Europe, Euro, and Altereuropeanism

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In an April 9 essay for the Green European Journal titled “For a Europe that unites, rather than divides people”, the authors Pierre Jonckheer and Krisztian Simon engage in an analysis of the current state of European politics, while offering constructive criticism of the Green’s approach to all things European.

I strongly encourage you to study this piece and, generally, to add the journal to your reading list. The essay herein is not a direct commentary on it, but a documentation of my views on tangential issues, in particular as concerns the need for a common political culture.

For context though, I furnish a couple of quotes from that text:

Today we resort to a merely defensive approach. Greens might have ideas on how to improve policies, though they seem to have no clear vision of the kind of Europe we want to live in. Do we want more integration? And if so, which kind? Do we want to live in a federal Europe? The answer is most likely yes. But we don’t voice our opinions loud enough, we are not even sure how to express our thoughts, and thus end up being some of the all too quiet reformist voices trying to push for new integrationist projects, for tax harmonisation, for a modest reform of the monetary union, or for policies to welcome and distribute refugees in Europe, which – as desirable as they are – risk falling short of having an influence on the path of Europe. […]

At least since the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the “common market” seems to have fostered not only competition but also co-operation amongst the member states – but the innovation of the euro, which was supposed to further unite the societies of Europe, didn’t work the way it was expected.

As a leftist-ecologist myself, I think that the ecological movement is a radical one; radical in the sense of attempting to change the political-economic order and social relations therein from the root all the way to the branches.

The institutionalisation of the movement, usually manifested in the formation of Green parties that rise to power is not a problem in itself, though the lure of authority can be. For the radical essence of ecology to remain in tact, the institutionalised entities must develop narratives for reform that are broad, systematic, coherent and cohesive in their ambition.

To that end, and as far as our common political order of the European Union is concerned, leftists-ecologists must present their own brand of Europeanism, what we may call an altereuropeanism.

Pragmatism with vision

Though the day-to-day affairs of European politics require concrete proposals and the necessary pragmatism, a holistic approach is needed, providing the common thread to any such practical step forward.

As I am more familiar with Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), I may note that quotidian realism has occurred in a certain vacuum, where the general vision is not quite clear.

Within the framework of a more integrated EMU, the Greens do want a fairer financial system and are quite adamant on the need to tackle tax policy asymmetries within the Union. All these are worthy concerns, yet they remain trapped in an age-old liberal mindset of merely “managing” the system so that it is less detrimental to the interests of the many.

The euro is not just a currency. It is a legal-institutional framework that rests on inter-state treaties. Coupled with the ever-expanding nexus of regulations that substantiate the EMU’s ruleset and modalities of integration, this order encompasses a broad range of policies ranging from monetary affairs, to fiscal policy, and indirectly to any other area of policy that has an impact on the state’s budget (every policy that is).

A “managed” EMU is certainly preferable to an unbridled one. Yet management of this sort occurs within the edifice’s constraints: it does not try to reform the primary source of the problem, but only to control the consequences and epiphenomena.

The EMU is a constitutional order of sorts, positioned above national constitutional law. The Two-Pack and Six-Pack of community regulations annul any national piece of legislation that stands in conflict to them. Same for the Fiscal Compact.

This order is not a genuinely democratic one though. We do have common European rules that cover the compass of the area, but we do not get the corresponding democratic legitimacy of the institutions and the popular sovereignty necessary for exercising control over these structures.

As I always note, the EMU is predicated on the ill conceived tenet of “common rules without common politics”. When considered in conjunction with the EU’s broader architecture, as an inter-governmental, quasi-confederal system, this principle is the mark of a technocratic mentality.

For me, the centralisation of control manifesting in the European Semester is an undesirable state of affairs, albeit one I understand given the prevailing conditions in which it was introduced. This is not about the optimality and effectiveness of the rules, but of the material implications they have on democratic life and inter-subjective experiences therein.

As Syriza’s rise to power proved, one cannot just deviate from the EMU’s rules. Their validity is superior to any national law, while their specificities as Community regulations and/or inter-state-treaties-based provisions, mean that no parliament, neither the European nor any national one, can unilaterally proceed with an ex post review of their content.

