A clarification at the outset: ‘Europe’ is used here both as an abbreviation for the European Union and a term for ongoing integration processes, in other words, ‘Europeanisation’. It goes without saying that the European continent takes in more than the Member States of the Union, and these countries can in no way claim to represent the ‘correct’ Europe. The invocation of ‘values’ that are supposed to be shared among EU members is also doubtless not to be taken seriously; at least not in the sense that other non-Member States do not share these as well. Furthermore, countries like Hungary and Poland, with their right-wing governments, are in the process of becoming authoritarian-nationalist regimes. It is thus difficult to come up with a normative bracket in which to fit the EU as a ‘community of values’. Finally, even if the EU states really did form a community of values it is obvious that European policies by no means faithfully reflect them. An example will suffice: Social justice is valued highly, but the debtor states of Europe’s South experienced nothing of the kind when they were subjected to the ‘rescue’ programmes.
The challenges confronting Europe are enormous. The optimism at the turn of the millennium has disappeared without a trace; instead we are facing a multiple crisis whose solution would require some decisiveness. A precondition is the capacity to describe crises and conflicts so that they are also resolvable, instead of seeking refuge in abstractions that make Europe’s survival or collapse a question of the right or wrong attitude. Convictions and beliefs are of course not irrelevant, but social conflicts cannot be reduced to conflicts of belief, certainly not to conflicts of attitude.
Today we are told that we are facing two cultural alternatives. On the one side are the representatives of an open, democratic, and liberal culture, based on a set of traditions and open to modernisation processes; on the other side are their adversaries who are based in less humane traditions and doubtless would like to axe liberal culture. They preach hatred and exclusion and the sealing off of society from outside influences, which they see as harmful. Consequently, they are sceptical of any modernisation. As opponents of liberalism they are authoritarian.
Liberalism has its allies only in the West since it is a Western invention; the authoritarians allegedly have allies throughout the world – these can be either Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, or, when needed, Xi Jinping. To make this handful of people into a threat to the ‘free world’ Kaczyński and Orbán and some contenders for government power, like Marine Le Pen, are added. Because liberalism is so isolated and at the same time so much better than authoritarianism those who represent it have to join forces. Who could say no to this? What leftist would want to say no?
And yet this picture is not only simple; it is too simple. Liberalism’s weaknesses and democracy’s vulnerability are not new. It is the policy of recent decades, by no means only adopted by conservatives, which has led to less acceptance of democratic politics and its institutions. And there is a secondary aspect of this ideological picture: Since the authoritarians are set on walling-off their societies, the others have to be still more set on Europe, globalisation, even free trade, and much more. At this point, if not earlier, we have to realise that this picture is misleading. This is so because there are different ideas of how the European Union should be constructed; Wolfgang Schäuble embodies only one such idea. For him Germany is not only the EU’s biggest economy; his conclusion is, first, that this status must absolutely be maintained and, second and most important, that the EU institutions have to be shaped so as to ensure it; this is his hegemonic economic policy. The same applies to globalisation. Big capitalist corporations have long been organised transnationally because the systemic integration of the economy takes place within a world market. However, there are extremely different notions of how this process can be shaped. Is the creation of metropolises and peripheries inevitable? Is an equalisation possible – are there alternative development models?
Free trade was ultimately always more a matter of ideology than a good cause. Britain’s economy could only historically become what was then the leading capitalist power as a result of punitive tariffs and other protective measures. But when Britain achieved this status opinion changed – now free trade was to favour everyone who had not yet attained a comparable status. Ricardo published his theorem of comparative advantages. But today the term free trade has another connotation. This is particularly evident in investment protection agreements. Originally, these agreements were deals made between states that could not achieve or guarantee sufficient legal certainty. Are Canada, the US, and the EU, as TTIP and CETA participants, so insecure legally? It is soon obvious that this is not about the rule of law but about a separate right alongside national, EU, and international law, with which corporations and banks can make their interests prevail against democratic states. This is an active, politically organised weakening of statehood and, furthermore, a subjection of democratic politics to capitalist profit interests.
Now, one could say that constitutions and de facto state constructs can always also be read as the result of negotiations through which different political goods are weighed. Then what is wrong per se with also throwing profit interests onto these scales? Abstractly considered, there is nothing wrong with it. But then there would have to be another desirable good that would justify including protection of profits. To listen to Sigmar Gabriel, who was the main official to represent Germany in the TTIP and CETA negotiations, we hear an extremely vague promise: that there were also opportunities. How I would like to have heard what these opportunities were and for whom.
Large capitalist corporations have networked humanity and so have made the national social question into a social question of humanity. The growing number of refugees is a consequence. And for this neither they nor the governments have solutions.
For all these reasons the idea of ‘liberalism vs. authoritarianism’, even though it has shaped public discussion, is too simple. A leftist will always clearly say ‘yes’ to democracy yet just as clearly say ‘no’ to Schäuble’s hegemonic policy or the modern free trade agreements. Holding high the banner of liberalism is certainly defensible. But to hold it too high, to believe it would solve all our problems, can quickly lead to flattening out important political alternatives.
