After the Paris attacks, Europe froze into a winter of icy fear. But contrary to the media’s image, the threat, which is exploited to enforce surveillance and tightened border controls, is at least as internal as it is external. The arrested terrorists’ papers were all in order, they moved about legally in the Schengen area, and could buy their weapons here. They found their base in the peripheries of the large cities that were abandoned by the political system and where the state is only experienced through police repression. There, where hopeless social conditions are combined with the lack of democracy, agitation finds fertile ground. Politically, too, Europe’s problem lies primarily within. The goal and legitimacy of European integration is in crisis. The connection between the proclaimed goals, the deployed means, and the visible results has been ruptured, and the attempt to hide this behind the rhetoric of war and military activism will lead to the loss of whatever credibility is left.
Historians are likely to remember 2015 as a turning point. From January to July it seemed possible that through rational arguments and supported by a pan-European solidarity movement Greece’s left government could win over most particularly Europe’s social democratic heads of government. In the OXI expressed by the Greek people in the 5 July referendum, democracy triumphed over fear. A Greek springtime seemed to be opening up. But winter came exactly one week later, not with tank divisions but from the combined violence of the European Central Bank and the Euro Group. The failed ideas  of austerity were confirmed in the subjection of a country that represents no more than 2 per cent of the population and economic output of the EU.
Christian democrats and social democrats, who (still) govern both main countries and the institutions of the EU, have rejected the policy change demanded by Alexis Tsipras. In order to continue as they have been doing they want to introduce an authoritarian centralism into the EU. On 22 June, as the negotiations with the Greek government headed towards their denouement, EU Commission president Juncker presented a plan for the future of the European Union: Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union, commonly referred to as the Five Presidents’ Report. The goal is to reconstruct the EU, from now until 2025, so as to prevent confrontation with and within the institutions from becoming public, as happened in the case of Greece. And for this they are prepared to pay a high political price: the political space denied to Tsipras has been occupied since the early summer of 2015 by Orbán and the radical right whose discourse is the antithesis of the left’s. Their target is not the austerity policy carried out in the name of the EU but European integration itself, and their goal is a national Europe rather than a social one.
The new right is not as new as it would appear. In some cases, the ties between it and the old fascist right are evident. In other instances, right-wing radical and right-wing extremist parties exist alongside each other (FIDESZ and Jobbik in Hungary and PiS and Kukiz 15 in Poland). Lumping these phenomena together leads to overlooking the new factors and confronting the parties of the new right exclusively with traditional anti-fascist rhetoric. This cannot work.
The right-wing radical parties the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party were the big winners in the parliamentary elections held in Finland and Denmark this spring; in November Poland elected a right-wing nationalist Prime Minister; in September Viktor Orbán captured the EU’s political agenda by building border fences. We have to analyse this carefully. It is not the arrival of more than a million refugees at the EU’s outer borders that provoked the political crisis, in the course of which the axis of political discussion shifted still further to the right, but the incapacity of the governments and the European institutions to reach a consensus between the countries and within their societies around the practical organisation of a refugee policy that is solidary and observes human rights. The parties of the political centre are eroding because they are identified with the prevailing ills.
Until 2009 Poland had been governed by its social democrats; in 2011 they suffered a crushing defeat, and in 2015 they lost their parliamentary representation. In Hungary, the social democratic MSZP, which governed until 2010, is under 10 per cent in all current opinion polls. Certainly, in both countries the after-effects of the system change play an important role. However, in Austria we see a similar tendency with the conservatives and social democrats together scoring only slightly more than 50 per cent in the regional elections held in fall 2015, while polls see the FPÖ nationwide in first place. Finally, in France, even François Hollande’s nationalistic war rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist attacks could not head off the Socialists’ debacle in the December regional elections.
The political landscape is polarised, but this dynamic is not due only to the radical right. There is a counter-tendency. Even under the catastrophic conditions of a third Memorandum, Syriza could hold its own in the September elections as the governing party; in Portugal the socialists, against the resistance of the state president and the EU Commission, formed a government supported in parliament by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, which has already introduced its first measures to mitigate austerity policy. In Spain, Podemos, a new radical left party which arose from a large social movement, has managed to smash the bi-partisan system within only three years of its foundation. Possibly also of great significance is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who will likely run against the Conservatives in the 2020 national elections.
