Appropriating Europe as a Common

The political crisis, which, 60 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, haunts Europe, is heavy and resists any easy interpretation.- Speech at the event ‘A Europe for the People and by the People’ at the Rome University during the mobilisations on occasion of the Rome Treaty celebrations.

Europe exists in a global context, which we were reminded of, through the advent of the refugees: 1,5 million people searching shelter; which the European Union, one of the global centres of wealth and power and home of 500 million people, is reluctant to provide. What a paradox and what a shame. For Europeans, it’s necessary to learn that the crisis does not consist of how 500 million people accommodate 1,5 million, but rather how this 500 million, enjoying still privileged conditions will find a place in a world which, in a foreseeable future will be the home of 10 billion humans; and this will be the world of our children and grand children.  

The next century neither will be an US-American as Mr Trump seems to believe, nor will it be a European one. Europe is ill-prepared to cope with this transforming world of ours. This shamefully is demonstrated by the treaties which the EU concluded with Turkey and is now about to conclude with Libya in order to ward off refugees from European soil.  

However this is not only about external challenges. Europe societies are living in contradiction with itself. The Brexit vote has showcased how angry people react to the erosion of welfare state arrangements and the destruction of the prospects of virtually whole generations after three decades of neo-liberal ‘counter-reforms’ and austerity. The European Union has become an easy target of right-wing populists and nationalists; not only because they are bad and cynical persons, what they of course are, but because the EU does not deliver what it has promised. 

That is why the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Rome must not be an occasion of vaunt but rather one of thoughtfulness and self criticism. This insight has obviously not permeated the top levels of the EU. I don’t need to recall here the disdainful way in which Jeroen Dijselbloem has commented on the people of the European South[1]. Allow me just one observation: This racist and sexist statement did not emanate from Donald Trump or another notorious populist right winger; it came from a social democrat, a finance minister who happened to lead the Eurogroup in the negotiations with Greece! What kind of Europe do we expect from this kind of people?

The president of the European commission Mr Juncker is certainly a person of another gauge. At the start of March, on behalf of the European Commission he released a White book on the future of the European Union, in which he openly concedes that Europe’s peoples are increasingly turning their backs on European integration. It is good to start a profound debate about Europe not from wishful thinking but from the ‘pessimism of reason’. And maybe it is also a wise move that Mr Juncker decided not to present in the White book a coherent proposal but different scenarios.

The options he has to offer however are anything but bright. The fully fledged economic, financial and fiscal union which he might prefer is not very likely to be achieved. The scenarios which then remain are: Proceeding as by now, which of course is not very popular since it has lead the Union into the impasse where it stands are. Second, retransforming the EU in to a mere free trade area, which in fact would yield to capitulating vis-à-vis the nationalism of the far Right and would of course raise the question, if we really believed that the big problems in front of our societies, digitalisation, ecological transformation, overcoming global inequality, could be managed through free trade and relentless competition in deregulated markets.

Remains as one answer to everything, a Europe of ‘different speeds of integration’. O.k., let’s move in different speeds! But this does not supply us the answer to the decisive question, which is, in which direction we want to move. Indeed, Europe and its societies find themselves in front of a cross roads. The left so far, only in exceptional cases proved to be able to set the direction. In many countries people are rather articulating dissatisfaction and fears for the future through voting for nationalist, racist parties.

We are critical towards the EU but will not play their game! The European Union from its onset has been a capitalist undertaking; however the compromise, on which it rested, consisted of a combination of welfare states, high employment rates and rising living standards, at least of broad layers of the society. This is the compromise which the ruling classes have cancelled in the name of neoliberalism, of which the result is obvious now. This is a social issue, but not exclusively; it is also political. That is why Mr Juncker is wrong in believing that one can rescue Europe from peril of nationalism by providing more of the same! And he is also wrong in assuming that mustering a European army can substitute for the fading welfare state arrangements.

What Europe requires is a social and economic recovery program, an agenda for transforming its mode of production and living towards gender justice, ecological sustainability and social equality. Such a program is both, conceivable and it is feasible. So, what’s the problem? What is preventing us from achieving what is necessary and doable? We learn from the French philosopher, Louis Althusser to detect what is important, in what is not said. The most astonishing thing about the White book is that in all the 35 pages it contains, the word “Democracy” is not mentioned once! Not referring to the democratic deficit, although it is still true, that if the European Union applied to become member of the European Union it would be rejected for a wanting parliamentary democracy? How can we accept this?

The other big omission is not less intriguing; it concerns the existing treaties of the European Union, Maastricht, the treaty of Lisbon, the Stability and Growth Pact, the Fiscal Compact, and you name it, an entire system of provisions, in which neoliberalism has been stipulated as the economic basic norm of the EU. Not referring to the treaties in such a context means exempting them from being questioned. But how can you achieve a social and just Europe under the prevalence of free market over everything else?

Some people declare themselves as Euro-federalists. Why not! But federalism is an abstract notion which can assume different meanings. A strengthening of authoritarian federalism as seems to be the mainstream in the current debate will not succeed in pointing a way out of the dilemma.

What is needed is an idea of democracy which respects both, the right of democratic self determination of citizens, states, nations and national minorities, may they be autochthonous or recently arrived. And this is not in contradiction to that we simultaneously need transnational democracy materialized in a fully fledged European parliament, elected on a universal suffrage by all men and women living on European soil; a parliament which supervises the European Central bank, the European stability mechanism, decides on the Union’s budgets and elects the European commission as its executive body.

No one and not even the Left are immune to the virus of nationalism which pits the people and the working classes of different countries against each other. We must not give up on Europe; delivering it to the Far Right and to nationalism. But in order to rescue European integration we must change it!

Our Left, which we call the radical Left, places itself in the tradition of the all movements for human rights and democracy which form part and of Europe’s culture and history. What we have learned in these fights is that democracy never has been freely conceded by the ruling classes. Until today it has always to be won through mass movements and revolutions. Europe needs change and democratic mass movements or its peaceful integration risks foundering again.

We must re-appropriate the idea of European Unity from the 1% who have high jacked it for the sake of their power and profits; We must make it our common in order to prove that another Europe is not only necessary but that it is possible!