Europe's Left after Brexit
Preface: This article (published in edited form in Jacobin, Neues Deutschland, Il Manifesto, Mediapart and elsewhere) addresses left-wing critics of DiEM25 claiming that DiEM25 is pursuing the wrong objective (to democratise the EU) by means of a faulty strategy (focusing at the European rather than at the national level). This response, while addressed to left-wing supporters of Lexit (the strategy of calling for referenda in favour of leaving the EU, Brexit style), is pertinent also as questions raised often within the other political traditions that DiEM25 seeks to unite in the struggle to democratise Europe; i.e. authentic liberals, ecologists, feminists, members of pirate parties, activists unwilling to be embedded in existing parties, progressive conservatives even.
In the space of thirteen months two referenda shook up not only the European Union but also Europe’s Left: the Greek OXI in July 2015 and Brexit in June 2016. Exasperated by the EU’s mixture of authoritarianism and economic failure, a segment of Europe’s Left is now calling for a “break with the EU”, a stance that has come to be associated with the term Lexit. DiEM25, the transnational Democracy in Europe Movement, rejects the Lexit logic and offers an alternative Progressive Agenda for Europe.
Undoubtedly, the Left has a duty to confront, with all its energy and imagination, the EU’s practice of de-politicising political decision making.  The question is not whether the Left must clash with the EU’s establishment and current practices. The question is in what context, and within which overarching political narrative, this confrontation should take place. Three are the options on offer.
Option 1: Euro-reformism, ‘more democracy’, ‘more Europe’
One (fast receding) option is the standard variety of euro-reformism, practised typically by social democrats who argue for ‘more democracy’, ‘more Europe’, ‘reformed EU institutions’ etc. It is an option founded on a fallacy: The EU is not suffering from a democratic deficit that can be fixed with a ‘little more democracy’ and a few reforms here and there. As I argued in a recent book, the EU was constructed intentionally as a democracy-free zone designed to keep the demos out of decision-making and to defer to a cartel of Europe’s big business and the financial sector. To say that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit is like an astronaut on the moon complaining that she is surrounded by an oxygen deficit…
The EU’s institutions are incapable of being reformed through the standard process of inter-governmental deliberations and gradual treaty changes. For this reason, calls for ‘more Europe’ are misguided since, under the present EU regime and institutions, ‘more Europe’ and gradualist reforms will result into the formalisation and legalisation of Europe’s Austerity Union along the lines of what I have described as the Schäuble Plan. This will, in turn, deepen the crisis afflicting Europe’s weakest citizens, enhance the appeal of the xenophobic Right and, in any case, speed up the EU’s disintegration. If this is right, and I believe it is, then democrats have no alternative than to spearhead a head-on clash with the EU’s establishment. Which brings us to the second and the third options.
Option 2: Lexit – leaving the EU
The second option is, of course, the Lexit route. Tariq Ali has eloquently made the case, amongst others.  Stathis Kouvelakis, post-Brexit, sums up the position thus: “So, we have to play the referendum game, while blocking the forces of the xenophobic and nationalist Right from winning hegemony and diverting the popular revolt.” In short, to beat the xenophobic Right’s misanthropy we have to join their call for referenda that will take our nation-states out of the EU.
This (Lexit) option raises concerns regarding its realism and probity. Is its agenda feasible? In other words, is it a realistic prospect that, by (in Kouvelakis’ words) calling for referenda to leave the EU, the Left can block “the forces of the xenophobic and nationalist Right from winning hegemony and diverting the popular revolt”? And, is such a campaign consistent with the Left’s fundamental principles? DiEM25 believes that the answer to both questions is negative and, for this reason, opposes the Lexit option. Let me explain these two answers before briefly discussing DiEM25’s alternative proposal (the third option below).
The Left used to be good at separating static from dynamic analyses. Since Marx, drawing upon Hegel, prioritised process over outcomes, the Left learned how to take into account the direction of change, not just the various states of the world. In the case of the EU, this is crucial. For example, the position we should have taken before the common market, or the Eurozone, were created cannot be the same once these institutions were in place. It was, therefore, perfectly consistent
- to oppose Greece’s entry into the common market and/or into the Eurozone, and
- to oppose a referendum for Greece to exit the common market and/or the euro.
Even more significantly, it makes a huge difference whether our starting point is a borderless Europe (in which European workers exercise free movement) or a Europe like that of the early 1950s where nation-states controlled borders and could create at will a new category of Italian or Greek proletarians called gastarbeiters.
This last point highlights the dangers of Lexit. Given that the EU has established free movement, Lexit involves acquiescence to (if not actual support for) its ending and for the re-establishment of national border controls, complete with barbed wire and armed guards. Granted that, if we were to re-run history, the Left should demand common minimum wages in exchange for its support for the Single Market, do supporters of Lexit truly believe that, today, the Left can win the battle for hegemony against the xenophobic Right by endorsing the latter’s call for building new fences and ending free movement? Similarly, do they truly believe that the Left will win the discursive and policy war against the fossil fuel industry by supporting the re-nationalisation of environmental policy? Under the Lexit banner, in my estimation, the Left is heading for monumental defeats on both fronts.
Option 3: DiEM25’s proposal for disobedience within the EU
And so we come to the third option, the one proposed by DiEM25. It rejects both the euro-reformist calls for ‘more democracy’ and ‘more Europe’ as well as Lexit’s support for referenda to abolish the EU level altogether and return full control to nation-states. Instead, DiEM25 proposes a pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience with which to bring on a surge of democratic opposition to the way European elites do business at the local, national and EU levels.
