• The Modern Left Will be European or It Will Fail
  • A Social Europe or No Europe

  • By André Brie | 14 Dec 12 | Posted under: Transformative Strategies
  • ”The ‘European social model‘ is still in its infancy. The European left could make this its hallmark, its joint project if only it has the will.“ (Michael Krätke)

    1. Two main propositions are presented here. First: A modern left has a great political opportunity – but only if it meets a number of important pre-conditions. One is to be a European Left and actively support further European integration and unification. In many countries the renewed left will be European or it will fail. Second: There will be no united Europe without a social Europe. The deep crisis of European integration is predominantly due to the failure to pursue this option. The left in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, but also in several of the new member states, faces the urgent question of whether it wants more integration, what sort of integration it wants and what answers it has to these serious challenges. 

    I share the criticism of the EU‘s European reality: of the dominant effect of market radicalism on the overall development of the EU (the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice, the Constitutional Treaty, the Services Directive to name just a few important examples); of the divide between it and the countries of the southern hemisphere; of the restriction of civil and human rights; of the acute democratic deficit; of the political and military ambitions in international relations and the extreme lack of will to orientate European foreign policy towards strengthening the UN, international law and multilateralism in addition to an effective policy of conflict prevention.

    There is an urgent need for the left to resist this policy orientation in a significantly stronger and more public and sustainable fashion.

    In my opinion, the process of disintegration which has become more likely, the rebirth of nationalism as well as the quiet satisfaction of parts of the left at the failure of the European Union are not responsible alternatives. Firstly, the definition of the EU as an imperialist power block, so prevalent among these political groups, does not do justice to the complex reality of the EU. It does not do justice to the positive and historic side of European integration up to now nor to the social, democratic and ecological opportunities European integration offers and which are currently unutilized. Secondly, disintegration would set in motion a neoliberal and socially destructive Europe-wide free trade zone which, unlike the EU with its difficult and insufficient approach, would not allow any room for democratic and social activity. Thirdly, the opportunity to use European integration to institutionalise a structural incapacity to wage wars and to overcome destructive European nationalism is endangered, at least on the continent of Europe.

    2. European integration has reached an historic milestone: It has secured peace between the countries involved in decades of terrible capitalist wars. This played a considerable part in its being accepted by the people and serves the lasting function of drawing in new states to reduce the conflicts in the Balkans and provide solutions through the positive perspective of intensive European co-operation and integration.

    Over recent decades integration has also contributed to welfare, economic growth and increased domestic demand. Moreover, it has significantly promoted human and cultural contact and exchange over a large part of the continent. Despite its serious deficits and repeated crises, European integration policy provides a positive point of reference for the left. Justified criticism of the current direction of European integration and politics must therefore not be based on an anti-European position taken on principle. All the more as continuing European integration offers a crucial opportunity to expand national struggles aimed at overcoming neoliberal ideology on a Europe-wide and more modern basis.

    Nation states continue to provide significant political space for necessary democratic and social changes. However, given today‘s circumstances this alone is insufficient. Just as the national political institutions of the working class movement and other political and social institutions in the 19th century were turned into sites of the struggle to restrict Manchester-style capitalism, and then beyond that to provide progressive alternatives, so today’s left can and must use the European dimension in addition to the potential of the nation state.

    While it is true that forty or fifty per cent of the current gross domestic product of the EU member states is earned from international trade, up to four-fifths often come from within the EU, as in the example of Germany. The EU is a giant economic area, capable of supporting a domestic market that could be utilised as a political space to avert the return of laissez-faire capitalism in the guise of neoliberal globalisation, to maintain the various European welfare state models, and to expand and develop these on the European stage.

    The current political structures do not, however, use European integration as an alternative to economic globalisation but rather as a vehicle and catalysat for the latter. The left must put forward its own European policy instead of withdrawing to the level of the nation state. The left should occupy both fields of conflict; the nation states and the EU.

