• Some Strategic Reflections on How to Change Europe

  • By Elisabeth Gauthier , Walter Baier , Haris Golemis | 04 Dec 13 | Posted under: Transformative Strategies
  • The May 2014 European elections require us to state publicly and clearly how we would like the European Union to change. Euro-scepticism and declining popular support for the EU may have antagonistic political consequences: A simple rejection of the EU without offering political alternatives has the risk of leaving the field open to the extreme right, which is exploiting the wave of discontent and is today running before the wind.

    The depth of the crisis in the EU is particularly acute because of its twofold origin: There is of course the crisis of ‘financial-market capitalism’ which goes back to 2007/2008; however, one of the fundamental reasons for the depth of the EU crisis, apart from its undemocratic institutional architecture, is the extreme neoliberal model underpinning European integration, starting from the Maastricht Treaty.

    Therefore, combating the crisis and defending peoples’ interests requires changing the socio-economic logic at both the micro- and macro- economic levels as well as in the national and European context. It is a matter of breaking the logic of financial-market capitalism, redistributing wealth and changing the condition of wage earners, defending public services, the public sector of the economy and the social security systems. However it also involves struggling for a reorientation of the EU with the aim of creating a space of cooperation, of democratic, social and ecological development, in the perspective of a democratic and socialist transformation of Europe and the national states.

    In a recent study, Jan in’t Veld, a chief economist of the European Commission, has measured the effects of coordinated austerity policies for the Eurozone from 2011 to 2013.1 According to his calculations, budget austerity has caused a loss (cumulatively from 2011 to 2013) of growth equal to 8 % of the GDP in Greece, 6.9 % in Portugal, 5.4 % in Spain, 4.9 % in Italy, 4.8 % in France, 4.5 % in Ireland and 2.6 % in Germany. It is an important admission that shows the urgency of a radical change in the prevailing logic.

    Public-opinion2 polls reveal in the in most countries of the EU3 a crisis of representation in general, particularly affecting Social Democracy, coupled with public anger and a surge of the extreme right  in some countries. A number of governments have indeed collapsed in the context of the crisis and the austerity regimes imposed by European institutions and the IMF in a neo-colonial, imperialist style.

    The precondition for the EU turning away from the neoliberal model of integration is a qualitative shift in the balance of power both within each state and on the European level. Therefore the parties, who are positioned left of social democrats and Greens, call on the peoples of Europe not to abstain from the elections for the European Parliament, which would leave the field open to conservative and social liberals to continue their disastrous policies. At the same time, voters should express not only their symbolic protest, but also support those political forces which want to radically change the EU through parliamentary action but also in the streets of Europe. The crisis of neoliberal hegemony is opening new possibilities for working towards an alliance of diverse political, social and cultural forces united in the common objective of re-founding Europe on the basis of social and ecological solidarity, of democracy, feminism and peace.


    Ways out of the crisis?

    It is not at all surprising that in such a historic and unstable moment different and controversial proposals are being put forward. One of them claims that abandoning the euro and possibly the EU could help to resolve or at least attenuate the crisis. We do not agree. The return to the national currency is not synonymous with a change of the internal balance of social forces and the ideological and political defeat of neoliberalism. The UK is a good example of a country having its own currency which, under the pretext of exiting the crisis, has imposed very strict austerity on its people. An exit from the Eurozone in no way constitutes a path to ending the crisis. More-over, the breakup of the Eurozone, although it cannot be excluded due to contradictions mainly among the big capitalist European states, is also not a progressive move. The establishment of the EMU in the way it was constructed at the beginning of the 1990s was a ‘mistake’ and it was for that reason that we opposed it. However if the euro is abolished and the EU is broken up now, things can be even worse for the subordinate classes and the peoples of Europe. If this happens then the various countries will regress to competitive currency devaluations in a struggle to compete with each other, which is exactly what is happening today with internal devaluations. The end result would be that a class conflict will turn into a conflict among states, a privileged field for the extreme and nationalist right. This is the reason why we believe an exit from the crisis requires another economic and monetary conception and a change of the social and political balance of forces on the national and European level’s levels.

    Therefore, current social and political struggles aim at stopping the austerity measures so as to free the populations, especially in the South and in the East from the stranglehold of the Troika and the financial markets and thus create conditions for economic and social reconstruction.4

    Monetary policy is of course important here, but the necessary change has to go far beyond it.5

    As several serious studies show, in present conditions the dissolution of the Eurozone would most probably have devastating effects, and the EU does have the means to roll back the financial markets’ power, if it wanted to use them.

