The Complexity of the Reform that Europe Needs and the Challenges for the Left

Author Elisabeth Gauthier 2010

This article is part of the online version of the English yearbook 2016 edition. 

The shock of what we can only call the defeat of the European Union’s first left-wing government and, beyond this, of all the social and political forces in Europe that oppose neoliberalism, austerity, and the dismantling of democracy is a severe one. What can we learn from this defeat, how can we take into account the complexity of this reality with its sometimes contradictory aspects, and emerge from our defensive position?

A vast debate is growing around the very possibility of creating an alternative in Europe. No questions should be overlooked, particularly as the unprecedented experience of recent months casts a different light on the issues that the left, the social movements, and the unions have yet to resolve.[1] One of the challenges in the coming debates will be to prevent the creation of obstacles and to deepen analysis and alternative proposals so that the discussion of ideas and views gains in quality and efficacy.

A number of these questions have already been asked as part of the debate over ‘deglobalisation’:[2] questions on the nature of today’s financial-market capitalism – which is in stark contrast to the period of Fordism – and changed social relations, on political realities, and on the crisis that erupted in 2007/08. These are key issues for winning back political power and popular sovereignty. It is, in other words, a matter of redefining class conflict in modern capitalism[3] at all levels: at the enterprise, regional, country, European, and global levels.

The nature of states and structures such as the European Union must also be re-examined in this context. European states have changed significantly since the Fordist era, evolving into market states led by oligarchies that, under pressure from the markets, shareholders, and speculators, have abandoned the aim of governing based on the principles of social justice, democracy, and solidarity. A number of concepts developed by the left – the commons, the social economy, and concrete practices that are often self-organised – are testimonies not only to resistance, but also to the attempt to recover sovereignty in the face of market forces.

Greece: complex for the entire alternative left

The Memorandums imposed on Greece ended any remaining pretence: the brutality of the ‘European institutions’, very similar to that of national governments, came out into the open. Alexis Tsipras, Yanis Varoufakis, and other Greek ministers exposed the nature of the debates, the mechanisms of domination, and the disdain for the opinion of the Greek people. The determination of the dominant powers to show that There Is No Alternative (TINA) continues to be the rule, with an eagerness to take down as quickly and as definitely as possible an elected government whose politics are undesirable – thus German Finance Minister Schäuble’s Grexit option, which in addition to meting out an exemplary punishment,  is aimed at further diminishing the power of Tsipras’ government, which had the dangerous potential of encouraging the rest of Europe.

‘Only very recently, as a result of the Greek government’s intense negotiations with its creditors, did Europe’s citizens realise that the world’s largest economy, the eurozone, is run by a body that lacks written rules of procedure, debates crucial matters “confidentially” (and without minutes being taken), and is not obliged to answer to any elected body, not even the European Parliament,’ explains Yanis Varoufakis.[4]

Since the last elections on September 2015 in Greece, an unprecedented and very difficult battle has been underway. It is a question of waging a struggle, the brutality of which is no longer a secret, and widening the scope for governmental action without getting lost in internal arguments. Today, Schäuble is reviving the idea of Grexit once again. He is committed to showing, once and for all, that any people, any government, that opposes the TINA doctrine will be condemned to unrelieved chaos at an economic, social, and political level.

Facing daily pressure from the Troika, the forces concentrated at the centre of Greece’s government and those which stand alongside it, are trying to both prevent living conditions from worsening even further for the most vulnerable strata and to make progress with some of Syriza’s programmes. They are trying to repel the most aggressive attempts of their ‘creditors’, whilst maintaining relations with them in order to continue benefiting from tranches of credit agreed to but not released. These tranches are vital for initiating the first stages of a new policy. The debt must also be tirelessly renegotiated both as a Greek and European issue.

Tsipras is seeking allies in Europe in order to have an outcome that the Greek people can accept, leaving behind the prison of debt and of economic and social blackmail. So far, neither France nor Italy, in whose interests this would be, have opted for this. The United States, on the other hand, has emphasised at Davos the importance of debt relief for Greece. A Greek-American investments partnership is in place.

Faced with the Troika’s demands for privatisation, the government is trying to avoid complete privatisation and to maintain some leverage so that it can both negotiate and influence, particularly investments that would stimulate the real economy.

Action is urgently needed. There is an alarming lack of medicines in hospitals, one of whose consequences is that dozens of cancer patients have been turned away from Athens General Hospital without receiving their chemotherapy treatment. The absence of social security coverage is forcing many families to go without medical attention. Infant mortality is increasing, and the wave of suicides shows no sign of abating.

Greece is currently going through a period of major social confrontation and unrest. The issue of reforming the social system is at the heart of the confrontation: farmers, fishermen, ferry workers, and both public and private trade unions are all directing their anger at plans to reduce the pension pool by €1.8 billion – the equivalent of 1per cent of GDP – starting this year. We must desist from a simplistic view of this: these protests are aimed first and foremost at the measures imposed and not against the government.

Syriza must tackle a delicate and painful question: should it stand its ground, maintaining its ideological purity and coherence or assume its responsibilities and act in the face of a social emergency? What can a government do to widen its margins? Answering this question could lead Syriza to move away from its programmes and result in a break with the people who, up to now, have always shown their support for Syriza. It therefore comes down to increasing general awareness without discouraging the movement. These questions crop up in everyday practical actions. It all largely depends on the capacity of the social movement to act, to change the relations of forces and leaving the government alone in a stand-off with the Troika.