    3. A European Union committed to peace, a political union, which is a place for the struggle of the European left for social, democratic and ecological alternatives, and an open Europe of human and cultural wealth, these are the three strategic opportunities and challenges for an active, pro-European politics of the left. The European Left Party specifically committed itself to this position in its founding manifesto: “For us, Europe is, within international politics, a space for the rebirth of struggles for another society. The achievement of peace and the transformation of the present capitalist society will be the scope of this undertaking. We strive for a society which transgresses capitalist and patriarchal logic. Our aim is human emancipation, liberation of men and women from any form of oppression, exploitation and exclusion ... For that reason the European Union, as well as the whole European continent, is becoming an increasingly important space for alternative politics – besides the traditional political level of nation-states, regions and the municipalities – that is connected to world developments.”

    There are still sufficiently strong bases for such a policy. In spite of the complete destruction of significant social and democratic achievements in Germany, Austria, France and other countries, the influential US economist Jeremy Rifkin was essentially right when he responded to the journalist‘s question ”How is the ‘European dream‘ to be paid for? Europe is oriented towards the US economic model – as can be seen e.g. in the Lisbon targets“, with the answer: ”That‘s wrong. In Europe I repeatedly hear: A strong economy is inconsistent with the welfare state. The northern European countries always head the statistics on economic growth. Their secret? They have reformed their welfare states …“ There is something else worth considering in Rifkin‘s comparison between the USA and Europe: ”You discuss rights that we don‘t even know: Pensions, maternity legislation for example. Human rights and sustainability play a leading role in political discourse. The European dream is built on cooperation. And for that reason it is applicable to the globalised world – in contrast to the individualised American dream.“1

    One could counter Rifkin’s arguments by pointing out that this, unfortunately, is not European reality, neither that of European politics nor even, to some extent, the reality of the prevailing European discourse. That is true but does not change the fact that the left will find a more sustainable position in social and democratic changes to the European discourse and realities than in merely individualistic struggle.

    4. The current crisis surrounding European integration and unification is more serious and more profound than numerous other crises. It is of a structural nature. Disintegration, the rebirth of nationalism, regression to a mere European free trade zone, no longer seem impossible, despite very advanced supranational moments of the integration process up to now. On the contrary: The prevailing tendency to ”just carry on” will in all probability bring about this regression. The Czech President Vaclav Klaus, one of the most prominent conservative-liberal critics of the EU, expressed this possibility as a desirable aim: ”I am convinced that the time has come to develop the future of European integration with a fundamentally different approach from the one up to now taken. We should establish the Organisation of European States (OES) whose members are the individual states – not the citizens of these states themselves as is proposed in the European Constitution ... membership of the OES must ... only (be motivated) by a common belief in the ability of the member states to co-operate in certain areas, based on common interest and mutual advantage. The decision-making mechanism must require unanimity, at least in all the most important areas.“2

    5. European integration faces three different, yet related, threats: On the one hand, through continued and reinvigorated nationalism which is particularly affecting the European policy of Great Britain and Poland and but also the ideas of Vaclav Klaus despite his having verbally dissociated himself from this position. This policy was able to celebrate its success at the government level with the Treaty of Nice in 2000. Moreover, one of the instruments of this nationalism – publicly enunciated by predominantly right-wing nationalist forces – is an expansion of the European Union that is not based on clearly defined principles nor any preconditions and is aimed at loosening the inner-cohesion of the EU and blocking the political and supranational character of integration.

    On the other hand, in the current treaties the governments have provided such an inadequate response to the real contradiction of the essential unity of expansion and consolidation of integration that expansion now genuinely threatens the existence and even more so the consolidation of integration. That must not be used as an argument against other countries joining the EU if they want to, particularly as stability and peace in the Balkans are scarcely imaginable without such a perspective.

    Finally, and this is actually the most serious threat, neoliberal market-competitive radicalism, advanced as the basis for treaties since the 1980s (the Single European Act (1987), the Maastricht Treaty (1992)), threatens the foundations of European integration. Although the governments declared these treaties to be steps towards deeper integration, and also partly intended them to be, they have, in reality, cast doubt on European unity as a result of their implementation and continuity with the Lisbon strategy in 2000 and the Constitutional Treaty. The left is right to reject this as an attack on the European social model (the various European social models); it would be equally justified in rejecting it as a threat to European integration.

