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Will Angela Merkel Save the West?

16 Mar

TCM contributor Chris Bickerton has an essay on Merkel in the New York Times.

As Ms. Merkel prepares to meet this week with President Trump, many people may hope that she will stride into the White House and issue a robust defense of the liberal international order. Don’t count on it.

If the future of Western liberalism rests on Ms. Merkel’s shoulders, then it really is in trouble. She has often spoken in support of European and Western unity, but her actions have done little to strengthen them. Moreover, it’s not clear how deep her ideological commitment to liberalism really is — or, for that matter, whether she has any ideological commitments at all.

The full article is here.

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

The Elephant in the Referendum

21 Jun

As Britain prepares to vote on whether to remain or leave the European Union, one subject has been strikingly absent from the debate: the European Union itself.

The Remain campaign has focused almost entirely on the supposedly dire consequences for the economy in the event of Brexit. The Leave campaign complains about a European ‘superstate’ but has nothing much to say about it. Instead, it has focused largely on the supposed disadvantages of mass immigration. Why does the nature of the European Union itself not figure more prominently in a referendum about whether to remain a member?

The problem for the Remain camp is that the EU is an intrinsically anti-democratic institution. The laws and policies of the European Union are worked out behind closed doors, at meetings between ministers and civil servants from the member states. The discussions between them are kept almost entirely secret. The one institution meant to inject a strong dose of democratic accountability – the European Parliament – suffers from a secular decline in support from voters.

The unpopularity of the Parliament is hardly surprising given that it has actively maintained the secrecy of EU decision-making. Over 80% of EU law is currently made through a ‘trilogue’ system, where agreements on legislation are struck in private meetings between representatives from the Commission, the member states and the Parliament. Once a decision has been made through this opaque process, ministers return from Brussels and represent the decision as one made by the European Union. If necessary, they complain of European diktat. The European Union is a collaboration between the governments of its member states that permits them to evade political accountability to their electorates for the policies they pursue by passing the buck to ‘Europe’. It is no wonder that the Remain campaign prefers to focus on the economic consequences of Brexit.

One effect of such pervasive blame-avoidance is to create the illusion of a European superstate that bosses the member states around. In fact, nothing much happens in the EU without the consent of governments. Far from being a superstate, the European Commission’s bureaucracy is tiny (25,000 people for an EU population of 500m). The EU lacks the bureaucratic means to enforce European law and is entirely dependent on the cooperation of the member states. Eurosceptics running the Leave campaign try to sell us the illusion of the Brussels superstate, but their claims amount to no more than rhetorical assertions. There is simply no evidence for them.

If the real intergovernmental process of the EU is so undemocratic, why doesn’t the Leave campaign focus its attention on that rather than persisting with the pretence that it is an overweening, supranational bureaucracy? The main reason is that the Eurosceptics are living in the past. Their patriotic rhetoric about national sovereignty avoids facing up to the fact that the authority of the British state has declined dramatically in recent decades. The political relations between government and citizens that supplies the democratic state with its authority have almost completely broken down. Politicians have retreated into the state and other elite institutions, the electorate into private life. Political parties are moribund. Voters are disenchanted. The only political party that has generated much enthusiasm recently has been the SNP, which precisely aims to break up the UK.

This problem is not new and it is not restricted to the UK. Disenchantment and populist reactions are evident right across Europe, as recent elections in Austria and Italy have shown us. The ‘void’ that has opened up between government and the governed causes political leaders to doubt that their authority comes from the citizens. Instead, European political leaders look to each other as a source for the authority to rule, and they do this through their intergovernmental collaboration in the EU. Rather than face up to this real political stagnation within the UK and the other member states, one that has brought about the EU’s form of government, Eurosceptics nostalgically evade the problem by deploying populist rhetoric about a superstate and decrying at length the supposed threat of immigration.

Brexiteers do not understand, let alone have a solution to, the underlying political problems they will confront in the event of Brexit. Their anti-immigrant rhetoric is no substitute for a viable political relation with the population. And it is precisely the lack of that political relation that has driven elites towards European integration in the first place.

