Can Europe Make It?

Democratising Europe – a transnational project?

What role does national self-determination and 'self-government’ play in European and human emancipation today? Yanis Varoufakis replies for DiEM25.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Alex Sakalis Yanis Varoufakis
13 September 2016

Yanis Varoufakis has recently been engaged in debating this key question for our times with the left. (See more.) Here, we try to open out the argument further. In his confrontation with the Eurogroup over its policy towards Greece, Yanis claimed to stand for those suffering from its policies everywhere. A much larger argument with opinion formers across the spectrum is essential. Now we’d like to test these claims, especially in their application to the strategy Yanis and others are developing for DiEM25, the cross-European network.


Anthony Barnett, Rosemary Bechler, Alex Sakalis.(oD)


DiEM25 in France.

Dear Yanis, You have just shared with us your response to European leftwingers critical of the DiEM project to democratise the European Union, and who prefer to concentrate their efforts at the national level. It’s here in oD – Europe’s left after Brexit: DiEM25’s perspective – and in other websites too.

This is indeed a key debate for our times. We want to take the argument further with questions that have been exercising us at openDemocracy and especially in Can Europe make it?, our European section.

But first can you expand on your opening statement? We wholeheartedly concur that the question whether and how national self-determination and 'self-government’ is emancipatory is important to all European political streams aspiring to achieve progressive change, not just Lexiteers. These range from, as you put it, the ‘authentic liberal’ to the ‘progressive conservative’ via ‘ecologists, feminists, pirate party and non-party activists’.

Could you say more about its relevance to some of these others?

Yanis Varoufakis (YV): My article, which oD kindly posted, was addressing left-wing supporters of Brexit (and other such ‘exits’ across Europe) to contest their hypothesis that a campaign to disband the anti-democratic, neoliberal EU might be the catalyst for the formation of popular fronts against austerity and inequality at the national level. But, as I wrote in the preface, it is important to bring into this discussion other progressives, besides our left-wing comrades.

Passion has returned to politics, but not in a manner that progressives have wanted. For it has blown wind into the sails of a Nationalist International, from Poland and Hungary, to France, to Brexit Britain to Donald Trump. It is an International that threatens the infrastructure that progressive politics of all textures needs to grow.

Simplistic slogans, like ‘Take your country back’, are used to lure majorities who are fed up with the status quo into a nationalist coalition whose power will translate into new fences, new forms of exclusion, fresh discontent and, importantly, more austerity-driven inequality. In such an environment liberals, ecologists, feminists, civil libertarians etc. will find themselves in a state of increasing asphyxiation.

To imagine that, somehow, progressives will take over or hijack the ‘leave the EU’ campaign from the nationalist juggernaut that gets its raison d'etre from it is to flirt with political fantasy.

oD: Still on the subject of DiEM25’s pluralist politics, tell us more about what you oppose to the monocultural concept of ‘the National Us’? You neatly describe DiEM25 as, “united by different conceptions of the good society”.

While intriguing, this phrase actually takes some unpacking to comprehend that this is more than a loose alliance of different forces, just like you are calling for more than ‘cooperation’ between different national lefts. It is, as you mention when you cite Gramsci to Fassina, a demos that emerges through joint struggle, including between these traditions, to prefigure the European democracy that we seek.

Isn’t it important that from any given nation, DiEM25 invites representatives from different political streams, (particularly from different political parties and none)? And might this not be as vital for the renewal of democracy at the national level as it is for any movement hoping to democratize the EU?

If so, we wonder what type of political organization does DiEM25 have to be to enable the richness of conversation to take place which underpins such a process, in both cases, national and European, providing the citizenship skills and better solutions that only arise from cooperation between many ‘others’?

YV: The Left always understood the nation as an artefact of relatively recent historical forces; a repercussion of commodification and of the steady triumph of capital. Nations were never monocultural even if they grafted a single identity upon layers of many pre-existing ones. Nationalism attempts to eradicate all the underlying pre-national identities (including an attempt to ‘cleanse’ language of ‘foreign’ impurities) and to make claims of superiority over (and radical difference from) ‘others’.

