Europe Entrapped, by Claus Offe

A German sociologist proposes that EU reform should be in the direction of revival, growth and social justice, explains Roger Morgan

February 5, 2015

This Berlin-based author, the kind of sociologist who has a good grasp of economics, law and politics, rightly locates the main source of the European Union’s current plight in the financial/economic storm that hit the world in 2008. Thus he concentrates heavily on the causes and consequences of the crisis, before proceeding to his account of what the EU and its member states are trying (and should, he says, be trying very differently) to do about it. He belongs firmly to the battery of economists and others who argue that Europe’s leaders should exchange their obsession with austerity, expenditure cuts and the market-determined parity of the euro for policies directed at revival, growth and more social justice.

As Claus Offe’s survey of options confirms, such policies – now advocated by a growing number of respected economists and even by some official agencies – would include reductions in “austerity” cuts in public services; increased spending on infrastructure projects, involving new partnerships between “state” and “market”; higher wage rates for workers throughout the EU; and forms of “quantitative easing” that direct funds towards the pockets of the general population rather than into the coffers of the banks. Offe makes an interesting case for some of these reforms: taking this critical term back to its progressive origins, and away from its current “neoliberal” connotations (deregulation, privatisation or redundancy), he argues that state and market should logically combine as partners in economic development, rather than being seen as irreconcilable enemies.

The partly self-created trap that in Offe’s view debars the EU from adopting these rational measures has many elements, some of which go back a long way. For instance, he alludes to the classic distinction, made decades ago by the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen, between “negative” and “positive” integration: the former meant simply the removal of obstacles to the free cross-frontier movement of the factors of production and trade, namely goods, money and labour; positive integration, more ambitiously, implied the mobilisation of European resources – financial, administrative, conceptual – for the planning and realisation of infrastructural, vocational training and other projects that would make the EU more integrated and more economically competitive. However, as time went by and Europe faced a number of economic challenges, its political authorities, both at national and at EU level, were short of the resources needed for policies of this kind. This meant that by the time the financial storm struck in 2008, the EU was reduced in essence to negative integration without much economic policy direction from any political authority, generally in line with the neoliberal economic approach that has become increasingly dominant since about 1980.

In the second half of the book, Offe makes his most important contribution to the debate, and much of what follows from his conclusions is pessimistic. Searching hard for a political force capable of carrying through the necessary changes to the EU, he has to note the often insurmountable differences between various critics of the various set-ups: between and within member states and political parties, and notably in the fragile centre-Left coalition in the European Parliament. This is an important read for any Europhile who thinks that anything economically or socially rational must also be politically realistic.

Europe Entrapped

By Claus Offe
Polity, 104pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780745687513
Published 21 November 2014

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