    6. The policy of a competitive Europe conceived in the Lisbon Strategy and inscribed in the treaties does not just mean the destruction of the social fabric but also a Europe of ”industrial location“ competition between the states to provide the most profitable place to invest capital through low corporation tax, wages, welfare and environmental standards and reduced democratic participation. Fundamentally, this does not bring European societies closer together but instead leads unavoidably to capital-cost competition between them. The left correctly condemns the resulting social division, exclusion and alienation of millions of people in Europe driven at a nation-state level by employer’s organisations, yet at the same time ignores the European dimension.

    While the economic inequality (based on levels of purchasing power) in the EU 15 between the highest (e.g. Inner London) and the most underdeveloped regions (e. g. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) is 2 to 1, it has already risen in the EU 25 to a level of 10 to 1 (Inner London in relation to Lubelskie in Poland). Several regions in Bulgaria and Romania are far below this level.3 The economic gulf between the states (measured by GDP per inhabitant) is similarly large. If you exclude Luxemburg, whose per capita GDP is more than double that of the EU average, there is still a ratio of 5 to 1 between the economically most powerful states (in the following order: Ireland, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Great Britain, Finland, France and Germany) and the economically weakest countries (Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria).

    European cohesion policy is obliged to pursue the aim of reducing these differentials, yet, faced with the radical competition-based Lisbon Strategy, the insufficient financial framework in the EU and similar neoliberal national policies, the then EU Commissioner Michel Barnier had to admit in the Third Report on Economic and Social Cohesion in the EU that the gap between the rich and poor will continue to grow.4 Regional polarization is on the increase. The main response from the EU Commission and member states is competition between the states, competition for lower corporation taxes (Cyprus: 9.7 per cent; Lithuania: 12.8 per cent; Latvia 14.4 per cent; compared with the EU average of 23.7 per cent), competition for lower wages (legal minimum wage in Latvia: 116 Euros; Bulgaria: 77 Euros; Romania: 72 Euros), competition for even lower costs for employers. On the one hand, this approach will not lead to a united Europe but will promote economic, fiscal and particularly social division, and on the other hand it will drive cuts in social provision in the member states: ”Merciless competition among business locations leads to massive pressure on wages and welfare, but also on the tax systems in the most advanced economies. At the same time, the permanent threat to relocate and the unemployment levels in Central and Eastern Europe prevent these countries from achieving a higher standard of welfare provision.“5

    7. If the left wants effectively to oppose the destruction of social security and justice in the nation states then it must campaign for social cohesion and solidarity in the EU, a European single market policy, the reform of the Maastricht Stability and Growth Pact, the amendment of the European Central Bank statute and its monetary policy, and for a decisive European contribution to the regulation of the international finance system as well as European standards for corporation tax, wages, social services and trade union rights. The former Commission President Jacques Delors’s ideas of a European economic government and social union must be brought back into the social debate.

    In this respect the argument for a social alternative is inseparably bound up with the argument for a united Europe. The deep crisis in European integration is at the same time an opportunity for its fundamental reform. In the final analysis, further European integration is only possible if it leads to job creation and social union. Jacques Delors said it was impossible to love the single market but that, on the other hand, Europe as a social union was a project that could win back citizens‘ support for European integration. Most concrete and practical efforts to limit, push back and overcome the prevailing neoliberalism, in general and in detail, are equally as important as the fundamental alternatives of European policy and integration including its contractual and constitutional basis.

    To achieve this one has to go beyond a typical left-wing hatching of ideal concepts (Konzeptemacherei – Rosa Luxemburg) and visions – which are of course indispensable – but must be ready and able to participate in a long-term, successful, intellectual, politically practical and organisational struggle in politics (taking the line of most resistance with sound judgment and passion) for a new intellectual and political climate in Europe, with the goal of a consensus that is anti-(economic) liberal and for the European social state. Unfortunately, the path loading to this consensus will be arduous. This also requires that a European constitution not be founded on maximum demands but instead on a European historic compromise.

    8. The French and Dutch No to the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe did not cause the crisis of European integration but did finally identify it. The political and social consequences of the 2004 enlargement have not been dealt with. The Lisbon Strategy, which is supposed to make the EU the world‘s most ”dynamic“ economic region by 2010, has failed in this respect and is now primarily being used as an effective vehicle for destroying the European model of the social state. The ”common foreign and security policy“ is solemnly invoked in every document and every speech and is transformed into effective steps towards the militarization of the EU‘s international policy, yet in almost all decisive issues the governments are not at all willing and able to agree on a common foreign policy.

