With closer EU integration leading to more neoliberalism and authoritarianism, European radical left parties and activists, including components of the Party of the European Left (EL), are increasingly asking themselves whether a reform of the EU is possible.
The Danish Red-Green Alliance (RGA), an EL member party, always regarded a fundamental reform of the EU as impossible.
In Scandinavia, EU criticism and opposition have been common for several decades. It has been a pillar in radical left politics and in fact was a factor in helping the Danish Enhedslisten/the Red-Green Alliance, after its formation in 1989, to become a parliamentary party in 1994.
In 1972 there was a fierce campaign in the run-up to the referendum on Danish EEC membership, in which the broad centre-left – led by the People’s Movement Against the EEC – campaigned for a No vote. Opposition to the EEC was from the start very much of a left and progressive issue, the EEC being seen as a threat to democracy and the welfare state. These have been lasting core issues in Danish EEC/EU criticism. 63.4 % of the electorate voted Yes and 36.6 % No in the referendum on accession in 1972. But the later No vote – 50.7 % – on the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992 and subsequently in 2000 on Euro membership – 53.2 % No – showed a steady critical popular stance vis-à-vis the EEC/EU. This has further increased with the economic and Euro crisis and austerity policies. Opposition to Euro membership is presently (autumn 2013) at around 70 %.
This figure can also be explained by a rise in EU criticism on the political right in recent years – among the Conservatives and a new Liberal Alliance Party and the extreme right-wing Danish People’s Party (DF), which is concerned about national democracy, but also about welfare and keeping out foreigners.
The history of the initial success of Enhedslisten/the Red-Green Alliance is closely linked to its opposition to the EEC/EU.
Formed in 1989 as an electoral alliance between the Danish Communist Party (DKP), the Left Socialists (VS) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP – Trotskyist, 4th International), the RGA won 6 seats in the Danish Parliament in the elections in 1994. This was largely due to the RGA’s strong contribution to the campaign against the Maastricht Treaty in 1991-92 and later its solid opposition to the watering down of the Treaty by the introduction of four opt-outs in the Edinburgh Agreement – a clear attempt to sell the treaty to the Danish electorate, which ended up approving the Agreement in a referendum in 1993.
As the Socialist People’s Party (SF) changed their position from rejection of the Maastricht Treaty to promoting the Yes vote on the Edinburgh Agreement, they were punished by a large number of their voters in the 1994 parliamentary elections, who voted in favour of the Red-Green Alliance, and in this way secured the RGA representation in the Danish Folketing (Parliament), which has lasted to this day.
Despite the gradual swing of SF to a pro-EU position, the result of the European Parliament elections in 2009 showed that EU criticism and opposition are still very strong on the Danish left. It was estimated that the electorate of the People’s Movement was composed of around 20 % Social Democratic voters, 20 % SF voters, and 20 % RGA voters, the rest consisting of centre-bourgeois voters (along with some undecided voters).1
The top candidate of the People’s Movement in the EP elections was Søren Søndergaard, also a member and former MP of the RGA, who is at present an MEP affiliated with the GUE/NGL group in the EP.
To many both within and outside the RGA, the fear of seeing an undermining of the Danish welfare state by the EEC/EU seems to have been borne out with the post-1990 neoliberal economic policies – with public welfare cuts resulting from the application of the Maastricht criteria, which the Social Democratic-led government at the time dutifully pursued, expecting Denmark to later join the Euro. However, the fear was justified especially in view of the present austerity policies, which have left the Danish welfare state in tatters.
Being outside the Eurozone Denmark’s present Social Democratic-led government was not compelled to apply Merkel’s austerity policies and to join the Fiscal Pact, but itnevertheless chose to do so. The government subsequently suffered a serious setback in the polls, as it was seen as breaking its own election promises by pursuing policies attacking the welfare state.
The RGA’s main argument in rejecting the EU is that its foundations – the treaties, institutions and rules – make the EU solidly neoliberal and impossible to reform. The political basis of the EU is in complete contradiction to the perspectives of socialist parties regarding social welfare and justice, non-militarism, feminism, equitable green transformation, etc.
The Social Democrats’ turn to neoliberalism and the competitive state over the last 20 years is due to their acceptance of the EU treaties and policies which leave no other option as integration deepens. EU integration has made Social Democracy a variant of the neoliberal family of parties.
