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Europe and the class cleavage

Summary:
Three years after the referendum on Brexit and on the eve of the new European elections, the scepticism about Europe is still as strong, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged sections of society. The problem is deep and long-standing. In all the referendums for the last 25 years the working classes have systematically expressed their disagreement with the Europe presented to them, whereas the richest and the most privileged classes supported it. During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing

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Europe and the class cleavage

Three years after the referendum on Brexit and on the eve of the new European elections, the scepticism about Europe is still as strong, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged sections of society.

The problem is deep and long-standing. In all the referendums for the last 25 years the working classes have systematically expressed their disagreement with the Europe presented to them, whereas the richest and the most privileged classes supported it. During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing happened with the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, except that this time only the top 20% were in favour of the yes vote, whereas the lower 80% preferred to vote no, whence a clear victory for the latter (55%). Likewise for the referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016: this time it was the top 30% who voted enthusiastically to remain in the EU. But, as the bottom 70% preferred to leave, the leave vote won with 52% of the votes.

What is the explanation? Why are votes on the European Union always characterised by such a marked division of social class? This outcome is all the more puzzling as the structure of the vote for the different political parties has long since ceased to be so clearly marked by the class structure, with the three dimensions of social division (qualifications, income, personal wealth) all pulling in the same direction. Since the 1970-1980s; the most highly qualified have swung distinctly towards the left wing parties in both countries, whereas those with the highest incomes and personal wealth continue to tend to support the right-wing parties, which are themselves undergoing change. On the other hand, during the votes concerning Europe in 1992 (French referendum on Maastricht Treaty), 2005 (French referendum on constitutional treaty) and 2016 (UK referendum on Brexit), the intellectual and economic elites in both instances found themselves supporting the EU as it existed, whereas the less privileged categories on the left and on the right rejected it.

The reason for this, according to those who are better off, is that the working classes are nationalist and xenophobic, perhaps even backwards. However the xenophobia of the less well off is no more natural than that of the elites. There is a much simpler explanation: the European Union, as built in recent decades, is based on widespread competition between countries, on fiscal and social dumping in favour of the most mobile economic actors and functions objectively to the benefit of the most privileged. Until the European Union takes strong symbolic measures for the reduction of inequalities, for example a common tax which impacts the richest, enabling the taxes of the poorest to be lowered, this situation will continue.

This opposition between several visions of Europe is not new, and it gains by being set in a historical perspective. In 1938, young militants launched the Federal Union movement in the United Kingdom. They were soon joined by academics like Beveridge and Robbins; it was the inspiration for Churchill’s proposal in June 1940 to create a Federal Franco-British Union; this was refused by the French Government, in refuge in Bordeaux at the time, and which preferred to give full powers to Pétain. It is interesting to note that a group of British and French academics met in Paris in April 1940 to study the working of a possible federal union, in the first instance at Franco-British level, then enlarged to European level; they did not come to an agreement. Hayek defended the vision the most permeated with economic liberalism. He wanted a purely commercial union based on competition, free markets and monetary stability. Robbins defended a fairly similar approach, while at the same time envisaging the possibility of a federal budget and, in particular, a federal inheritance tax in situations where the free market and free movement of persons were not sufficient to spread prosperity and reduce inequalities.

Other members of the group had visions much closer to democratic socialism; in the first instance, Beveridge, an enthusiast for social insurance, along with the sociologist, Barbara Wooton who proposed a federal income tax and a federal inheritance tax, at a rate of over 60%, along with a system of income limit and a maximum inheritance. The participants in the meeting separated in the acknowledgement of their disagreement on the social and economic content of the federal union envisaged. All these discussions concerning the Federal Union movement resonated throughout Europe. For example, in 1941 they inspired Altiero Spinelli, a militant communist then imprisoned in the gaols of Mussolini, to draw up his Manifest for a Free and United Europe, or Manifeste de Ventotene (the name of the island where he was imprisoned).

However, there is no reason why present-day Europe should remain imbued with a Hayek-type vision. Today the European banner serves the interests of those whose aim is to impose their class politics. But it is up to us to remind people that Europe could be organised in a different manner as was already the opinion of Wooton, Beveridge or even Robbins almost 80 years ago.

PS: about the Federal Union movement, see the fascinating book by Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism. Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States 1939-1950, Princeton University Press, 2017

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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