Europe is at a crossroads and has been there now for some time. One could even say that a spectre is haunting Europe – a spectre of several fears: fear of terrorism, of Islam, of war, Russia, China, North Korea, migration waves, of extreme populism and nationalism, xenophobia, authoritarian governments, and so on.
Let me say at the outset that I do not think the worst scenarios very likely, at least not in the foreseeable future: the collapse of the EU and its replacement by a number of authoritarian, nationalistic, and xenophobic regimes with a propensity to solve problems through aggression and even war. However, I am very afraid that if we are complacent in the face of this danger we may wake up one day in a still more tense, unfair, unjust, and dangerous world. We can detect all the ingredients of the potential catastrophe.
To understand the dangers that are now looming before us we have to remind ourselves of earlier problems and their roots.
The vision of Delors and other fathers of the European model, that is, of a peaceful, integrated, democratic, ecologically responsible, and socially just Europe, has long been no more than a rapidly fading dream.
The economic difficulties, particularly in Western Europe at the beginning of this century, were ascribed to the alleged profligacy of the welfare state, to overly generous social and unemployment benefits, to the fact that irresponsible social democratic governments ignored their increasing debts, and so on. This helped obscure the danger of neoliberalism, which under the guise of so-called necessary reforms began to acquire a terrible stranglehold on the whole of society. Furthermore, globalisation was perceived simply as economy driven and as generating a necessary drive towards efficiency and productivity requiring a reduction of costs in order to compete against those rising economies which have an advantage due to their low-wage workforces. This was coupled with a strong belief in the efficiency of the free market. The solution to rising poverty was to be found in the trickle-down effect of the rich getting richer and thus increasing their investments.
When these neoliberal ideas were translated into policies there were obvious consequences: social programmes were drastically reduced, as was the role of the state in the economy, which led to greater privatisation and deregulation.
Deregulation enabled corporations and banks to pursue profits unimpeded by state regulation. The results are clear – privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses. Given the belief that large banks, when they experience major problems, cannot be allowed to fail as that would threaten the whole financial system, they had to be bailed out with losses transferred to the taxpayer, resulting in further and greater cuts in social spending. Growing inequalities and existential threats to the poor generated a decline in various forms of social solidarity and their reduction to forms of tribalism: religion, ethnicity, and race.
Europe failed to rise to the unprecedented series of challenges in particular around security, climate change, migration, and the economy. This gave populism a great opportunity to grow and spread its venomous rhetoric. Many Europeans faced with the decline in their standard of living, with unfulfilled promises, with the inability of the European institutions to deal with the migration crisis, with important decisions taken primarily by the non-elected financial oligarchy, began to feel increasingly alienated.
Brexit is just one of the recent and dramatic examples. However, it has to be understood that most people who cast their votes in the referendum against the EU have in fact voted against the policies of drastic cuts, against the deterioration of their standard of living, against the absence of any hope for changing the unpalatable status quo. Their vote was the result of the above-mentioned alienation but also of the lack of genuine and unbiased information, of the widespread fear of the future, and the prevailing atmosphere generated by the media. It is not surprising that the majority of Brexiteers are less educated, older people living in the provinces and countryside, people prone to blame foreigners for their problems. It is ironic that many people in Eastern and Central Europe blame Asians and Africans (and primarily Muslims they have hardly met) while many Britons blame Eastern Europeans who came to the UK to work there as EU citizens.
Anti-European British media encouraged citizens’ fear that these Eastern Europeans would take their jobs and, by accepting lower wages, also reduce their own standard of living. This fear, combined with distortions, lies, and unfulfilled promises, led to the narrow victory of the Brexiteers. It is also ironic that a majority of them came from poor rural regions and from the older age groups and the less educated who will suffer most from the UK leaving the EU. The first economic indicators are beginning to show a slow decline in British economic performance. But the most negative impact will only become clear at the end of the current negotiations with Brussels. Many supporters of hard Brexit are now turning to the soft Brexit option, but the fundamentally wrong decision cannot be overturned. A compromise is on the horizon.