1. Parliamentary elections 2015
Country (electoral month)
% of votes
% of votes
Red-Green Alliance/Unity list
Danish People’s Party
KKE (Communist Party of Greece)
LAE (Popular Unity)
Law and Justice Party
Party of Labour
Swiss Peoples’ Party
2. Provincial elections 2015
% of votes
% of votes
Austria (4 provinces)
France (first round, December)
Front de Gauche
In the elections held in 2015, including the regional elections in Austria and France, left parties, despite the outstanding electoral success in Greece and Spain, received a weighted average of 11 per cent, while those on the radical right received 22 per cent.
European politics is approaching a critical juncture, which begs comparison with the inter-war years. Antonio Gramsci characterised as an interregnum the unsettling of existing certainties that functioned to hold together the state, that is, the dissolution of the hegemony of specific concepts and ideologies: ‘The great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Two decades later, the Hungarian-Austrian economic historian Karl Polanyi described the raging political struggle in the 1920s and 1930s between two diametrically opposed ways out of the crisis: on the one side, socialism, which rejected the ruling classes in both its reformist and revolutionary variants and, on the other side, fascism, which left their privileges untouched and to which they therefore surrendered. In the latter Polanyi saw one of two possible reactions to the failure of the ‘utopian endeavor’ of erecting societies and international relations on the basis of a ‘self-regulating market system’.
Today, again, it is the frustration spreading throughout the popular strata that allows the radical right to present itself as the antagonistic option vis-àvis the political establishment. As the popular Argentinian political scientist Ernesto Laclau writes, populism consists in the discursive production of an opposition between the people and the elites. But here there is an analytical gap: no description of the rebellion to which right-wing radical parties incite is complete which does not take account of its characteristic relation to the dominant order and its crisis. The anti-system rhetoric of right-wing populism is not aimed at a social revolution. Its essence is to stabilise the existing social inequality by authoritarian means. Right-wing radical parties have a rebellious appearance, but what is involved is a conservative rebellion that leaves the existing property and power relations intact.
Populism, with its mystified concept of ‘the people’, cannot simply be inverted and activated in the sense of left hegemony, which must instead aim at rational knowledge of material interests and power relations. The way of thinking from which right-wing populism draws its discursive material is that of reactionary prejudices. When Gramsci uses the term ‘national-popular’ he means basing oneself on the rational elements of generally diffused world outlooks – not in the sense of a unilateral accommodation to common sense but as a catharsis, an intellectual and moral renewal. This is the opposite of nationalism and populism.
That is why for Gramsci the struggle for power is not limited to the conquest of the state but requires the acquisition of the necessary knowledge and cultural formation on the part of the people. He arrived at this formulation in part by critically reworking Niccolò Machiavelli’s writings, although it would be erroneous to interpret him as a kind of discursive Machiavelli.
In Hungary, it is clear how a right-wing radical party secures its power through authoritarian changes made in the state. There is a similar process underway now in Poland. Both cases involve the previous bloc being driven out of power by a new one whose cohesive element is authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism. This also has a European dimension. The coming to power of right-wing radical parties is not a development taking place in parallel among states but is a European development. The point of convergence towards which the concepts of these parties tend is their antagonism to the specific arrangement of national relations institutionalised in the European Union, which distinguishes today’s Europe from that of the inter-war period. Just as right-wing populism in general indicates a crisis of democracy, at the European level it represents a crisis of integration. Nationalism is both the distorted projection surface of an economic and social crisis and the expression of a deficient democracy. The radical left has to respond to both on both levels – the national and the European.
The radical left is thus facing a complicated challenge: It has to oppose the march towards authoritarian neoliberalism, with which Europe’s elites are responding to the crisis, just as much as it must oppose the Renaissance of nationalism that the radical right is extolling as the alternative. And this kind of navigation between Scylla and Charybdis requires dialectical agility.
The European Union and its predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community, EURATOM, EMU, the European Economic Community, and the European Community, were never the projects for peace and human rights they claimed to be. One can only be disappointed if one is deluded in the first place.
But illusion is the material on which all foundation myths are built. For this reason, the radical left cannot retreat from a European perspective on politics. Already before the First World War, the left was interested in European unity as an alternative to nationalism. However, the conception the communists had under Lenin of an unconditional application of the right of nations to self-determination carried the day over the cosmopolitan conceptions of Rosa Luxemburg and of Otto Bauer who proposed a European federation based on national-cultural autonomy. But the nation-state principle anchored in the 1918 peace treaties proved to be a disastrous bomb that exploded into fascism and war.
