A Radical Alternative to the European Union – Institution-building from below

The European Union can never be anything other than a neo-liberal and militarist institution. Over decades, the federal elites have constructed a monetary, fiscal and legal framework to embed corporate dominance and  power projection. The European Parliament provides a superficial gloss of democratic governance and accountability, but control lies with the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Central Bank, linked to a network of corporate lobby groups,

Well before the UK referendum, disillusionment with the EU had manifested itself in the poor and declining turn-outs for elections to the European Parliament, apart from growing support for anti-EU parties like UKIP. But the international banking crisis of 2007/08 and the imposition of severe austerity programmes across Europe served to focus  opposition.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the appalling treatment of Greece, where the EU, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund’s debt rescheduling deal imposed draconian cuts to public expenditure and privatisation, worsening the economic crisis  as overall GDP fell by 27% between 2010 and 2015, while unemployment stood at 28%. This despite Syriza, the governing left coalition, having received a clear, democratic mandate to reject the terms in a national referendum carried out in July 2015.[1]Across the continent, the same neo-liberal orthordoxy punished working people for the failures of global, financial capitalism, leading to  recession and to mass unemployment. According to Eurostat, in 2013 there were over 26 million people unemployed in Europe and  a quarter of the population faced poverty.[2]

Until the UK referendum result, the EU’s centre-right and social-democratic political establishment either ignored or ridiculed the growing anti-EU tide sweeping across the continent. Even they now had to acknowledge that the scale of the opposition, from both the left and right of the political spectrum,  represented an existential challenge to the EU and to their ambitions for a federal, capitalist superpower. But, instead of embracing this opportunity to campaign for a radical alternative, many left-wing politicians and activists continued to support a reformist agenda.

Even those in the UK with a strong anti-EU record fell into line during the referendum campaign. Although not enthusiastic advocates, they stressed the benefits of membership that would be under jepoardy, including workers rights through the Social Chapter, freedom of movement, environmental legislation and human rights protection.  EU institutions had to be made more democratic and accountable, but the over-riding objective was to preserve the ideal of a shared European identity in the face of xenophobia and right-wing nationalism.

Since the referendum that approach has been taken up by most left-wing organisations across Europe. Labour is arguing for a ‘soft’ Brexit, particularly on access to the single market and the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK. Broader European left campaigns  such as Democracy in Europe, DiEM25, have been established for strengthening the role of the European Parliament and for democratic control of major EU institutions such as the European Central Bank. Only rarely, as in Melenchon’s radical campaign for the French presidency, has the issue of exiting the EU been raised if the  reformist agenda proves unsuccessful.[3]

This represents a fundamental failure of political vision. What should have been a powerful case put forward by the left on building a democratic alternative to the EU has, instead, been submerged under a binary choice that associates the leave case exclusively with right-wing populism and anti-immigration. But reformism is doomed to failure. A series of treaties have consolidated corporate power through what is euphemistically called ‘free trade’, while constraining inteventionist economic policies by imposing ceilings on government expenditure and debt.

The single market is free movement for capitalism, ensuring corporations can transfer productive capacity to low-cost countries and boost shareholder return for a rich elite, while free movement for labour is a form of wage slavery. Rather than being able to use their skills as doctors, nurses, teachers, etc, in their home countries where public services face collapse under the neo-liberal onslaught of cuts and privatisation, they are forced to work in a low-wage, low-skills, Europoean diaspora.

Integral to the elite, federal project was the creation of a military superpower. Here, the most politically sensitive issue was neither to undermine Nato, nor challenge the leading role of the United States, but to have a clear and unified foreign policy and an integrated military structure, acheivable only through a strong, federal state. The main objective over the longer term is to support Nato expansionism,  and has already lead to confrontation with Russia and the real threat of war.

Momentum behind the elite agenda is gathering pace. The ECB is, de facto, the  federal agency for neo-liberalism, overseeing a  massive programme of quantitative easing that maintains liquidity in the banking system by adding to the asset value of those with capital, while imposing austerity controls on  public expenditure and investment across Europe.[4] At the same time,  the Council of Ministers expects every member state of the European Union to increase military spending substantially towards the Nato target of  2% of GDP. According to recent figures, EU countries in Nato collectively spent $254bn a year in 2016, which would rise to $320 bn, if the 2% target is reached. These are vital resources of skilled workers and productive capacity that are being squandered when they could and should be used for a major, civil investment programme across Europe.[5]

Quite simply, the EU is beyond repair. The only way to be a good European is to reconstruct  Europe from below, balancing the freedom to pursue anti-austerity policies  at the state, regional and local levels with building democratic forms of co-operation on issues such as fair trade and freedom of movement.

Is it possible to construct a coalition of support for a radical alternative to the EU? The original UK campaign against continued membership in the 1975 referendum on the European Economic Community, was confidently led by senior left politicians and trade union leaders with broad  Labour party support.[6] Instead of remaining in a club that prioritised the interests of globalised capitalism, the state needed to retain powers for an interventionist economic policy that secured manufacturing capacity and skilled work, including public ownership of major industries. The strong association between the EEC and Nato was also viewed with deep suspicion by those working for peace and disarmament. Their vision was of a continent free from military alliances, either subordinate to the United States in the west, or to the Soviet Union in the east.

But altogether striking, in contrast to the 1970s, is the historical contingency of what seemed to be a stable European system built on large, centralising states. These had emerged over the 19th and early 20th century in a world of capitalist and imperialist rivalries, where industrialised, mass production of armaments and the mobilisation of millions into the armed forces were seen as essential. But   centralisation was always subject to opposition and contested sovereignty, facing growing challenges from either full-blown independence movements, as in Scotland and Catalonia, or for greater regional autonomy within existing states.