The increased social tensions in many European countries have led to the understandable search for a scapegoat that is an alleged threat to jobs, to national sovereignty, and to security. Security in its various forms has become the central concern. This has been further encouraged by the recent threat of terrorism.
At the same time, human rights and civil liberties are declining in their significance as they face two threats – the willingness to trade them for increased security and the decreasing belief in their universality.
The decline in the protective role of the state is also linked to the decline in democratic political culture. Most politicians are perceived as self-seeking individuals, and corruption has become more common and systemic. There is a widespread scepticism towards all traditional political parties, bordering on outright rejection especially among the young. Politicians are perceived as too pragmatic and most of them as corrupt. New political parties make full use of this atmosphere and get elected to positions of power simply by promising to reject the traditional parties that have clearly failed the expectations of ordinary voters as well as by promising to fight corruption, after which they quickly join the ranks of the most corrupt. There is a decline in political participation, increasing polarisation, and a rise of extremism. This development has opened up space for the emergence of new populist and nationalist groups and even extremists with a distinctly brownish coating. These new political parties and movements have not yet taken over governments but in many countries they have established a strong foothold in the parliaments and in the imagination of citizens.
The social-contract tradition presupposes that the social arises from the rational self-interested individual. However, when we today encounter the breakdown of pan-European solidarity, it is unclear how rational self-interest alone could prove to be the basis for the reconstruction of the European project. The crisis affecting the southern part of Europe in particular has little chance of resolution, at least on the economic side, without Germany radically changing its economic policy. It needs to heat up its economy to stimulate demand, which is intended to encourage imports (particularly from the south), tourism, etc. and reduce the level of German surpluses (currently 7 per cent of GDP). This may indeed bring some inflation to Germany but the implementation of the Fiscal Compact’s strategy of cuts (promoted primarily by Germany) will not save but destroy countries like Greece and further deepen Europe’s social and political crisis. In the process, it will further undermine solidarity and drastically restrict the social, economic, and political rights of citizens.
I am afraid that Joseph Stiglitz was right when he warned that by adopting the German model Europe is in danger of committing suicide. We are dealing with a Europe in which the distribution of power and wealth is grossly unequal.
In his book Ill Fares the Land Tony Judt correctly pointed out that the democratic left failed to provide responsible answers to the economic crises of 2008 and subsequent years. He called for a democratic state based on solidarity and ethical principles and pleaded for brakes to be placed on further privatisation of the state and its dissolution in the hands of global capitalism. Unfortunately, this appeal has fallen on deaf ears.
The situation in Europe has further deteriorated due to the consequences of some of the military adventures in which Europe (and in particular the US) have been involved in far-off lands. The civil war in Syria, including the proxy war taking place there between the superpowers, the consequences of the war in Afghanistan, the destruction of Libya, the climate change and poverty in Africa, and so on, have all led to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. More than a million immigrants came to Germany, hundreds of thousands flooded small Sweden, and many thousands attempted to settle in France, or in an Austria that has been losing its patience. And we should not forget the extreme burden placed on Greece and Italy due only to their geographical position.
Some individual immigrants have committed cruel and despicable terrorist acts. It has been frequently overlooked that many of these terrorists were second or even third generation immigrants who expressed their frustration at not being accepted in the countries in which their parents and grandparents sought haven, at not being able to find decent jobs, and at being forced to live in ghettoes, for example in the seedy suburbs of Paris or Brussels. These communities seething with anger, frustration, feelings of powerlessness, suffering discrimination, isolation, and so on are relatively easy and vulnerable targets for the recruiters of the reprehensible Islamic State, determined as it is to create havoc in Europe.