It was thus logical that anti-fascists of all parties wanted to see the new Europe united and socialist, as we read in the Manifesto of Ventotene written in 1941 by the Communist and resistance fighter Altiero Spinelli.
This hope was dashed when the Cold War split Europe into two hostile halves. The economic integration of western Europe proved to be compatible with social progress, at least as long as there was broad social consensus for it within the countries. This changed in the mid-1970s in the wake of the capitalist crisis.
Europe’s present acute crisis had a long period of latency. Through the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, a currency union was established according to the standards of the German Bundesbank. Neoliberalism became de facto – and with the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon de jure – the fundamental norm of the EU. Whenever its implementation met with resistance the screws of authoritarian governance were tightened. Thus its 2011 reform, the Stability and Growth Pact, and the European Fiscal Compact, which the Member States of the Euro Group were required to import into their legal systems, were symptoms of a deteriorating crisis. Each step was the result of political decisions taken with the consensus of the governing parties in the EU and the countries. The 18 heads of state and government of the Euro Group, which on 13 July 2015 forced Greece into a new round of austerity, could not hide behind economic constraints or European treaties. Theirs was a politically motivated decision to have a country made economically defenceless serve as a warning to others. And Europe’s social democrats did nothing to prevent it.
Europe’s contemporary political and institutional form was not what the radical left had wished. Even if it has to move within this framework it cannot afford in any way to misunderstand this as its Europe. The left also has to deconstruct, geographically and in terms of international law, the confusing narrative according to which the European Union is identical with Europe. The European unity for which the left is struggling will not consist of an increasingly greater extension of the EU’s territory and sphere of influence. In this respect, the military crisis in the Ukraine provides ample material for critical reflection.
Despite this, the obvious failure of neoliberal integration should not mislead us into any ambiguity in terms of European unity. What relationships between European countries do we consider to be the most appropriate for tackling the big problems – the economic crisis, solidarity with the refugees, climate change, security, etc.? A Europe of 28, 35, or 50 national currencies, nation-states, and border regimes in which the most powerful countries compete with all their means for supremacy? Is that the way we imagine the international environment in the single countries for social progress and transformation?
We want a Europe in which a Thessaloniki Programme can be implemented – this is how a French trade-unionist expressed it at a transform! seminar. Countries in which parliamentary majorities are available for this purpose are still exceptions. The defeat that the Greek government had to swallow in the negotiations with the Euro Group shows what the current limits are. In retrospect we know that from a position of weakness no break is possible within the European institutions. Despite this, the Syriza government has for the time being survived and kept open the possibility of a comeback under more favourable conditions.
Qualitative leaps in the relations of force are possible, but in quite a few European countries the trend is to the right. This will deepen the divisions between regions and countries. The challenge is to find a strategic answer to this fragmentation of Europe without falling into the traps of nationalism.
Programmes cannot substitute for strategy. Solidarity and self-interest demand that the radical left struggles to make it easier to keep bridgeheads to another Europe alive. If the EU, as a whole and not in the short term, can be set on a new course the strategic issue would be an expansion of the political possibilities nationally.
Even a debate on the euro or an exit from the EU is now no longer taboo. It is not impossible that in individual cases and under certain conditions this could in fact increase the political room for manoeuvre. But as a programme of the whole European left this could only help us if we also believed that the major problems facing societies today could be better solved without institutionalised, international cooperation. However, this is irrational, and it was never a left outlook. What is more, the nationalist terrain is occupied. Can anyone believe that we could compete, precisely with the right, in this sphere? Aside from objections based on principle, historical and contemporary examples show how hopeless such an attempt would be.
It is doubtless true that without an end to austerity – and without a broad pan-European movement against austerity and for socio-ecological reconstruction – nationalism cannot be defeated. However, the crisis requires more than dealing with the debt, more than redistribution and the implementation of a new industrial and growth policy. It requires a political change.
The popular sovereignty that was wrested from Europe’s dynasties through revolutions has not been won at the European level. Responsibility for this lies not in the absence of a European demos but in the resistance of the elites who do not want their privileges threatened by real democracy. The occasional ground that the European Parliament has managed to gain in recent years does not change this reality. Democracy is indivisible, and so the consequences of deficient democracy on the European level are not confined to the European level. The confusing combination of technocracy, intergovernmentalism, and constrained parliamentarism enables governments not only to be immune to parliamentary control on the European level but also to control by their national parliaments.
