Thoughts on the “Plan B” for Europe

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended.

A new leftist movement will be taking form in Europe. Its forerunners are Jean-Luc Mélenchon (France), Stefano Fassina (Italy), Zoe Konstantopoulou (Greece), Oskar Lafontaine (Germany), and Yanis Varoufakis (Greece).

Its intention, at least at this early stage in the process, is to oppose this European Union (EU) and this Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), while aiming for another internationalist platform for Europeans.

Though I do find a number of their views to be interesting and fecund, I am here furnishing my criticism.

Avoid sweeping generalisations

To be concrete, let us consider this quote from the first statement of this nascent movement, as it appears on a September 11 post on the blog of Jean-Luc Mélenchon:

We have to escape the inanity and inhumanity of the current European Treaties and remould them in order to shed the straightjacket of neoliberalism, to repeal the Fiscal Compact, and to oppose the TTIP.

These kind of blanket statements do much more harm than good. I can state with confidence that there is an important distinction to be made between the EU as such, and the nexus of rules and institutions peculiar to the EMU.

This is no mere technicality. To draw a distinction is a matter of analytics, of recognising the constitution of the case, and of presenting things as they actually stand. Further, the distinction in itself does not imply a binary of sorts, where one entity is “good” and the other “evil”.

Within the Treaties and the secondary legislation deriving therefrom there are many positive elements, which have nothing to do with austerity, neoliberalism, and whatnot. They concern civil liberties, environmental protection, consumer rights, food safety, and the like.

Is, for example, the Community directive on European citizenship an instance of “inanity and inhumanity”? Can we really brand as outright undesirable such important provisions as Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

While each of those pieces of legislation or provisions thereof may not be perfect and may withstand some further improvements, they certainly do not appear as equal to some of the most alienating aspects of, say, the Six-Pack, the Fiscal Compact, or the European Central Bank’s independence from democratic control.

That neoliberalism has become part of our daily life is not contingent on the very nature of the Treaties qua neoliberal. It rather is a reflection of the balance of power in Europe, within and across the Member States. It is a matter of collective choice that the Articles in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union which underpin the European Semester were substantiated to a much greater degree than the ones that have to do with the rule of law, media pluralism, diversity, and so on.

We can, as I do, criticise the Treaties for being inter-state covenants rather than a genuine constitution of a republic. Their very presence as international treaties prevents us citizens from amending them directly, thus rendering Member States as the constitutional subjects of this order, and inter-governmentalism as the default mode of rule formation and rule making.

[see analyses tagged with Actual Europe]

My point is simple: sweeping generalisations had better be avoided. They only provide grist to the mill of the movement’s detractors, who will use them to dismiss the leftist demands as misinformed “populism” (with the derogatory significations they attach to that term).

Such rhetoric can also engender outright anti-european feelings, not just towards “Brussels” but also towards other Europeans who may be associated with it. That is so because this language’s surface aspects has many commonalities with that of non-leftist opponents of the EU/EMU. I am referring to the far right.

Let us then discuss the actual Europe, be eclectic in our approach, and remain vigilant of the potential pitfalls along the path of reforming the Union.

The need for a European Democracy

Though it is indeed obvious that “Europe” is much broader than a mere currency, the tendency has been to use the experiences of the euro as a proxy for Europe’s innate qualities. This conflation can be identified in the following statement from the afore-mentioned post on Mr. Mélenchon’s blog [emphasis is my own]:

The euro has become the tool of economic and governmental dominance in Europe by a European oligarchy hiding behind the German government, delighted to see Mrs Merkel doing all the “dirty work” other governments are incapable of undertaking. This Europe only generates violence within nations and between them: mass unemployment, fierce social dumping and insults against the European Periphery that are attributed to Germany’s leadership while parroted by all the “elites”, the Periphery’s not excluded. The European Union has thus become an agent of an extreme right wing ethos and a vehicle for annulling democratic control over production and distribution throughout Europe.

The euro as it currently stands is the source of the problem. But it does not follow that the EU as a whole has become some far right agency. This is consistent with the need to avoid generalisations.

