Is another Europe possible?

Joe Guinan, Senior Fellow at the Democracy Collaborative and Executive Director of the Next System Project – And –

Thomas M. Hanna, Director of Research at The Democracy Collaborative

 

The EU is a doomsday machine generating deflation, low growth, and high unemployment – and a rising tide
of far right nationalism. Is “Remain and Reform” a realistic strategy for the UK left?

anti-TTIP protest: http://greenleftblog.blogspot.co.uk

‘Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough’ – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not
make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing
already, given and transmitted from the past’ – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of
Louis Bonaparte

As is to be expected with any organisation or set of institutions of such scope and scale,
the European Union is not singular – it is not just one thing. Being large, the
EU contains multitudes. It should be perfectly possible to point to EU
accomplishments in the areas of rights and regulation without losing sight of
the fact that at its core the EU contains a clear hierarchy of priorities. At
the top of this hierarchy, trumping all notions of a “Social Europe” or
policies and funds aimed at solidarity and development, is a particular version
of economics. This can be traced back to the EU’s beginnings in the original coal
and steel pact but was really crystalised in the single market that came into
force in 1987 through the Single European Act. Since then there has been a steady
evolution of European law beyond one based on procedures to one that embodies
substantive ideological content. A version of economics – call it neoliberalism
– is now written in constitutional stone in the EU treaties.

As a growing chorus of voices on both left and right are warning, this is a severe threat to
democratic choice in general while posing a near-insurmountable difficulty for
any Member State government wishing to pursue an economic programme in conflict
with such central tenets of neoliberal ideology as the superiority of markets,
the need for competition, and the rejection of most forms of public ownership and
economic planning. All of this is now codified into EU law and entrenched at a
constitutional level beyond easy democratic contestation. According to Danny
Nicol, Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster, “the free
choice of economic policies – on such matters as state aid, public procurement,
state regulation and, above all, the choice between markets and public sector
monopoly – has increasingly been rendered constitutionally impermissible.” (1)

As the case law shows, Article 345 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)
(2008), carried over from the 1957 EC Treaty and commonly held up by the pro-EU
left as protecting political indeterminacy regarding property ownership
(thereby safeguarding publicly owned industries), has been effectively
sidelined. In the matter of shielding public services from competition law, the
power to interpret Article 106 TFEU, which pertains to both “public
undertakings and undertakings to which Member States grant special or exclusive
rights” and to “undertakings entrusted with the operations of services of
general economic interest or having the character of a revenue-producing
monopoly”, has enabled the European Court of Justice to encourage private
companies to “undermine, if not destroy, state reservations of exclusivity”.
(2) Member States seeking to secure exemptions on public interest grounds are
held to a very exacting standard. Public procurement and state aid face similar
prohibitions, given the privileged position EU law affords to market forces and
private enterprise.

There is therefore a substantial jurisprudence behind the claims of the Eurosceptic left that the
EU makes socialism – and many aspects of social democracy – effectively
illegal. Democratic choice has been replaced by a pre-determined economic
settlement the norms of which now carry the weight – in the UK every bit as
much as in the other 27 Member States – of constitutional law. The
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), if enacted, would only deepen
this problem.

Meanwhile, the economic consequences across the continent of the EU’s neoliberal turn are increasingly plain
for all to see. When there is growth there will be a few crumbs for social
welfare; when there is not – as is the case today – there will be austerity. Moreover,
in the wake of the financial crisis it has become clear that a deflationary
doomsday machine now sits at the heart of the EU in the form of an unbalanced
monetary union that is generating unending recession, low growth, and high
unemployment – a recipe for stagnation, social disintegration, and political
backlash. Accompanying the liquidity support and emergency loans that formed
the Eurozone’s belated response to the crisis has been a brutal austerity regime,
imposed at first on the periphery – the so-called PIGS countries of Portugal,
Ireland, Greece, and Spain – but now increasingly felt in core countries as
well (3). This is clearly the case in France, currently beset by massive unrest
in the face of the government’s attempts to ram through structural reforms
containing savage attacks on workers’ rights under the veil of an extended
state of emergency.