While favouring and supporting any small progressive steps within the EU, it has been the concrete experience of the RGA that EU integration reinforces neoliberalism and authoritarian centralisation.
The RGA believes that the only path for the left is that of working towards the creation of progressive European alternatives to the EU. From the beginning, RGA policies have included the opting for an exit from the EU as a tactical step towards creating a different Europe and finally socialism. However, advocating a referendum on EU membership would depend on the concrete situation – for example one in which steps to deepen EU integration would be severely detrimental to and vehemently opposed by the working people and would leave no other option than to opt for leaving the EU.
As a very internationalist party, the RGA, from the very start, put considerable effort into building left cooperation in Europe as well as with parties in other parts of the world. This was seen as crucial to building European alternatives. It was the perception that a progressive left alternative could be built despite different positions on the EEC/EU among European left parties, since there was at the same time a quite remarkable agreement on concrete political, economic and social policies and demands and longer-term perspectives. All European radical left parties were more or less working towards the same alternative.
The RGA organised a number of large conferences on the EEC/EU during the 1990s, when cooperation on the radical left was not as developed as it is now, inviting left parties and progressive political and social movements from all over Europe to participate.
After being observers and later members for some years of the New European Left Forum (which no longer exists) it was natural to apply for observer status and later membership in the EL.
The RGA perspective of ‘working towards a different Europe’ was also a concept used by the EL, being a common denominator of the policies and perspectives not only of left parties, but also of the European Social Forum and many movements.
Consisting as it does of left parties from both inside and outside the EU, it would be natural within the EL to view such a perspective as one which could tie together left parties which are working for alternatives to the EU with others who believe in reforming the EU as a path to develop progressive alternatives – in other words, bringing together ‘different roads towards a different Europe’.
In the same way the RGA sees the slogan ‘refound Europe’ as indicating initiatives that range from a fundamental change within the EU to creating a Europe-wide alternative.
As with other European radical left parties, the RGA’s strategic vision of a different Europe is not particularly well developed. It is seen as a way of building socialism by introducing reforms and democratic mechanisms that will strengthen the tools to build socialism – social welfare and justice, equality, green transformation, etc. – but it is not equivalent to socialism.
An English-language pamphlet was produced on the RGA’s European policy some ten years ago: Europe Without the European Union – Towards an Alternative Democratic Europe.
The pamphlet describes how a different kind of cooperation could be based on expanding regional or pan-European cooperation councils developed from organisations such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe, the Nordic Council, etc. It proposes that NGOs or popular movements participate at another level of cooperation. As an example, a European Environmental Council would need to combat pollution and support green transformation by introducing minimum standards for example, but also in some cases through supranational decision-making.
Developing this alternative cooperation in Europe was seen as requiring a rolling back or dismantling of the EU.
Left parties and activists in favour of EU integration generally see progressive change of the EU as depending on a change in the balance of forces.
However, the difficulty with this view is that EU institutions and rules were constructed to secure neoliberal capitalism and withstand democratic change. This has developed into a form of authoritarian rule of the EU.
Progressive forces have suggested reforms of the EU institutions such as transferring more powers to the European Parliament, reducing the powers of, or dismantling, the EU Commission. But this would not solve the problem of undermining democracy, as these powers have been transferred from the national parliaments. This means that changes in the balance of forces within small EU member states do not stand a chance of influencing EU economic and social policies, as their representation in the EP is microscopic, and the powers of national parliaments are becoming still more restricted with regard to decisions on crucial political and economic matters. Growing popular movements would have to wait for changes in the balance of forces in the bigger states like Germany or France. But this will not be seen as particularly democratic by working-class people in the smaller states.
It is a recipe for instability and conflict.
The sudden rise of political and social movements in Southern Europe over the past few years, as part of the economic and Euro crisis, shows what could happen in such situations. In some ways this resembles the 2011 wave of upheavals in Northern Africa, where a hopeless social situation and lack of democracy led to uprisings and revolutions.
If we imagine heavier and more coordinated pressure by left parties and progressive movements within the EU, those in power could feel obliged to compromise within the terms of the neoliberal treaties.
However, with the growing authoritarianism of the EU in recent years, which is used to promoting neoliberalism and austerity and flouting democracy, it seems that not only an almost unthinkable and overwhelming shift in the class struggle but also a showdown with the EU in its current state would be required to create the conditions for fundamental change.