We thus have a constitutional order that can only be reformed by the Member States, operating within the constraints of inter-governmental politics. These relations are subject to abuse in circumstantial power relations, while their very nature as inter-national means that the genuine European interest is not represented. In the context of Europe’s inter-governmentalism, there is no [state] entity representing the Union at-large.

It is said that the European Parliament is the house of European democracy. The validity of such a statement depends on the area of policy. What is indisputable though, is that the Parliament lacks a number of important powers, which would enable it to perform the benign function of modifying the legal-institutional order in an effort to adapt it to evolving needs and expectations.

The Parliament does not have the power to initiate legislation. A sceptic could say that its own-initiative reports and/or the non-binding resolutions it adopts end up being little more than glorified political statements. They do not necessarily produce the desired results.

Further, the Parliament cannot amend the Treaties, the “constitution” of the EU, nor change the legal basis of other institutions over which it is supposed to exercise scrutiny. In that sense, it would perhaps seem appropriate to acknowledge its inherent limitations in exerting democratic control over the various state structures such as, say, the European Central Bank or the quasi-legal entity of the Eurogroup.

With the Parliament being constrained by the very design of the existing EU, it is not enough to merely discuss marginal amendments to existing rules. A constitutional debate is necessary on what the EMU is and, more importantly, on what it ought to be.

On its actuality, I see the EMU as a quasi-confederal technocracy: a system that engenders heteronomy in three distinct ways and that diminishes the scope of choice in the formulation of social-economic policy. Again, as Syriza’s rise and fall demonstrated, there are no real alternatives to the neoliberal juggernaut within the EMU.

This is not a matter of austerity being supposedly inevitable, but of the very nature of the EMU as a descriptive and enumerative rules-based system. By “descriptive and enumerative” I wish to denote a misguided practice for constitutional-level rule formation that seeks to be explicit and over-encompassing in its approach. This is in contrast to a generic position that would, by the by, be more suitable to a federal system (which the EMU supposedly is).

Legislators do not have perfect foresight. They cannot grasp every possible state of affairs, nor can they anticipate every immanent or emergent constitution of the case therein (here “constitution [of the case]” is used to denote “composition”). Neither the number of factors nor their specific inter-operations and concatenation of epiphenomena thereof can be foreseen in their fullest.

Thus, the practice of limiting the scope for adaptability to evolving circumstances is a rather bad idea, yet it is the default modus operandi of the EMU’s architects: the mode of incorporating the peculiar brand of euro-neoliberalism into the very legal fabric of the EMU. It is due to this structural constraint that alternatives are drastically limited to a mere banal liberalist exercise in distribution and management of whatever is left open to discretionary authority.

The euro alienates us citizens to our own democratic order, for we cannot pursue anything but what the supra-national rules envisage. Couched in those terms, I find this system to be undesirable. This is not about the idea of us Europeans sharing a single currency. It only concerns the actuality of this single currency as a monolithic order that concretises and calcifies a given ideology.

The architects of the euro put the cart before the horse. They wanted to realise the telos of unification indirectly, via the engineered necessity for further integration imposed by monetary unification. This exercise of theirs, apart from being a shrewd, unscrupulous, and surreptitious effort to impose a series of faits accomplis on European citizens, has left the EMU in a condition of indeterminacy, where it is neither a proper monetary union nor a typical fixed exchange rate regime.

The ideal is to proceed with the federalisation of the system, make it a genuine democracy, founded on a codified corpus of primary law. However, this presupposes and requires the commitment of Member States to change the present order and to eventually replace the Treaties with a new constitution.

There are too many hypotheses that need to be fulfilled on the path to the European federation. In the meantime, the countries experiencing the most deleterious effects of the asymmetric shocks that are deepened and lengthened by the euro’s very design as a suboptimal currency are trapped in limbo.

Greece, where the eurocrisis is most severe, has been under the technocrats’ stewardship for half a decade, and with the third bailout it will remain in this condition for at least another three years. At the end of this process, assuming it will end in three years, school kids will have become adults without having ever experienced anything but a government of theirs that acted as the infamous assignee of its creditors and effective overlords.

