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European Studies Needs More Class Analysis

Inspired by the growing debate on critical approaches to European Studies, Vladimir Bortun adds his own perspective. He argues for class analysis which not only asks how to fix the EU’s specific problems but which takes a more holistic approach. Is the EU in its current form even worth fixing or do we need to think about a different kind of transnational cooperation?

Image: Men in suits stand on a pile of gold coins looking down on disadvantaged citizens

© frittipix / Adobe Stock

I was pleasantly surprised to read the two recent articles on Crossroads Europe by Rachael Dickson Hillyard and Vanessa Bilancetti, both making the case for a more critical approach to the EU within the field of European Studies.

I must admit that, throughout my PhD, I have been struck by the virtually unconditional support for the EU that seems to prevail in the academic community, probably best highlighted by the debate and developments around Brexit.

The limited critical analysis that does exist is mostly local and targets one aspect or another of the EU. Some focus on the shortcomings of the Eurozone or others on the famous ‘democratic deficit’. However, hardly anybody in the field – with some notable exceptions such as Carchedi or McGiffen – challenges the EU as a whole. Nearly all debates are about “what’s wrong with the EU and how to fix it”, thus reflecting an underlying, undisputed consensus over the intrinsic value of the EU and the need to preserve it; maybe improve it or fundamentally reform it, but nevertheless preserve it.

In a context of multiple crises faced and at least partly caused by the EU, we need to bring to the fore the more fundamental debate on whether the EU is indeed worthy of such unconditional endorsement. This debate should be at the core of our field rather than confined to the rather obscure subfield of Critical European Studies. Its present marginality is not healthy for European Studies as a whole, which currently falls short, I believe, of the main duty of social researchers and intellectuals in general – to critically analyse the dominant structures, practices and discourses that shape the world we live in.

For too long, scholars of the EU have assumed that their object of study is intrinsically defensible or, at the very least, a neutral phenomenon that needs to be treated accordingly. Class analyses from Marxist or neo-Marxist perspectives have been largely dismissed as ‘ideological’, although the fundamental endorsement of this European integration is by no means any less ideological.

It would be impossible to fully develop here such a class analysis, but it entails going beyond the mere acknowledgement of the neoliberal character of the EU’s policies over the last few decades. It asks us to look at the more structural class character of the EU as a whole.

Such an analysis understands European integration not as the noble project for peace and prosperity in Europe but rather as a realignment of capitalist classes in Western Europe following the Second World War. These classes had come to realise – to the backdrop of developments such as the rise of the welfare state and the process of de-colonisation – that their interests could be best served through the establishment of a common market.

The subsequent, neoliberal, developments of that project only consolidated and furthered those class interests. Thus, from the design of the Single Market and of the Monetary Union to the management of the (still) ongoing Eurozone crisis, the EU’s neoliberalism is not some qualitative departure from its initial mission, but a rather logical continuation of that.

At the same time, as Vanessa correctly pointed out in her piece, the limits of European integration are set by the inherent limits of the cooperation among the various capitalist classes in Europe. In other words, European integration only goes as far as their common interests go, which means that when a capitalist crisis develops and the competition between (and within) national capitalisms enhances (as reflected by the current revival of protectionism), then European integration also enters a crisis.

This is reflected not merely by the growth of popular Euro-hostility but also by the increasing divisions among member states. What all this suggests is crucial: that genuine European unity is not possible on a capitalist basis.

In conclusion, a class analysis of the EU doesn’t merely ask “how to fix it” but whether it can be fixed and, indeed, whether it is worth fixing in the first place. These are crucial questions that our field, I believe, needs to address more explicitly.

Indeed, our field – which is called European rather than EU Studies for a reason – should try and escape the tacit TINA-like attitude currently prevailing; it should start envisaging alternatives ideas of transnational cooperation and internationalism that might be able to premise the kind of genuine European unity that many of us are committed to.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the UACES Graduate Forum, JCER or UACES.

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Vladimir Bortun

Vladimir Bortun 
University of Portsmouth

Vladimir Bortun is a doctoral candidate at the University of Portsmouth. His research focuses on transnational cooperation of new left parties in Southern Europe since 2009.


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