The Referendum campaign has been so tedious and lacklustre because in a debate supposedly about the future of the British state in Europe, both sides have avoided discussing the reality of both the European Union and of British politics. We often hear that referendums are ‘ill-suited’ to tackling complex issues, as if such issues are beyond the comprehension of ‘ordinary people’. In fact, the EU has been absent from this campaign precisely because it lies at the centre of a long-standing problem of political decline at home. And it this problem that mainstream politics is unable to discuss, let alone provide a lasting solution to.

The Redundancy of the Left

Although some left-wingers have maintained longstanding criticisms of the European Union as an undemocratic capitalist swindle, the overall tone of the left during the referendum has been set by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has reversed his earlier opposition to the EU and quietly gone along with the Remain sympathies of his MPs. Most of the left has followed suit. Their retreat has been covered by claiming that the survival of workers’ rights or the free movement of people depends on continued membership of the European Union.

As a result, the referendum campaign has been fought between two wings of the Conservative Party. For all the talk of civil war among conservatives, the fact is that whichever side wins the referendum, it will be led by a Tory. The Tory Brexiteers have generally succeeded in pushing Farage and UKIP to the edges of the campaign. The result may yet be bad for David Cameron personally, but it is the Labour Party that has found itself most dramatically at odds with its own supporters.

The problem of the retreat of the political class into the state is particularly acute for the Labour Party. More than any of the other parties, Labour’s historical claim to political authority came from its relationship with ordinary people through the trade unions. However, Labour’s social democratic politics always looked to the state as the source of political solutions. With the disintegration of the broader Labour movement, and the opening of the political void between government and citizens, the Labour Party is left with only its faith in the state. The gap between the party and its traditional supporters has been dramatically exposed by the referendum campaign.

Neither the Labour Party nor the broader British left is capable of the direct appeal to the people attempted by the Eurosceptic right. Rather than challenge the Brexiteers’ anti-immigration arguments directly, pro-EU left-wingers generally denounce them as racist. The implication is that anyone who wants to leave the EU is siding with racists. This was the message of a poster produced by the pro-Remain campaign group set up by former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?”

The Remainers’ claim to the moral high ground on racism evades the reality of the EU’s own immigration controls that are having such lethal effects in the Mediterranean on migrants from Asia and Africa. The elitist disdain for actually arguing with the citizenry about substantive political issues is also typical of the technocratic politics of the European Union.

The redundancy of the left is most apparent in the popular claim – advanced by pundits like Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Aaron Bastani and Salvage – that while the EU is admittedly an elite political scam, any vote for Brexit would only benefit the right. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Richard Tuck has reminded us, and one that hugely overstates the strength of the populist right.

The left’s defeatism has probably been the most disastrous aspect of the referendum campaign. If Britain votes to remain, the  effect of the left’s meek support for the elite’s anti-democratic institutions will have been to hand over the language of democracy and popular sovereignty to the charlatans of the populist right. It will also have ensured that internationalism, free movement and workers’ rights remain the province of remote intergovernmental institutions, inaccessible to the ordinary voter and dependent on elite preferences for their survival.

A Union of Disenchantment

Underlying the broad Remain sentiment among liberals and left-wingers is the view that a vote for ‘Remain’ is a vote for a progressive cosmopolitanism while a vote for ‘Leave’ is a vote for a regressive nationalism. This is a remarkably unreflective view given that the particular cosmopolitanism of the European Union comes at the price of the deaths of tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and the tormenting of southern Europe’s people on the rack of neoliberal financial orthodoxy. Even if we overlook these particular aspects of EU policy, we should recognize that the cosmopolitanism of the EU is a thin affair. It is no more than the cosmopolitanism of market integration and intergovernmental policy-making.

For those with a profession (or an income) that gives them access to European markets or to the budgets of international organisations, a cosmopolitan European life is certainly possible. However, the cosmopolitan aspects of the EU do not reach the large majority of Europe’s citizens or offer them very much, nor is the EU likely to change that in the future. The bulk of Europe’s population live lives that are defined by their nation states. Their political lives are ordered by national governments and national parliaments; their economic lives by the fiscal and taxation policies of nation states. There are powerful European institutions, with an undemocratic influence over national governments, but there is no European public sphere. The EU’s development has not been driven by the emergence of a new European political identity and public sphere, but by the decline of the public spheres of its member states, as political elites and populations have drifted apart.