Large and powerful European states, especially former colonial powers, have clearly underestimated the need to consider all the necessary aspects of integration. Some countries have paid more attention to the needs of these communities (for example, Britain, or Sweden which is not a former colonial power) than others (for example, France or Belgium), but generally speaking the level of integration fell well short of what would be required to prevent major sources of tension and potential hatred.
I have to admit that the migration issue divides nations, generations, political parties, including the European Left (EL). The Party of European Socialists (PES) stresses the need to stand in solidarity with those fleeing war, poverty, and persecution. And it would highlight the moral duty as well as the legal commitment stemming from the 1951 Refugee Convention. In short, it holds that principles of solidarity, responsibility, and humanism should be unquestionably observed. This should translate into the fair sharing of responsibilities and solidarity between different EU Member States, including the full implementation of relocation and resettlement policies.
However, a number of socialist and social democratic parties have not accepted this position in their practical political decisions. And those which have, have experienced a certain loss of popular support. The issue has also divided ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe.
The position of European social democratic parties is currently quite dismal. Some of them have been wiped off the political map almost entirely and no longer have any influence at all (Poland, Greece); elsewhere their role is quite negligible (France, the Netherlands); others have faced some of their worst electoral results since World War II (Germany, Norway). In my own country, the Czech Republic, the CSSD (Czech Social Democratic Party), until 22 October 2017 a leading government party, is experiencing a terrible decline which is not only due to corruption scandals involving some of its politicians and to the incompetence of others but is also the result of its leaders not having jumped in time and convincingly onto the anti- immigrant populist bandwagon.
Generally speaking, the strong wave of fear has propelled ambitious politicians who proved able to turn new populist and nationalist groups into political parties, then using peoples’ fears and prejudices and their intolerance of anything foreign and unknown in their quest for power. This fear helped the post-Haider Freedom Party in Austria, which has been asked to join the government led by the youngest Prime Minister in Europe. In the Czech Republic this fear has blinded about 70% of the population.
In the EU the V41 countries opposed the compulsory quotas for the allocation of refugees to individual countries. The fact that they have been outvoted in this only helped further inflame the existing widespread distrust of the European Union. Paradoxically, even some leftist supporters of the CSSD and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) began to applaud policies advocated by Marine Le Pen’s Front National party in France, or by the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and by several other similar rightwing parties. I regard this as a very sad spectacle indeed.
I am, of course, aware that the positions of Eastern European politicians are based on different experiences and perceptions. You have to understand that we have no historical experience of immigrants from outside Europe, from different cultures, different religions, and different traditions, and thus we are vulnerable to media hysteria that generates fear, isolationism, extreme nationalism, and xenophobia. You may recall that in the 1920s and 30s, anti- Semites prevailed in regions without any Jews, and today anti-Muslims prevail primarily (but not exclusively) in countries where there are no (or almost no) Muslim communities. The fear of the unknown can be very great. Our history explains why we have not been prepared to accept larger number of migrants from distant foreign countries. We never had any opportunity to learn how to live with such citizens (with the Vietnamese being a certain exception), we have no colonial past, and we did not participate in the Western European economic miracle of the 1960s. We have no experience, but we have fear and prejudices. Other nations (for example the British) have learned to live with different ethnic groups for generations. This still lies ahead of us.
Let me take this opportunity to make clear that my own position differs from that of many of my compatriots (even if I understand the background of their viewpoints). I am obviously influenced by the fact that following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 I had to emigrate and then spent twenty years in the United Kingdom. There I met many immigrants, especially from Iraq and Syria. I was many times treated in London-based hospitals by doctors and nurses from India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan. My son Jan was elected to the magistrate of Sweden’s fourth largest city where both he and his wife, who works there in the municipality’s social affairs department, have rich experiences with immigrants. I perceive their own stories as more authentic than tabloid descriptions of Sweden’s allegedly blanket rejection of the wave of immigrants. I have also visited Syria, Jordan, Palestine (including Gaza), Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, and several poverty-stricken African countries.