Although with the understanding that some reforms are necessary for cleaning up a corrupt economic and political system, Syriza continually denounces austerity policies. It supports demonstrations, participates in them and, invites the population and party members to demonstrate and strike against these policies. In doing so, Syriza is trying to behave loyally and responsibly towards the lower and middle classes, while being totally isolated by other governments and against the background of the ‘scorched earth’ politics its predecessors employed, in the face of the ECB’s dictatorial financial stranglehold in summer 2015.

In more concrete terms, we can say with certainty that today, without this government, the plight of the 850,000 refugees who reached Greece’s shores in 2015 would have been much more serious, with many more drowning. Many more families would have been evicted from their homes and we would have seen mass redundancies of civil servants. Of course, we are a long way off from Syriza’s programmatic goals, but surely this must count.

To throw off the constraints, Greece must come out of isolation and hold the debate in public and make it a European issue by seeking allies, as does, for example, the call by Greek trade unions to save the collective agreements in Greece and elsewhere. A number of ministers attempting to get progressive laws passed and coming up against the refusal of the Troika have decided to debate these laws publicly in Greece, and also with potential allies in Europe in order to create transparency, gain more support, and have more demonstrations to change the relations of forces to save the country from the social and political chaos from which Golden Dawn and a party of the Greek bourgeoisie with a less than glorious past hope to benefit. In this context, it is essential to identify the initiatives that will help develop a social movement to change the balance of power with the Troika, because the government cannot do this alone. New and different relations must be created between social movements, government parties, citizens, political representatives, and the government.[5] These are substantive issues that face all left-wing forces determined to remain an alternative option, a force of social transformation, while still assuming responsibilities in in institutions of what have become market states, trying to transform them both from within and without.

It is also necessary, in Greece and elsewhere, to address the grief, disappointment, and despondency that followed the expectation and hope that the first radical left-wing government would be able to turn things around.

Lessons must be learned from the recent past. Good politics, validated by universal suffrage is not enough. Without a powerful social movement and permanent favourable relations of forces, advocates of social regression remain hegemonic in practice and do not shrink back from inflicting any kind of damage, threatening public liberties.

We are in the midst of a far-reaching political crisis. The entire system is being called into question. Educational, social, health, and environmental needs are being ignored in favour of austerity measures imposed on all of Europe in an authoritarian and anti-democratic way.

In the face of disenchantment, the gulf that exists between the populations and politics, and the feeling of insecurity and declining social status, action is now of the essence.

In such circumstances, the accepted and acceptable meaning of European integration is fading for the vast majority of Europeans. The image of a European Union as an agent for peace and cooperation, reinforced by its social and democratic heritage and its culture, has been shattered. Slavoj Žižek is quite right in saying that neoliberal logic is bringing about the failure of the European project. In July 2015, the president of the European Council, the Polish conservative Donald Tusk, expressed his concern at the loss of legitimacy of the European project as it is today, stating: ‘The atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel […] widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.’[6]

What are the political consequences of the multiple crises in Europe?

A fork in the road?

The crisis has been widely used to reinforce the neoliberal and authoritarian austerity measures at the European level. From 1995 to 2015, the EU has reinforced its transnational level by organising its institutions around an oligarchy that is not democratically elected. According to André Tosel, the EU treaties attempt to perform a function that is unique in the continent’s history and in political philosophy: they are substitutes for a concrete European polity; instead, its parts are merely virtually united as ‘ONE’ within a unified territory. This only works if the neoliberal consensus is intact. States must, subject to sanctions, ‘voluntarily’ accept the rules, as we have just seen in the Greek drama; the EU has begun and will continue to come up against the limits of as this amalgam of quasi-sovereignty and unification by voluntary servitude. Social Europe has never been at the heart of the process. It is just a – broken – promise of social support within deregulation and unchecked liberalisation.[7]

The crisis of the delegitimisation of the EU is currently in full swing. Perhaps, now that the pretence has been dropped, we will be able to identify the previously denied causes of the ills. Will this lead – in view of the many trends accelerating, along with the crisis of the political system, the effects of a new crash, and growing nationalism – us to a fork in the road? Which will win out?: The idea that some countries, regions, and populations must lose out while others benefit; or the more widespread motivation to refound Europe from the bottom up?

Cracks in the dominant bloc

The multi-faceted crisis has also intensified the differences between the dominant powers. Although the elites are attempting to continue down the path of neoliberalism, there are certain signs that they are worried. We can see new divisions springing up and conflicting interests at the heart of the power bloc. It is particularly apparent in the clashes with some regimes in Eastern Europe.

A tug of war is going on between the authorities in Brussels and Poland (even during its presidency) over the preservation of democracy following the authoritarian shift of the Polish government.

Turkey is also causing serious problems for the EU in terms of democracy, the Kurds, and refugees.