The current crisis in the EU is an opportunity to revive real political internationalism and to challenge this thin lifestyle cosmopolitanism, the content of which goes no further than the Single Market itself. The task is to identify the common interests and experiences that unite people across Europe but in a way that does not wish away the political reality and persistence of the continent’s nation states.

One experience that all Europeans share is political disenchantment. While, in economic and social terms, the divisions between North and South and East and West remain as stark as ever, politically we live today in a European union of disenchantment. Across Europe, citizens share frustration with their political elites whose interests seem not to coincide with their own. This sense of disenchantment has so far only been politicized by the far right, by figures such as Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini, who are developing their own view of European solidarity that has little to do with the EU. There is an opportunity here to build up an alternative and democratic internationalism but  this requires the dismantling of the EU, which exists today as the primary vehicle for entrenching the hold of our political elites on the policy-making process.

Brexit need not be understood in the parochial terms of the Eurosceptics and we should not be satisfied with the shallow cosmopolitanism of the Remain side. A real internationalist project is possible but that means breaking with both the EU and the comforting certainties of the past.

Chris Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe, Alex Gourevitch, Lee Jones, Peter Ramsay

For further reading, see Chris Bickerton’s The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide

The technocrats’ populist

21 Sep

Anyone who is serious about democracy in Europe will need to think long and hard about yesterday’s Greek election result. Syriza’s rise to political influence in Greece has been a disaster for democracy. Syriza’s major political achievement has been to depoliticise the Greek people, to convince them openly to agree to being ruled by someone other than their own elected representatives.

The turnout at around 55 per cent was low. This should not come as a surprise. Local authority elections generally have lower turnouts and, since Alex Tsipras had already signed away Greece’s sovereignty in the bailout deal in July, Greek voters were being asked to vote for a government with the powers of a local authority. The largest group of voters supported Tsipras’s Syriza party, endorsing the view that austerity implemented by a party that claims to be against it is the best that can be done. As low political horizons go, these are minimal indeed. The idea that the Greeks’ should have a national government accountable to themselves rather than to the Eurozone was marginalized, with the breakaway Popular Unity party achieving less than three per cent and no seats in parliament.

Alex Tsipras has pulled off a remarkable political feat. He now has the opportunity to become the modernising new broom in Greece, a new broom to be wielded by the Eurozone’s technocrats. And he has done that off the back of months of militant populist posturing in the bailout negotiations. How has he achieved that this astonishing volte face? The pivotal moment was his U-turn after the No vote in July’s referendum. Having mobilized the Greek people for a show of defiance, he then cut the ground from under it by immediately agreeing to what the Eurozone wanted. To many this looked like a betrayal of the party’s anti-austerity mandate. But Syriza came to power in January on a contradictory political platform of no to austerity, yes to the Eurozone. Tsipras has exploited that contradiction effectively. He survived the U-turn because having led the Greeks to make a show of defiance in the referendum, they were prepared to resign themselves immediately to the bailout deal since that was all that was on offer from the Eurozone, they were committed to remaining within. And, having survived that, Tsipras has now renewed his mandate by decisively seeing off the anti-Eurozone left in his own party. The Greek people have in the process openly endorsed a political arrangement in which their government will be the servant of distant, unaccountable powers.

It would be a mistake however to attribute Tsipras’s achievements only to his political cunning and skill. No doubt he has some of these talents, but it has to be recognised that he owes his current position to the fact that the wider Greek left was in no position to give the Greek people any confidence in their own capacity to take their political destiny into their own hands. The left was unable to inspire the Greek people to free itself from the clutches of the European banks that are demanding and, courtesy of the Eurozone, getting kilos of its flesh. The left was unable to give a lead with a clear independent platform that explained what a disaster Syriza’s contradictory position would prove. As a result, when the crunch came in July, Greek citizens had nowhere to go, except to make their show of defiance and then resign.

The politics of the Greek bailout involve the relations of a small, peripheral European nation to the Eurozone. By contrast the politics of the forthcoming British referendum involve the relations of a major European nation to the EU. There are significant differences between the two situations. However there is one critical question that is common to both. Are our governments to be accountable to us, their citizens, or will we allow them to be accountable instead to other European governments before they are accountable to us? For the process of insulating governmental decision-making from popular accountability is common to both the EU and the Eurozone. The left’s problem with inspiring a self-confident democratic movement is far from unique to Greece. With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party opting to subordinate domestic political accountability to the EU apparatus, the Greek debacle demonstrates the urgent need to begin to address the left’s historic failing and to make an unambiguous case for the sovereignty of the people.