Furthermore, Nazi anti-Semites killed my paternal grandmother and other relatives of my father in concentration camps. Members of the Israeli Army killed one of my Palestinian friends, and their tank ran over a young American peace activist who protested against illegal settlements (I share the UN’s assertion that these settlements violate international law) on behalf of a peace movement with which I cooperated during the 1970s and 80s. Both my Czech father and English mother have brought me up in the spirit of leftist values, which I refuse to give up. I find racists of all denominations and shades totally abhorrent. I reject any notion that one race or religion can reign supreme over all others.
The fear-mongering media campaign fuelled by irresponsible politicians seems paradoxically to have had its greatest effect in the Czech Republic where the government accepted only twelve immigrants. Many people do not seem to differentiate between asylum seekers and economic migrants. Furthermore, an increasing number of people seem to believe that the entire migration wave has been organised by the Islamic State or some other sinister terrorist organisation. As we know, the majority of immigrants are fleeing war, repression, or hunger and poverty. They listen to friends and neighbours or take advice from others on the social networks but are not guided by some invisible hand of a powerful worldwide conspirator. I believe that terrorist acts would have been committed even without a major migration wave because fanatical terrorists are convinced that they have to fight for their faith and against non-believers and heretics who reject their interpretation of religion as well as against the foreigners whom they blame for the disruption and subversion of their own countries.
We should remind ourselves that there was no major migration wave prior to the 2001 attack on the New York World Trade Center. The so- called Islamic State did not need any migrants to justify its murder of other Muslims.
Let me make clear that I do not wish to underestimate the dangers facing Europeans, European culture, and the wellbeing of citizens by a large influx of migrants from very different cultures, especially from those who refuse to accept the laws of their new countries and to try to peacefully integrate. If they commit crimes, they of course have to be punished according to the laws of the land. I am only warning against the danger of generalisations and simplifications, fuelled by fear and biased reporting.
I often recall my conversation with the former Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti. He pointed out that Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh but no one thought of blaming Sikhism (the seventh largest religion in the world) for this crime. Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a rightwing Zionist but no one thought of blaming Zionism, let alone all the Jews. In the US, in Oklahoma, mass murder was committed by a Christian but no one blamed his religion. However, when a crime is committed by a Muslim, then blame is laid on all forms of Islam. I have met a number of people to whom this criticism would apply. Last October in my own country about half a million people voted for the party of Japanese-born Tomio Okamura who blames Muslims and Islam for all the ills of this world.
We definitely need to tackle the reasons for the uncontrolled mass migration of recent times. Suffice it to say that the largest number of refugees come from countries that suffer from armed conflicts and wars. I believe that we should show solidarity to people who are attempting to escape places where people are shot, beheaded, or bombarded. They leave their homes to save their lives. They are escaping from the jihadists, from the radical fundamental Islamists, such as the adherents of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS or Daesh).
These dangerous fanatics have to be challenged and fought. Even as a life-long supporter of peace activities, I have no doubt that military action against the IS is fully justified. This war should even be intensified.
However, for this struggle to be successful in the long term, we need to analyse the reasons why such movements emerge in the first place and then attempt to prevent such developments in the future.
Such an analysis requires a critical perception of some of our own actions. It is not surprising that the roots of IS can be traced to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Members of the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ are co-responsible. The bombardment of Libya or Yemen also led to the conversion of many into fanatics who now hate Europeans and Americans.
It is only logical that the burden of the current wave of refugees should be more equitably spread across Europe. But what is fairness and justice in this case? Many people argue that the greatest responsibility lies with the states that caused the problem in the first place. The most guilty states have to come up with a firm multifaceted response to this crisis. Efforts should be made to rein in Saudi Arabia and end the war in Yemen as well as the chaos in Libya and the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq.
We can all recall military interventions that pretended to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction which no longer existed.