Such utterly wrongheaded economics carries with it a grim attendant politics of resentment
and scapegoating that is giving rise to a tide of far right nationalism in
Europe across countries as diverse as Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, and
France. With its constitutionalised neoliberalism and German-led deflationary policy,
the EU itself is now a vast engine for reproducing precisely those dangerous political
currents and forces that EU enthusiasts claim it is designed to prevent. Stuck as
we are in a burning building, it is little wonder that there are increasingly
determined calls for a move to the exits.

Creating another Europe?

Confronted with the neoliberal character of the EU and its deepening unpopularity among voters,
sections of the British left have recognized the need to break with the status
quo and yet persist in refusing a Brexit on what – a self-fulfilling prophecy!
– they characterise as Tory terms. For these seekers of a new middle way, the
mantra has become “Remain and Reform”, or – more inspiringly – “Another
Europe is Possible
”. This is undoubtedly the case; many things are possible, and the left should certainly
not be in the business of foreshortening political horizons – especially in an
era of instability, flux, and change like the present. The question is
therefore what such a “Remain and Reform” strategy would actually entail, and
the probability of being able to achieve it.

The first thing to say is that the level of reform being envisioned by the “Remain and Reform”
crowd is quite radical – necessarily so. It encompasses the democratisation of
the institutions and decision-making procedures of the EU as well as the
alteration of the substantive content of current economic law. In other words,
to “Remain and Reform” will require EU treaty revision.

The provisions for changes to the EU treaties are clear and are spelled out in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).
Under the “ordinary procedure” concerning key amendments, “such as increasing
or reducing the competences of the EU”, national governments (or the European
Parliament or European Commission) can submit a proposed treaty revision to the
Council of the European Union. Then, if the Council “adopts a positive
decision,” a convention will be called (comprised of representatives from
national parliaments, national governments, the European Parliament, and the
European Commission). This convention discusses the proposed revision and makes
a decision by consensus, following which a conference of representatives of the
governments is convened “with a view to adopting by common accord the
amendments to the treaties”. And, of course, revisions cannot come into force
until they are ratified by all EU Member States.

Under the “simplified procedure” established by the Treaty of Lisbon, revisions concerning internal
EU polices and actions can be made without the need for a convention or
intergovernmental conference. The European Council consults the European
Commission, the European Parliament, and – if the revision is related to
monetary issues – the European Central Bank, and then makes a decision on the
basis of unanimity. Once again, the revisions need to be ratified by all EU Member
States.

This is an onerous but not impossible process. “The history of the EU”, as political
scientist Carlos Closa wrote in a 2014 analysis, “shows that treaty revision is
almost essential to its existence”. (4) Treaties were, of course, adopted or amended in 1967 (Merger Treaty), 1987 (Single European
Act), 1993 (Treaty on European Union), 1999 (Treaty of Amsterdam), 2003 (Treaty
of Nice), and 2009 (Treaty of Lisbon) – as well as upon the accession of new
Member States in 1973, 1981, 1986, 1995, 2004, 2007, and 2013. The recent Lisbon
Treaty amended previous EU treaties and included, among other things such as
the Charter of Fundamental Rights, changes to rule-making procedures, extending the European Parliament’s
co-decision-making powers to most EU legislation (and renamed the “ordinary
legislative procedure”), allowing the European Parliament to elect the
President of the European Commission, giving national parliaments the power to
monitor and challenge infringements on subsidiarity, and allowing the European
Parliament to propose treaty amendments.

On substantive content, just because the progress of the EU has been mostly unidirectional
thus far – a one-way ratchet of deeper integration, liberalisation, and
marketisation – doesn’t mean that it isn’t theoretically possible for this to
be reversed or redirected. The European treaties are what matters, and the
treaties can be changed. (5) The overarching question is therefore one of
likelihood, of political judgment as to whether it is possible to deliver the pan-European
coalition necessary for a transformation opposite from and antithetical to the
direction of travel of the EU for much of its history – at the very least since
the creation of the single market.

The Balance of Forces

Bringing about such changes would, at a minimum (using the simplified procedure), require building
a political coalition that encompasses the entire European Council (the Council
of Ministers of the Member States) and enough support in the European
Parliament, the European Commission, and – if monetary matters are involved – the
European Central Bank for those institutions not to advise and agitate against
the changes.

