• More Than Ever: For Another Europe! August 2015 Theses [1]

  • By Étienne Balibar | 03 Feb 16 | Posted under: Greece , The Left
  • The general impression one has today is of an impasse in the structure of the European Union as a democratic project benefiting its populations and contributing to a better world. As an adherent of ‘left-wing Europeanism’ [2], I want to emphasise in what follows that today, more than ever, there are only two paths to follow in Europe and for Europe, even if it is not easy exactly to define their content and describe the concrete way in which they ‘bifurcate’.

    ‘The other Europe’

    I would like to take up the rallying cry ‘another Europe’, in whose name many recent political mobilisations have been organised. What it affirms is that there are alternatives, and that they are part of a grand alternative. On the one side, neoliberal Europe, on the other, democratic Europe or, better, the Europe of democratisation (which implies a reclaiming and reinvention of ‘social Europe’, seeing as the negation of the ‘social’ dimensions of citizenship is at the heart of the ‘de-democratisation’ strategies). The former is seen in the enormous complex of structures, institutions, and hegemonic discourses. The latter is still largely virtual, for it only exists in the form of heterogeneous resistance and initiatives, but that does not mean that it is utopian or represents nothing more than an empty ‘ideal’, for its virtual existence is based on the very real contradictions of the former.[3]

    This view is only meaningful if we begin by admitting that in Europe today there is indeed much that is irreversible. We could say that, in a general sense, nothing is irreversible in history. Why should Europe’s structure, with its ‘material constitution’ inspired by neoliberal principles, be irreversible? However, 60 years of European construction have transformed society and the countries such that a return to the preceding state of affairs is no longer possible. The idea of a return to national independence, whether meant definitively or just as a temporary transition to ‘taking back’ the EU on foundations that would this time be ‘healthy’, is a dangerous myth; but the extent to which this ‘mix’ of national autonomies and supranational unity that henceforth constitutes Europe is evolving is still an open question. On the other hand, the idea of irreversibility in turn becomes oppressive mystification if it excludes the possibility of bifurcations and new changes to come.

    Transformation ‘from inside’ or ‘from outside’?

    Another debate, sparked by the Greek events, turns around the question of knowing whether it is possible to transform a political system like the EU from within without violating its operating rules and breaking with its underlying consensus. This is a heated debate because it not only implies a decision on tactics, and on the recent past’s attitudes regarding ‘firmness’ or ‘compromise’, but also on the very analysis of EU institutions and the possibility of subjecting them to transformations or reforms contradicting the objectives incorporated in their modus operandi. 

    However, the necessary distinction between ‘inside the system’ and ‘being enclosed within its logic’ omits a more fundamental aspect of the question of transformation. There are, in fact, two kinds of ‘outside’ the system and its logic that are involved here. On the one hand, we see the conservative forces that benefit from the system, or try to transform it in a still more inequitable direction, relying on something ‘outside’ the EU, that is, the anonymous global financial market whose interests they represent and requirements they transmit. This ‘outside’ is solidly established but beyond the reach of citizen action. There is, however, another ‘outside’ – the mass of ‘passive citizens’ shut out of discussions about the political and social system, whose very lives are at stake, and the demands they express. In the struggle unfolding within the system, the only way to compensate for the surplus power (and surplus capacity to make the ‘rules’ of this power apply) that gives the dominant forces the support of the globalised outside is to provoke to action this ‘internal’ outside‘outside’ in relation to the ‘system’ and its ‘rules’ – consisting of ‘excluded’ or ‘self-excluded’ citizens, whose silence is required for the rules to function. 

    For a transfer union

    The name Germany’s ruling class gives to the kind of European Union it does not want is ‘transfer union’, meaning a form of economic solidarity in which the ‘creditor countries’, and more generally all those whose economies are the winners of globalisation, would have to ‘compensate’ for the advantages they have through financial aid to over-indebted countries, by using a part of their tax resources to aid the development of others. Not only should we not skirt this issue but we should actually demand a transfer union in loud and clear terms, as long as we specify its contents and objectives.