    What then has to be done? First and foremost, an immediate solution for the unbearable and unsustainable debt of several countries must be put in place. It is obvious that such a solution could only work on the European level.  This requires inverting the logic of exiting from the crisis that has prevailed so far. It is not the rescue of banks, which were hastily declared to be too big to fail, that must be prioritised, but economic and social recovery. In fact the Troika ‘bailouts’ have not solved the debt problem, and, as we see in Greece and elsewhere, it has aggravated it. Let’s not be deceived by a new TINA (There Is No Alternative). Alexis Tsipras has presented concrete proposals for ending the debt catastrophe,6 which of course requires radical changes in European policies. A European Conference on the debts of Greece, the other PIIGS and generally all countries of the EU could decide to annul a large part of these debts, which in any case cannot be paid back in full, and agree that the repayment of the rest should be associated to annual growth and other social clauses which stop crippling already damaged economies.

    Making economic and social development the priority means reinstituting policies a new type of solidarity and ecological development. The ECB must be reformed in order to finance a European recovery scheme, independent of the financial markets. Moreover, a fair and efficient fiscal system would be crucial in order to assure economic recovery through taxing capital and financial assets which are growing faster than debt.7 A new ‘Marshall Plan’ for Europe, such as proposed by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), could initiate a ‘productive reconstruction’, especially of the hardest hit countries. Furthermore, a European policy of re-industrialisation is necessary for the region as a whole.

    Altering the relations of production would be another crucial element of a strategy for exiting the crisis, principally by creating a wage-earners status aiming at higher wages and social contributions on the part of the employers. This would be a great undertaking of ‘economic democracy’ requiring both the redefinition of the ‘goal’ of European integration as well as of the welfare state on the national level.

    In the Alter-Summit manifesto8 authored with the help of about a hundred organisations (trade unions, movements, networks, etc. ) after a several-months-long process, some ‘common and urgent demands for a democratic, social, ecological and feminist Europe’ were identified as a base which could be useful in linking the different struggles.


    How to democratise the EU?

    European institutions are based on treaties that not only formalise the constitutional framework but also constitutionalise neoliberal policy choices. The executive, the ECB and the considerable powers of the Court of Justice take precedence over parliamentary authority, national or European. The results of referenda, when they run counter to their decisions are simply ignored.

    This European system is characterised by the striking contradiction between economic and monetary integration, on the one hand, and the still subsidiary character of mainly nationally based social policies, on the other. In the context of crisis management the tensions have increased between an unachieved federalism and a certain bilateralism of convenience. This has not only furthered the prevalence of the economically most powerful country, Germany, but has also sidelined European institutions, for example the Commission and the Council. A transnational oligarchy is thus emerging (whose most visible political figures are Monti, Draghi, Barrososo, Merkel, Schäuble, Juncker, Rehn et al.). The breakup of parliamentarianism, which is evolving toward authoritarianism, is inherent in such an arrangement.

    The movement for changing Europe is faced with two questions. Redefining the final purposes of the EU presupposes inventing a new democratic logic to make popular sovereignty real, designing a new institutional architecture and discussing its basis (a union of nations, a confederation of nations, federalism …).  Faced with the present urgency, it is advisable to look for all the breaches that can be opened, all the levers we can use to alter the balance of power right now.

    Any political will for political change in one or several countries will consequently entail a confrontation on the European level that will be not only social and political but also immediately constitutional. Any significant change in the balance of power in Europe will have immediate consequences for the working of existing institutions and their development. The proposal to hold ‘Assemblies for another Europe’ could be launched by the forces for change in several countries as soon as the change in the balance of power in one or more countries allows such assemblies to be created.

    A left majority in the European Parliament could appreciably alter the situation by pushing still further the possibilities of parliamentary action and cooperation with civil society.


    The responsibility of the left

    Examining the balance of power presupposes a critical evaluation of European Social Democracy. The averages of election results over the last few decades show a clear decline over the period,9 despite some important exceptions.

    Evidently, the balance of power is problematic: The populist and extremist right have been able to intrude into the centre of several societies; there is a growing osmosis between it and the ‘classical’ right and also an increased fragility of some political systems (Italy’s, for example). Moreover, some of the extreme right parties now have even more extremist groups at their flanks that openly claim to be Nazi.