Using the threat of Brexit, David Cameron is exploring and exacerbating the conflicts, asking disturbing questions that are not specific to the United Kingdom. This is taking place against a backdrop in which the foundations of Europe are being called into question with the Greek crisis, a wave of refugees – which also raises the question of a common European foreign policy on peace – the moral regression of the authorities in Eastern Europe, and the strong growth of the populist right across Europe. He is asking questions about Schengen, about the acceleration of labour deregulation, and pointed questions about the organisation of the euro. He is suggesting changing some treaties to open of the possibility of a Europe that is ‘à la carte’, while Hollande and Merkel are championing a Europe in concentric circles.

The issue of refugees is creating a huge divide between Central Europe and rest of the continent.

On the social and economic level, unemployment remains at 10.5per cent on average, with very high levels in the south. Young people in Europe today, often forced to emigrate, are being sacrificed on the altar of austerity.

The spectre of a new crash is appearing. The liquidity injected by the central banks since 2007/08 has managed to relaunch the markets, but has not done anything for the real economy. European banks, seriously ailing, will not be able to pull off the rescue effort of 2007/08 again. This is also the case for the public authorities, bled dry by austerity, to the benefit of the wealthy, and by insufficient public revenue.

Since 2007/08, the major crisis of financial-market capitalism has plunged Europe into a multi-faceted crisis that the neoliberal policies put in place by the European oligarchy cannot resolve. This failure is also largely acknowledged in terms of European banks, the absence of stimulus, growing debts, and the collapse of domestic markets.

The crisis, which required joint action at the European level, allowed the dominant powers of the EU to reinforce the most restrictive aspects of integration under neoliberalism, using debt as blackmail.

In a number of countries, traditional political systems broke down in 2015. We saw this in Germany for Angela Merkel, where the first cracks appeared in the grand coalition, and in the internal splintering of some European countries. In several countries, under pressure of the population and voters, we have seen governments come to power that have challenged the Troika’s actions.

The political sphere has been laid to waste. A number of pillars of neoliberalism are crumbling: the very future of the EU has become uncertain with the upcoming referendum in the UK on whether to remain in the EU.

In some European countries, the power bloc’s legitimacy is in crisis, which means it is becoming harder for it to implement its strategy without resorting to authoritarian forms that are leading to de-democratised regimes, as we can see in France with the danger of constitutionalising the state of emergency and damaging the rule of law and the foundations of the Republic.

One of the crucial issues for the immediate future is to understand what political fall-out will result from this shock.

The influence of the populist right is spreading across Europe

The political forces that have long made up a sort of ‘grand European coalition’ for the neoliberal option (the conservative, liberal, and social democratic parties) will not be the ones to benefit from the recent upheaval. The social and political left has a great responsibility to rise to the challenge of creating a dynamic that can break the current cycle. Otherwise, it will be the nationalist and the populist and extreme right forces – at times indeed fascist forces – who will find fertile ground for their politics. Their influence has spread across Europe; they are no longer on the side-lines and are often established in the centre of political life. They put pressure on the traditional right; several governments in Scandinavia depend on their support, which gives them a great deal of influence over policy choices. This is the case in Austria and Italy and also in Finland, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. Everywhere we can see the same typical characteristics of this phenomenon.[8]

During the most recent general elections in Switzerland, Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party, which is very hostile to the EU and close to the wealthy ruling classes, became the country’s leading party. By adding its MPs to those of other small right-wing parties in the national assembly, this right-wing now holds an absolute majority.

In Austria, the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) made significant progress during the most recent region elections. Its influence is growing among the middle classes in particular in the context of increasing social polarisation and growing anger at national and local policies. The SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) is on the defensive, even in regions like the capital where its influence traditionally lies.

The recent regional elections in France are a clear illustration of just how much the alternative left, but also the social democrats, have lost out to the populist right in the struggle for cultural hegemony. The Front National is perceived by a great many voters as an anti-establishment party that can also be used to express an anti-system protest vote.

Sweden is also moving rightward. Here, in one of the most hospitable countries for refugees, this issue is added to the growing sense that people have in recent years that the future of the country’s social system, one of the foundations of its society, is in danger. The fear that there is not enough to go around is increasing. The populist right party, the Sweden Democrats, already the country’s second party, was leading in the polls by the end of 2015 and has a strong impact on the direction government takes. Its increasing influence could well shatter the agreement between the red-green minority government and the right-wing opposition bloc created to pass the budgets during this legislature in order to stop the populist right party from calling the shots.

The demise of the Nordic social model based on a close relationship between economic progress and a high level of social protection has led to increased polarisation in societies and has destabilised political structures. In this situation, anti-European and xenophobic forces can score points. In Finland, right-wing populists, the country’s second party, have been participating in government since the April 2015 elections. In Denmark, the populist right became the country’s second party in the June 2015 elections, and the minority conservative government relies on its support.

Recently, the populist right has been able to get a foothold in Germany as well. The current trends are worrisome. Established conservative parties decreasingly oppose the xenophobic and hate-filled rhetoric of the populist right. The boundaries between these two political sectors are becoming more porous. This is very clear in the issue of refugees, where conservatives and social democrats give way in the face of the aggression and growing weight of the populist right in both public opinion and elections.