    The European Union has lost its citizens’ identification with its development, politics and perspectives. European integration as a peace project remains an indispensable and current element of winning back citizens’ support. However, the goal of a European social union alone could bring about a fundamental and sustainable re-identification. The Central Committee of German Catholics in its discussion paper of 25 November 2006, “The European Social Model – Guiding Principle of Reform“ – ignored by both the public and the left – made the express demand: ”The European Union needs powerful confirmation of its social dimension to regain the trust of the people in its usefulness and efficacy and especially in the role of social protector which is attributed to it – regardless of the question of responsibility. This also requires the European Union ... to place greater emphasis on environmental issues. This is the only way political union can be achieved on the basis of a democratic constitution.“6 The left can go beyond these demands by advancing specific measures. It cannot afford to lag behind.

    9. From a left point of view and from the perspective of European integration, the social obligation of the European Union remains a key problem. The relevant principles, as formulated in the current treaties and in the planned reform of these treaties, are insufficient even if they expressly impose obligations on the Union: ”It shall combat social exclusion and discrimination, and shall promote social justice and protection, equality between women and men, inter-generational solidarity and protection of the rights of the child. It shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among member states.“7

    The social deficit of the Union is demonstrated above all by the orientation towards ”a highly competitive social market economy,“ even though the concept of a ”social market economy“ appears for the first time in a European Union treaty. Apart from being fundamentally undermined by the quoted addendum, the social market economy is itself completely inadequate for the necessary development of the European Union into an employment and social union. That would, however, be a political rather than constitution-related decision.

    A policy to really overcome the social deficit of the European Union would go far beyond the ideas of a social orientation and political correction of the market and would mean a fundamental shift away from the Lisbon Strategy and a welfare state-based policy of the European Union at least in the sense of the earlier proposals of Jacques Delors. Officially the Lisbon Strategy stresses the link between economic growth, employment and social cohesion.

    However, the called-for and currently EU-wide implemented ”social reforms“ are aimed at reforming the welfare state according to the principle of ”individual self-reliance“. That means, for example in the provision for old-age the reduction of the public pension systems to a basic safety net particularly as the prime orientation towards private and company pension provision is supposed to serve the creation of a European financial market. In the health care system, care is primarily aimed at” medically necessary“ compulsory requirements in addition to increased additional payments. Although the Lisbon Strategy was approved at the 2006 spring summit the job creation targets have, in reality, largely been abandoned.

    As far as ”reforms“ in the area of welfare are concerned it is impossible to recognise a move toward lasting and viable systems; rather we see a Europe-wide retreat of the state from collective welfare provision, a retreat which many national governments would boldly undertake on their own. On the European level the US welfare system has, in essence, become a model and through the vehicle of EU policy has filtered down to the national states: denunciation of the welfare state as a burden on the economy and competition, privatisation and money market orientation of welfare provision, deregulation of the employment markets. However, Europe does differ from the USA on one decisive point: While Washington orientates its financial and economic policy towards its own internal market, the EU Commission and the European governments back the globalised and economic liberal world market and the price competition between member states instead of using and developing the large European internal market, European internal market demand and common and concerted economic, social and cohesion policies.

    10. The previous European social model, with its very varied national forms,8 must be reformed along truly European lines and be developed into a European welfare state policy. The Central Committee of German Catholics has, admonishing the current political scene, described the European social model as a model ”based on an idea of man, that recognises that all human beings have the same dignity and the same inalienable rights. The individual in his or her personal dignity is at the centre of the social processes and is their foundation. The liberties and civil rights which follow from this idea of man necessarily require the addition of social rights, because freedom can only exist where it can actually be made use of. Social rights make this possible. According to their inner logic they aim at the participation of all members of society in political and social life.“9

    The socio-political reality in the European states and in the Union is, however, completely different: Social policy serves at best as an after-thefact correction of shortcomings and as an add-on of secondary importance to capitalist economic policy. This is also the essence of the ”social market economy“. Orientation to the welfare state does not just mean parity between social and economic policies but a principally different approach: With its complete range of policies, including economic and monetary policy, the state and the European Union would be committed to (new, contemporary and sustainable) full employment, social cohesion, social justice, social equality and social security and a coherent development of the European Union. At the end of the day a markedly stronger internal market development of the EU is needed which would be more promising economically than the Lisbon Strategy.