At both levels, the European and country levels, parliamentarism suffers from a well-calculated ineffectiveness that gives free rein to those who pursue their interests through free trade and deregulated financial markets. It disappoints and incapacitates those who need the protection of democracy and who therefore would have to be its protagonists. The gap created in this way has been filled by nationalism and populism, whose rise cannot be stopped by pan-Europeanism, however well-meaning it is, or an appeal to political correctness as long as politics does not change.
What is decisive is that the radical left rejects the false dichotomy of European integration versus national self-determination. It is indeed so that under conditions of globalised capitalism, national self-determination can only be exercised where space is created for it by democratically institutionalised, transnational cooperation. But it is equally true that the only kind of Europe that can be considered democratic is the Europe that links supranational democracy to the respect of national self-determination. It only makes sense to think of national and transnational democracy as reciprocal conditions.
This principle needs to be concretised through a transparent, functionally sensible division of authority. This is not a question of experts arguing over the depoliticised niceties of constitutional law; it is the clash of opposed interests.
In those areas in which globalised capitalism creates a need for transnational policies – banking oversight, supra-regional investment and infrastructure policy, ecological and social standards, taxation of profits, etc. – it is not primarily the interests of states that are confronting each other, as the present institutional arrangement of the EU would make it appear, but the interests of antagonistic social actors. Only in a sovereign European Parliament, directly elected on the basis of a unified proportional system, can their conflicts be argued out transparently and democratically also at the European level.
Here governments dupe parliaments and the public in passing off negotiations between national interests, such as occur in the Council of the European Union and its connected bureaucracy, as European policy. They prove to be the descendants of the Holy Alliance with Wolfgang Schäuble as their Metternich.
The pan-European perspective is not the only perspective for a European politics. A post-national age, with the withering away of the state, is not in the offing. This indisputable fact, however, is no justification for the control of the EU by the national governments through the Council of the European Union, which is not a parliamentary organ and therefore is shielded from democratic political contestation.
This mechanism shapes political antagonisms into antagonisms between states that appear to be between peoples. Greece against the 18 members of the Euro Group – rather than austerity against a European New Deal – is the way the fronts were portrayed in the meetings between January and July. Here it became apparent that in terms of the Treaties all Member States of the EU are equal but in reality some are more equal than others and one more so than all others. Instead of unifying, the neoliberal fundamental norm of the EU split its members socially and economically. Anyone who seeks the causes of Europe’s growing nationalisms cannot overlook these facts.
A developed democracy can only exist in the EU if this system is abolished and the Council of the European Union is replaced by what would be a second legislative body: a parliamentary assembly of Member States, nations, and national minorities, whose composition – via direct election or delegation by the parliaments – would be representative of the political forces active in the countries and therefore enable an open and transnational process of opinion formation.
But, in view of the existing political relations of force and their foreseeable development, what would the purpose be of a debate over the institutional architecture of a democratised EU?
The fact is that the EU itself has now been called into question. If the idea of Europe’s peaceful integration is to be protected from growing nationalism, then its meaning has to be redefined. But the debate over the purpose and goal of the EU cannot factor out the multifaceted question of democracy. The radical left is headed towards confrontation with the European institutions. The Five Presidents’ Report only makes this clearer. This document ought not to be read only from the point of view of economic efficiency, for the problem of Europe also consists in its deficient democracy. In that context sensible policies become hard to implement. The demand for expanded European powers therefore only becomes acceptable on condition that they are tied to the democratisation of the EU, that is, to the upgrading of the European Parliament to become a fully-fledged sovereign legislative body that shares its powers with the national parliaments. This applies especially to the domains of military policy and domestic security.
The European Union will either be social or will be unusable; a choice has to be made. The EU will democratise itself or be discredited; it will be peaceful or it will perish. In the light of the experience of two world wars, and still more that of today’s problems, the radical left can be nothing less than a protagonist of European integration. However, between today’s EU and a European integration on democratic and social foundations there is a political and institutional chasm. If the demand for a refounding of the European Union has a meaning, then this meaning is that of discontinuity. In politics, continuity and discontinuity do not constitute absolute antitheses. However, there are times when politics moves within the continuity of what exists and only allows of gradual changes. And there are times of breaks. It seems that we are now in just such a time.