The populist right is by no means a ‘movement of the poor’ or the excluded; it is a political force for which, in relatively rich societies, the middle classes currently vote to express their severe dissatisfaction with the ruling elite and at no longer feeling represented by the established parties. Trivialisation, lessons in morality, and ‘anti-fascist’ manifestos have all proven ineffective at initiating a counter-offensive.[9]

In an ‘interregnum’ fraught with risks, to mount a counter-attack the left must find a credible, audible, and concrete way of responding to people’s desire to break with the current elites, powers, and logic. Only a radical change in policy will allow us to break with the pernicious thinking that make possible the entrenchment of the populist right.

As severe crises are periods of danger, paradoxes, and new possibilities, the task is to develop potential, to take action, and develop solidarity and self-management in our societies. One of the major challenges is, in view of the isolation of the movements that do exist, to find joint objectives and frameworks within each country and at the European level. This is also one of the biggest challenges facing the European trade union movement. 

The difficulty of rethinking and rebuilding the European Union

The only way out: change the politics of Europe and the world

All of the preceding forms a context for reassessing one of the big questions of our time: whether or not it is possible to conceive of a transformation/refoundation of the European Union as a joint effort at the European level. The options that are often put forward for ‘exit’ from the euro and even the European Union, or the ‘renationalisation of politics’ in order to bring about political change have to be put to the test of the analyses indicated above.

There are three key dates in the struggle against neoliberalism in Europe. In 1995, the first big movement against neoliberalism in France became a European phenomenon, with our allies in other countries calling for ‘speaking French’ and demonstrating with the Tricolour.

In 2005, demonstrations around the referendums on the draft European Constitutional Treaty – the ‘constitutionalisation’ of neoliberalism – in France, Ireland, and the Netherlands were moments of protest and solidarity across the whole of Europe. The ‘NON de gauche’ was a no vote in favour of ‘another Europe’, with no possibility of it being confused with nationalisms and with populist or extreme right parties. In France, it was the creation of a credible nationwide platform with the potential to win that led to a very decentralised and very active citizens movement. This very broad movement anchored in real-world society created the conditions for victory.

In 2015, the election in Greece of Europe’s first left-wing government politicised the confrontation, and, alongside a number of calls for another Europe (particularly since 2012), a more strategic discussion sprang up around the questions of how to ‘disobey’ the diktats of Europe’s oligarchies and create alliances for refounding Europe. And then it was only natural that the Party of the European Left chose Alexis Tsipras as its lead candidate in the 2014 European elections. This inspired other developments: in Ireland, and in Italy with the list ‘L’Altra Europa con Tsipras’.

A new ambition: what kind of break?

It is impossible to separate the issue of reconstructing the EU from the desire to transform and emancipate our societies, which are crumbling, riddled with division, lacking any prospects for a new type of development, and at risk of authoritarian rule. It is therefore not enough to change the rules governing the euro or European integration; what is needed is a wholesale transformation of politics.

No plan B or X, no debt audit, no refoundation project, not even the broadly shared rejection of austerity, can dodge the issue of a change in politics in each country, and therefore in Europe. All the struggles, movements, alternative platforms, citizen initiatives, perspectives on refoundation, conferences, necessary discussion of ideas, and the drafting of alternative projects are useful and will be even more motivating if they are part of a genuine desire for change. Let us be responsible, realistic, and ambitious: we cannot expect to bring about radical change in Europe by shifting all the burden of our hopes onto Greece.

If we are committed to opening up prospects then we need to construct a new ambition, on a new scale!

Austerity policies, particularly in the countries of southern Europe, have triggered large-scale movements – trade union movements, ‘town square’ movements – and we can see the political consequences of this today.

These phenomena cannot be interpreted as attempts to position oneself ‘for’ or ‘against’ the European Union, the euro, or even the very idea of the European project, but as resistance to neoliberalism and austerity at the European level and in each and every Member State.[10] Today the question of what it means to break with this way of thinking and build alternatives in a single country and at European level appears in a new light. And it compels us to take up the debate again.

It is essential to find and project a new historical perspective. The reason the project created after 1945 worked is because it wedded the desire to never again see Europe at war, or a world war originating in Europe, to the introduction in a number of European countries of the Fordist social compromise, which created the European social model. The combination of these two elements gave meaning to the European project.

What Europe for what world?

What makes the issue of refounding Europe so complex, is that all these questions about our societies and the world are interlinked: What Europe do we want, and for what kind of world? What kind of transformation of our societies, and according to which principles? Faced with a financialised and authoritarian capitalism, how can we reinvent a new popular sovereign democracy, reinvent politics, re-establish collective action, and rethink societies based on solidarity? This cannot be a nice-looking new project printed on glossy paper; it must be a project that provides concrete responses to the real needs of every European citizen. To do so we must tackle the increasing polarisation within the society of every European country, and between eastern and western Europe as well as, today, between northern and southern Europe.

It is not about an economic system, or a European Union, that serves the rich, but a Europe that improves living conditions and meets the needs of all, which means developing cooperation at the continental level, in contrast to ‘free and fair competition’. It is about a Europe that enhances the objectives of the emancipation of our time throughout Europe and the world and brings them to the front of the stage.

It is a question of creating Europe together and saying ‘enough’ to austerity everywhere. This aspiration is widely shared across Europe by social and political actors and by the populations, but we need to move to a clearer, more ambitious, and more mobilising call to action. The urgent need is for political change in Europe; nothing is certain, there could yet be a consensus in that direction, as we have seen in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and in the UK with Corbyn.