    There already is an enormous mass of ‘transfers’ between European countries, and the European Union rests on the existence of these transfers. But these transfers are, in part, hidden and skewed in favour of a part of Europe. Our project of a transfer union should be presented as a reversal of the direction of these transfers and not as if it is ‘introducing’ the idea from scratch. It could not be limited to financial compensation mechanisms, especially if these take the form of new loans that would only increase the indebtedness of the ‘beneficiary’ countries; this only benefits the banks and lending institutions by feeding the ideological representation of these countries as welfare-dependent nations. By the same token, the transfers should not be seen from a perspective of simple social redistribution, even if their object is to counteract the regional development inequities and the unequal access of citizens to resources, which tend to make Europe into a ‘dual’ society. Instead, the transfers should introduce a common budgetary structure, mutualising a not negligible part of those European resources that come from taxes and putting them at the service of co-development projects between European nations, and at the service particularly of Europe’s ‘transition’ towards the new industries and new energy regime required by global warming.[4] Robert Salais and other economists have made the point that this perspective makes it possible to envisage a reconversion of the debt (in its totality – public and private debt in all European countries and not only of over-indebted countries) to long-term productive uses instead of short-term speculation.[5]

    These kinds of perspectives involve a reform of the institutional ‘construction’ of the euro, of monetary policy (as an economic incentive policy), and the role of the European Central Bank. It is not just a matter of redoing what was done badly but entering a new epoch of European federalism that would finally really be federative. It is only in such a framework that collective authority (represented by the ‘institutions,’ of which European Parliament representation would have to be a part) would be legitimised to require and control administrative reforms such as those dealing with corruption or the efficiency of tax regimes. 

    For an alter-globalist Europe

    Let us be brutally frank here. It is not in the power of European peoples to place themselves outside of globalisation. Globalisation as a ‘total’ phenomenon – that is, economic, political, and cultural (and anthropological, we should add) – is an irreversible process, much more so than Europeanisation because it is not an institutional construction but a new stage in the history of humanity. Naturally, capitalism has been its driving force and has determined its present main characteristics – and at the same time its contradictory effects. But its significance goes beyond capitalist conditions themselves; in any case, it exposes them to unforeseeable feedback effects that we have to take account of in our thinking.

    In particular, this means that the ‘disconnection’, or the ‘de-globalisation’, proposed by various theorists claiming to be Marxists is a confused and probably false idea.[6]

    This does not mean that the course of globalisation is not untenable and unbearable for millions of people, in Europe and outside Europe. Indeed, this is the case on many levels: the increase in inequality, the intensity of forms of exploitation, cultural expropriation, and the destruction of the environment, the exercise of political power in the form of national sovereignty, etc. Every day capitalist globalisation is producing catastrophes that will only multiply and produce violence whose limits have not yet been reached.

    Under these conditions, it is essential to be clear that ‘another Europe’, that is, the building of a solidary and democratic Europe, is among the instruments we need to operate against the current within globalisation itself, and thus act upon it.

    An alter-global Europe, a Europe that (in coalescing with other forces, other cultures) ‘changes the world’ in the sense that has become necessary, that is, changes the world’s mode of globalisation, can only be a Europe that profoundly changes itself, while keeping permanent watch over its own evolution and global issues. It would be a Europe that works to articulate strategies to protect social relations, historic gains, the European populations themselves, and strategies to regulate international processes of circulation and transformation, thus with both a local and a global perspective. These two types of strategies are necessary for envisaging a real exit from the crisis and are, in the longer term, a contribution to the transformation of humanity’s mode of existence.

    This is why Europe has at the same time to take the path of using and reforming international institutions, from the IMF to the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, whose present make-up reflects the inter-imperialist relations and balance of state powers of another age. But in order to do so, Europe has first to exist as a power. 

    Invent a transnational democracy

    The single currency is the instrument par excellence for facilitating negative, that is, non-egalitarian, transfers within the EU. To the extent that it was conceived essentially as a means of intensifying competition and not of economic policy it is also the instrument of the ‘dictatorship’ of the financial markets over Europe’s economy and policies. But above all it is the lynchpin of the process of de-democratisation in Europe, which is already at an advanced stage.

    The democratic regression began long ago. From the beginning, the EU’s structure was seen as a technocratic machine, even if the countries themselves (essentially the western-most ones) were then the locus of a more intense, more conflictual democratic life. The nation-states and political classes that managed them were opposed to the introduction of forms of representation and democratic control at the European scale that would have deprived them of their monopoly as mediators between the people and the executive and administrative powers. In a sense, the major turning point towards neoliberalism annulled both the vestiges of 1945 and of 1968 in European countries. It has opened the way to a ‘governance’ of society that is neither representative nor deliberative in the strong sense of the term (even if Europe continues to guarantee many individual rights that do not exist or are suppressed elsewhere in the world, although these are now endangered by the growth of security mechanisms). On top of this, Europe has practically ‘constitutionalised’ a co-management of political institutions by a grand coalition of conservatives and social democrats rallied to neoliberalism, which neutralises any political discussion of alternative paths or leaves them to nationalist populist movements to define. Has democratic regression reached a point of no return? Under what conditions and through what forms could a reversal of the reversal take place?