Many former colonial powers opened the door of their countries once their colonies were granted independence, but there their magnanimity or bad conscience stopped. As I mentioned, they did not try hard enough to integrate the newcomers who were frequently escaping poverty. Their children and grandchildren today live in poverty-stricken ghettoes where they nurture their anger and frustration.
Europe has to be reminded of its original values. Defending them, Europe will not commit suicide, as some claim but, on the contrary, will become stronger and more consistent and authentic. It has to acknowledge the tumours inside its own continent; it has to reject xenophobia, arrogance, extreme nationalism, elitism, and the selfishness of those in power. In fact, financing an enlightenment campaign not only against these phenomena, but also in favour of the principles of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, and multiculturalism would not go amiss, though I am aware that to advocate this approach today means to find oneself in a minority. This, of course, does not mean that Europe should be endlessly open. This should not be allowed. Europe has to guard its own Schengen borders, its culture, its values, its identity. Sensitive, informed, rational attitudes should prevail over prejudices of all kinds, from blanket rejection to thoughtless and naive openness.
Furthermore, the EU, the US, and Russia should continue to seek a political solution to the war in Syria. Following a political compromise that would result in a transitional government, state-wide elections supervised by the UN must be held within 18 to 24 months. The results would have to be fully respected, (even if Assad is re-elected) unlike earlier experiences in Algeria or Gaza.
Remarkably erroneous policies led to the destruction of Syria, which was once stable, prosperous, and the only secular Arab country. One of the West’s biggest allies, a very rich Saudi Arabia, is bombarding one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen. Another ally, Israel, continues to occupy the Palestinian West Bank in defiance of UN resolutions.
On the other hand, there is an obviously great need to significantly improve living conditions in the countries from which the immigrants are escaping. There needs to be major investments in the destabilised regions. The provision of food, healthcare, and above all security must be ensured. An adequate infrastructure is needed so that these countries can trade. Only trade, not aid, can help them emerge from the dangerous spiral of poverty.
Rich European countries should also channel their finances to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere in the region. In much better cooperation with the UN some effective help has to be offered Africa to fight extreme poverty and the consequences of climate change.
It is well known that more than half of the world’s population has incomes smaller than two US dollars per day, and more than a billion people have to survive with incomes smaller than one US dollar per day. The gap between the developed and the developing world is widening rather than closing. In many parts of the world people live in fear of suicidal terrorists or of state terrorism, but even more people fear extreme poverty.
I am also aware that about 40 per cent of the refugees – according to the UN – are economic migrants escaping from poverty who do not conform to the Geneva Convention rules and thus are not entitled to asylum in Europe. They should be returned to their home countries, but – I repeat – Europe and the US should help these countries economically and financially so that there will be no need for people to avoid hunger by fleeing to Europe.
Let me return to the theme of security in Europe. I believe that the future security of our continent is endangered by the current astonishing flourishing of authoritarian governments. Turkey is one such example. Erdoğan was elected in 2002 and hailed as the proof that one can be a Muslim but also a champion of democracy. At the end of the decade he started to adopt a more fundamentalist and authoritarian approach, until in 2013 there was the famous crackdown on thousands of protesters protecting Gezi Park in Istanbul from being replaced by a shopping mall. In 2014 he was accused, with his son, of involvement in corruption. He then accused the Gülen Movement, a spiritual movement led by an earlier ally, Fethullah Gülen who now lives in the US. In 2016 he used the attempted coup perpetrated by some military sectors against him as a pretext to suppress Gülenist and other dissidents. 60,000 people are in jail today, and a staggering 100,000 people have lost their jobs. The treatment of these people is ominous. They have also been banned from private employment, and their passports as well as those of their families have been annulled. Hundreds of judges, tens of thousands of teachers and university professors have been dismissed without any hearing.
It seems to me that Europe’s (and the US’) response was very muted partly because Turkey’s army is the second largest in NATO and the major powers believe that they need Turkey to play its role in Syria (where Turkey is fighting primarily for its own interests and more decisively against the Kurds than against the IS) but primarily because of the agreement with the EU, according to which Turkey is preventing a majority of immigrants from leaving its shores for Greece and thus for Europe.
