Refoundation Means Discontinuity With the Past*

Nobody, of course, can deny the significance for Europe of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. However, my view is that this historic event with its unknown consequences for the future of European integration is only a symptom of the general turmoil prevailing in Europe since the outbreak of the systemic crisis in 2008.

At the same time, it can also be seen as the latest and possibly the most serious expression up to now of the underlying structural problems of the neoliberal and undemocratic EU project, initiated in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty – or, more accurately, in 1986 by the Single European Act.
Even if we perceive Brexit as a major shock to European integration, we should not forget that during the course of one year we witnessed a series of important events that, directly or indirectly, have already or may eventually leave their large or small footprints on this process: the ‘coup’ against the SYRIZA government, which led to the imposition on Greece of a 3rd Memorandum, the tragic refugee wave which has mainly hit Greece, led to the erection of new walls in Europe and the signing of the infamous EU-Turkey Agreement, the atrocious terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, elections in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, and Austria (with results which, apart from some notable exceptions, were not too encouraging for the left), the heroic French ‘nuits debouts’ against the French government’s changes to the labour laws, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain (contested, after Brexit, by the conservative wing of his party) and, of course, events outside the EU that influence its policies, such as the continuation of the war in Syria, the situation in Ukraine, relations with Russia, and last but not least the recent attempted coup in Turkey and its aftermath.
Faced with these developments, we in transform! believe that in these historic times the radical left faces numerous tasks:

  • To realise the structural and not conjunctural problems of the Eurozone and the EU, that is, the really existing European integration, and not sweep them under the carpet, repeating what some European leftists and communists had done during the era of really existing socialism, an attitude that did not prevent its final collapse.
  • To learn the lessons of recent developments using serious multidisciplinary analyses, but also benefiting from the practical experience of decision-makers as well as of other political and social actors.
  • To present and discuss the results of these analyses in various circles and at various levels, as well as to participate in different events and public debates, which should take place without taboos and/or bullying directed against different views. This has been done in the past and should continue in the future within various events, conferences, seminars, workshops, Summer Universities, and printed or electronic publications of the EL, GUE/NGL, transform!,  and their members’ organisations – but also in the context of similar activities of other organisations and initiatives, such as those of DiEM 25, Plan B, the Alter Summit, etc. 
  • To use our analyses and the outcome of our discussions for practical purposes, i.e., to design a new strategy for the alternative left in Europe at the national and European levels, including examining the possibility of forging broad democratic and anti-neoliberal alliances with parties or factions of parties belonging to different political families, as well as with trade unions and social movements.