Creating these conditions requires pan-European convergences instead of competition, as can be seen in Latin America.

Cooperation at the European level is essential in a number of areas; for example, the immense task to be undertaken after COP 21 requires large-scale action coordinated at the European level.

A number of UN initiatives would benefit from the active, committed support of the EU in terms of relations with countries in the Mediterranean, with Russia, agreements like TAFTA, bilateral agreements with countries in Latin America and the Middle East, and cooperation with Africa. As far as peace goes, the EU must change its policy and take action to free international relations from domination by the biggest powers and the forces of money whose supremacy is transforming the world into an economic war zone with an increasing number of failing states,[11] with disastrous consequences for their populations.

The issue of debt remains a Greek problem, but it is also a European one that requires an answer at the European level.

An investment plan for rebuilding the real economy and coherent production systems (including training, research, the valorisation of labour, etc.) that are effective in each country is also a European issue. Lethal competition must be replaced by cooperative projects; this issue also involves a policy of productive reconstruction[12] as a European project for a new mode of development and reconstruction, in particular for southern Europe but also for France. Combatting the existing asymmetries implies an investment plan, but one very different form Juncker’s plan.

All this presupposes a radical change in the aims, objectives, and functioning of the ECB.

These are policies that need redefining in order to redistribute wealth within each country and at the European Union level. Spheres of struggle are opening up to respond to existential needs, including, in particular, actions against eviction, activism in defence of the rights of refugees and of human rights, the redefinition of the Common Agricultural Policy by 2020, the defence of public services, the struggle against privatisation, etc.

The defence of civil rights and liberties is a burning issue in a number of countries: for example,in Poland where the populist right has had considerable impact, with reforms similar to those of Orbán in Hungary. Vigilance must also be stepped up in France.

The offensive aimed at destroying every aspect of job protection is still advancing at the European level within the perspective of unrestricted competition. The Five Presidents Report, under the current Dutch presidency, is preparing a particularly dangerous new offensive called ‘Better Regulation’.[13] Its intent is to force countries to adopt instruments that intensify competitiveness and dismantle job protection and established negotiating processes between social partners so that everything is managed from above. However, instead of its devaluation, we must make labour become one of the central factors of a new dynamic.

What is needed is a common effort to institute useful reforms at the EU level opposed to the logic of competition: taxation to combat tax havens, reforms for a fair European taxation system that taxes the wealthy, and reforms to combat fiscal and social dumping.[14]

In the question of the Schengen area of border-free controls with the dramatic refugee crisis, it is clear that a common and solidary approach on the part of European countries and of the EU as a whole could create the right conditions to resolve the problems in a way that benefits both the refugees and the people of Europe. But this first requires political change. Greece has continuously cautioned its partners against the temptation to resort to unilateral measures to resolve a problem that is Europe-wide one. Wolfgang Schäuble suggests funding refugee management in Europe with a European tax on ‘every litre of petrol’. But a ‘refugee tax’ would only serve to fuel the notion that refugees are a ‘burden’, which would benefit xenophobic parties. It would also endanger economic recovery in some countries that have suffered most from the crisis. However, joint funding of a refugee welcome programme by increasing the European budget should not pose any problem. Implementing pan-European responsibilities to finance a refugee support fund would also be the first step towards genuine intra-European solidarity. This, and the support of the ECB would make a pan-European investment plan for the integration of refugees possible.

The issue of democracy is at the heart of a refoundation of the European project. According to the logic of financial-market capitalism, there has been a new type of regime in which the public authorities are required to carry out policies complying with the needs of the markets, which circumvent elected bodies. Public debt is used as an economic, political, and ideological weapon, the ECB, as seen in Greece, going so far as to brutally strangle a national economy in a kind of coup d’état.

Roger Martelli notes the dual weakness of the social movement, at the European and national levels,[15] which also explains the relative failure of multiple attempts to coordinate the European social movement. Numerous studies show how much feeling of powerlessness there is.[16] People perceive an absence of political power in the face of the big economic powers, but also a deficit of political will. Politics is decreasingly seen as a solution or a lever for change. The state – in the form of national institutions as well as the EU – appears to belong to ‘them’. According to a January 2014 survey by Ipsos-Steria, in France only 27 per cent of people trust the Senate, 28 per cent the Assemblée Nationale, and 31 per cent the European Union. Beyond ‘crisis fatalism’ there is now ‘political fatalism’[17] and the reality that, in today’s conditions, a change in politics presupposes breaking with the prevailing logic.

The state has lost its credibility. It has long since left behind its role of organiser of life in society through solidarity and redistribution. Given this, the question arises for the alternative of how useful it actually is to have positions in elected assemblies and institutions. To what end? To co-administer the reduction of public space? This is what is being asked in terms of the experience of Greece, of the German Länder where Die LINKE governs, of Spanish and French regions, and cities in a number of countries. The purpose has to be the rebuilding of common public frameworks to benefit the most fragile groups, which are the first victims of the law of the jungle.

This involves ‘remaking’ the state, breaking with the path that leads to failing states, and reinventing public space and power from the local to the European and indeed the global level.

It is also a matter of reinventing the political system so that citizens’ votes have an impact. 