The warning that the EU will not open its doors to Turkey’s membership left Erdoğan unmoved. He was glad to receive the generous financial compensation from the EU, and furthermore if Turkey stays outside the EU it can reintroduce the death penalty which Erdoğan wishes to use against his opponents.
Authoritarian governments are now finding fertile soil even inside the EU. Poland and Hungary are some of the main beneficiaries of the EU’s economic support. Poland joined the EU in 2004 and has received more than 100 billion dollars in various subsidies – which is twice as much as the Marshall Plan in current dollars, the largest transfer of money that has ever occurred in modern history. Yet the government has embarked on a firm path of dismantling democratic institutions (for example, the judicial system). Poland’s government is ignoring the EU’s appeals and warnings and is explaining to its citizens that the EU’s threats are a response to the Polish refusal to accept the compulsory quotas of Muslim immigrants. The rejection of the quotas is welcomed by the population in all four Visegrád countries. Now this rejection has a rational basis in the fact that the quotas cannot work in the Schengen area where the immigrants have the freedom to move to whichever country they wish. They obviously prefer Germany or Sweden, and not only because of the financial advantages, but who would wish to live in a country where the local population adamantly rejects you?
Shifting the argument to the issue of immigrants helps distract from the fact that Brussels’s target is the government’s authoritarian measures. From time to time some EU politicians threaten to cut subsidies to countries that do not conform to the EU’s rules. If such a threat is based on the assumed lack of solidarity given the rejection of quotas, then the Polish government is fully supported by all the other Visegrád governments as well as by all those who do not believe EU funds should be used as blackmail to pressure countries to accept immigrants. The argument against authoritarian measures gets eclipsed. Subsidies have not been cut; on the contrary, in the 2014-2020 budget there are another 60 billion dollars – half of what the world spends for development aid in nearly 150 countries.
Hungary has been governed since 2010 by a prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who is openly campaigning for ‘an illiberal democracy’ and sharply criticises European multicultural values. Just as Poland’s Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, Orbán is fairly silent about the EU’s criticism of the recent curtailment of some human and civic rights and freedoms, but he emphasises his refusal to accept any immigrants. Hungary, despite its small population (less than ten million, versus Poland’s 38 million) is the third largest recipient of EU subsidies at 450 dollars per inhabitant. One-third of the world’s populations live on less than that. In addition, Hungary received 2.4 billion euros from the budget of the EU’s Payment Assistance Program.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia share the same reluctance to accept immigrants from the Muslim world, but their governments continue to resist pressure to adopt more authoritarian policies of which there are nevertheless some in effect even there. In Slovakia, an extreme rightist party ,‘Peoples Party Our Slovakia’, led by Martin Kotleba, a Slovak politician with a distinctly brownish past, received 8 per cent of votes in the 2016 elections and has 14 MPs in the Slovak Parliament. In the Czech Republic, the ultra-nationalist anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic party ‘Freedom and Direct Democracy’ (SPD) led by Tomio Okamura received 10.64% per cent of votes in the October 2017 elections and has 22 MPs in the Czech Parliament where it and the Pirate Party occupy the third and fourth positions. The SPD party is, for example, closely allied with Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
Of course, anti-immigration parties have won lots of support in Western Europe as well; for example, Austria’s FPÖ received 26.9 per cent and has 51 MPs in the Austrian Parliament, making it the country’s third largest party. I have already mentioned France’s Front National and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom. Their popularity is disturbing but the governments of these countries have not yet adopted authoritarian features.
I am not saying that Erdoğan, Orbán, or Szydło are dictators. On the contrary, they are democratically elected, like Duterte in the Philippines or Mugabe in Zimbabwe and about thirty other authoritarian presidents in the world.