    11. With that we have, in my opinion, come full circle: Whoever is fighting to recover the welfare state in Germany or France must consider and accept European integration as the decisive space for this struggle. Whoever does not want to give up the project of European integration can and must find it in the perspective of a European social union. This cannot be achieved without a fundamentally changed European economic policy in place of the ”New Economy“ of the Lisbon process. Democratisation of the European Union (which space does not allow me to discuss here), social cohesion, social security and ecologically sustainable development must be both its socio-political goals and integral element. The main features of the complex approach required here are obvious:

    • economic co-operation between the European Central Bank, the economic and fiscal policy of the member states and wage policy,
    • a more relaxed financial policy,
    • a productivity-oriented wage policy,
    • an internal market-oriented strategy for sustainability and socio-ecological structural reforms that would be directed at ”a far-reaching dematerialization of the European economy“,10
    • a budget policy which strengthens public investment, research and education in addition to the development of human resources,
    • a consistent equal opportunities policy,
    • the real obligation of the EU to overcome mass unemployment which,  among other things, can be supported by including the unemployment rate (over10 %) in the criteria for the highest level of EU support policy,
    • a social union with minimum European standards for social benefits, wages and corporation taxes, which gradually rise in ”socio-political corridors“,11 along with ”quantitative and qualitative measures, e.g. to improve health protection standards, at the minimum anti-poverty support level ..., to an EU minimum standard for minimum wages (e.g. 65 % of the national average wage), to defeat homelessness or illiteracy.“ (Klaus Dräger)




    1. ”Die Presse“, Vienna, 20 July 2006
    2. Vaclav Klaus: It is time to give the EU a more solid base; ”Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, 30 August 2005, page 19. 
    3. Steffen Mau: Soziale Ungleichheit in der Europäischen Union (Social Inequality in the European Union); in ”Politik und Zeitgeschichte”, B 38/2004; Gerhard Gnauck: Schön, abgelegen, arm (Beautiful, Secluded, Poor); Die Welt, 15. February 2005.
    4. European Commission, A New Partnership for Cohesion. Convergence, Competitiveness, Cooperation. Third Report on Economic and Social Cohesion, Luxemburg 2004.
    5. Michael Sommer, DGB President: Ein europäischer Sozialvertrag für das 21. Jahrhundert. Sechs Thesen (A European Social Contract for the 21st Century. Six Statements), Berlin, 7 April 2005.
    6. http://www.zdk.de/erklaerungen/erklaerung.php?id=157&page=.
    7. http://europa.eu/constitution/en/ptoc2_en.htm#a3.
    8. See: André Brie: Europäische Sozialpolitik: Der Abriss des Sozialstaats. Geschichtliche Wurzeln und Verläufe. Aktuelle Entwicklung (European Social Policy: The Demolition of the Welfare State. Historical Roots and Processes. Current Trends.), Appendix: Acht Thesen zu einer Alternative aus linker Sicht (Eight Proposals for an Alternative from a Left Point of View) (www.andrebrie.de).
    9. Loc. cit.
    10. Klaus Dräger: Visionen für ein neues Sozialsystem: Hat die Linke ein Projekt für Europa? (Visions of a New Social System: Does the Left have a Project for Europe?) Unpublished manuscript.
    11. Cf.: Klaus Busch: Das Korridormodell – ein Konzept zur Weiterentwicklung der EU-Sozialpolitik (The Corridor Model – a Plan for the Further Development of EU Social Policy), International Politics and Society, 2/1998. See also: André Brie: Europäische Sozialpolitik (European Social Policy). In: Cornelia Hildebrandt: Perspektiven des Europäischen Sozialstaats (Perspectives of the European Welfare State). Berlin: Dietz Verlag 2003, pp. 13–87 (http://www.rosalux.de/cms/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/Manuskripte_52.pdf ).

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