What Étienne Balibar refers to as ‘equaliberty’ is probably a promising approach for translating aspirations into a project constructed around social justice, equality, solidarity, dignity, and democracy.

How to change the balance of power?

The experience of recent times is a measure of the extent to which the relations of forces in Europe penalise a government that wants to change the game and is supported in this by the majority of its population. Demonstrations in solidarity with the Greek people aimed to change this balance of forces in their respective countries – in France and in Italy in particular – and also more widely across Europe. But the cultural hegemony of the prevailing currents could not be significantly altered.

The recent evolution in Germany is interesting. Jürgen Habermas found that the decades spent working to create a new image of Germany after 1945 were wiped out on the night of 12 July when the third Memorandum was imposed on Greece. Germany’s hegemony became visible. Unease and at times fear are spreading in the country. The voices criticising the Schäuble/Merkel European policy supported by the SPD are no longer so isolated. Trade unionists such as the chair of the DGB,[18] activists from social movements[19] and from Die LINKE, as well as socialist leaders and left-wing Greens are campaigning in favour of the choices made by Greece’s government and population.[20] At the same time, the debate within the party Die LINKE, for example, shows how difficult it is to formulate a left position for a different European policy for Germany, the country that dominates the EU, even though the German workforce is – seeing the significantly worsening conditions of wage workers in other countries – in fact beginning to fear that its ‘paradise’ may be endangered by a crisis-ridden Europe. Caricaturing Germany can only be counterproductive if we want to build the broadest alliances possible to combat austerity.

The evolution of the relations of forces in Europe is quite unequal. Historically, the phase of the neoliberal offensive, the move to capitalism driven by the financial markets, was accompanied by an erosion of the influence of trade unions and the politics of the labour movement. To have a complete picture we must also discuss the crisis of the trade unions and the neoliberal alignment of Europe’s social democrats and their protracted crisis. Europe’s social democrats have lost their political capital and all credibility by caving in to austerity.

In a number of countries the Greens have found a second wind and are actively waging battles in the European Parliament.

The radical left has managed to emerge in the post-1989 landscape, to create common spaces such as the Party of the European Left and the GUE/NGL parliamentary group of the European Parliament. But there are contradictions: some electoral progress, but weaknesses, the emergence of new competing groups with very different political cultures and, now, new divides caused by the events in Greece and the need to re-open the debate on Europe.

For some years now, the struggle against austerity has been seen as common ground for Europeans. The struggle against TAFTA/TTIP has garnered transnational support, particularly in Germany where 250,000 people took part in the largest demonstration of recent years.

Several ongoing areas of cooperation have been developed over the years. At the country level and also at the European level, texts, manifestos and platforms ‘for another Europe’[21] are growing and being created around objectives that are generally shared.

The resistance movements against austerity policy are still largely heterogeneous and still with little interconnection. A number of cooperation networks amongst social, political, and intellectual actors have formed and carry on regular activity, such as Attac Europevisa, which is trying to develop a citizens’ audit approach to debt; a network of critical trade unionists; the European Marches aimed at creating non-institutional links between citizens; local collectives;[22] Euromemorandum and EuroPen (networks of economists); solidarity with refugees networks; the network of solidarity with self-organised clinics in Greece; public services networks; and feminist networks.

After the European social forums ran out of steam, the AlterSummit was formed to address the reform of Europe.[23] A work space uniting almost 200 organisations, movements, unions, and networks from across Europe, it has developed the People’s Manifesto[24] in a very collaborative process, which it presented at the first summit in Athens. It decided by mutual agreement to try and engage in dialogue with political forces sharing the same objectives. Blockupy, a movement that was born from protest against the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, has become a European action network. The European Trade Union Confederation has still not become the European trade union actor needed for the struggle against austerity, but it has distanced itself from European austerity.[25] Among intellectuals, we see a strong inclination to engage with and promote the idea of another Europe, as put forward by Étienne Balibar who has taken a number of initiatives with his colleagues in this respect.[26] In a number of countries, 2016 will be a year of initiatives and conferences on the resistance needed and the refoundation of Europe.

The crisis has certainly not meant the ascendancy of the radical left. But now it is time to leave the defensive stance behind and develop new ideas. In an article published in transform! magazine in 2011,[27] Gerassimos Moschonas analyses the specific conditions and contradictions the radical left is facing at the national and European level but also points to the opportunities inherent in this complex challenge.

In 2015, the situation in Europe changed. What is happening in some countries has repercussions for everyone, and it is to hoped that 2015’s unprecedented events will create more favourable relations of forces.

In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph as leader of the Labour Party has opened up a window of opportunity for the future. The development in Ireland, with the progress of Sinn Féin, is also encouraging.

The unprecedented circumstances in Portugal have led to the formation of a second government in Europe that opposes austerity measures, alongside the Greeks. Under the pressure of the radical left and of voters, the Portuguese government is preparing to submit to Brussels a draft 2016 budget that ‘turns the page on austerity’, while respecting Portugal’s ‘international commitments’ in relation to the public deficit.

