Field Notes

The EU: Trapped in an ‘Iron Cage’?

In 2003, Alan Cafruny, Hamilton’s Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs, co-edited a book about the integration of the countries of Europe. The perspective was less than rosy. The title began with a query: A Ruined Fortress?, and the final chapter asked, “Is There A Coming Crisis of the Euro?”

Back then, Cafruny and co-editor Magnus Ryner, professor of international political economy at King’s College London, were among the few European Union studies scholars making such skeptical arguments.

“This was at a time when most observers were predicting that the euro was going to evolve into a very strong international reserve currency and even challenge the dollar,” Cafruny recalls. “The euro was expected to spearhead an autonomous European growth trajectory, no longer dependent on the United States, and to establish the basis for a common European identity and, ultimately, a European superpower.”

Since then, the eurozone and EU itself have faced deepening problems and crises. Nationalist and xenophobic parties and movements are on the rise throughout the continent, Cafruny points out. And last year, the United Kingdom voted to exit the EU. In short, Cafruny and Ryner’s early concerns about the EU’s policies have proved valid.

After A Ruined Fortress came out, they continued to collaborate. Their most recent project is a well-received book, The European Union and Global Capitalism: Origins, Development, Crisis, published earlier this year. Building on previous research, the volume aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the history of the EU and its contemporary crisis.

The two make the case that traditional political science analyses of European integration — narrowly focused on institutions and ideas — fail to accurately assess what’s going on with the EU. Cafruny and Ryner take a comprehensive approach to the construction of the EU, relating its origins and developments to the broader context of global capitalism and to what Cafruny describes as Europe’s political and military subordination to American superpower.

The two are skeptical not about the value of an EU in principle, but rather about the EU as it has developed. Cafruny maintains that the institutional makeup of the EU is undemocratic and promotes uneven development and, in turn, greater conflicts within and among its member states.

“The result is a system that’s imploding. You can see the result most vividly in the rise of right-wing populist movements,” he says. “At the same time, Germany has re-emerged as the dominant power in Europe, pursuing monetary and fiscal policies that are beneficial to German big business but highly destabilizing for many member states.”

He and Ryner argue that the golden age of European integration, beginning after World War II and lasting some 30 years, corresponded with a period of post-war capitalism that saw a mutually beneficial social contract between capital and labor. In that period, a comprehensive welfare state was constructed; full employment was a core goal that was more or less achieved.

They say Europe is in a second phase of integration marked by a growing weakness of trade unions and parties of the left, a collapse of the relationship between capital and labor, and the ascent of neoliberalism. “When we talk about neoliberalism, we talk about a much more market-driven, authoritarian system in which full employment is no longer a key goal of the system, redistributive policies are no longer at the forefront, and the result is a much more unequal, much more precarious, social system,” Cafruny explains.

He says the EU appears condemned to remain within a neoliberal “iron cage” because there’s nothing to replace it, and even the countries that are hurting fear what would come next.

“The best example of that is Greece, which is suffering the full torments of eurozone membership and will experience austerity for years to come. There’s an argument for withdrawing from the euro, and it could happen, but it’s a leap into the dark, with unknown and potentially even more dangerous consequences,” Cafruny says.

It is also possible that the eurozone could fragment internally, but he points to powerful Germany’s strong interest in maintaining the euro on its own terms.

— Maureen A. Nolan

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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