They have been elected primarily by older, less educated people from the regions, small towns, and villages. Many of them are very unhappy about their standard of living and living conditions, many are either unemployed or employed in unsatisfactory jobs, they are frustrated that their expectations have not been met, they are disappointed by the traditional parties (both on the left and the right), they fear for their future, and they are afraid of anything foreign, especially immigrants from other continents. They are suspicious of minorities and are easy prey for demagogues who cloak their ambitions in a cloud of extreme nationalism, patriotism, and xenophobia; and they tend to prefer rule by a strongman to democracy that may result in chaos and powerlessness. Many perceive themselves as victims of globalisation, which has produced extreme social and economic injustice. Ironically, many of them believe that rich and powerful oligarchs would be prepared to bring them social and economic justice.
All of this stratum strongly dislikes corruption, which is the most prominent problem of modern governments. However, the issue of corruption in politics has been instrumentalised by populists who have promised the electorate that they would stamp it out. In the Czech Republic this was one of Tomio Okamura’s main slogans. In the US Donald Trump shored up his electoral campaign with it and rode this wave all the way to the White House. After a few months of his presidency, it is becoming obvious that many of his policies will primarily hurt those poor and less educated people who voted for him.
The electoral profile of those who voted for Trump, Brexit, Erdoğan, and Europe’s populists is almost identical.
Younger voters, theoretically, could have changed this pattern but many of them have ceased being active in politics, because they feel left out and see parties as self-maintaining machines, ridden with corruption and inefficiency.
For me, the greatest divide runs between those who see the return to nationalism as the solution to their problems (which focuses their hostility on immigrants), and those who believe that their country, in an increasingly competitive world, would be better off if it integrates into international or regional organisations.
There is an urgent need to find new bases for mobilising Europeans not just against the current neoliberal strategies in their own countries but also at a pan-European level. Inward-looking ethnic nationalism in Europe has to be challenged, as it is clear that the protection of the nation-state in a Hobbesian sense cannot offer any guarantee of security or well-being to its citizens. An appeal to rationality produced by consensus would not suffice since the desired pan-European solidarity would challenge the power of many who benefit from the current system.
Given my own political convictions, I believe that cooperation and dialogue among left political parties is still possible and desirable. However, it is obviously necessary to promote pan-European cooperation between citizens’ associations, civil rights groups, NGOs, and some pro-European groups supporting change. Together we have to find ways of challenging the power of Europe’s financial oligarchy and economic elite without risking social disintegration, let alone violence. We have to struggle more consistently for greater participatory democracy, including participation in economic decision-making.
Supranational corporations should be placed under greater state control; we have to fight tax havens and evasion, fraud and corruption, raise corporate taxes, and enact a pan-European tax on wealth and all financial transactions. In sum, we have to support all measures that would separate business from politics. We need to re-establish the centrality of the social and to subordinate the economy to society, with the economy serving society and not the other way round.
This has been the programme of the Party of the European Left (EL). The Party of European Socialists (PES) still, from time to time, issues well- sounding appeals and exhortations. However, leftist parties are not faring well. In Hungary and Poland they are almost invisible. In the October 2017
Czech elections the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) fell from 14.91% in 2013 to only 7.76% (its worst result since its founding in 1921) and from 33 MPs to only 15. The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) fared even worse: from 20.45% in 2013 it fell to 7.27% and from 50 MPs to only 15. The Greens did not even get 1.5% despite having campaigned with quite an attractive programme, and their young radical leader Matěj Stropnický (son of the current Minister of Defence) immediately resigned. In Austria, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), despite having moved to the right, narrowly kept its second place only thanks to correspondence votes; it is now out of government. In France, the Socialist Party has to fight for its survival. In Germany, the SPD completely failed to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the leftist Die LINKE lost some of its votes to the populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). And I could continue for some time with sad statistics of this sort. For me the only slim hope is now embodied in Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party. He may win the next elections once the dashed hopes of Brexit become clear to the majority of voters.