    This gives left social and political forces great responsibilities, since only an alternative to austerity can drain this soil which is now so politically fertile for the extreme right. We must articulate protests and alternatives in a credible manner —  both at European and national levels – so as to fight any nationalist logic that may mask the class content of the struggle.


    What alliances are needed to alter the balance of power? 

    In forging our strategy, we must bear in mind the complexity of the EU, consisting as it does of various nation-states. This means that our project should have a multi-dimensional structure. There are no shortcuts to get around this complexity. The struggle against the competition into which Europe’s populations are thrown, and for cooperation in Europe, cannot be conceived on the national level only. Certain EU policies offer opportunities for waging common struggles, like those which occurred in the past against the Bolkestein directive and those which are possible now against the current Transatlantic Free Trade Treaty negotiations. There are a number of struggles possible in different countries, including some in the same sectors, which oppose the same neoliberal logic, but they are very difficult to coordinate and synchronise. Even common actions against austerity – which hits the lower classes and strata in all European countries – are not easy to organise. Nevertheless, we must make every effort to do so.

    The landscape of forces opposing austerity (or certain of its aspects and results) is characterised by great diversity. There are interesting developments in social movements – the movements of the Indignados, the self-organised solidarity movements (such as the social health centres, social pharmacies and Solidarity for All in Greece, the popular kitchens in Portugal) which are trying to face the humanitarian crisis. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and most of its affiliated unions have rejected the Fiscal Compact, which actually marks the first time in history that they have opposed a European treaty.10 The Alter-Summit Manifesto shows that convergence can be built among trade unions, social movements and political forces.11 Alternative projects are beginning to be drawn up, for example a ‘Marshall Plan’ for southern Europe proposed by the German DGB.

    On the political level, a good example of the possibilities of common European actions and proposals is the record of the GUE/NGL Parliamentary Group, whose activity is often carried out in cooperation with non-parliamentary social groups. This is particularly interesting and deserves to be presented and discussed more intensively and publicly on the eve of the forthcoming European elections.

    Since it was founded in 2004, the Party of the European Left (EL) has gradually become a point of political reference on the European scene, acquiring the capacity for acting as a European political force, while bringing closer the common ideas and practices of its geographically and politically different component parts. The objective of changing Europe’s political and cultural hegemony is common to many of these active forces.

    If the left were to succeed in creating a moment of political breach in one EU country, it would be decisive for the future of Europe if the political forces at play in other countries, but also at the European level, were to be inspired by this success and increase their influence in their own countries and, at the same time, build a shield of solidarity and protection for the country in which the left hopefully comes to power.

    There are various European transformative initiatives which can be taken in the near future, such as the call by France’s Left Front for ‘Assemblies for the Refoundation of the EU’ addressed to all the political and trade union organisations and the movements, networks and elected representatives who wish to change Europe. In this sense, Alexis Tsipras  envisages calling on all, including the Greens and even the Social Democrats, at least those who do not believe in TINA, to carry forward a new progressive common project for the EU.12 It is through such collective efforts, with varying intensities depending on the country and time involved but going in the same direction, that we could try and alter the European ‘timetable’.


    Translated by Jimmy Jancovich


    1. http://ec.europa.eu/economy_nance/publications/economic_paper/2013/pdf/ecp506_en.pdf.
    2. Dominique Reynié in L’Opinion européenne 2013 , cited by Alain Frachon, Le Monde 18/10/2013.
    3. Except in Germany where public opinion is more broadly positive regarding the leaders and the mode of government.
    4. See Pierre Khalfa at http://www.transform-network.net/programmes/euro-in-debate.html   
    5. On this see also Steffen Lehndorff in this issue of transform!.
    6. See in this issue, the presentation by Alexis Tsipras in the Kreisky Forum in Vienna 
    7. Thomas Piketty, in Le capital au XXIème siècle, Paris 2013,  proposes an exceptional, progressive and world-wide tax on capital and inheritance.
    8. The Peoples’ Manifesto presented in Athens on 7 June 2013 is available in several languages on www.altersummit.eu. See also the article in this issue of transform! by Elisabeth Gauthier.
    9. Gerassimos Moschonas, ‘Shooting Horses in Cold Blood’, July 6, 2012 http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=4217&title=Shooting-horses-in-cold-blood
    10. See the interview with Bernadette Ségol in this issue.
    11. A first stage of collectivework was the Joint Social Conference. In the last two years, the Alter-Summit has taken this over. See Elisabeth Gauthier in this issue.
    12. See Tsipras op.cit.




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