In Spain, the traditional party system has just imploded. In the December 2015 elections, the Partido Popular lost 16 per cent and with that the ability to form another government. The social democrats (PSOE) who played a key role in the post-Franco era, are also experiencing a debacle after receiving their lowest share of the vote ever (22 per cent). Ciudadanos, a new party in favour of neoliberal policies and opposing separatist tendencies, only managed 13.9 per cent. Podemos, with 20.6 per cent and 5 million votes made an outstanding breakthrough and upset the status quo, in some places thanks to the help of regional and local alliances and support from new municipalities recently won in Madrid and Barcelona. In some places it associated itself with IU – United Left – despite the fact that Podemos and IU did not field a common candidate everywhere in the country, given the internal oppositions to this option within both parties. With 3.7 per cent, IU is losing ground and facing the need for urgent action to address the new situation. The issue is cooperation, an alliance between all of the country’s anti-neoliberal forces. Podemos’ voting base is highly diverse: protest voters, former PSOE voters, activists from the social movements, and voters defending national minorities.[28] Podemos’ future seems uncertain. It was founded in 2014 following M15, to express the crisis of hegemony and the need for a political break. Its goal is to effect a change in government in Spain. It therefore stands alongside Syriza, reinforcing the anti-austerity forces in Europe. Faced with the possibility of a scenario like that of Portugal, Podemos needs to define what type of public policy it is willing to support. It needs to work out how to remain a movement, with an important place for its grassroots, while still meeting its responsibilities in the institutions.

In Italy, after undergoing profound disintegration, the alternative left is trying to revive by pulling together all its forces, as we saw in the most recent European elections with the candidacy of L’Altra Europa con Tsipras. 

In France, in the recent elections, the Front de Gauche was not viewed as a useful vehicle for expressing anger, despair, and a rejection of current politics and of the ‘system’, or the desire for political change. The entire left collapsed, and each component must now reinvent itself. A huge undertaking is beginning in which vastly different approaches are being explored. In the meantime, there is a serious risk that a tri-partite system may take root, comprising the PS, the right, and the Front National (FN), the result of which would be a very blocked political situation in which progress is not possible with the FN at the centre of everything.

The German political system has quickly lost its stability. To counter the populist right which could undoubtedly take advantage of the situation, people are calling for the left to come out of its opposition role and join battle openly for a left-wing government. Die LINKE cannot just be seen as an alternative at election time; it needs to act and be present as an alternative to the existing government.[29]

The search for transnational cooperation is being stepped up. A number of spaces for cooperation at the European level have already proven to be sustainable, such as the Altersummit, the Party of the European Left, and the GUE/NGL parliamentary group in the European Parliament.

At this crucial time for the future of our societies and of Europe, the alternative left is being called on to rise to this unprecedented challenge. It needs to develop a new ambition and a new dynamic for the left, combining movements with projects for changing the relations of forces to break with the domination exercised over popular strata. Otherwise, the populist right will be the ones to profit from this multi-faceted crisis that is economic, social, democratic, and a crisis of EU policy.

A mosaic left: an emancipatory project for our times

In view of the broad array of social, political, and intellectual forces – some less well-established than others – and the potential that exists or is emerging out of a sustained European crisis of social democracy, the German trade unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban has developed the concept of a ‘mosaic left’. It would have to redefine what a modern left means and create spaces for new kinds of work, cooperation, and co-development. We simultaneously need both progress and political organisation. This is reflected in the examples of Podemos, the mayor of Barcelona (a known anti-eviction activist), and of Syriza, very closely tied as it is to the anti-austerity social movement and self-organisation of solidarity for all in responding to basic needs.

In recent years the spaces of struggle have broadened. The more political demonstrations relate to social issues and often take place in public gathering places. We saw this in the demonstrations of the Arab Spring of 2010-11. ‘Town square movements’ was the term often used to refer to the demonstrations in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid and Syntagma square in Athens. These are not just public spaces, but public places for debate, agoras and forums in the strongest sense of these words, where citizens can debate public affairs and share and construct ideas. In fact, the primary need is not to demonstrate for demands that have already been defined; instead, the first move should be to work out the movement’s objectives together, constituting something common based on the range of opinions, motivations, cultures, and points of view. Developing this shared project together is what can give the project its strength and potential longevity.

A left that is at the very centre of the aspirations and popular struggles can only be built around the entirety of modern emancipatory struggles. By redefining what these struggles are, we will be able to redefine what being leftist means today. It is a diverse left, with its rich history of struggles, that must be rebuilt.

A consolidation and unification process can only work if differences are respected. Unity is built by creating space for the common through shared experience and exchange, and this involves multiplying the number of public places for meeting and working out ideas. For the alternative left,[30] the events of 2015 showed how important its coming together and its capacity for action are today, to give form and substance to the alternative. As Mario Candeias notes, ‘the “multitude” does not come together on its own, the mosaic left’s individual parts are not already given and must continually reassemble themselves in ever new ways’.[31]

In Greece, Syriza is an original creation that was able to go beyond the fragmentation of the left in a time of a relatively active social movement.[32] Syriza is made up of political groups and social movements, but, given Greece’s trade union landscape, it still lacks ties to the unions. It is not a mass party, but it is connected to the masses through its ties to the social movement. Close to highly skilled young people who are living in precarity and forced to emigrate, Syriza also benefits from the input of numerous intellectuals. The constituent parts of Syriza have been involved in the social and alter-globalisation movement for the past 15 years both at the national and European level. It has rich connections of old date throughout Europe. Syriza’s political foundation, the Nikos Poulantzas Institute, is one of the pillars of the European transform! network.