DiEM25’s proclamation ‘united by different conceptions of the good society’ illustrates our commitment to an alliance between people bonded together by a determination to learn from each other’s different conceptions of what is good and proper – as opposed to a conviction that one model of social intercourse fits all.

As part of the process of setting DiEM25 up, we have already experienced how the blending together of Europeans across nations and political parties into one transnational organisation is producing ‘proof’ that, on top of our existing multiple identities, it is not only possible but also empowering to overlay a new one – a transnational identity of our own making: radical, anti-authoritarian, democratic Europeanism.

The idea of going off to the mountains, or to the colonies, to set up Arcadia has been tried and it has led to dystopias.

oD: What is a healthy national culture, and what a dangerous, essentialist nationalism? We linger on this point because an important part of the attraction of nationalist politics in Europe, not at all confined to the far right, is the attraction, perhaps self-deluding, of ‘self-governance’ – being able to do something for yourself, without waiting for the whole system to change.

Against the backdrop of identity politics, many people are looking for meaningful lives to replace the ones they feel they have lost. Hence the popularity of such slogans as ‘Take back control’ or even, “Make Britain – or America - Great again”!

On the left in recent decades the optimistic exhortation of Tout va bien – “Start everywhere!”– has long since transmogrified into a more desperate, ‘Start somewhere!”. Inauspiciously, the ‘somewhere’ too often coincides with the political ambitions of whoever is doing the exhorting. i.e. ‘If we could just have a go here – we’d show you all how different it could be!’ Alternatively – people have headed for the squares and prefigurative politics of an even more ambitious kind.

So what can DiEM25 offer these user-energies? And don’t we need to be able to win them all - Leavers and Remainers for progressive change? (Look at the similarity that Brecht shows in his great and instructive film, Kuhle Wampe’, between the socialist movements and the nationalist socialist movements in 1930’s Berlin. To our leftwing friends, we ask, how will your leftwing nationalism differentiate itself from the xenophobic variety?).

YV: When I was cutting my political teeth, in the Greece of the mid-1970s, left-wingers used to draw a distinction between patriotism and nationalism: patriotism was to love one’s country while nationalism was to believe it was better than other people’s countries. I also remember an elderly communist who once told me that to be truly patriotic one must make the world’s entire literature one’s own and use it in the struggle against one’s national state. I must admit that I am still under the influence of that mind-set.

On self-governance, it is entirely possible to seek it, to crave it, to work for it without living under the illusion that one can be self-governed, in the sense of being autonomous from the rest of humanity. The idea of going off to the mountains, or to the colonies, to set up Arcadia has been tried and it has led to dystopias. But, the idea of a rebel city, of local government politics that reclaims power for the local community from the centre, is perfectly coherent, realistic and consistent with progressive politics.

Regarding action to reclaim control over our lives, I have much sympathy with the argument that we must start ‘somewhere’ and that this ‘somewhere’ better be close to home. This is why DiEM25 is heavily engaged with protests in public squares (NB. We were and remain active in the Nuit Debout movement in the heart of Paris) while fostering a network of rebel cities, from Barcelona and Valencia to Napoli and municipalities in Germany and Poland. But, as we say in our Manifesto,

While the fight for democracy-from below (at the local, regional or national levels) is necessary, it is nevertheless insufficient if it is conducted without an internationalist strategy toward a pan-European coalition for democratising Europe. European democrats must come together first, forge a common agenda, and then find ways of connecting it with local communities and at the regional and national level.

So, yes, the local and the national levels are battlefields in which we must fight. But the key to DiEM25’s approach is that we refuse to prioritise the national over the transnational or pan-European level – just as we refuse to prioritise the national over the local. As my friend and DiEM25 supporter Slavoj Zizek said recently, socialist nationalism is not the right weapon against national socialism.

