Still a chance for another Europe?

On the output side of Europe’s political system, we have an abdication of responsibility by representative institutions in the face of citizens’ demands. But the Greek elections mark a turning point.  

Donatella della Porta
20 March 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Iglesias and Tsipras, Madrid 2014.

Iglesias and Tsipras, Madrid 2014. Demotix/Czuko Williams. All rights reserved.Trust in the European Union (EU) is falling amongst its citizens. Opinion polls--including the ones promoted by the European Commission itself through its Eurobarometer--clearly indicate the effects of the financial crisis on support for European institutions by European citizens.  In short, they point to a dramatic drop in citizens’ trust in the EU, going from 57% in the Spring of 2007 to 31% in the Autumn of 2013 (Eurobarometer no. 80).

Growing mistrust is linked to a dramatic increase in the number of citizens for whom the EU conjures up a negative image, a percentage that doubled (from 15% to 28%), while the proportion of those who have a positive image dropped from (52 to 31%) between 2007 and 2013. The proportion of those who are optimistic about the future development of the EU dropped meanwhile from 2/3 to half of the population, with the percentage of pessimists reaching 2/3 in southern European Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. The decline in trust indeed accompanies the shift in assessment of the situation of the national economy, with a steep increase in those who consider it as totally bad--approximating 100% in southern European countries.

European elections and their aftermath point at a clear crisis of political responsibility in European institutions, no longer able to provide European citizens with what the latter consider their rights. What is worse, European institutions seem unable even to perceive the crack in their own legitimacy, rejecting the significance of the decline in participation at the elections, and pretending to have secured a victory of the “Europeanists”--a claim they can secure only by including such unlikely EU-supporters as Silvio Berlusconi or Victor Orban in their calculations. What is more, the management of the crisis is left in the hands of financial institutions (at best, financial ministers) with a rapid increase in the EU’s democratic deficit, but also that of our domestic political institutions.

Deregulation, privatization, and liberalization have remained the main policy directions justified by the requirement to re-establish the efficiency of the market. De facto, these interventions did not help competition, but rather supported the concentration of power in the hands of a few huge corporations, with an ensuing economic crisis rooted not in scarcity or inflation, but rather in redistribution (or rather the lack thereof).

Since 2008, public debt has increased, not because of investments in social services and support for the weaker social groups, but due instead to the huge expenditures of public money in bailing out banks and financial institutions from their financially-driven crisis as well as by drastic cuts in the taxation on capital. This development in the interactions between the state and the market has taken the form of a corruption of representative democracy through the overlapping of economic and political power. On the output side of the political system, this means we have an abdication of responsibility by representative institutions in the face of citizens’ demands. 

Counter to neoliberal undertakings to defend the market from the state, scholars of various disciplines point at the growing intermingling of the two. The segregation of the economy from the polity is rarely in place, as governments still have to remedy market failure, and the market needs laws. State capacity to ensure citizens’ rights is drastically reduced by policies of privatization, liberalization, and deregulation, allowing for the concentration of capital. These derive from governments’ commitment in terms of favourable legislation. The states are indeed accused of repealing rights to social protection in order to improve profits and rents for the privileged few. Neoliberalism in fact involves the abolition of several laws and regulations oriented towards controlling the economy. Additionally, neoliberalism was established--and, as Colin Crouch has observed, has strangely survived its crisis—in particular through the transfer of a large amount of money from corporations to politicians. In fact, liberalization, deregulation, and privatization have fuelled corruption and ‘wild lobbying’, including at the European level.

At the same time as corporations buy political decisions, there are attempts to present those decisions as depoliticized, part of a ‘legitimation by output’ of a benign regulatory institution, the image long sought after by the EU. The space for political decision-making has consequently been denied, by politicians of different colours, on the grounds of the assumed absolute dominance of the so-called ‘logic of the market’, especially of international markets. In fact, the democratic aim of obtaining the trust of citizens has now been rhetorically overtaken by the search for the ‘trust of the market’, which is to be obtained even at the expense of irresponsiveness to citizen demands.

The responsibility of democratic states vis-à-vis their citizens is placed at a further remove as external conditionalities--including those imposed by the EU on European countries forced to take a loan—thereby imposing cuts in public spending, with often dramatic consequences in terms of violations of human rights to food, health, and housing. Democratic responsibility is still further eroded by the irresponsibility of those international organizations (including an untransparent financial diplomacy) that imposes these conditionalities, jeopardising political choices.

While some institutional reforms were supposed to increase electoral accountability, the financial crisis which occurred in 2008, hitting the weaker economies of the EU periphery in a particularly dramatic way, highlighted all the weaknesses of a European Monetary Union driven by conceptions of negative integration, and relying strongly on monetarist assumptions. The development of the economic crisis impacted on opportunities for social movements at EU level, especially when it came to the EU policies developed to address the crisis. These constrained movements’ chances to get their claims heard.

The crisis of neoliberalism manifests the non-responsive and ir-responsible nature of contemporary democracy that the anti-austerity movements lament. Coupled with the weakening of ‘legitimation by outcome’, the conditionalities imposed by lender institutions--among them the EU--on the weaker economies, further undermine the EU’s credibility as a promoter  of prosperity and democracy.

Social movements, like other political organizations, have been long engaged in an escalating criticism of Europe as it is (or is perceived to be). The global justice movement was certainly critical of the institutions of representative democracy. As opposed to the existing Europe, the image of ‘another Europe’ (rather than ‘no Europe’) was however often stressed. Comparing the Global Justice Movement and the most recent protests with austerity politics, we can note some similarities in the critique of the neoliberal version of representative democracy, but also some differences. In particular, tensions with political parties (and the institutions of representative democracy more generally) that first emerged in the Global Justice Movement have become far more radical in subsequent waves of protests, characterized by the broad refusal of alliances with political parties and even associations, considered as (corrupted) instruments of domination.