Peter Ramsay

Why Brexit is more than Lexit: Left Euroscepticism after Corbyn

14 Sep

Among the many questions flowing from Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership contest on 12 September, is that of Corbyn’s stance on the European Union (EU), and Britain’s place within it. Corbyn has openly expressed his scepticism towards the EU while also claiming he would be happy to stay in a reformed EU. Veteran Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee identified Corbyn’s Euroscepticism as one of the greatest dangers of a Corbyn victory, while Financial Times columnist Phillip Stephens argues that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has tilted the balance of British politics towards exit from the EU. Leading Blairite Chukka Umuna has resigned from the Labour shadow cabinet, citing Corbyn’s alleged Euroscepticism as the reason. But before launching into predictions of how Corbyn’s victory will affect the referendum’s outcome, it is necessary to examine some of the contradiction and confusion within British left Euroscepticism.

Corbyn’s studied ambivalence towards the EU expresses the currently inchoate character of leftwing British Eurosceptisicm. As Europe’s social democratic parties tacked towards the centre over the last 30 years and committed themselves to the technocratic modernisation embodied in the EU project, Euro-babble has tended to substitute itself for genuine internationalism on much of the left. Only a rump of isolated old social democrats were left clinging to Euroscepticism. The late Tony Benn denounced the EU for its oligarchic model of power that insulates bureaucrats from popular accountability, while late union leader Bob Crow attacked the EU for dismantling the border controls he argued were necessary to protect the welfare state and working class living standards. Corbyn himself has criticised the EU for allowing tax havens to flourish in its borders, and – piling up his ambivalent Euroscepticism to new levels of convolution and complexity – suggested that he would support leaving the EU if it agrees to trade away its vaunted ‘social protections’ in negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron. In other words, Corbyn may argue that Britain should leave the EU if the EU agrees to meet the British prime minister’s conditions for Britain remaining in the EU.

Corbyn’s equivocation on EU membership subordinates questions of democratic principle to a pragmatic calculation of the extent to which membership of the EU will advance or inhibit Labour Party economic and social policy. This unprincipled approach to such a fundamental political question is a warning of what is to come from Corbyn’s leadership, and it characterises the wider left case against the EU.

Earlier this year, Owen Jones sought to rally the Eurosceptic British Left with a call for ‘Lexit’ – the leftwing case for a British exit from the EU. As Jones made clear, much of this newfound Lexit sympathy is driven by witnessing the economic punishment inflicted on Greece by the EU creditor nations. Political commentators are of course entitled to change their mind just as much as anyone else. Yet the ease with which left-wing belief in the EU has dissipated exposes just how thin and naïve that belief in the EU must have been to begin with. To turn against the EU solely for its austerity policies is to obscure the history of EU political diktat, such as the repeat referendums inflicted on Ireland or how the EU ignored the outcome of the 2005 French and Dutch referendums. These crude impositions of technocratic rule were enforced long before the economic crisis gave the justification of urgency to EU technocracy. To accept arguments for Lexit only after its treatment of Greece would be to interpret the EU as a progressive project gone awry, rather than what it is, an institution designed to evade popular rule and democratic choice. Moreover, however brutal the EU’s treatment of Greece, it ultimately tells us little about whether or not Britain should remain a member-state – particularly given that Britain is not even a member of the Eurozone. So where does this leave the case for ‘Lexit’?

The very fact that Jones felt the need to rebrand British exit from the EU as ‘Lexit’ exposes his fear of making an argument openly in terms of national sovereignty. Jones’ fears of boosting nationalism and prompting a xenophobic rampage reveals more about Jones’ contempt and fear of the British working class than it tells us about working class voters themselves. Instead of staking a leftist claim to universal interests, evidently Jones believes he can only coax his readers into leaving the EU if the issue is cast in sectional terms that exclusively appeal to them. Unwilling to make an argument for popular sovereignty, Jones is left unable to provide any political coherence to left Euroscepticism. On the one hand, Jones positions the EU as a sinister foreign power intruding on Britain from the outside to thwart economic nationalisation and redistribution – as if Thatcherism had no domestic roots. On the other hand, Jones claims that the threat of Lexit is more important than actually leaving the EU. The threat alone, argues Jones, will encourage Germany to loosen its austerian stranglehold on the Eurozone’s weaker economies, and boost the flagging electoral fortunes of Podemos and Syriza.

