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France’s anti-system election

21 Apr

This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).

 

On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall.[1] The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.

This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.

The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas.[2] Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.

There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist.[3] However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.[4]

The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin[5], Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).

Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.

This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year.  Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.

If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France.  Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.

Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.

A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.

Chris Bickerton

[1] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.

[2] Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.

[3] Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)

[4] ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.

[5] For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.

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

 

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