Euroscepticism is on its rise. This is partly understandable given the frequently inept policies of the EU dominated by German and French bankers and financial oligarchs; it is partly the result of the image promoted by the anti-European media. In the Czech Republic the refusal to accept the euro is justified by referring to its failure in Slovakia (despite the fact that Slovakia is doing well and its citizens are fairly happy with the euro) as well as by the fear that once in the Eurozone Czechs would be asked to contribute to Greek efforts to reduce the debt which can never be repaid. There is no feeling of solidarity with the Greeks who are struggling under the weight of the debt (which they have inherited from the previous rightist government) and bearing the brunt of the influx of immigrants.
I remember one of the speeches delivered by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras when I was in Greece attending a conference organised by Syriza. Tsipras then expressed his surprise that Europe with its 500 million citizens is reluctant to accept 1 to 2 million immigrants while Greece with is only 8 million citizens agreed to look after 47,000 immigrants. At the same time, Greece has to deal with a further circa 40,000 immigrants who became stranded in Greece when Macedonia closed its borders to prevent the refugees from travelling to their desired destination – Germany. Tsipras then stressed that a majority of the immigrants do not wish to stay in Greece, despite its warm weather, because its unemployment hovers around 25% while Germany’s is only about 4%. (It is the second lowest in the EU – only the Czech rate is lower). With tongue in cheek, Tsipras voiced his surprise that Europeans are more afraid of the immigrants than of the impact of capital that enslaves so many. He said that ‘Europe is facing a shock’ as it encourages states to close their borders and surround Europe with walls and barbed wire, while within the states we see the emergence of ‘monsters, movements full of hatred’. The ideal of an integrated and united Europe is receding from the horizon. Through its policies the EU has created space for extreme-right and Eurosceptic movements. Tsipras concluded by pleading for an all-European alliance of political forces that would be willing to create a ‘common democratic front’ based on humanism, justice, democracy, and the principles of mutual solidarity. But Europe’s left remained deaf.
I personally believe that Greece should be offered both financial and material help to enable it to cope with the multitude of refugees on its territory. This help should include a major cut in its existing debt. It seems to me that even the IMF is beginning to understand this. Chancellor Merkel should recall Germany’s own role in the creation of the Greek debt and prevail over her Finance Minister Schäuble to implement such measures as soon as possible.
Europe is today at a crossroads. The danger of taking the wrong road looms very high. I believe that we should recall the words of Stéphane Hessel who reminded us that the Resistance had long ago fought against the ‘corrupting power of money’ and that ‘the wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of the state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged’. These words spoken years ago are still actual today.
The world now knows an unprecedented explosion of inequality, which is helping nationalism and xenophobia to become a central part of the political debate. The left should wake up and remember its responsibilities. It needs to stop fighting other leftist parties or even various factions inside the individual parties. Such a luxury is no longer available to us. Europe has to leave its crossroads by taking a turn to the left.
I have to admit that I am still an old-fashioned leftist. I would like to see the emergence of a coalition of some of the traditional European leftist parties, although I am aware of the multitude of obstacles on that road. In the Czech Republic I respected many of the steps advocated in their programmes by the Greens and even by the Pirate Party. I am open-minded and am prepared to support a leftwing turn even towards an unknown new political system that may replace the present unsustainable one, if it is based on the values of social justice, cooperation and peace, solidarity, and genuine democracy. It would be wonderful if such an informal movement could reinvigorate the original ideals of Social Europe, that is, a Europe that is integrated, democratic, ecologically responsible, and socially just. We have to challenge the simple narrative of extreme ethnic nationalism. We have to challenge those who spread fear. If we do not embark on that road I fear that it may be difficult in the future to avoid conflicts, wars, and bloodshed. I am sure that the readers of these lines will not wish to take that risk. So let us work together and put the left back on the political map of Europe!