It is difficult to think of an argument for Britain leaving the EU that undercuts itself so effectively, and that sacrifices international solidarity so readily. Let us leave Greece and Spain shackled to a more benign German hegemon, Jones tells us, while Britain retreats behind the walls of a social democratic Jerusalem once the corporate hirelings from Brussels have been thrown out. Here, there is no principled position on British membership of the EU, or even an appeal to the British demos – only an instrumental calculation about preserving the vote of struggling leftist parties across Europe. Surveying the arguments offered by Corbyn, Jones and their allies, the only common position that can underpin Lexit is economic nationalism. In other words, the EU cramps the nation-state’s capacity to protect national industries and defend welfare provisions and entitlements.

The problem with this position is that it is about the content of economic policy rather than the means through which such policy is decided. Ultimately, the democratic case against the EU is not about the content of economic policy – such as nationalisation versus privatisation – but about carving out the space democratically to decide on economic policy – or any other policy, for that matter. What is at stake in the question of EU membership is political form not content. And for better or worse, the political form of collective self-determination is still inescapably national – the sovereign state. There is no avoiding the fact that what is at stake in a British referendum is democratic restoration and popular sovereignty within Britain itself. That alone should be sufficient to garner leftwing support for Brexit.

Of course, democracy gives no immediate guarantee of the economic outcomes that Jones desires – and perhaps it is popular acceptance of austerity that Left Eurosceptics hope to outflank by imagining that an argument over Lexit can also win the popular battle against austerity. Yet popular sovereignty and democracy must remain the political priority for any progressive political opposition to the EU. The case for British exit from Europe is a national and popular one, not one that can be carried by an alliance of Islington Guardianistas and northern Labour voters. The democratic case against the EU also exposes the limited and parochial character of Jones’ Lexit vision, in which international solidarity is restricted to vainly hoping for German magnanimity towards Europe’s weaker economies. The democratic case against the EU requires not just Britain leaving the EU or more votes for Podemos and Syriza, but dismantling the EU as a whole across the entire continent, through a process of internal democratic renewal within each European nation. Brexit would be as good a place as any to start this process.

Philip Cunliffe

Why Torture a Victim Whose Will Is Already Broken?

14 Jul

The draft of the agreement between the Greeks and the Eurogroup is out and, as everyone has noticed, it is not just an act of revenge, it is a piece of legislative torture. It contains old demands, like pension reductions and higher taxes to fund primary surpluses, as well as new demands, like reduction in the power of unions and a massive privatization of state assets using a separate fund controlled by Greece but monitored by the EU’s institutions. In fact the document asks for a massive legislative program touching on every aspect of Greek economic life – tax policy, product regulation, labor markets, state-owned assets, financial sector, shipping, budget surpluses, pensions, and so on. This legislation is demanded within the next few weeks. Such a package is the kind of thing one sees during or just after wartime, not as the product of democratically negotiated decisions. Let’s remember that the programme on which Tsipras and the Eurogroup agreed is something asked of a country that has already experienced a very severe depression, already implemented a number of constraints requested by creditors, has 25% unemployment and a banking crisis. What is the point of torturing a victim whose will is already broken? To destroy all opposition.

I think this should not be read as a proposal for restoring growth to Greece or even as the reflection of an economic blindness in Europe but as the reflux of the EU political project, of which the euro is the purest expression: the preference for technocratic domination over popular sovereignty. This program describes an architecture of rule, one that expresses utter indifference to the attempt by peoples to manage their affairs democratically, and one that demands enormous reserves of discretionary power for the Eurogroup. Note not just the scope of the Eurogroup’s demands but the molecular level of detail with which they lay out demands. For instance, as part of their package of “ambitious product market reforms,” they insist on changes in “Sunday trade, sales periods, pharmacy ownership, milk and bakeries, except over-the-counter pharmaceutical products, which will be implemented in a next step, as well as for the opening of macro-critical closed professions (e.g. ferry transportation).” Then there are the new demands, like “rigorous reviews and modernization of collective bargaining [and] industrial action,” which is Eurospeak for rubbing out labor rights. Other demands make it clear that these decisions are not only extensive and fine-grained, but designed as much as possible to remove responsibility and control from the Greek people and their government. The “scaled up privatisation programme” is to “be established in Greece and be managed by the Greek authorities under the supervision of the relevant European Institutions.” And the “quasi-automatic spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus targets” are “subject to prior approval of the [European] Institutions.”