Supporting and shaping this diversity cannot be done without new ways of working, new methods of organisation and of coming together. It cannot be done without designing the political framework of a movement with which everyone can identify and where neither differences nor disagreements are erased. The centralised, pyramidal form of the parties modelled on the state is outdated. Citizens no longer identify with orders that come ‘from the top’. They want to really make decisions on their own. Viable politics assumes giving a positive response to this growing need for a new way of doing politics.

The social and political left form a vast mosaic, with the different elements complementing each other and constituting its richness in which everyone is committed to the struggle for an alternative cultural hegemony. It is too early to say what forms this mosaic will take. A major challenge for the alternative left will be its ability to foster processes of co-development and cooperation that avoid traditional schemes, in particular, a certain centrality of the parties incorporated in the entities to be created. The potential that already exists in our societies must be mobilised; without them no movement for profound transformation will be possible.

The quality of our culture of dialogue and action is therefore of the essence, with the principles of equality between the various actors and respect for their different modes of engagement and ways of thinking.

transform! europe seeks to contribute to all initiatives that encourage and facilitate the exchanges needed to deepen analysis and flesh out alternative proposals, without creating divisions and by putting into them all the forces available for moving towards the process of common construction between different actors, in order to create a new goal that will allow us to overcome the current political deadlock: to change politics and power everywhere to rebuild together a Europe that meets the needs of its peoples.


[1]A major conference on the refoundation of Europe with participation from across the continent is being organised in Berlin, as a result in particular of decisions taken at IG Metall’s last congress.

[2]See Louis Weber, ‘Démondialiser?’, s: Éditions Le Croquant, collection Enjeux et débats, August 2012.

[3]See Patrice Cohen-Séat, ‘Peuple! Les luttes des classes au XXI  siècle’, Demopolis, December 2015.


[5]See the contributions of Étienne Balibar, Stathis Gourgouris, Athena Athanasiou, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos in Dominique Crozat and Elisabeth Gauthier (eds), Écrits sur la Grèce. Points de vue européens, Paris : Le Croquant/Espaces Marx, September 2015.

[6]Financial Times, 16 July 2015.

[7]See André Tosel, ‘l’UE ou un hybride à vocation sub-impériale dans le capitalisme mondialisé’, Actes du colloque de Nice, January 2015, to be published soon.

[8] See Joachim Bischoff and Bernhard Müller, ‘Rechtsdrift in Europa, Alternative für Deutschland und linke Auswege’, Sozialismus 1/2016.

[9] See Elisabeth Gauthier, Joachim Bischoff, and Bernhard Müller, Droites populistes en Europe. Les raisons d’un succès, Paris: Édition Le Croquant/ Espaces Marx, August 2015.

[10]On February 9 In Berlin, Yanis Varoufakis will launch a new movement to defend a ‘third way between a return to the nation state and the undemocratic structures of today’s European institutions’.

[11]A failed or failing state is defined by the Fund for Peace as a country that is incapable of fulfilling the essential conditions of a sovereign government.

[12]See the working document on productive reconstruction:


[14]The German left has suggested a wealth tax to fund a European budget to combat inequality.

[15]See his contribution in Dominique Crozat and Elisabeth Gauthier (eds), Écrits sur la Grèce. Points de vue européens, Collection Espaces Marx, Paris : Édition Le Croquant, September 2015.

[16]See The Espaces Marx seminar ‘Les consciences en Europe dans la crise’, February 2014,

[17] See Élisabeth Gauthier, ‘L’auto-émancipation contre le fatalisme politique’, L’Humanité, 14 February 2014.

[18]See the interview with Reiner Hoffmann and the text from the services trade union Ver.di in Crozat and Gauthier, Écrits sur la Grèce. Points de vue européens.

[19] See the Blockupy Goes Athens statement,

[20] Steffen Lehndorff’s site reflects and facilitates the campaign. In English,

[21]See the EL platform for the 2014 European elections:

[22]On the initiative of Christine Mendelsohn and local collectives, a meeting between Greek housewives and the inhabitants of housing projects in north Marseilles showed how similar the ‘invisible’ members of society are, regardless of the country in which they live and the language they speak.



[25]See the open letter from ETUC to European political leaders:

[26]As in the recent paper by Etienne Balibar and Sandro Mezzadra, ‘The Brussels diktat: and what followed’,

[27]Gerassimos Moschonas, The European Union and the Dilemmas of the Radical Left, Transform! magazine 9/2011,

[28] See Raul Zelik, ‘Institutionalisierung von Podemos’, Sozialismus, January 2016.

[29] See Michael Brie, ‘Für eine linke Regierung in Deutschland’, Sozialismus, January 2016, pp. 47ff.

[30]Referred to in political science as the ‘radical’ left.

[31] See Mario Candeias, ‘Von der fragmentierten Linken zum Mosaik’, in: Luxemburg. Gesellschaftsanalyse und linke Praxis, 2010, p. 11.

[32] See Elisabeth Gauthier, ‘Comment Syriza a-t-il pu gagner?’ L’Humanité, 27 January 2015.