Although daunting, such lopsided political dominance of the EU has in fact been achieved
in the past by the parties of the centre left. At the turn of the twenty-first century,
social democratic or centre left governments held office simultaneously in 12 of
the then 15 Member States of the EU. (6) Of course, these governments were
avatars of the “Third Way” – the widespread compromise made possible by a
particular historical conjuncture, now passed, in which centre left parties became
non-threatening to the interests of capital, promising only to skim the surplus
created by economic growth for ameliorative social spending. By contrast, the governments
that would have to be elected in order to bring about major structural reform
of the EU would need to be much more radical, and would thus face far greater political
headwinds than did Blair, Jospin, and Schröder. (Substantial EU enlargement has
also fundamentally altered the political calculus and significantly increased
the difficulties.) Left governments would also have to be in office all at once
– an enormous coordination problem across 28 Member States given varying
national election cycles.

However, leaving all these difficulties to one side and suspending disbelief for the moment, it
is worth looking at the current state of play politically in the Member States
of the European Union to gain a sense of how close or distant such a possibility
might be. The following table provides a rough sense of the political balance
of forces in the EU today. Based on an analysis of recent election results, it
shows the approximate percentage of seats held in national parliamentary bodies
(upper and lower houses) by the radical left, the centre left, the centre, the
traditional conservative right, and the far right.

Recent Parliamentary Election Results in
EU Member States

Country Radical Left Centre Left Centre Centre Right Far Right
Austria (NC) 0% 41% 0% 31% 21.8%
Austria (FC) 0% 39.2% 0% 37% 19.6%
Belgium (S) 0% 39.9% 0% 54.9% 3.3%
Belgium (C) 0% 37.9% 0% 57.9% 2.6%
Bulgaria 15.8% 4.5% 0% 50.3% 12%
Croatia 2.5% 40.7% 0% 40.9% 5%
Cyprus 28.5% 14.1% 0% 48.1% 8.8%
Czech Rep. (S) 7.4% 40.7% 0% 44.2% 0%
Czech Rep (C) 16.5% 25% 0% 51.5% 4%
Denmark 12.7% 36.6% 0% 29.4% 20.6%
Estonia 0% 41.5% 0% 51.4% 6.9%
Finland 6% 29.5% 24.5% 40% 0%
France (S) 5.7% 40.1% 14.2% 37.6% 0%
France (A) 2.5% 56.7% 5% 33.9% <1%
Germany 10.1% 40.6% 0% 49.1% 0%
Greece 53% 8.6% 0% 28% 9%
Hungary 0% 21% 0% 66.2% 12%
Ireland (DE) 6.8% 21.9% 0% 58.8% 0%
Ireland (SE) 0% 21.5% 0% 54.9% 0%
Italy (S) 0% 42.1% 17.4% 29.9% 3.8%
Italy (C) 5% 49.9% 17.5% 13.3% 4.1%
Latvia 0% 24% 7% 51% 18%
Lithuania 0% 48% 0% 35% 6.3%
Luxembourg 3.3% 31.6% 0% 64.9% 0%
Malta 0% 56.4% 0% 42% 0%
Netherlands (S) 14.6% 15.9% 15.9% 37.3% 14.6%
Netherlands (H) 11.3% 26.6% 8.6% 38.5% 10%
Poland (Sen) 0% 0% 0% 34% 62%
Poland (Sej) 0% 0% 6.3% 33.4% 58.4%
Portugal 15.5% 37.7% 0% 46.4% 0%
Romania (S) 0% 43.1% 4.5% 43.1% 0%
Romania (C) 0% 44.1% 4.1% 33.4% 0%
Slovakia 0% 32.6% 0% 45.1% 19.3%
Slovenia 6.6% 45.4% 12.2% 28.8% 0%
Spain (S) 12.2% 26.5% 0% 60.8% 0%
Spain (C) 21% 36.8% 0% 37.9% 0%
Sweden 6% 39.4% 0% 40.2% 13.7%
United Kingdom 0% 45.1% 1.2% 50.7% 1.3%

This table is meant to be broadly illustrative. We have endeavoured to include the most
recent data available, but we have also made a number of methodological
assumptions and choices – independents and appointed officials, for example,
have not been included – and we have made evaluative judgments as to
appropriate identification of parties along the political spectrum. The result
is intended purely as a rough snapshot of the general political balance of
forces across the Member States of the European Union at the national level.

