A German Leopard 2A6 tank fires at the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2018 A German Leopard 2A6 tank fires at the Strong Europe Tank Challenge 2018. Photo: Kevin S Abel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The war in Ukraine is being used as cover for attacks on workers’ living standards, and is fuelling a hard-right turn across Europe, argues Kevin Ovenden

Almost a year on and the proxy war in Ukraine is escalating with no sign of moves towards peace talks between the belligerents. Instead, more arms are being poured into the conflict. There are reports of Russia mobilising and committing many more forces, despite us having been told for months that their military was almost on the verge of collapse.

And there is continuing Nato escalation, with pressure on member states to be more directly involved in the conflict. Over the last week, we have had the incredible spectacle of a coordinated push on the centre-left government of Germany to fall in behind sending modern tanks to the war zone. The launch of a new anti-war initiative in Germany is very welcome. It came at the same time as a significant anti-war trade-union conference in London.

The US is still holding back on sending its own Abrams tanks, it should be noted, as it puts pressure on European allies. We have a hue and cry over German reluctance, up to yesterday, to allow the Leopard 2 tanks it manufactures to be sent into fuelling this conflict. And in the course of this, reactionary forces on all sides are being strengthened at the same time as the labour movement faces an urgent question of renewing opposition to its own governments in the name of peace.

The same is true in opposing the European institutions that are increasingly going over to war. All the sins of the Polish hard-right government, for example, are being washed away as it strikes the most bellicose line on the proxy war with Russia and berates the German government for not sending more arms to the east. The worst of the centre left, people such as Keir Starmer in Britain and the Greens in Germany are with the Warsaw national chauvinists and against the Berlin social democrats.

The acute racism in Poland, the war on women’s rights (a near absolute ban on abortion), the interference with an independent judiciary, the toleration and backchannel collaboration with neo-Nazi and violently antisemitic forces – all that is swept under the carpet. At the same time, there is increasing accommodation in Washington and London to the Greater Polish militarism brewing in Warsaw.

The national-conservative wing of the Polish ruling class has ambitions. It is not the first time that Washington, with London as its bag carrier, has used Eastern European regimes as a fig leaf. Bill Clinton did that in 1999 in the ‘Third Way’ war on Serbia. Among other things, that was an assertion of US domination over a Europe that was heading for greater economic and monetary union, but had failed to deal with the wars of the disintegration of Yugoslavia for nearly a decade.

With Iraq in 2003, New Labour’s Tony Blair was this time joined at the hip with the neo-conservative US administration of George W Bush. Again, one aspect of the catastrophic war was the assertion of US domination over the EU and European powers, although the adventure ended in defeat. Now we have seen, in the last twelve months, Emmanuel Macron of France kneecapped by the Anglo-American axis in Nato, and today Olaf Sholtz of Germany facing a nutting job.

Ukraine is a pawn in their game

The right-wing Ukrainian government is a supporting player in what are ever more dangerous and reactionary developments. It has said it wants to be the Israel of eastern Europe. A garrison state. Ethno-nationalist. Firmly pro-capitalist and conjoined with Western imperialism. No one can deny the mutual admiration of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Binyamin Netanyahu. On one level, Ukraine has already achieved that status. As with Israel, it and its government have become a public slipper bath where odious reactionary politicians or those who are merely looking for a photo-opportunity rock up to launder their images.

Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government in Italy has been given kid-glove treatment on account of endorsing the Nato proxy war and promising fealty to the EU economic order. Women in Poland. Migrants and refugees in Italy. Journalists’ freedom in both countries, as well as in Greece, Bulgaria and elsewhere. The fundamental rights of the citizen (let alone the resident). All those are set aside or relativised. Just look at the European media and the output from Brussels especially on these questions.

What are supposed to be basic rights and high principles, such as the rule of law, all take second place to the military alliance, and the EU is increasingly a military force integrated with Nato, as the radical left in nominally neutral Ireland is pointing out. Those ‘inalienable rights’ and values are subservient also to the domination of capital internally and to the racist exclusion of those from without, who are the victims of war and exploitation, often emanating from the Western great powers.

The direction of the EU is not towards some ever-enlightening liberal or social-democratic endpoint pulling history forward like a locomotive.

The hard-right governments of Poland, Hungary and Italy show much more the actual line of development. That is leaving aside sundry Scandinavian nativists, the renewed rise of the Austrian far right, Le Pen in France (with Macron’s adaptation to her) and much else. The weak case for the role of the EU in progressing society was that, while it might not be a driving force of its own, it would at least be a structure to provide a gradually rising floor below which its component states would not sink.

That is no longer true, if ever it was. There was a shift five years ago by the hard-right in France, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Austria and Germany to further drop theatrical ‘anti-EUism’, and instead openly to embrace the line of winning the EU and the continent to their ethnic-exclusionary, authoritarian and national-capitalist visions. These involve a Europe of strong ethno-nation states and reactionary governments finding unity in a racialised vision of a white continent in battle with ‘globalised forces’ and non-white nations or regions, especially on the border to the south and east.

In the face of that, European institutions have proved ever ready to smash opposition from the radical left and equally to concede again and again to the radical right. Few of the pro-European liberal intelligentsia in Britain, or in Ireland, bother with pettifogging details such as what is in fact happening in the continent and its politics.

But they should. It interacts with historic questions related to the deep crisis of the UK state: Irish reunification and Scottish independence (this is also a headache for the partition-state in Dublin). Those issues stand on their own ground. But they have also become entangled with a mistaken faith in EU progressivism.

It is in no way to diminish British or English domination and the reactionary UK state to point out the entrenching reactionary path in the EU, where there is – thanks to the Ukraine war and the official response to the migration flows above all – an outsized role for hard-right politics as bad as anything you can find in the British Tory party. In some cases worse. From London to Prague to Warsaw, and from Berlin to Athens and Sofia, the war is also being used as an excuse by right-wing governments for a huge assault on working-class living standards. Butter is often unaffordable. Guns are plentiful. Resistance is growing. It has to involve opposition to war and to militarism. That means opposition to the European institutions as well.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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