In a scintillating opinion piece for openDemocracy, Professor Giosuè Baggio writes:1
[…] It is crucial to realize that, institutionally, the EU is a very plastic organization: its structure and functioning keep changing quickly. That is a hallmark of its history, too. Additionally, currently this dynamics is not going in any particular direction. Besides a vague promise of ‘ever closer union’, there is no publicly disclosed plan and no agreement as to what kind of organization the EU may be in 10 or 50 years. The EU’s institutional plasticity and its apparent lack of political direction are opportunities for democratic forces at this particular juncture.
He is making the case for a pro-European progressive agenda. Leftists should adopt a federalist view of the European integration process. Also, by highlighting the EU’s susceptibility to reform, the professor challenges one of the darling theories of some on the left: of there being no alternatives whatsoever inside the Union.
What kind of alternatives?
The mere suggestion of that being the case creates a host of problems.
Starting from the “what is”
There needs to be a distinction between actual and potential states. The alternative may exist in the realm of possibility, yet remain decisively beyond the reach of any political agency eager to enact change, either because of the prevailing conditions or its own shortcomings.
The discussion of making thoroughgoing reforms has to account for the actuality of things. No fresh start is made. There is something to work with and, most importantly, it frames and defines political action. For all its potential open-endedness, the present institutional order offers no other option than reshaping it through inter-state treaties (amending the European Treaties is an intergovernmental prerogative).
To be sure, [cross-border] democratic movements may arise. They will form the embryo of a self-consious European demos. But the legal order of the European polity is by design contingent on at least the following:
- Nationalism. The presence and legitimacy of nation states, the EU Member States;
- national governments elected to promote the national interest;
- territoriality and sovereignty that emanate from and are confined to the nation;
- the conferral, though not forfeiture, of powers from the national to the European level that is pursued in purely functional terms (as necessary for the EU to fulfil its role).
- Intergovernmentalism. The primacy of national governments as a collective, appearing in two EU institutions: (i) European Council, (ii) Council of the EU.
- Derivativeness. The lack of sovereignty for the European Union as such;
- the absence of a fiscal capacity to raise taxes and issue debt;
- the dependency on fiscal contributions from the nations;
- the inability to launch a system-wide investment policy, also due to the obligation to maintain a longer-term budgetary neutrality (no deficits, debts, as per the Multiannual Financial Framework);
- the inexistence of an instituted European demos.
While technical obstacles can be overcome provided sufficient political will and widespread consensus, it would be a mistake to underestimate them. If the alternative agenda is to include a short-term strategy, it will inevitably be one of conformity with the status quo, only differentiating its position with regard to the content of policy. Medium to longer term considerations can broaden their horizon, provided they offer solutions as to how to circumvent present challenges, all while laying the foundations of the changes to come.
A coherent action plan that encompasses both the present and the future implies or pressuposes a willingness to recognise the positives of the European integration process, despite its modal qualities: those being gradualism, neoliberalism, intergovernmentalism, and the like. This is not an easy task for an outright leftist platform, especially if its overall approach to EU politics is characterised by negativity and sweeping generalisations that culminate in nihilism.
Plasticity on the surface
The plasticity of the EU has to be evaluated holistically as form and constitution (as in “composition”). The concatenation of events we are witnessing is the form of change. New laws and institutional arrangements replacing older ones. There was no real economic governance. Now there is one (of sorts). The ECB was too timid to engage in ‘unconventional’ policies. Today unconventional is the new normal. Commission presidents used to be hand picked and placed in office. The new version of the story is that they are appointed on the basis of their party having won the European elections with them heading the list (the spitzenkandidaten process).
What remains constant is the underlying rationale, qualitative aspects, and ultimate objective of these reforms. From a leftist perspective, the constitution of European politics has not lost its intergovernmentalist-neoliberal essence.
- Economic governance still follows the same principles that were envisaged by the architects of the Economic and Monetary Union and were enshrined in the original Stability and Growth Pact.
- The ECB continues to pursue a narrow mandate of price stability, while no improvements have been made with regard to its admittedly inadequate accountability structure.2
- As for the Commission, it still is nothing like an elected government, its pretences to the contrary notwithstanding. That is the case not only because it preserves its ‘technocratic’ role, but also due to the way in which its mandate and broader agenda is given to it by the European Council (the formal institution of the heads of state or government of the Member States).
These cases do not exhaust the topic. They do point though to a deeper truth about the EU, which also relates to the previous section: institutional inertia, understood as the reflexive attitude of the establishment to keep things broadly constant, is a potent force at the heart of the European integration process.
Optimism for the left
The thesis I am trying to put forward is that the left’s ambition, be it federalist or not, needs to be anchored in pragmatism. Without that it will have no means—or be ill prepared—to deliver on its vision.
To conclude on a different note, professor Baggio’s excellent piece is yet another indication of a growing trend in Europe’s left wing politics. It is about modern ideas, based on contemporary needs and demands. And this kind of emerging tendency is, in a sense, more likely to pursue the age-old ideals of the leftist movements—cooperation between peoples, cosmopolitanism, etc.—in that the European Union already is an advanced form of international cooperation featuring cross-border exchanges of all sorts.
What may well prove to be the most divisive issue among leftists is their stance on the direction of the integration process. But europeanists and nationalists (as in “pro-nation-state”) need not be at odds with each other. The EU effectively is a federal system where the supranational and national levels coexist and are interdependent. Assuming the alternative policies are to be forwarded within this design, at least in a first phase, the discussion can focus on what is fruitful, immediate, and tends to unite the left: the actual content of the core progressive agenda.