What we can see immediately is that more than a third of EU Member States (11 out of 28) have no radical
left-wing parties to speak of, and in another 6 they have 6 per cent or less of
seats in a parliamentary body. In many cases, majorities would require – at a
very minimum – an alliance between the radical left and a newly radicalised
centre left around an agenda of fundamental economic reform at the national and
European level. This is no mean feat, given the often acrimonious history of
sectarian and policy differences on the left. Not only would the hatchet have
to be buried domestically, but some major shifts in attitudes towards the EU
would need to occur. The radical left would have to relinquish what are in some
cases very long-standing anti-EU positions while the centre left would have to
shake off complacency towards the actually existing EU and become radicalised
along Corbynist lines.

Notably, the role of the centre left would be critical to any “Remain and Reform” strategy. In
Germany, for example, on present strength the SPD would have to give up its
aversion to any national electoral pact with Die Linke (there are some
precedents for cooperation at the level of the Lander) to scrape even the slimmest of majorities. Some centre left
parties are barely progressive at all, and would be more stubbornly neoliberal
and resistant to left-wing populist pressure than others. In all or almost
all cases the latter pressures would have to prove triumphant. In extreme cases
like Poland, there is currently no significant left of any kind on which to
build.

Once again, we should not rule out such changes as totally impossible – as the example of
Greece famously attests. Between 2009 and 2015 the vote for the two main Greek parties of the centre left
and centre right, PASOK and New Democracy, collapsed by fully 58 per cent (with
most of this coming from the near total destruction of PASOK), with upstart
Syriza surging from 4.6 per cent to 36.3 per cent. However, such a complete
transformation of a national party system came about under extreme conditions,
with unemployment reaching in excess of 25 per cent (more than 50 per cent among the young) and one of the greatest peacetime contractions of any major
economy in the history of capitalism.

Even were all this to go the right way, EU treaty revision would also require that such
political transformations occur concurrently, and that there be broad general
agreement among left parties and alliances as to the direction, form, and
extent of change. We should not press the latter point too much – the EU, of
course, faces this problem all the time and has developed mechanisms and
processes for such negotiation. That said, we should probably also factor in
either passive or even active resistance from the EU bureaucracy, which contains
many convinced neoliberals, and acknowledge that such a complete overhaul of
the EU would cause capital markets to go berserk, producing economic crises at
both the Member State and EU-wide level.

One further thing to note: the table shows the alarming strength of the far right in the EU today
– of which the tragic assassination of Labour’s Jo Cox MP is only the most
recent and stark reminder. This rising tide of fascism and far right nationalism
appears to be something that the current EU regime is fostering rather than
dampening. Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland,
Sweden, and Slovakia all show electoral support levels of over 10 per cent for
the far right – dynamics that are occurring squarely within and not as a result of departure from the EU. (7)

Why not Lexit?

On the evidence above, it is fair to say that any “Remain and Reform” strategy faces a very
heavy lift indeed if it is to deliver the dramatically transformed EU that its proponents
envision. To think that this is achievable or could become so any time soon
probably requires a certain amount of magical thinking – believing, with J.M. Barrie’s
Peter Pan, that anything is possible if only you wish hard enough. Given the
steep climb to any possibility of “Another Europe,” the opportunity represented
by Brexit begins to appear in a very different light.

A convergence of right and left now has the very real prospect of taking the UK out of the EU –
of exiting the burning building. While this inevitably involves voting
(although not campaigning) together with some very vile and unpleasant bedfellows,
we might look to Marx for a reminder that we on the left do not in fact get
to make our history just as we please, under circumstances precisely of our own
choosing. It’s unrealistic to stipulate that a Brexit decision should only be
made under the most politically pristine conditions. We can unconditionally
reject the racism, xenophobia, and nationalism of the right while still
recognizing the opportunity of Brexit.