Most telling of all, “The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.” That is to say, on every above named area of reform – from tax policy to labor markets – the government must consult first with its European managers. The piece-de-resistance, however, is that the Greeks are maximally accountable to the Eurogroup while the Eurogroup is minimally accountable and maximally arbitrary. Having listed its demands the document then says, “The above-listed commitments are minimum requirements to start the negotiations with the Greek authorities.” Later, the document says that an ESM programme is possible “Provided that all the necessary conditions contained in this document are fulfilled.” There is no guarantee the money is forthcoming. In other words, the Eurogroup retains maximum discretion to decide that Greece has failed to meet any of the impossible demands made upon it, while the Greeks possess no similar ability to hold the Europeans to account for their failures. Recall, for instance, that the agreement requires Greece to run budget surpluses that the Germans and French have never managed to achieve and that the ECB recently refused to extend sufficient emergency financing to the Greek banks, essentially engineering a near bank-failure in direct violation of its mandate to provide emergency liquidity to illiquid banks.

There are those who think that you can be pro-Euro and anti-austerity. As this round of negotiations show, the economics and politics of the euro are not separated like that. The Euro is a political project. It is unification without sovereignty. It is the delegation of national sovereignty to groups of finance ministers and supranational bodies whose main task is to suppress the re-appearance of the very source of their power. The political institutions and practices that have grown up around the euro and the EU are based on the belief that exercises of sovereignty are dangerous, irresponsible, and unaccountable. Although these institutions are in one sense nothing more than the product of agreements between nations, their raison d’etre is to prevent any further, outright expression of that sovereign power. That is why they insist on total subjection to their decisions, and why Greece became about more than Greece. The Greeks dared to assert popular sovereignty at the only level it is currently possible to do so. The bitter irony being that the discretion demanded by these post-sovereign entities is less accountable than when exercised as the outright power of a democratically elected government. And no less vindictive.

Alex Gourevitch

 

Syriza has not been radical enough

7 Jul

The Syriza-led government has been blamed for much of the current impasse between Greece and its creditors. It may not be responsible for the dire economic state of the country, commentators note, but it has done everything to make that situation worse. Accused of bringing Greece and possibly even the Eurozone to its knees all in the name of its radical Marxist doctrines, the problem of Syriza is in fact the opposite. Syriza has not been radical enough.

The dirty secret of the Greek crisis

A confusing aspect of the Greek crisis has been the extent of disagreement between Greece and its creditors. Commentators have regularly presented the Syriza-led government as a group of dangerous mavericks, led by a student radical and a celebrity academic-blogger. Impatience with what were considered unacceptable demands from the Greek negotiating team spilled out in recent weeks with Christine Lagarde in particular saying that Tsipras and his colleagues needed to ‘grow-up’ and act like adults rather than like truculent children.

This vision of an unbridgeable gulf between the radical demands of Syriza and the German-led austerian orthodoxy masks what is perhaps the dirty secret of the whole Greek crisis: the sheer moderation of the Greek government’s demands. Faced with such economic and social turmoil, the Greek response has been remarkably mild. The Greek demands include some consideration of debt relief, more flexibility on the implementation of structural reform programmes, a slight reorientation of budget cuts so as to hit less the poor and a bit more the well-off, and all this couched within a firm and heartfelt commitment to remain in the Eurozone. There is nothing radical here and as the recent report from the IMF suggests, it is almost conventional wisdom that some amount of debt relief will have to come at some point. We are thus faced with a complete breakdown in negotiations at a time when the actual gap between creditors and debtor is remarkably small. Syriza has been vilified for its extremism but the truth is that its position has not been nearly as radical as it should be.

Syriza’s utopian strategy

From the outset and including last Sunday’s referendum, the Syriza strategy has been based on a completely utopian premise: that the prime minister and finance minister can convert the rest of the Eurozone to a post-austerity economic programme where losses are written off and more breathing room is given to crisis-hit countries. This has been the Syriza wager: that it alone can convince the rest of the Eurozone to change course.

