Can Europe Make It?

Useless European elections?

A vicious circle must be broken, but this can arise only from inside the European perspective, through a mounting pressure of the Union’s citizens, who must at the same time avoid “sovereign” fallacies and "cosmopolitan" illusions.

Etienne Balibar
20 May 2014
deviantART/HollywoodMars. Some rights reserved.

deviantART/HollywoodMars. Some rights reserved.

It would be misleading to assert that the final debates and the campaign itself entirely clarified what is at stake in the European Elections of May 25, even if major economic, political, moral, and cultural issues have been addressed by the candidates.

Ambiguities are still there on both sides. Partisans of a federalist ‘great leap forward’, involving stronger common institutions with greater powers, are indiscriminately presenting “populism” as the main enemy of Europe. This is true especially when they belong to liberal circles but even when, from the left, they are critical of European technocracy and the economic orthodoxy of the Brussels Commission and the Central Bank.

They seem to believe that a mere ‘rationalization’ of the current institutions will suffice to overcome the structural crisis into which the EU has plunged since the outbreak of the speculative bubble in 2008, without a change of the political principles or the internal relations of forces.

On the other hand, those who are critical of the European construction as such, because they see it as a ‘war machine’ used by neo-liberal globalization to dismantle social welfare and public policies in the Old Continent, are also frequently contaminated by nationalist discourses on sovereignty, which foster the illusion of a possible return to obsolete “border protections” and, moreover, feed various degrees of xenophobia.

In this situation, the idea of a genuine new foundation of Europe, on revolutionary bases, aiming at solidarity and an economic and political development of all its peoples, with a capacity to change the trajectory of globalization, is at pains to emerge as a way forward with any credibility. This concerns the specifics of its programme as well as the new relations of forces which could implement it in today’s Europe.

Why are things like this? Several reasons can be invoked. Some come from the fact that European citizens are not really convinced that elections will grant them a real power to weigh on the politics decided in Brussels (not to mention a real ‘constituent power’ in Europe), in spite of the fact that the European Parliament will now have the last word in the designation of the President of the Commission – something which has nevertheless contributed to conferring a more transnational character to the campaign.

But other reasons arise from the fact that the political elites on all sides consistently push to keep the European debate enclosed within the terms of a traditional alternative which is also a dead end: either you are for the Europe of “free and undisturbed competition”, or you want to return to “sovereign nations” without limitations. And the new forces arising from civil society, bottom up, have had a disastrous tendency toward self-destruction, or simply being submerged into the system.

I will not, therefore, suggest that the choices are neat and obvious - granted that abstention from voting is not a choice, or if it is so - it is a choice in favour of anti-European positions which, today, are massively on the far-right of the spectrum.

Perhaps I will be permitted to illustrate this difficulty with my own fluctuations: not that I would claim to be an expert, but simply because I think they can illustrate the range of possibilities that a sincere European citizen could contemplate when, as a result of the experiences in the last period, he/she has reached two convictions which are equally strong: austerity policies which are in the process of crushing the European social (and also cultural) model can be effectively opposed only on the European terrain itself; but, for the same reasons, there is no possibility to do “political business as usual”, advocating Europe as a political project without fighting for another Europe, in fact a complete reconstruction of Europe.

In recent weeks, I endorsed three different declarations. The first (“Vote for Europe”), circulated by Allianz Kulturstiftung in Germany, was inspired by the critique of “German Europe” voiced by Ulrich Beck, Jürgen Habermas and endorsed by others (Zygmunt Bauman, Mary Kaldor, Saskia Sassen, Edgar Morin, etc.). It particularly insisted on the urgency of taking part in the elections, and the necessity of a radical democratization of European institutions. It also presented the ‘choice’ ahead as one between, at the two opposite ends, David Cameron’s “less Europe”, and Martin Schulz’s “different kind of Europe”, where, in particular, public funds would not be used to stabilize the banking system, but tackle the problem of unemployment amongst young people. This amounted to an implicit endorsement of Schulz’s candidacy.

