A number of Leftist conferences recently convened in Paris, Berlin and Madrid addressed the issue of an alternative plan for Europe. We as transform! were present in all the events as we believe that an open and comeradely debate without any taboos is necessary.
Guillaume Balas, Walter Baier, Haris Golemis, and Luciana Castellina
at the Podium, Athens 19 March. Photo: Barbara Steiner
There are comrades in Europe who support the view that in individual cases and under certain conditions an exit from the Euro or the dismembering of the EU could increase the political room for manoeuvre. I have my doubts about this, even in some particular cases. But even if I believed in this proposition, the idea of a dismembering of the EU as a program of the European Left could help only if we believed that the major problems facing societies today could be better solved without institutionalized, international cooperation.
But this is irrational, and it has never been a left outlook.
While debating about the EU, a passage of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Me-Ti Book of changes’ always comes to my mind: ‘The Prince of Wei could with one hand build the dam and demand the money from his subjects with the other. But in the account of the historians a disagreement arises, an either-or; the historians opt for one or the other. Both types of historians lack the Great method.’ – says Brecht!
On the one hand, it has become obvious that the neoliberal model established with the Treaty of Maastricht and the European Monetary Union has failed and that, to the extent that the current policy should be carried on, more and more people would turn their backs towards European integration.
On the other hand, we cannot but admit that, so far, the social movements and the political Left have not succeeded in putting an end to austerity policies – not only in Europe, but also on the state level.
This was demonstrated only recently through the way in which the Greek left-wing government was forced to accept the third memorandum. We, the broader European Left, have not only failed in creating a European front powerful enough to prevent this from happening; we have also obviously been too optimistic about the existing balance of power and the resilience of the obstacles built into European institutions.
Electoral results always speak a clear language, not only the regional elections in three German Länder – Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Würtemberg – last weekend with an alarming soar of the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’. In the nine countries where elections were held in 2015, parties of the radical Left – including the victories in Greece and Spain – received a mean share of 11%, while nationalist, authoritarian right-wing parties could attain 22%, also winning the presidential election in Poland.
This presents us with a new scenario. We no longer have to only deal with the Europe of neoliberal austerity, but also and simultaneously with the Europe-wide growth of the radical nationalist Right, which strives to replace the idea of European integration with national competition and nationalist egoism.
This is the main reason why we are not talking about a “Plan B” – because this phrase is already on the table and we must avoid, under all circumstances, for this to be confused with the alternatives offered by the Left!
However, catchphrases and slogans are not our concern.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has proven that Europe cannot hide from the world behind a Chinese wall. In fact, it is a big misunderstanding that the “problem” lies in the integration of 1.5 million refugees in an EU of 500 million; objectively, it is vice-versa. A society of 500 million people must find its future place in a world which, 20 years from now, will be home to 10 billion people and will be very different from today’s world, socially, economically, politically and even philosophically.
A huge transformation is on the way concerning the distribution of wealth, power and opportunities. It is understandable that this view, broadcast to people via TV and the internet, seems frightening, if these people do not understand the underlying social processes.
The struggle against authoritarian neo-liberalism as well as against the nationalist, authoritarian Right is also fought on the field of culture and theory.
So again the question is: Which Europe do we consider to be appropriate for tackling the big problems – the economic crisis, solidarity with refugees, climate change, security, etc. – a Europe of 28, 35, or 50 national currencies, nation-states and border regimes in which the most powerful countries compete, with all their means, for supremacy? Is that the way we imagine the international environment for social progress and transformation?
Can anyone believe that we could compete with the Right and the Far Right in the field of nationalism? Aside from objections based on principle, historical and contemporary examples show how hopeless such an attempt would be.
It is doubtlessly true that without an end to austerity – without a broad pan-European movement against austerity and for socio-ecological reconstruction, nationalism cannot be defeated. However, the crisis requires more than dealing with the debt, more than redistribution and the implementation of a new industrial and growth policy. It requires political and institutional changes.
The radical left is headed towards confrontation with the European institutions. The Five Presidents’ Report only makes this clearer. This document ought not to be read only from the point of view of economic efficiency, for one of the problems of Europe is its deficient democracy.
The popular sovereignty that was wrested from Europe’s dynasties through revolutions was not won at the European level. The occasional ground that the European Parliament has managed to gain in recent years does not change this reality. The confusing combination of technocracy, inter-governmentalism, and constrained parliamentarism allows regimes to not only be immune to parliamentary control at the European level, but also to control by their national parliaments.
At both the European and the country levels, parliamentarism suffers from a well-calculated ineffectiveness that gives free rein to those who pursue their interests through free trade and deregulated financial markets. This mechanism transforms political antagonisms into antagonisms between states that appear to be between peoples.
It proves to be the real descendant of the Holy Alliance with Wolfgang Schäuble as its Metternich.
The gap created in this way has been filled by nationalism and populism, whose rise cannot be stopped by pan-European rhetoric, however well-meaning it is, or an appeal to political correctness as long as the politics does not change.
In that context even sensible European policies become hard to implement. The demand for expanded European powers will therefore only be accepted by the populations on the condition that they be tied to the democratisation of the EU – that is, in the first place, the upgrade of the European Parliament to a sovereign legislative body, directly elected on the basis of a unified proportional system that shares its powers with national parliaments.
To transform the EU into a full-fledged democracy, a broad democratic alliance is necessary.
However, we are not living in a post-national age and the pan-European perspective is not the only perspective for a European politics.
We want a Europe in which a Thessaloniki program can be implemented by a democratically elected national parliaments and governments!
What is decisive in this regard is that the radical left rejects the false dichotomy of European integration versus national self-determination. It seems obvious that under the conditions of globalised capitalism, national self-determination can only be exercised where space is created for it by democratically institutionalised, transnational cooperation. But it is equally true that the only kind of Europe that can be considered democratic is the Europe that links supranational democracy to the respect of national self-determination.
This principle needs to be concretised through a transparent, functionally sensible division of authority. This is not a question of experts arguing over the depoliticised niceties of constitutional law; it is the clash of opposing interests.
In those areas in which globalised capitalism creates the need for transnational policies – banking oversight, supra-regional investment and infrastructure policy, ecological and social standards, taxation of profits, etc. – it is not primarily the interests of states that are confronting each other, as the present institutional arrangement of the EU would make it appear, but the interests of antagonistic social actors within both the states and Europe.
But, in view of the existing political relations of force and their foreseeable development, what would be the purpose of a debate over the institutional architecture of a democratised EU?
The fact is that the EU itself is now being called into question. If the idea of Europe’s peaceful integration is to be protected from growing nationalism, then its meaning has to be redefined.
A choice has to be made. The European Union will either be social or will be unusable; it will democratise itself or be discredited; it will be peaceful or it will perish.
In the light of the experience of two world wars, and even more importantly in light of today’s problems, the radical left can be nothing less than a driving force of European integration. However, between today’s EU and a European integration founded on democratic and social principles, there is a political and institutional chasm. If the demand for a re-founding of the European Union has a meaning, then it is that of discontinuity. In politics, continuity and discontinuity do not necessarily constitute absolute antitheses. However, there are times when politics can move within the continuity of what exists and only allows gradual changes. And there are times of continuity breaks. It seems that now, we are in just such a time – a break not with the idea of the European Union, but with the neoliberal, authoritarian framework of institutions and treaties under which it has been materialised.
Speech given in Athens at the International Conference “Alliance For Democracy – Against Austerity in Europe”, 18-20 March 2016