Certainly, there are political forces within the EU that do not want an integrated Europe. In Great Britain they have already been so successful that Brexit is now being negotiated. Some interpret Brexit as the beginning of the end of the EU. In my view, the way of dealing with the Syriza government – threatening Greece with expulsion from the Eurozone without any legal basis – already showed that something was wrong with this EU. So here too we could recognise the beginning of the end. For others, the way of dealing with the refugees, too, is a sign that the EU is incapable of rationally solving a humanitarian problem of global dimensions. The same can be said of Catalonia.
The attitude towards the refugees, the attitude towards the common currency, and the attitude towards integration in general are three issues that are shaping the debate over the EU, also within the left.
However, if we take a step back and glance at the past something else is also clear: Substantial treaty changes – from Maastricht to Lisbon – were always exposed to high risks from referendums. The ratification process for the Constitutional Treaty was stopped; instead, a ‘revised’ version of the same was published under another trademark (the Treaty of Lisbon). This made possible a significant reduction of the risk from referendums. And this was also the path adopted for the Fiscal Compact. It was declared to be an international treaty that, by pure chance, all EU states had concluded, which would nevertheless exist alongside the treaties constituting European primary law, and thus had absolutely nothing to do with European primary law. Therefore there was no Treaty change with its elaborate ratification procedures. At the same time, however, the Fiscal Compact was extremely closely connected to the EU. Here the risk of referendums was circumvented. What we see is that Europe’s leading politicians have a problematic relationship to democracy. The Fiscal Compact has enormous effects on present and future policy and the possibilities for democratic action and decision-making, but in terms of democratic theory it was the low-cost option that was adopted.
This is another issue in the EU debate: its deficit of democracy – which is not at all to say that there is no democracy in the EU and its institutions, nor does it mean that the Treaty of Lisbon has not implemented further elements of democracy. It only means that there are conflicts between what still lacks democratic legitimation and what has actually been achieved. A possibility like the ‘Trilateral Dialogue’ is a problem. But it becomes a giant problem if a debate on a matter like the TTIP, which dominates public attention, is suddenly discontinued and disposed of via the Trilateral Dialogue only because there is a risk that TTIP could be defeated in the European Parliament.
But there are also limits. In its Lisbon judgement, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court determined that the EU is, in contradistinction to the Federal Republic of Germany, not a democratic republic and that there is therefore a limit to integration. If the EU were – in any way – to evolve into something like a federal and democratic republic, this would have consequences: The formal sovereignty of nation-states making up the EU would come into conflict with the democratic claims to sovereignty of the European institutions. At this point it becomes clear that the problem of finality has to be linked to the problem of democracy in order to sensibly discuss towards what goal the EU should actually evolve.
The democracy deficit did not become a problem as long as the European integration processes were more put up with than addressed. Presumably it was the introduction of the euro, eastward expansion, and the Freedom of Movement for Workers that changed this. Finally, there were several European Court of Justice judgements that weakened the position of workers and trade unions in favour of the free movement of capital. In addition, the EU was increasingly given as a reason or excuse when a mayor or regional or national politician had to justify one thing or another. Since the EU as an issue can no longer be hidden from public awareness, its problem of democracy, too, is a constant issue that is always used in questioning the legitimacy of European decisions.
Be that as it may, there are three possible approaches resulting from the realisation that there is a deficit of democracy: The first approach idealises the nation-state as the only framework, historically and in principle, of democratic institutions; the second sees the future in a democratic and federative republic with the nation-states as a historical relic; the third more or less deals with the current reality and pragmatically tries to sidestep the need for, and requirements of, legitimation, but calls for urgent reforms.
This complex of problems can be correlated to rightist and leftist positions. On the left there are integration sceptics who mostly take off from the neoliberal modernisations carried on by the EU. In this view, only the nation-states can erect a bulwark against neoliberal pressure. At first sight, this position may seem plausible. However, it overlooks the fact that within the EU national interests of specific states are increasingly being carried out against those of others: Germany, for example, determined refugee policy in Europe very much in its own interest; the same can be said of euro rescue. Moreover, this position also overlooks the fact that the national economies are already so strongly integrated through the world and European market that to govern them in the interests of expanding the welfare state on the national level appears questionable. Right-wing integration sceptics believe that it would be the greatest disaster in the world if nation-state sovereignty were to be lost. It is not clear here what this is to consist of. In the wake of the wave of refugees sovereignty meant sovereign control of borders. Sometimes culturalism is mixed in with this: the culture of the Germans is German, French that of the French, and so forth, and it should stay that way. That this never was the case is of no interest to them. There is also a left integration-friendly position. Its premise is that the nation-state governing of capitalist economies has by now become a fiction and this needs to be reconstructed on the European level, together with the welfare state. Here too there is the question of how this could work. In the end new institutions would be needed. But then it is precisely these institutions which would have to be fought for. That the Treaty ‘prohibits’ anything is a weak argument. If that were the case then neoliberal ‘euro-rescue’ policy could also not have existed. Alongside political power, institutional imagination is needed. Then of course there are right-wing, to be precise, neoliberal, proponents of integration. But their image of integration comprises a ‘strong’ centre and a ‘weak’ periphery, also known as the ‘two-speed Europe’. This position is represented, among others, by politicians like Wolfgang Schäuble.