This is how I think of my national vs European identities: it is not a zero sum game where the development of one must diminish the other.

oD: To press this a little further, in your critique of ‘essentialist’ conceptions of the single national demos, you say that they are a tool of establishments and the far right because they allow them to gloss over class struggle and pit nation against nation. But today doesn’t the construction of the monocultural ‘National Us’ have other functions as well? It produces a ready supply of enemy others for the securitising state to protect us from, inside and outside the nation state. It criminalises dissent, making people fearful of anyone different. Is it an accident that the far right, increasingly supported by mainstream politics throughout Europe, have singled out ‘multiculturalism’ as the enemy?

Today, all political parties who are ambitious for power have to aspire to the construction of a fictional monolithic National Us which cannot possibly represent the superdiversity of modern societies as they really are today. Don’t we have to start talking about the importance of an internationalist and pluralist politics as the only ultimate insurance against violence? And doesn’t the diverse nature of Europe provide those who aspire to this kind of future with a great start, in fact? Cities – world cities and other cities, welcoming cities, rebel cities and networking cities – aren’t these also another example of the pluralist politics we need to capture for our challenge to the EU, if we want to build an alternative demos?

YV: What saddens me deeply is that we now have to re-discover that which a previous generation of progressives understood perfectly well. The Left became significant by making precisely the points that you are making: the creation of an illusory monocultural national subject was always instrumental to the interests of a ruling class determined to co-opt the working, even the lumpen, classes into a fictitious ‘whole’ whose illusory common, or national, interest was defined in opposition to foreigners and to the colonised.

Great crimes against humanity were thus justified, from Empire politics to the Vietnam War. And when the fallout from this type of politics caused parts of the ‘other’ societies to emigrate to the metropoles of Empire, the same nationalist illusion began to warn of ‘rivers of blood’ and to turn its guns on multiculturalism.

Later on, multiculturalism became the breeding ground for other forms of essentialism that fed inexorably the nationalist backlash against the other. As immigration evolved, the local working class began to feel squeezed out of its own neighbourhoods. London and other cities began to turn into a shopping mall full of faceless customers buying products manufactured in far away places. Locals began to feel like the garbage men and women in shopping malls, working in the shadows, behind a façade, disenfranchised and totally ignored by the shoppers.

It is natural that, in the absence of a progressive movement that empowers them and connects them with the millions of others who share this experience in Paris, in Madrid, in Athens etc., they are easy pickings for the Nigel Farages, the Le Pens, the AfDs etc. DiEM25 aspires to be the political movement that offers the disenfranchised these ‘connections’.


Yanis Varoufakis and Julien Bayou at Nuit Debout.

oD: We assume general agreement between us here, as well as being very interested to know your response. Where the issues seem unresolved is in a double question around the relationship of national-plural and civic democracy.

Do you see a European Demos as replacing national democracy, or dissolving it into a larger European identity?

YV: Speaking from the heart, I cannot imagine my Greek identity being diluted into a European identity. But it does not have to be in order for a European identity, or a European Demos, to emerge. I think of this in terms of… music. When growing up, I was immersed in two kinds of music: Greek and classical. Then, by the time I was twelve, I got heavily into Rock. Then into other forms of music. Every time I was seduced by a musical form, I acquired a new identity. Listening to rhythm & blues or swing transported me to Texas and Louisiana (so much so that when I moved to Texas to live, it felt as if I had lived there before). Listening to Algerian music transported me to North Africa. But none of these identities blunted or diminished my appreciation of Greek music or, indeed, of the classical music of my youth. Indeed, if anything, the new musical identities enhanced my appreciation of Greek music. This is how I think of my national vs European identities: it is not a zero sum game where the development of one must diminish the other.

oD: How do you explain the stark national differences of energy and rhythm and interest. For example when the astonishing Spanish May 15 movement took off, not even Portugal showed any evidence of solidarity. When the French started their Nuit Debout there was a small spread but nothing significant. Of course you could say they were specifically national in their initial focus but this is not a satisfactory answer. It is the new left wing, social movement, occupy risings that have been national, intensely and ‘naturally’ so, so it seems. So if the European Demos is not going to replace national democratic energies as the defining level, how will it bring them together?