    I shall confine myself to three points. First, democracy can never be ‘acquired’. Fundamentally, it is not a ‘regime’ but an ensemble of practices, institutions, and historical conditions that maximise the capacity of people (the demos) to defend their own interests and manage their own affairs in an egalitarian manner. This is why, at levels at which it exists, it involves uncertainty: either it is advancing or regressing. There is no denying that at this moment the democratic quality of our societies is regressing because the power relationships are too skewed, with real power beyond the reach of popular control, and the deliberative function of representation has been neutralised by ideological consensus. But we can also see the great dissatisfaction caused by ‘passive citizenship’, a demand for participation and control of ‘common goods’, and the invention of forms of social struggle and of goals of solidarity.

    Second, this leads to the following proposition: In every way possible, we need to seek out all opportunities to conquer (or reconquer) rights and guarantees; to acquire powers (which include powers of control over ‘technical’ administrations and governing organs at the European level); and, finally, to build collective capacities – capacities of deliberation, decision-making, and reflection. These capacities are not fundamentally an institutional matter: the capacity of reflexion cannot be prescribed to citizens. But it does depend on institutional conditions – this is why the most innovative movements of recent years in the area of participatory democracy, like Spain’s indignados movement from which Podemos has emerged, find their main strength in local assemblies and do not easily flow into the party form. It is clear that prospects for ‘reversing the reversal’ represented by the current de-democratisation depend on the emergence of such democratic inventions at the national and above all transnational, level. This brings me to my third point.

    A good deal of thinking about democratic objectives in Europe continues to be blocked by a belief that democratic capacity cannot materialise at the European level without diminishing at the national level, and, inversely, that the defence of national democratic gains requires foregoing the construction of organs of ‘federal’ power. This idea is completely contradicted by what we are experiencing today, for we see that degeneration of democratic life and the reduction of popular powers are occurring simultaneously at the national and supranational levels with opposition to democratisation of the EU’s structures at the two levels mutually reinforcing each other, in a sort of negative feedback. Conversely, if we start from the principle that the distribution of power through several levels is an historically acquired reality – that is, if we do not take the ‘nihilist’ position of a historic dissolution of the European Union – we have to posit the existence of counter-powers wherever there are institutionalised powers. That many democrats are reluctant to abandon the possibilities of popular control, of the representation and ‘sovereignty’ that national parliaments offer (on condition that they keep effective rights), is understandable, but it does not follow that the national level can be the only one that involves popular control. This is why projects to extend the European Parliament’s powers of control and the improvement of its representativeness (for example, through the introduction of double representation: of European citizens as holders of individual rights, and of national communities following a weighted territorial principle), even if these are not enough to stimulate civic participation, are intrinsically important.[7]

    The general idea ought always to be the same: to reinforce national democracy by instituting a federal democracy with real powers and to give life and substance to federal democracy by regenerating national and local democracy. The orientation should be the simultaneous (and combined) growth of the power to act at different levels.

    Another point: Europe can only exist ‘legitimately’, that is, with the consent of its people, themselves consisting of citizens, if it becomes (essentially by dint of their efforts) at least as democratic as its constituent nations, in fact more democratic, in other words, if its composition corresponds to progress in the history of the principles and practices of democratic government. This is to say that it must add democratic levels to already existing ones and invent new forms. Without this demonstration of superiority, the combination of technocratic tendencies and the demoralising effects of the crisis will lead to reactions that are simultaneously anti-democratic and anti-European, which we are already seeing now. The obstacles are formidable, one of the most elementary and effective being the linguistic heterogeneity of the European demos (which is not an ethnos) that tends to affect the younger generations less, in particular through the use of ‘standard’ English, although in a very uneven way according to social class origin. 

    What sovereignties?