The current Brexit negotiations may even reinforce this position. Great Britain is seeking a situation in which it has free access to the single market but without having to agree to all the obligations that usually come with it. Different EU states attach different ideas to European integration. If Great Britain even partially gets its own way this would strengthen exit aspirations within the EU. In any case, new situations would arise, some would strive for greater distance from the EU, others for less. That would accommodate Schäuble’s ideas of a ‘core Europe’. The integration concept of the neoliberals is, in substance, a divided Europe.
However, this brings up an important point: The single market has no integrative effect if by it we mean that the national economies of the EU are moving closer together. If we want true integration, that is, beyond the freedom of movement for capital, we cannot leave this to the market alone.
I have been president of the Party of the European Left (EL) since December 2016. This organisation was founded when we lived in much quieter times. Neoliberal ideas, it is true, were still widely accepted then, and much less contested than they are now, but at the same time there was hardly any premonition of the severity of the crises that we are now facing.
The organisational structure elected at the time, with its strong confederalism, cannot be understood without reference to the Communist International (Comintern). The Comintern was founded as a world party strongly centred in the Soviet Union. The communist parties of other countries were in a sense national branches of this world party. This centralism was perhaps at first understandable in view of the collapse of the Second International; nevertheless, it was excessive if for no other reason that it undermined the principle of democracy. In whatever way we assess this in detail, the fact remains that there was a lot of scepticism around the founding of the EL regarding centralist ambitions. This explains the confederal tendency, the principle of consensus.
I do not believe that we should change anything in this organisational structure because changes would not alter the problems with which the EL has to contend. The first problem is the weakness of the left in Europe. This is evident, for example, in the organisational level of the EL parties. Although in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and in some Southern European countries, parties to the left of social democracy are represented in parliaments the situation is not very bright in Eastern Europe. The EL parties have diverse historical origins and also orientations. It is above all the latter, the differing programmatic orientations – rejecting any crude characterisations of these – that does not make it easy to move the EL forward. But even where the EL parties could establish stable parliamentary representation they tend to be among the smaller parties. The exceptions to this are Syriza and, if it were a member of the EL, Podemos. Here we should not forget AKEL, the EL observer party from Cyprus. Otherwise, the left parties are important voices but not exactly powerful. And as always: the less clarity there is about what to do the more this is compensated by a lot of discussion.
In my view, discussions, although they as such are not a bad thing, often have the function of masking failure. When Syriza came to power in January 2015 there was great rejoicing. When, due to the heavy coercion to which it was subjected by Schäuble and the ECB, it had to abandon its previous course, debates on a ‘left GREXIT’, a ‘Plan B’, etc. began. Here a certain amount of delusion was being acted out. The German left was obviously too weak to stop Schäuble from doing what he did. But it did not want to believe it. Instead, it preferred to bluster about what the Greek government should have done – which always has consequences for those who are governed! This is not only ideological delusion; it is also German arrogance – though now from the left. I think that if Germany’s Die LINKE had gone beyond verbal solidarity and, in its practical life, had been more closely connected to Syriza’s activities, there would not have been this kind of arrogance.
A first step towards this kind of closer connection, not only to Syriza but also to other EL parties, can be taken by addressing and discussing important contested issues. This will not lead to a split; it will lead to more understanding for each other and – hopefully – also to more coherence in the long term. In part, this is already happening. Diverse EL parties have long been organising conferences on specific issues, inviting speakers from partner parties. In this way we come into conversation with each other.
But it also makes sense for the EL executive to organise these discussions. Onsite support in electoral campaigns is also important. Here there is above all a ‘natural’ obstacle – language. It is true that most speak – however haltingly – a bit of English. But I do see this impediment.
I already referred to this: capitalist actors such as corporations and large private banks do not operate within national markets; they operate on a world scale. This is nothing new. But it is important because in this way they are well able to evade measures aimed at more political governance of the capitalist economy – rather, they can do so as long as the political framework remains only national.
We cannot operate simultaneously with two political slogans: ‘fight corporate power!’ and ‘back to the nation-state!’ We have to choose one of them and give up the other. But although today we do have an economy integrated through the transnational market, which is what economic ‘globalisation’ means in the first place, we have no adequately strong policy on the international level, not to mention a ‘world government’. There is, indeed, something described as ‘global governance’, but this is vague, and not without reason. Here there are various actors at work: large industrial nations and political structures like the EU, but also non-governmental organisations with an international scope. Alongside these there are institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO, but also emergent structures in Asia, with China at the centre. In this very mobile constellation a left can exert influence, at least if it wants to.
But this can only succeed if it throws all national narrow-mindedness overboard and really starts to exert influence in the EU. To do this it has to acquire coherence. Questions like those I have posed here require urgent discussion in my view. Otherwise we will get no further and certainly not forward.