I wonder why. Is the euro such a good thing to have that we are even willing to sacrifice democracy to its altars?

Because of the manifold assumptions underpinning the federalist ideal, which I am in principle supportive of, we have to be able to think outside the box, to defy our own taboos. I have stated my principled support for Lafazanis, not because I find his party’s vision to be the most impressive piece of political thought available, but because I do endorse their primary cause for regaining monetary sovereignty.

To that end, I find it more pragmatic and more aligned with the need for popular sovereignty and democratic control over the state structures to take a step backward, to reverse integration for the sake of salvaging the broader idea of European unity.

The single currency does not keep us together by volition, but by visceral fear: of the unknown, of rampant inflation, of economic instability, of whatever. This is not a firm foundation on which to establish our common polity. It is a tokenistic kind of belonging and of “europeanness”: a fake one.

A common political culture

There are ideals and ideological purity. Then there are material conditions that impose their own constraints. My view of leftism/ecology prioritises popular sovereignty and democratic control. These have to be extended across the Union. Yet we must not conflate the place with the space. First they have to apply at the local level for us to even contemplate on their extension. A common Europe that has none of these, as is the actual EMU, is not a Europe I want or would struggle for.

This provides a direction on the kind of integration. It then needs to be combined with a clear set of propositions on the desirable constitutional order. For me that means a European Democracy, a federal republic that will have no inter-governmental basis whatsoever and which will supersede the existing inter-state-treaties-based EU, while incorporating whatever positives in the acquis communautaire.

Our otherwise cosmopolitan outlook has to be europeanist: an intermediate arrangement towards a global objective. But not the sort of “europeanism” that produced the quasi-confederal technocracy we now live in. An altereuropeanism that prioritises the normative ends of the movement, for decentralisation, popular sovereignty, social justice, peace with nature and the species, while incorporating them in a pan-European political order.

We need to have a common European polity so that we may finally overcome the shortcomings of the nation state and the squabbles that arise within an inwardly nationalistic formation of states. It is far from desirable to have social justice at some place if another place fosters and externalises exploitation. The goal is global, but it has to start from somewhere.

The interests of place and space are not in conflict with one another. If however we cling on to a monetarist and hence nominal European belonging, if we erroneously fetishise the euro as the vivid realisation of some mystical common destiny of ours, we will be creating a conflict between place and space.

Currently the euro’s specific kind of neoliberalism is in some places eroding whatever modicum of social justice and democracy was present. This is the kind of tension that cannot be resolved by merely obfuscating it or wishing it away. Something has to give.

True europeanness springs from a rubric of common values and normative objectives. It is not about some ostensible togetherness manifesting as fiat money, but about a common political culture, a basis for mutual understanding, trans-border solidarity, and shared democratically agonistic spirit.

I do want a federation, but that is a form. What comes first and what is the criterion is the substance. To that end, the mode of integration matters greatly, for modality is the condition that distinguishes the various emanations of federalism. Put simply, being a pro-european should not mean being a panegyrist, cheerleader, and apologist of whatever kind of integration. It means to be in favour of realising a European polity that incorporates and confirms a shared understanding of political, social, and economic organisation.

In that respect, it is not some kind of secular blasphemy to be a critic of certain aspects of the actual European integration process and, a fortiriori, it is not the mark of an anti-european to seek to rectify whatever errors may be germane to the system, even if that implies the orderly abolition of—or emancipation from—some products of integration, the euro being the most significant among them.

Concrete proposals on day-to-day politics are essential. But without a vision, a direction, and a purpose, this otherwise pragmatic method will be forcing the institutionalised entity to consistently and inexorably deviate from the stated objectives of the leftist-ecological movement. To use Syriza as another case in point, its lack of clear stance towards the euro forced Mr. Tsipras’ government into submission, decisively distancing it from its own stated values.

One had better learn from such experiences, or cavalierly pretend that nothing is wrong with the system as such, risking to become subject to—and instrument of—their own taboos.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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