The second (“L’Europa al bivio”) was launched in Italy by a group of intellectuals (headed by Barbara Spinelli) who support Alexis Tsipras for President of the Commission and called for independent lists from ‘civil society’  - later backed by several far left organizations in Italy, at the same time as Tsipras was chosen as common candidate by all the parties which form the ‘European Left’ (including the Front de gauche in France, Izquierda Unida in Spain, and Die Linke in Germany). It particularly insisted on the urgency of interrupting the story of ‘great coalitions’ and ‘alternations in power’ between conservative liberals and social democrats which, in each country as well as in Strasbourg and Brussels, have ruined the prospect of a ‘social Europe’ and transformed budgetary restrictions into an Iron Rule of the European Union, to which every institution and policy is now subjected. Emphasizing the symbolic importance of choosing for the Presidency the popular leader of a country which for five years now was the guinea pig of forced privatization of public services and the bracketing of representative democracy, the signatories also approved his programme for Europe: a Conference for the restructuring of the debts, a new mission for the European Central Bank, and a general plan for the reduction of social and regional inequalities.

Finally, the third declaration (“Another Road for Europe”), framed by Euro-pen (European Progressive Economists Network) and rallied by such historical figures as Rossana Rossanda and Luciana Castellina in Italy, Elmar Altvater in Germany, Susan George (from ATTAC) in France, and, again, Zygmunt Bauman, Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen, would demand to End austerity, Control finance, Expand jobs and reverse economic divergence, Reduce inequality, and Expand democracy. The declaration emphasized that there is a direct link between a programme of public expenditure and an “ecological transition” in the productive model, that a regulation of banking activities isolating speculation from credit must go far beyond the recent agreement on “banking union” (which itself lags behind the US “Volcker Rule”), and that commercial negotiations carried on in the name of Europe by the Commission must be open and subjected to parliamentary control. It did not endorse any specific candidacy, but insisted that an alternative to the “centrist” alliances must emerge in Europe.

Undoubtedly, there remain divergences of content or tactics between such proposals (and others which could be also mentioned), but there is a core of common principles: this is the clear recognition that, since Maastricht at the latest, the EU was imprisoned in the circle of authoritarian governance (greatly facilitated by the opacity of its institutional system, where financial lobbying plays a decisive role) and neo-liberal orthodoxy, in the service of financial powers which continuously restructure the industrial capacities and the social composition of the “European people”. This combined mechanism must be transformed and the circle must be broken, but this can arise only from inside the European perspective, through a mounting pressure of the Union’s citizens, who must at the same time avoid “sovereign” fallacies and “cosmopolitan” illusions. From this point of view, we the ‘people of Europe’, are in a corner, threatened with atomization as well as instrumentalization by the far Right, but neither deprived of ideas nor of resources.

I want to add some personal remarks here. In order for such principles and proposals to really become a political alternative to the current European system, they must be completed in various domains. The most important in my eyes concern (1) common educational, linguistic and cultural policies (since European youngsters need not only jobs, but forging a common identity out of their multiple traditions which are also multiple competences); (2) a vigorous defense of human rights, which used to be the point d’honneur of European “democracies” and are now in great danger (e.g. through the persecution of Roma people, from Hungary to France, and the murderous border police operations targeting refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean); and (3) a fully renovated international politics, since in its own as well as the world’s interest, Europe should assign itself goals other than joining the rearguard battles of the US Empire, making or unmaking dictators in Africa, or fighting with post-Soviet Russia to grab or control parts of the Slavic and Caucasian nations in the East. In fact it must fight for a new world order.

Returning to the initial question, then: could elections with a limited stake suffice to crystallize such a programme and rally significant forces around it? Obviously not. A rebirth of the political Left in Europe needs more, and other forms of trans-border mobilization. But the elections may help popularizing its necessity, especially in the face of a general rise of far-right (sometimes overtly neo-fascist) parties in Europe.

For this reason, on May 25, I am going to lucidly vote for candidates who come closest to the principles that I just mentioned. In my eyes they represent the only hopes of a democratic future in the continent (including its islands…) where, for a long time now, I have decided to locate my civic commitment.

Read more from our European elections coverage here.

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