    A brief remark on the question of ‘sovereignty’. There is a tendency to confuse different realisations of the idea of sovereignty, which are heterogeneous and can even become antithetical: national sovereignty, state sovereignty, and popular (thus ‘democratic’) sovereignty. No one can deny their close interdependence, both in the history of republican nations and in the application of the principle of self-determination by dominated or colonised peoples. But if we fail to clearly differentiate among these we are led to believe that their articulation is fixed once and for all, which is one of the bases of ‘sovereigntism’and produces the worst political confusions. At this moment in history, the articulations of sovereignty are diverging, and, consequently, ‘sovereigntism’, even if motivated by a concern to resist the dominant order, is becoming an obstacle to thought and action.

    Two closely interrelated reasons make this confusion a particularly tempting one at this time, and they could lead to a dangerous mistake. The first is that the central bank in charge of managing the euro and consequently credit and debt policy has been able to acquire a discretionary power in Europe that sometimes puts it in conflict with the interests of particular nations and beyond the control of citizens. It is central to the set of de-democratisation mechanisms and seems to exist above the laws and other powers. The ‘counter-projects’ of reforming the euro, like Michel Aglietta’s, do not go to the heart of the political problem, because they are attempting to ‘complete’ the construction of the currency (or to ‘repair’ the flaw of its original creation) by instituting a European sovereignty analogous to that of a state.

    They insist on the necessary existence in the Eurozone of a federal public budget (and its use for purposes of general interest), but they put aside the question of democratic control of financial and economic policies. They tend to compensate for this lack by appealing to a political myth – that of a ‘social contract’ whose incarnation would be the currency.[8] On the other hand, we see how, during ‘negotiations’ with the Greek government and after the affirmation of popular sovereignty represented by the 5 July referendum, another component of Europe’s technostructure, the Eurogroup, succeeded in splitting the democratic entity and, in a certain sense, ‘playing’ the idea of popular sovereignty against itself – by proclaiming that ‘the will of a single people cannot prevail over those of all the others’ (especially, it should be added, when the use of ‘their money’ is at stake). This was the sole argument that a democratic point of view could not purely and simply reject – unless it rejected it in the name of the superior historical legitimacy of resistance to oppression – but the presumed will of Europe’s people was never expressed, other than by delegation, or inferred through opinion polls.

    A ‘national’ democratic sovereignty only ever made sense to the extent that it opposed the independence of the nation to the claims of an empire or the encroachments of other nations. The most ‘totalitarian’ power that Europe’s peoples have to confront has become that of the global financial market, which, in relation to the states and to the peoples it ‘represents’, is in the position of a quasi-sovereign. For this reason, there is only effective popular sovereignty to the extent that there is, within nations and above all between them, an effective resistance to the ‘omnipotence’ of the financial market, or a capacity to implement policies other than those it prescribes or favours. In today’s Europe, this capacity can only belong to coalitions of democratically associated nations, each of which ‘multiplies’ the power and capacity for autonomy of the others. The only real democratic sovereignty is a shared sovereignty – ‘compensating’ what it seems to take back from the independence of each people through the collective power it gives them. In contrast to sovereigntism, a politics of effective sovereignty defines the domain in which it is possible to speak of a ‘post-national’ historical stage – but on condition that the ‘sharing’ is equitable, egalitarian, and permanently reactivated through public opinion and control. Otherwise, the power ‘multiplier’ will not work, and the sharing of sovereignty is a mere cover for the abuses of those in dominant positions.

    Nationalism, populism, Europeanism

    The concentration of power in Europe in the hands of a technocratic caste tied to the interests (and the owners) of financial capital, as well as the neutralisation of politics through a grand coalition of centres whose anthem is the intangible ‘rules’ on which consensus rests, leads to a strong tendency among adversaries of budget austerity and neoliberal transformation to express their resistance in terms of anti-Europeanism (preferring no Europe at all to the rulers’ mantra ‘no other Europe is possible’). This anti-Europeanism is founded on sovereigntism, which tends to include nationalism. The nostalgia for a past epoch of democracy and for the popular struggles that brought it alive is accompanied by an indulgence in ‘identitarian’ myths, which are not always opposed to internationalism. The inverse temptation is to proclaim: ‘nationalism is the enemy!’ But since, historically, nationalism is far from monolithic and often changes content according to conjunctures, I would propose a more prudent formula: ‘nationalism today is the main danger for the left!’ and a fortiori the kind of nationalism that is susceptible to being ‘captured’ by extreme-right populism.

