Can Europe Make It?

The gardener, the grapes and the thorns: the backbone of Europe's future

Populism is now in an orbit of frontal collision with European and national institutions of democracy as developed today, demanding a reinvigoration of 'popular sovereignty.'

Evangelos Aretaios
7 February 2015
No Gods, no masters!

What kind of populism will prevail? Flickr/Margaret Killjoy. Some rights reserved.With the emergence of a new form of populism(-nationalism) on the rise in Europe, the way in which Berlin and the established elites of the EU engage with Athens will be decisive for the political and social identity of the EU for years to come.

Syriza’s populism contains the seeds for an inclusive and innovative European vision; but also the grapes of nationalism and, potentially, anti-western thorns. Ultimately, it will be for the German gardener to choose between them.

The EU is on a knife-edge

Nevertheless, the responsibility is historic for all sides.

First, because the European project is currently in a vacuum phase, a Gramscian interregnum, as described by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar, where “the old national order is dead, but the new post-national union of states, whether called a federation or not, is unable to take shape. On the contrary it is being increasingly dismantled and substantially distorted.”

Second, because the "dismantling" of this European project creates new dynamics that deeply challenge the broader European culture in relation to national identities. And not only in Greece but also in countries that are considered to be at the heart of the Union, notably Germany, where “Westbindung”, the post-war sense of the country's integration into the west, is beginning to weaken.

This iceberg started to grow in the depths of the European sea long ago and the electoral victory of Syriza (and its collaboration with the nationalist/right party ANEL), is only the first emergence of it, signalling the tectonic changes taking place across the Old Continent.

Europe can still make it

Nevertheless, the die is not yet cast. The orientation of the new populism growing in Europe will depend on the way the European institutions and ultimately Berlin deal with Athens. Europe still has a chance to reshape its political and social identity – and by doing so initiate a renaissance of the European vision.

"Europe is being reshaped around a sovereignty-populist axis,” writes José Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council of Foreign Affairs. “In other words, around a resurgence of nationalism (albeit a nationalism of a new kind, certainly compatible with democracy, but still in essence nationalism)."

And he rightly observes that throughout the EU, "parties are on the rise that articulate the same narrative: the EU has gone too far, it has hijacked democracy – it’s time to give the people a voice and take back national sovereignty. Europe is the problem and the nation is the solution, they say.”

From the beginning of the crisis in 2009, the foundations of the Union began to crack, with Eurosceptic/anti-European and local/centrifugal movements (as in Flanders, Catalonia and Scotland) quickly finding their way to the forefront of media attention.

With the electoral victory of Syriza however, the new populism is now in an orbit of frontal collision with European and national institutions of democracy as developed today, demanding a reinvigorated power of  'popular sovereignty' and the nation state. The democratic deficit of the European institutions and the usurpation of democracy by national elites are the main catalysts for the emergence and the legitimisation of different anti-European trends – appealing to European societies witnessing in recent years the particularly odious face of the European project’s neo-liberal deviations.

Ernesto Laclau, apparently one of the ideological new fathers of Syriza , proposes an innovative view on populism, considering it a basic ingredient of modern democratic societies with a vital role to play in expressing the views of the socially marginalised.

This new populism of the left, as suggested by the victory of Syriza, moves on two levels. The first is class oriented, with a clear conflict between nation and elite or "citizens and elites," as John Fotiadis writes. The second level is national-sovereign and the re-strengthening of the nation-state within the EU and against any form of substantial European integration.

Class and nation

In the vertical axis of this populism, national(ist) inequalities prevail, and in the horizontal one, class inequalities are dominant.

The horizontal axis has the dynamic to go beyond national borders and come closer to other national movements expressing class inequalities in different EU states. In that case, there could be a transnational and genuinely European dynamic reclaiming a more democratic EU based on social justice and economic equality. By contrast, the vertical axis offers to deepen the fault line between “we, Greeks” and the “others, Europeans” and to strengthen nationalistic/anti-EU but also anti-European/west tendencies.

Leftist populism(-nationalism) can be inclusive and tolerant towards the “other,” under the condition that the transition of power will be smooth and the perceived elites will not be persecuted. By contrast, rightist populism(-nationalism) is exclusive, averse to tolerance and confrontational towards the national/racial/religious “other.”

As rightly stressed by Balibar, one of the major questions is, “the extent to which a ‘nationalism from the left’ remains distinct from a ‘nationalism of the right’” as there remains potential for “overlap.”

The danger for the EU and its political identity is today tremendous. If Syriza is not given a chance, its vertical-national(ist) axis could overshadow definitively the leftist populism of the horizontal-class axis.

As Syriza’s fate will have an immediate impact on other protest movements around Europe, left and right, the ultimate convergence and overlap of these two populisms could give a monstrous new force to anti-Europeanism. Indeed, an attempt to punish or bully Greece is likely to threaten any efforts of Europhiles and well-intended Eurosceptics to renovate the European project without killing the vision of integration.

Deeper doubts

The degradation of the current version of Europe unearths existential doubts in many societies – concerning their relationship with the west/rationalism and national identity more broadly.

In Greece this question was never actually answered – perhaps it was always pervasive and absurd to answer it with an exclusive choice – but the current situation awakens in the collective subconscious an inherent anti-westernism. The enduring failure of the Greek elites to give strong legitimacy to reformist modernisation, coupled with chronic corruption and the Jacobin social authoritarianism imposed against all those who dared to challenge the assumptions of western capitalism and culture has fed a strong populist/nationalist reaction in Greece.

The national narratives and conspiracy theories blaming foreigners for all the evils endured by Greece and the Greek people might, in fact, call into question the relationship between the west, rationalism and Greek identity. Similar dynamics, in totally different levels and dimensions of course, exist in some other countries of the Union, perhaps most importantly in Germany.

The outcome of the Greek issue will therefore have a direct impact on how the new dominant Greek identity will be (re)shaped, as well as other national identities of the EU member states. Clearly, whatever is agreed or not in the next few weeks between Brussels/Berlin and Athens will trigger deep changes across Europe.

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