Varoufakis is wrong about Renzi

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In a September 22 blog post titled “A message for Mr Renzi”, Yanis Varoufakis writes the following:

No, what you got rid of, by participating in that dastardly coup against Alexis Tsipras and Greek democracy last July, was your own integrity as a European democrat. Possibly your soul too. Thankfully this is not irreversible. But you need to make serious amends. I cannot wait to see you return to the ranks of Europe’s democrats.

Notwithstanding the Grecocentrism, I think Mr. Varoufakis is committing a two-fold error: (i) tactical, (ii) analytical. As concerns tactics, this kind of eristic language wrapped in an ostensibly positive tone will not win over any reasoned argument, nor convince any citizen over the credibility of leftist claims on the flaws of the European Union (EU) and/or its Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). It turns the political issue into a petty squabble among individuals.

What concerns me the most though, is the analytical side of the matter. I believe Mr. Varoufakis’ claims are erroneous in two distinct ways:

  1. With respect to the role of Mr. Renzi, he fails to acknowledge that structures condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients. This is the kind of insight we can gain from the study of philosophy, the social sciences, and history. Are we to say that Mr. Renzi is ruling over Italy with an iron fist and that his government is a dictatorship? Can we really extend that accusation to all governments that were represented in that July 12 Euro Summit on the issue of the Greek crisis? I think not, so instead of bordering on the ridiculous, we should acknowledge the fact that, provided certain conditions, the design of an inter-state formation or institution such as the European Council, where a collection of democracies is brought together to solve an issue collectively, does not engender a “greater” democracy, but rather forces one side against another: a “win-lose” situation, a zero-sum game. This is not a matter of any individual agent’s personality, but of the very context in which they were supposed to behave in accordance with their role as political leader of their country.
  2. As argued in the two most recent posts on altereuropeanism, what absolutely needs to change in Europe is not the secondary policies that are being implemented, i.e. substitute neoliberalism with something more moderate. The EU/EMU suffers from a fundamental flaw of the constitutional sort, what I call a sovereignty mismatch. On the issues over which the EU has competences, we have European authority that is exercised over the full compass of the Union, but we do not have a common body of citizens, a European Demos, that outright legitimises such authority. Instead we have partitioned legitimacy and accountability, limited to the nation state. A club of democracies congregating as the European Council or the other inter-governmental entities, is indeed made up of elected governments, but is not legitimised as a body nor is it accountable to a single, unified citizenry. Mr. Varoufakis in his capacity as a finance minister was not accountable to the German citizens, just as Mr. Schäuble is not accountable to the Greeks. Put differently, the EU has “state sovereignty”, rule from the top, but lacks “popular sovereignty”, rule from the bottom, hence the mismatch.

[see analysis: Why not inter-governmentalism?]

Given the above, I think Mr. Varoufakis has to recede and revise a few things. That type of blog post will surely attract a lot of attention, but it will not do anything to advance our understanding of the EU, of its actual flaws, and of the solutions that need to be put forward. Instead, we will be bundling and eventually confounding the otherwise legitimate claims for social justice and democracy with egregiously fallacious narratives of EU-level authoritarianism.

The constitutional flaws of the EU/EMU are all stemming from its very nature as an inter-state-treaties-based formation, a sui generis quasi-confederation. The secondary flaws, EMU neoliberalism in particular, are also predicated on inter-governmentalism. The reason is that in the absence of a genuine federal government for the EU at-large, with the full capacity to govern in accordance with democratic norms, the rules have to first be enshrined in—or envisaged by—the Treaties in order to be made as sacrosanct as possible. There is no other way to bind together a group of democracies but by making concrete, quasi-permanent, binding, and far-reaching the international covenants they ratify.

Inter-governmentalism can only work when it has a limited purpose and scope. In Europe, it has more or less become the default modus operandi for just about every area of policy, and has been enhanced by supra-national institutions, such as the European Central Bank. This is the so-called “Community Method”: inter-governmental bargaining with the support of EU institutions. A more descriptive term would be the quasi-confederal method.

To that end, we do not need a “new inter-governmentalism” among leftists, to combat austerity and neoliberalism. That will also foster the exact same constitutional problems as the current EU/EMU. What we need instead, is to extend the kind of republican norms that apply at the national level to the European: establish a European Democracy, a federation founded on a codified corpus of primary law, a constitution, that will supersede the existing inter-state-treaties-based Union.

What I am trying to suggest, and where I base my critique of Mr. Varoufakis’ accusations towards Mr. Renzi, is that the real problems are structural, not situational, not agent-specific. I think Mr. Varoufakis is very important for forwarding the cause of altereuropeanism, especially since he is already campaigning for a “plan B” for Europe, yet he needs to review some of his arguments, apply the analytical wit he is known for, and seek to reform the actual EU architecture, not some dictatorial chimera.

I emphasise the need for analysis, for understanding the actuality of things, because it is with knowledge that we may identify the issues that need to be amended and find ways to improve our political life. I contend that the architects of the EU/EMU were not evil or ill-meaning. They were just misguided, thinking that inter-governmentalism would work as intended and would deliver the public goods we citizens have come to expect from modern democracy. It did not and it will not. We might as well learn from past experiences, so as not to embed and perpetuate the same errors.