The arguments of this referendum campaign have for the most part been extremely inward looking.
There has been a lot of sneering at Lexit, but it’s the liberal-left urging Remain
who are the true parochials, fixated on short-term fears of Johnson or Gove
when the bigger picture is the dangers posed by a continent groaning under the
weight of stagnation and austerity. In their attachment to the EU they mistake
the epiphenomena of European cooperation – nice notions of holding hands across
borders, of city breaks and Erasmus scholarships and cultural interchange – for
the underlying structural operations of the EU as an economic regime. A similar
error occurred in the previous, Victorian era of globalisation, when onlookers
were transfixed by the fruits of liberal internationalism – the proliferation
of multinational agreements, the laying of trans-oceanic underwater cables, the
synchronisation of clocks, and the standardisation of weights and measures –
and missed the attendant horrors of colonialism and imperialism and the deep
conflicts that were brewing and were to erupt in the charnel house of the first
half of the twentieth century. Following Frankie Boyle, the British left should be looking at
the EU with growing alarm and trying “to get one arm out of this straightjacket
before the shooting starts”.

There are also tactical and strategic benefits to exiting the EU in advance of a future left government
taking office in Britain. Such a left government would have quite enough
trouble on its hands already without the added difficulty of hand-to-hand combat
with the EU or a negotiated exit. Capital markets will likely be kinder to a
Tory Brexit than they would to any conceivable future Lexit, and the
Conservatives can be allowed to take the hit for the inevitable economic
disruption that follows. It is also possible that a Tory-led Brexit – and the
subsequent political fallout – could open a new path for the election of a Corbyn-led
government.

Our international contribution, as the British left, would then be to attempt what Greece, bound
hand and foot by the Troika, has been decisively unable to pull off – a rupture
with the present neoliberal settlement in favour of a serious effort to develop
a different model in categorical refutation of the claim that “There Is No
Alternative”. This will be extremely difficult to accomplish. But it is far
more readily achievable than a pan-European political project to democratise
the European Union from within. And above all else an actually existing
alternative model is precisely what the guardians of the status quo – in the EU
and elsewhere – fear the most.

It is for this reason that Syriza had to be crushed, that the European Central Bank was
prepared to breach its mandate for financial stability and deliberately cause a
run on banks in a country with 50 per cent youth unemployment and a dangerously
surging far right. The Greek crisis could have been easily resolved financially,
well within the capacity of Germany and the other big Eurozone players. What
could not be permitted under any circumstances was a successful political
challenge to the rules of the game. “There can be no democratic choice against
the European treaties”, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insisted.
Greece had to be made an example pour
encourager les autres
. In the course of our own referendum we have also
been subject to threats over what will happen to the UK in the event of a Brexit.
On occasion German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has sounded for all the world more like the head of a transnational
crime syndicate than a senior public official in a democratic union of the
peoples.

The UK is not Greece. We could take our chances, seize the real possibility of Brexit, and
work afterwards to attempt the construction of a genuine – and internationally exportable
– economic alternative from the local level on up, outside of the straightjacket
of the deflationary, marketised, neoliberal EU. Better that than chasing the
unicorns of a reformed European Union only to wake up on June 24 to
find, as did the apocryphal traveler in the Irish countryside, that you can’t
get there from here.

 

Notes:

(1) Danny Nicol, The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism
(Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010), p. 1. We are indebted to Nicol’s excellent
book for its analysis of the neoliberal basis of EU law.

(2) Ibid, p. 108.

(3) See Heiner Flassbeck and Costas Lapavitsas, Against
the Troika: Crisis and Austerity in the Eurozone
(London: Verso, 2015)

(4) Carlos Closa,
“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Future of EU Treaty Revisions,” European Policy Analysis, March 2014.

(5) Interestingly, most observers believe that, with an enlarged EU, increasing political
polarisation, and the increased use of referenda, even ‘normal’ (i.e.
continuing neoliberal) treaty revision will be considerably more difficult in
the future.

(6) See Gerassimos Moschonas, In the Name of
Social Democracy – The Great Transformation: 1945 to the Present
(London:
Verso, 2002).

(7) Of course, the re-emergence of far right politics and violence is hardly confined to EU Member
States, as events from Norway to the United States demonstrate.

 

This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net