’ the euro by making it politically accountable, strengthened by a programme of public works and job creation which could even out its inequalities. It specifies no political force to carry this out.

That’s also the main problem with those laudable books that outline a putative internationalist, pan-European left, against a wave of alleged ‘left nationalism’. In Citizens of Nowhere, the Anglo-Italian duo of Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese combine an intriguing counter-history of European integration from the left with a vaguer appeal for solidarity both across and beyond Europe. Coming from a similar place, A Vision for Europe, a semi-official anthology of DiEM25, the Varoufakis-helmed pan-European left party, combines left celebs — Brian Eno, Bobby Gillespie, comrade Pamela Anderson, mildly contrite neoliberal Jeffrey Sachs, and curiously, the increasingly anti-migrant Slavoj Žižek — with policy papers. These latter are driven by what should be non- negotiable principles for a socialist movement — an expanded welfare state, transparency, democracy, municipalism, and solidarity across borders. The authors like to quote Lenin, but his question, ‘who, whom?’ can be applied here. The ‘left nationalists’, among which the book’s editors count Jean-Luc Melenchon, Sahra Wagenknecht, and more controversially, Jeremy Corbyn, have a strategy for how to get from A to B, one which involves taking power in nation states. Critiquing this is fine, but you need in response to outline how you can take over or even influence transnational institutions. DiEM25 largely do not.

Outside of this debate, the two most compelling recent books on Europe are combinations of travel and memoir, where argumentation comes out subtly, through observation rather than generalisation. The Bulgarian-Scottish poet Kapka Kassabova’s Border is about one small area — Thrace, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece meet, where one of the Cold War’s bloodier borders once ran, and which is now adjacent to one of the main routes of migration. In a space where these three nation states have tried to impose homogeneous cultures and languages, Kassabova enjoys finding the places where they failed, and where people that fit into none still manage to survive. Conversely, the British broadcaster and photographer Johny Pitts’ Afropean traverses practically the entire continent except for Kassabova’s Balkans — Sheffield to St Petersburg, Stockholm to Gibraltar. Pitts, who was recently interviewed on the Tribune website, also goes looking for African-European identities that don’t fit into national boxes. He does find this in some places, but alongside and even within that, he finds a continent in denial, paranoid and insular. The internationalism he discovers is, as a consequence, retrospective — most frequently, the links between the Comintern, anti-colonialism, and the Harlem Renaissance, embodied in Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University. Those links must be rebuilt — but how?