For its part, transform! tries to be as useful as possible to the EL and its members and generally to the radical left in Europe in its effort to break with neoliberalism. Our ambition is not only to contribute to the debate on the euro and the EU, searching for an Alternative Plan for Europe, but also to offer analyses and proposals on various specific issues of European interest: immigration, the commons, solidary and participatory economy, productive reconstruction, environment, energy, the relation between the radical left and social democracy, etc.  Examples of these proposals and analyses can be found in transform!’s 2016 yearbook, The Enigma of Europe.
It is well known that transform! is a network of political foundations with differing views on various ideological, political, and programmatic issues. My intention here is to present a view of the issue of European integration, which I believe is shared by a large majority of our members and observers.
By now the EU project is disputed by an ever growing number of people throughout Europe for many reasons: lack of democracy, violation of national and popular sovereignty, neoliberal policies leading to austerity, unemployment, precarity and extreme inequality of income distribution, the existing chasm between North, South and East, the refugee issue, which is connected with imperialist and regional wars, etc. It is obvious that the ‘emperor has no clothes’. The EU is not a solidary union, but a system of international relations of various nation states, unequal in strength – with Germany at the top – which fiercely compete with each other in the economic and political sphere, always at the expense of the popular classes in all Member States.
In this context, the radical left should not allow the populist and extreme right to monopolise the anger against really existing European integration for fear of being called ‘Eurosceptic’. In a sense, the vast majority of the EL’s radical left parties were never ‘Europeanist’ in the mainstream understanding of the word. They were against the Maastricht Treaty, which established the EU and the EMU, against the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, against the European Constitution, against the Treaty of Lisbon, against economic governance, and recently against the so called ‘Five Presidents’ Report’. In fact, our present aim is to fight right-wing populist Euroscepticism, and in my view this is not possible without presenting a viable Plan for an Alternative European Integration. However, developments mainly since the 2008 crisis should make it plain by now that our rather antiquated slogan of the ‘Refoundation of Europe’ can no longer be convincing unless it is coupled to the concept of ‘disobedience’ and ‘discontinuity with the past’. The idea of ‘Refoundation’ has to be accompanied by a feasible political project, which cannot be realised without breaking in various ways with the present order at the national and European levels. In order to be successful, this project must be applied by determined progressive governments in more than one EU country and supported by a strong European movement.
It is not possible to change Europe if we are not prepared for a coordinated and multi-level defiance of the neoliberal rules of the Treaties and of the ‘relatively autonomous’ European institutions (the ECB, the European Commission, the European Court), as well as the diktats of the ‘para-institutional bodies’ (the Troika, the Eurogroup, and the various independent authorities established at the national level). Disobedience should come from governments, national parliaments, the European Parliament, parties, trade unions, and social movements, as well as from the citizens of Europe. Since, despite rumours to the contrary, nation states have not disappeared in the wake of European integration, the presence of the radical left in governments may be a necessary, but – as past and present examples, including the case of SYRIZA, have shown – certainly not a sufficient condition for breaking with neoliberalism.  What is urgently needed is a real change in the balance of political and social forces in as many European counties as possible. It is for this reason that we should support the regional ‘enhanced cooperation’ of radical left parties mainly in the countries of the South of Europe, where the radical left is relatively stronger (and in some cases, like Greece and Portugal, are either in government or support it under certain conditions); nevertheless, in doing so a paramount concern must be not to split the absolutely necessary pan-European anti-neoliberal front as this would be a gift to the populist right and its agenda of fuelling national antagonisms.
A change in the process of European integration also requires the establishment of broad political and social alliances at both the national and European levels. In this respect, while it is obvious that the radical left should strengthen its ties with trade unions and social movements, the necessity of an alliance with social democracy is not an easy question to answer. It is true that due to the continuous decline of their electoral force almost throughout Europe, social democratic parties appear willing to enter into dialogue and even cooperate with the radical left. The political intentions of some of these parties and mainly of their left factions might well be honest in that they have learned the lessons of the disastrous ‘third way’ and sincerely wish to break with neoliberalism and their right wing and conservative allies, at the same time initiating serious dialogue and/or cooperation with the radical left. However, I doubt that this attitude is the prevalent trend in European Social Democracy. I believe that the real aim of most social democratic parties is to exterminate, absorb, or tame the radical left, even while they appear to prefer them to their old conservative partners and are even ready to form ‘progressive’ coalition governments. This means that we must be cautious when trying to form ‘broad alliances’, always keeping in mind the importance of ideological and political hegemony.
Even before the Greek experience, but mostly after it, a part of Europe’s radical left political forces, party factions, initiatives, intellectuals, and activists have been proposing the idea of a left exit from the Eurozone and possibly from the EU (which certainly does not describe the situation in Britain where the dominant political forces behind Brexit were right-wing nationalists, racists, and xenophobes). The majority of transform! members believe that Lexit cannot be excluded from a country’s options, even though it is by no means certain that in this way a country, especially small or even medium-sized ones, can regain its national and popular sovereignty  in the present era of financialised capitalism. However, Lexit is not a European project – or at least it has not been until now. In our view, the radical left should continue to support the idea of an alternative European integration and not confine itself to a competition with the populist and extreme right merely at the national level and without a project of European unity. If it only does the latter, there is a serious danger that rivalries among European nation states, the attraction of the ‘national-unity’ discourse, racism, and xenophobia – already present in the Eurozone and the EU due mainly to their architecture and policies – will increase.

* Note: The article is based on the author’s contribution to the opening session, “Europe after Brexit”, of the 11th EL-transform! Europe Summer University, Chianciano Terme, Italy, 20-24 July 2016.