YV: One correction: the Spanish movement sparked off the huge demonstrations in Athens that led to the Greek indignados movement which, later, turned into Syriza’s January 2015 electoral triumph. This is why the Troika ‘had’ to crush our government – to prevent such ‘contagion’ from spreading. And they were largely successful, as you point out. The crushing of the Athens Spring stemmed the rise of Podemos and is threatening Spain with a return to the two party system.

Similarly, the Nuit Debout movement would have been more effective in spreading the spirit of defiance throughout Europe if the Athens Spring had succeeded. But, having said that, as I travel across Europe, I stumble upon considerable evidence that what we started in Athens in 2015, despite the sad outcome, is still alive and has the potential of spreading. This is what DiEM25 is about: effecting the contagion of democratic policies, and the surreptitious creation of a European Demos, that the Troika is so keen to impede.

oD: When you argue, Yanis, that “national parliaments and governments do have power, but only to the extent that they are prepared for a rupture with the EU troika” – can you say more about what this really means?

YV: The Syriza government in which I served during the first part of 2015 is a case in point. Take one concrete example: We decided to pass through parliament a bill devoting some resources to providing vouchers to the very poor, to be used to buy food, pay for electricity bills and rent – we called it the Humanitarian Crisis Bill. The EU’s troika sent me an email saying that this bill, if it is passed, would constitute casus belli and our banks might be closed down. I responded by publishing that email and shaming them. It is imperative that governments in the EU proceed with type of ‘governmental disobedience’, as I call it. It is the only way in which the EU can be forced to reform.

Campaigning for the disintegration of the EU will only give rise to national governments that have no interest in progressive policies.

oD: This may indeed enable acts of disobedience which eventually precipitate an EU disintegration, but how possible is it actually to build something positive in any single nation state today? Isn’t it wishful thinking, or what we used to call voluntarism?

YV: If the EU’s establishment responds to such acts of disobedience by destroying the EU, fair enough. But it is one thing to remain steadfast in our policies in favour of our people and it is quite another to turn Brexit, Grexit etc. into our objectives. Acting at the level of the single nation state in progressive ways – as we did with our Humanitarian Crisis bill – is a way of inciting others to do likewise within a pan-European progressive campaign. But campaigning for disintegration of the EU will only give rise to national governments that have no interest in progressive policies.

oD: In an era of extractive tax havens, what is really gained from breaking with the EU to focus one’s loyalties on the zone of influence of the City of London? Is a ‘clean BREXIT’ really much more feasible than a ‘clean GREXIT’, albeit in different ways?

YV: The Tories in power today are shouting it from the rooftops: Their blueprint for a successful post-Brexit UK is to turn the UK into even more of a tax haven than it already is!

oD: Today, if we want to show that an alternative politics really is possible, don’t we always need allies and networks and transnational leverage, whether we are a city attempting to welcome refugees, or a nation attempting to defend its tax base or the digital privacy of its citizens?

YV: This is precisely DiEM25’s point!

oD: And then we have to get on with doing something. Can you tell us more about how “DiEM’s transnational structure will illustrate how a pan-European democracy can work at all levels and in all jurisdictions?” This is surely a properly ambitious vision for our times… How can we in the media, for example, help to advance it?

YV: If you read DiEM25’s internal rules, or constitution (we call it Organisational Principles), you will find that we are a truly transnational organisation. Unlike, say, the European Party of the Left which is a confederation of national parties, with representatives from each of the EU’s member-states, DiEM25’s organs are fully transnational. For example, our central Coordination Committee comprises only twelve people, which means it is impossible to have a member from every European country.

Similarly with our Validating Council which consists of 100 people that are drawn by lot from the membership – the algorithm that selects them is not constrained geographically (it is only constrained to select 50 men and 50 women). In short, DiEM25 tries to practise internally the transnational model of politics that we are promoting throughout Europe. We come together not as Portuguese, as Greeks, as Germans, as Brits etc. but as democrats who happen to be, proudly, Portuguese, Greeks, Germans, Brits etc.

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