So, while the EU federal project seems ever more dependent on one strong state, Germany, supported by France, as the recognised drivers of economic and military centralisation, Europe may be reverting to a fluid structure of smaller states and autonomous regions – a patchwork quilt of geographical boundaries, political systems, and ethnic and linguistic diversity that will raise complex issues around the very meaning of local, national and supra-national political representation.

If this is the case, then the EU’s existential crisis is reaching a pivotal stage. The ECB’s quantitative easing programme may provide some short-term respite through anaemic growth in overall ouput but the structural problems of the European economy remain deep and unresolved – continued unemployment, wage stagnation, and the ongoing debt repayment and banking crises, prominently in Greece but also in the larger economies of Italy and Spain.

Even Portugal which, under the left-coalition government of Antonio Costa, appeared to have broken with the neo-liberal orthordoxy by refusing to implement cuts that were part of the debt funding agreements negotiated with the EU, has only done so by maintaining present spending against reduced future capital expenditure.[7] Fundamentally, the issues of income and wealth inequality in Europe will continue to grow and fan the flames of disullusionment and discontent across the continent. Here, in the face of the threat from right-wing populism and an emerging authoritarianism, the left must have in place a radical agenda for change.

Although it may seem speculative, this very fluidity of European politics provides an unprecedented opportunity to consider a range of options such as regional groupings of smaller states and looser confederations, up to and, eventually,  including a pan-European framework. Left political movements opposed to the EU but with strong European affiliations,  can campaign and organise around, cross-border, confederated public investment programmes based on fair trade rather than a capitalist single market, and advocating forms of public ownership, ranging in scale from state-owned utilities to local cooperatives. Workers’ rights,  trade union recognition and real freedom of movement through economic equality would be embedded into legal frameworks.  As an example of the feasibility of such confederations, the Nordic countries have a long-standing freedom of movement agreement, irrespective of EU or non-EU status, allowing unrestricted travel and residence.[8]

How these confederations develop is, crucially, dependent on the building of a democratic consensus,  rather than an imposed, European federalism. But it is possible, for example, to envisage smaller states from Ireland and across to the Scandanavian and North Sea coastal countries, joined by regions of larger states, in the Islands of the North Atlantic confederation (IRENIA).

An  early form of agreement might be to have a joint economic programme of public investment in offshore wind and wave power as the first stage in creating a zero-carbon economy. Guarantees would be made for the allocation of manufacturing work, as well as distributed capacity and storage to accommodate fluctuations in energy generation and demand. A series of fair trade provisions follow on from these sorts of programmes, including the banning of subcontractor production to low-wage, overseas subsidiaries. Democratically accountable standards would include agreed wage levels, trade union recognition and regular auditing of economic benefits, such as the mulitplier effects to regional and local economies from initial, capital expenditure.

Building on these bottom-up, democratic initiatives, more ambitious constitutional arrangements and pan-European standards are then possible around workers’ rights and environmental standards that not only achieve a zero-carbon economy but an ecological balance between the carrying capacity of the earth’s resources and human production and consumption. Real freedom of movement would exist without border restrictions and the need for passports or other forms of national identity papers.

Similarly, with security arrangenments, confederations could agree on joint contributions to  maritime patrols and territorial defence, as well as to UN peacekeeping operations. A European common security constitution would set out purely defensive arrangments, including the withdrawal from Nato or any other militarist organisation, and the restriction of  military expenditure to below 1% of GDP. In this way, European confederations could reach out to democratic movements  in Russian and Turkey and create a truly pan-European momentum for a new, security framework. Savings from reduced military expenditure would form the basis of a common security fund for a zero-carbon economy and international development aid as the European contribution to global peace.

A reformist agenda is seen by many on the left, even by those with deep reservations about the EU, as the only realistic option, especially in the face of a growing right-wing populism. But it is imperative to disentangle the ideal of a shared European democracy and civilization, one which working-class movements did so much to create over the generations through the struggles for universal suffrage and workers rights, from the institutional quagmire of the EU. A capitalist elite has manipulated those very symbols of democracy and peace to further embed neo-liberalism and militarism at the heart of the federalist project.

The European working-classes are, effectively, being forced pay a form of war reparations through an imposed austerity that risks the return to the sort of political alienation and  right-wing extremism not seen since the dark days of the 1930s. We can continue along this path  or build a new democratic Europe out of the ashes of the EU, one that acts as beacon of hope for peace and common security in a world desperate for both.

[1]. Daniel Harari, Greek Debt Crisis : Background and Development in 2015 (House of Commons, Briefing Paper No. 7114, H.O.C. Library, October 2015)

[2]. Eurostat, The EU in the World 2013 – A Statistical Portrait (European Commission, 2013)

[3]. https://diem25.org/

[4]. Clement Fontan & Stanislas Jourdan, How The ECB Boosts Inequality And What  It Can Do About It (Social Europe, May 2017)

[5]. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Current Military Spending Versus Nato 2 Per Cent (Sipri Media Backgrounder, April 2017)

[6]. The Labour Party Conference prior to the referendum voted by nearly 2 to 1 for leave. BBC News – On This Day, 26th April 1975.

[7]. Ferdinando Giugliano, Portugal is a Keynesian Mirage (Bloomberg View, 21/04/2017)

[8]. Nordic Cooperation, The Nordic Passport Convention (www.norden.org)