The difficulty is that on this point Syriza has missed the historical boat. Ever since the Maastricht Treaty, European integration has entered into a ‘new intergovernmental’ phase. Member states have moved forward with integration but have kept themselves at the heart of the process. Real and lasting delegations of power to supranational institutions has been kept to a minimum, with national governments preferring to beef up bodies such as the Eurogroup and the European Council. New agencies have been created instead of giving more powers to the European Commission. Even the current vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans declared recently that “ever closer union” was dead. Syriza’s vision of debt mutualisation and hope for an ever closer and more politically integrated Eurozone has fallen on deaf ears. The future is lies in incremental change overseen by national governments.

The only real negotiating power Syriza has stems from the fact that whilst Eurozone membership has long had an existential quality for Greek citizens and the Greek political class, this is also true of other member states. They are also committed to keeping the Eurozone together as it appears to them as a condition of their own statehood. This is why the creditors keep coming back to the negotiating table even when they said they have had enough. There is real no alternative to the Euro for both Greece and the other members of the Eurozone.

Why is structural reform so difficult?

Part of the difficulty faced by the Greek government in its negotiations is that the implementation of structural reform amounts to a profound transformation of the Greek state. It is not laziness or hypocrisy that makes structural reform difficult in Greece.

The post-authoritarian Greek state was rebuilt along two lines. One involved a commitment to EC membership, with the EC serving as a guarantor of the modernity and economic development. Democratization in Greece was made conditional upon integration into EC institutions, as was the case in Spain and Portugal. The other was the ‘Pasokisation’ of the Greek political economy, where state-society ties passed through the dominant role of the Pasok party in redistributing public wealth.

This sort of clientelism survives today in the form of the government’s financial commitments to its public sector employees and pensioners. Reform of these sectors, as demanded by the Troika, amount to a profound restructuring of the social basis of the post-dictatorship Greek state. Hardly an easy task nor one that can be achieved through external monitoring by EU technocrats. The difficulty for Greece today is that the European dimension of its statehood no longer matches its domestic political economy. One of the two has to give.

The Left and self-determination

Syriza’s position has not been radical enough. It has tried to balance a commitment to Eurozone membership with an anti-austerity message. Far from being a strategic or even a tactical choice, this reflects a deep-seated ambivalence that takes us to a basic problem facing the European Left today: its position on national self-determination.

Over the last few decades, European social democracy has abandoned national sovereignty, preferring to throw its lot in with the European Union. This is what gave the recent referendum in Greece its terrible pathos. On the one hand, the ‘No’ was a powerful affirmation of a Greek desire to reject the terms of the agreement with its creditors. On the other, the ‘No’ lacked any real content as no-one was willing to contemplate exit from the Eurozone. The Greeks are left to celebrate their ‘No’ whilst their future remains out of their hands.

To seek ‘ever closer political union’, as thinkers like Jurgen Habermas do, is to pursue a dream that is even less likely to be realized today than ever before. It was often said that those who believe in national democracy are the fantasists and dreamers, the “small state nostalgists” as Habermas calls them. In fact, the real fantasists are those who think that a democratically organized supranational Europe can emerge out of an institution like the Eurogroup or the European Parliament. Compared to that fantasy, exit from the Eurozone appears a much more tangible option that Syriza should embrace instead of shy away from. They talk the talk of national sovereignty but do not follow it through.

Dismantle the Eurozone

The right response to the current crisis is to dismantle the Eurozone. As it stands, there is no way of reconciling national democracy with a continued commitment to Eurozone membership.

Ever since it was created, the common currency has served to sharpen the differences between national economies in Europe. Diverging rates of competitiveness were masked by easy access to credit, something which ended in 2009. We are left with a situation where national populations are expected to bear the full brunt of adjustment whilst governments have no freedom of manoeuvre in either monetary or fiscal policy.

These sorts of expectations about internal adjustment to wages and prices are what brought the Gold Standard to an end, precisely because it became incompatible with national democracy. Only the involution of national democracy and the abandonment by the Left of its belief in national self-determination has allowed the Eurozone to survive thus far. It should be dismantled in order that national populations across Europe have a greater control over their fate.

Chris Bickerton

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