The euro’s real problems, from a constitutional perspective, can be summarised thus:

  • Inter-governmentalism: decision-making is largely contingent on inter-state relations, especially since the policy response to the euro crisis is, in parts, made up of ad hoc solutions to pressing problems that were not foreseen in the Treaties. The institution of the European Council and the quasi-legal entity of the Eurogroup have gained increased influence due to the fact that the crisis has caught Europe unprepared, lacking the necessary mechanisms for a “federal”, concerted response to the emerging challenges. Inter-governmental relations are open to abuse, since they depend on the balance of power between Member States.
  • Depoliticisation: the EMU is not a state and therefore there is no government representing the euro area at-large. In such a vacuum, a rules-based system takes form; rules that need to be made near sacrosanct for them to be enforced in the absence of a higher authority. In particular, the Two-Pack and Six-Pack of Community regulations, as well as the Fiscal Compact, stand above any national law, are supposed to be permanent in character, and binding in nature. In other words, these rules are meant to be independent from politics, and be applied automatically regardless of circumstantial needs.
  • Proceduralism: as the euro crisis has clearly demonstrated, the satisfaction as such of the criteria enshrined in the EMU’s legal framework is much more significant than the material implications policies towards that objective may produce, so that e.g. the goal of internal devaluation must be pursued in a limited time frame, without factoring in the social, economic, or even political costs. In this light, discretion is either prohibited or, more likely, it is introduced arbitrarily depending on inter-governmental bargaining.
  • Sovereignty mismatch: while the European level does exercise an effective rule over the full compass of the system, it is not underpinned by the necessary democratic legitimacy, nor does it remain subject to the will formation of a European Demos qua constitutional subject. We have, in other words, “common rules” without “common politics”. This mismatch feeds into the other items on this list, for it is precisely because we have no European Democracy operating as a federal republic, that the system depends on inter-governmentalism, and a general technocratic mindset in dealing with things.

These are very specific issues. They are there by design. However, in the absence of the euro’s ever-centralising control the flaws would be much more manageable, while the ramifications of Union policy would clearly be far less pernicious.

The solution to inter-governmentalism is not a new inter-governmentalism among leftists. That will continue to pose a problem, for it will also create a mismatch of sovereignty at the very moment it introduces a new set of supra-national rules in the absence of a common body politic.

The answer to technocracy is democracy, via the politicisation of the various instruments of policy. But real democracy on a European scale cannot go hand in hand with inter-state relations among leftist governments. It needs a common sphere of politics, a common state of the Europeans, which will operate as a genuine constitution-based federation to preserve and respect diversity.

It is a dangerous illusion to think that the structural flaws of the existing EU/EMU are only a function of neoliberal attitudes to the content of policy. Most of the architecture’s shortcomings have to do with the chosen modalities of integration as a society of states, rather than a common space for trans-border and trans-national politics. Leftists who just want to abolish neoliberalism without creating this greater democracy will be perpetuating the problem, only giving it a new character.

Altereuropeanism not anti-europeanism

Based on the above, I have to state that we need to foster a europeanist outlook that is geared towards the formation of a common political space in Europe. We need to cultivate a common political spirit founded on universal values of humanism, justice, pluralism, and democracy.

It is one thing to oppose the euro or the EU, it is another to be anti-european. We can, as is the present author’s case, engage in analyses about the specificities of the EU/EMU, exposing their weaknesses or most alienating features, though not for the sake of negativity and nihilism, but for identifying the things that need to be fixed.

This is why I remain committed to the ideal of federalism: to the creation of a pan-European republic. “Federalism” is a bad word among some leftist circles because it is associated with the bureaucracy of Brussels. This ideal is depicted as some eurocrat’s power fantasy. I disagree. I find that to be cavalierly dismissive and essentially dogmatic.

If we leftists emphasise the universality of our values, why do we become defensive when one contemplates new forms of political organisation that go beyond the achievements of the 19th century? Why must we remain wedded in an inherently nationalistic (pro-nation-state) mindset? Why can’t we appreciate the milieu we are immersed in?

We have to recognise that the 21st century poses challenges and opens possibilities that were not present in ages past. The democratic movement could afford to be fastened upon the romanticised chimera of a transcendent entity called “the nation”, precisely because in early modernity conditions were such that democracy could only be realised as national representative democracy. Our thought must evolve with the times and the prevailing conditions. That’s why we have abstract “principles” not concrete “templates”. It is advised we do not remain trapped in a time capsule.

Couched in those terms, the nation state must be treated as an instrument not an immanent reality; as the outward manifestation of a popular sovereign will-formation, one that may incorporate different elements and attain varying modes of being.

As a leftist, I am a europeanist. I do however disagree with the kind of europeanism that produced the EU/EMU as they currently are. Therefore, I use the term altereuropeanism to denote my qualitative deviation from the conventional wisdom on all things germane to the European integration process.

To recapitulate, a genuine “Plan B” for Europe cannot be a mere leftist version of the same old structural flaws of the Union. A real alternative has to overcome the shortcomings of the present order; an order that we need to examine in its specifics, avoiding sweeping generalisations, and the type of dismissive rhetoric that treats the world as a set of binaries.

Eclecticism and pragmatism are needed, and must be combined with a clear vision and overt ambition for the way forward.

If my work has been helpful and you would like to buy me a coffee, please do so via Paypal.