    To work against this we need to oppose the current de-democratisation with a defence and exemplification of the idea of the sovereign people that is resolutely anti-nationalist in prioritising cross-border mobilisation and activism on the part of European citizens or virtual ‘co-citizens’, making room, at the very heart of each state, for a community of destiny that equally embraces ‘nationals’ and ‘non-nationals’ integrated into the life, and sensitive to the problems, of all residents on European territory.

    A ‘party’ of Europe

    As we believe, a continuation of the status quo is impossible, and there are two paths in Europe and for the transformation of Europe, neither of which we define as being for or against ‘the construction of Europe’ as such but as alternatives leading to the self-destruction of the European project or going in the direction of its reconstruction or refoundation. Given these conditions, which one is more likely to reverse the current balance of power? Waging a battle on this terrain, as the Italian historian Luciano Canfora wrote recently, is ‘possible’:[9] it opens up perspectives for transforming the relation of forces as long as there are favourable circumstances and there are forces that interpret them correctly. The crisis of the EU’s structure, which could come to a head and lead to alternatives that are ideologically and politically violent, is one of these circumstances that we need to be able to take advantage of and interpret, but the crisis in no way assures a ‘democratic solution’ (or a ‘left’ solution). A good solution therefore requires the emergence, the presence, and reinforcement of a ‘party of Europe’ that is at the same time a European party, recruiting throughout the continent, and that remains a movement, preserving its internal diversity and benefiting from contradiction with the aim of overcoming the problems of the particular party form that was perfected by the class-struggle organisations emerging from the labour movement.

    This point is all the more important that the clear tactical objective of such a ‘party’ is to contribute to the breaking up of the grand coalition that at present is politically co-managing neoliberal Europe and thus to provoke conflict at the heart of the social democratic tradition (if possible ‘inside it’, as in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn within Britain’s Labour Party). The contradictions undermining the grand coalition and the social democratic parties are the reflection of contradictions affecting austerity-policy Europe. And, for a growing number of European citizens, these contradictions have made the inequalities, the precarity, and the technocratic governance that excludes the people increasingly unbearable. But still more important would be the capacity of such a ‘party’ to enlist the autonomous forces – still unorganised, heterogeneous, and in struggle, following participatory models that are everywhere overflowing into parliamentary practices but lack a common ‘programme’ – in the horizon of expectation of a ‘discourse of Europe’ based on the relative irreversibility of a European polity, the strategic issue that this represents within globalisation, and its essentially inadequate present form in terms of the development of democracy.


    1. These theses represent an abridged version of a more complete text edited and developed after the introductory remarks I made on 29 August 2015 at the discussion ‘Change Europe, Change in France’, in the framework of the Summer University of the French Communist Party in Karellis (Savoy). For the complete version, see Dominque Crozat and Elisabeth Gauthier (eds), Écrits sur la Grèce. Points de vue européens, Collection ‘Enjeux et débats d’Espaces Marx’, Paris: Éditions du Croquant, 2015.
    2. See Étienne Balibar, Sandro Mezzadra and Frieder Otto Wolf, ‘Le Diktat de Bruxelles et le dilemme de Syriza’, Mediapart, 19 July 2015, <https://blogs.mediapart.fr/ebalibar/blog/190715/etienne-balibar-sandro-mezzadra-frieder-otto-wolf-le-diktat-de-bruxelles-et-le-dilemme-de-syriza> and Stathis Kouvelakis: ‘Turning “No” Into a Political Front. Some Lessons from Syriza – and Where We Go From Here’, Jacobin, 3 August 2015, <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/tsipras-debt-germany-greece-euro/>.
    3. See Sandro Mezzadra, ‘Per un movimento costituente europeo’, EuroNomade, <http://www.euronomade.info/?p=71>.
    4. See Michel Aglietta and Nicolas Leron, ‘À la recherche du souverain en zone euro’, Libération, 26 August 2015; also Michel Aglietta, Europe. Sortir de la crise et inventer l’avenir, Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2014.
    5. Gabriel Colletis, Jean-Philippe Robé, and Robert Salais, ‘The case for Euro-investment’, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2015.
    6. See Jacques Sapir, La Démondialisation, Paris: Le Seuil, 2012; Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World, London: Zed Books, 1990.
    7. Jürgen Habermas, Zur Verfassung Europas: Ein Essay, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2011.
    8. Aglietta, ‘Europe’.
    9. Luciano Canfora, ‘La battaglia possibile’, Il Manifesto, 26 August 2015, <http://ilmanifesto.info/la-battaglia-possibile/>.

Related articles