The degenerative impact of a ‘Europe of the Market’ on economic welfare and of ‘Europeanization from above’ on political consensus have both been central concerns since the first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. The thousands of representatives of progressive social movement organizations and the tens of thousands of activists that attended that event developed hundreds of proposal ‘for another Europe’. In fact, besides the critique of existing policies at EU levels, the European Social Forums expressed eager hopes for reform, and a process of Europeanization from below developed throughout the European forums and counter-summits, thereby contributing to the growth of EU-wide networks and identities.

Hope of contributing to an inclusive and fair Europe were however dashed during the first decades of the new century, as the financial crisis at one and the same time confirmed the power of neoliberal visions of Europe in the EU institutions, as well as their weakness in terms of delivering what was promised. In fact, the global financial crisis accentuated the impact of the common currency on the strengthening of territorial inequalities. Without investments to strengthen socio-economic infrastructures, the peripheries of the EU were not only the worst hit by the crisis, but they also became more and more dependent. The neoliberal bias of the EU in general, and the European Bank in particular, manifested its influence on the European project just as a financial crisis was addressed with (totally unfit) monetary policies. The illusion of a federation recognising the rights of the weaker states was severely challenged as heavy conditionalities were imposed upon the countries that had suffered most from the economic crisis, and they had to forfeit their residual national sovereignty in exchange for material support. At the same time, faced with an increasingly dramatic legitimacy crisis, the EU institutions have stressed their pretence of being legitimated by their expertise in and commitment to strengthening the market.  

Critical Europeanism and crisis

While at the beginning of the Millennium cosmopolitan activists of the global justice movements developed critical visions of Europe and some groups participated in EU-oriented campaigns, more recent anti-austerity protests have seemingly revive a call for national sovereignty at the moment of its vanishing, most acutely in the weaker economies, but also in the strongest as evidenced by the massive support for the ECI against the liberalisation of water supply services in Germany. While critical Europeanism is still alive, the trust in the reformability of EU institutions has taken a battering, as has confidence in the possibility of influencing EU policies through lobbying, consultations, and indeed protest and petitions.

The question emerges then: is it still possible to place our hope in another Europe? The almost-majority obtained by Syriza in the last elections seems to open some opportunities in this direction. Most feared by the financial powers that have launched an orchestrated volley of threats in response, this has been a most desirable result for those who have a different conception of Europe, one of solidarity and democracy instead of competition and top-down decisions – ‘Another Europe’ of social justice and popular participation that in recent years has become increasingly difficult to believe in.

Beyond the internal and external challenges that will confront Alexis Tsipras’ government, and beyond the reaction that will come from the political-financial authorities, the electoral campaign and its conclusion already provide some helpful guidelines in attempting to imagine Another Europe. There is undoubtedly, above all, a clear sign of a widespread rejection of the sheer arrogance of those who presently govern Europe – indifferent as they are to every warning sign coming from Europe’s citizens.

The results of the Greek elections testify to the fact that, increasingly, the high-handed diktats from national and international financial institutions--most recently from the Bundesbank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)--no longer elicit fear in the targeted population, so much as indignation at the violation of every semblance of democracy and national sovereignty, as well as at their obvious failure to deliver the promised but perpetually elusive economic growth. The rejection is all the stronger the more the increasingly opaque powers--various Troikas, Eurogroups, or indeed, banks--demand from the poorest countries not only the implementation of strict budget standards, but also the imposition of ‘reforms’ (i.e. deregulation of labour markets, dilution of worker rights, reductions in social services) whose efficacy no one has yet proved.

In a situation of humanitarian emergency, the threats coming from these institutions have not produced submission, but rebellion. In contrast to the arrogance considered by many to be illegitimate and ineffective, Greeks have voted in majority for a party that is not Eurosceptic, but that proposes a different vision of Europe. The rhetoric of fear coming from governments and financial institutions has been counterposed with a discourse of hope--pragmatic in its demand to rebuild the minimal conditions of well-being and democracy, but also demanding a break with the policy evolution of recent decades. Throughout this process the importance for the left has been confirmed of maintaining a connection between social movements and political (i.e. party) representation in the defence of rights that rulers have defined as out-dated, but which citizens still consider as essential. This is a message that goes well beyond Greece, as does the passion and enthusiasm that these elections have sparked on the left, above all in southern Europe.

From this perspective, the elections in Greece are also a turning point for the European left. Of course it remains to be seen to what extent these positive emotions arising from a first victory on the left against austerity can transform themselves into an alternative project in the various European countries, which without copying Syriza, is able to build a winning strategy on the streets, but also inside institutions.

What is certain is that, unexpectedly, precisely when institutional opportunities seem the most closed to social movements opposing austerity policies and demanding social rights in Greece, but also in Spain, political parties connected in different ways to innovative, dynamic and successful social movements, have emerged out of the defeat of centre-left parties—all of which moved rightwards--but also from the ashes of far-left remnants from the past. In Greece and Spain, the government handling of the crisis produced the collapse of the centre-left parties, which lost members and voters. For the first time opportunities to govern are opening up for new parties of the left – radical but pragmatic, not populist and yet aimed at creating a popular vision that is not Eurosceptic, but interested in the idea of Another Europe.

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How to cite:
Porta D. D. (2015) «Still a chance for another Europe?», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 20 March. https://opendemocracy.net/donatella-della-porta/still-chance-for-another-europe


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