At DiEM25 we do not believe that the EU will be reformed through the usual channels of EU policy making, and certainly not by bending the existing ‘rules’ on budget deficits by half or one per cent of national income (as the governments of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal are doing). Vicente Navarro recently wrote that “parliaments still have power, including the power to question austerity policies”. This is correct, as the first five months of the Syriza government demonstrated. But Navarro is, regretfully, wrong when using as an example the new Portuguese government which, he claims, “stopped the application of the austerity policies imposed by the European Commission”. I only wish that were true: Before being given the mandate to form a government by the troika-friendly right-wing President, the parties of the Portuguese Left had to sign up to the previous governments’ “commitments to the Eurogroup” – that is, they capitulated to the troika’s existing program on Day One and confined themselves to delaying, for a year or so, the introduction of fresh austerity measures.
In short, yes, national parliaments and governments have power – the power to do what our Syriza government did during the Athens Spring, before capitulating on the night of the OXI referendum. But with the European Central Bank on the ready to start a bank run in retaliation, even to close down its banking system, a progressive national government can only use this power if it is prepared for a rupture with the EU troika. This is where we, at DiEM25, agree with the Lexit camp: a clash with the EU establishment is inescapable. Where we disagree with Lexit proponents is in their assumption that this clash can take only one form: a campaign to leave the EU. We reject this assumption wholeheartedly and counter-propose a clash with the European establishment based on a campaign of wilfully disobeying the unenforceable EU ‘rules’ at the municipal, regional and national levels while making no move whatsoever to leave the EU.
Undoubtedly, the EU institutions will threaten us (i.e. rebel governments and finance ministers adopting DiEM25’s agenda) with expulsion, with bank runs, bank ‘holidays’ etc., just as they threatened the Greek government (and me personally) with Grexit in 2015. At that point it is crucial not to succumb to the fear of ‘exit’ but to look at them in the eye and say:
“Bring it on! The only thing that we are truly scared off is your sole offering: the perpetuation of the debt-deflationary spiral that drives masses of Europeans into hopelessness and places them under the spell of bigotry.”
If we do not blink, then either they will blink (in which case the EU will be transformed) or the EU will be torn asunder by its own Establishment. If the Establishment (the Commission, the European Central Bank, Berlin and Paris) dismember the EU to punish progressive governments that refused to abide by their inane policies, this will galvanise progressive politics across Europe in a manner that Lexit could never do.
Consider the profound difference between the following two situations:
- The EU establishment threatening progressive Europeanist governments with ‘exit’ when they refuse to obey its authoritarian incompetence, and
- Progressive national parties or governments campaigning alongside the xenophobic Right for ‘exit’.
It is the difference between:
(A) Clashing against the EU establishment in a manner that preserves the spirit of internationalism, demands pan-European action, and sets us fully apart from the xenophobic Right, and
(B) Walking hand-in-hand with nationalisms that will, inescapably, reinforce the xenophobic Right while allowing the EU to portray the Left as populists insufficiently distinguishable from Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen etc.
Naturally, part of the DiEM25 agenda must involve developing strategies that will allow our cities, regions and nation-states to rebel against a EU establishment that retaliates with threats of ‘exit’, or ‘expulsion’. Another part of the same agenda must include plans to deal with the EU’s collapse or disintegration if its Establishment is foolish enough to activate these threats against disobedient national governments. But this is profoundly different toinitiating the EU’s disintegration as the Left’s own objective.
In short, DiEM25, refuses to endorse ‘exit’ as an end-in-itself, or even to deploy it as a threat. But we shall not be deterred from governmental disobedience when faced with the threat of ‘expulsion’ or forced ‘exit’.
Internationalism, the EU and the nation-state
The Left’s traditional internationalism is a key ingredient of DiEM25, along with other constituent democratic traditions from a variety of political projects (including progressive liberalism, feminist and ecological movements, the ‘pirate’ parties etc.). DiEM25’s position on the EU reflects precisely this type of internationalism. I hope my comrades on the Left will permit me to remind them that when Marx and Engels were adopting their ‘proletarians of the world unite’ slogan they were not rejecting the importance of national culture or of the nation-state. They were rejecting the idea of a ‘national interest’ and of the view that struggles must prioritise the realm of the nation-state.
DiEM25 proposes a rebellion to deliver authentic democracy at the levels of local government, national governments and the EU. We do not prioritise the EU over the national level, just like we do not prioritise the national over the regional or the municipal level. Alas, several European leftists insist on a reverse prioritisation: that of the national over the EU level. Stefano Fassina, for example, in a reply to an article in la Reppublica by Lorenzo Marsili and myself, takes us, and DiEm25 to task by arguing (quoting Ralf Dahrendorf) that democracy at the EU level “is not possible… because a ‘European people’, a European demos for a European democracy, doesn’t exist….” “Among the idealists and the euro-fanatics”, Fassina continues “some still think that the European Union can transform itself into a kind of nation-state, only bigger: the United States of Europe.”
This leftwing objection to DiEM25’s call for a pan-European movement is interesting and puzzling. In effect, it argues that democracy is impossible on a supranational scale because a demos must be characterised by national and cultural homogeneity. I can just imagine Marx’s rage at hearing this! Just as I can imagine the puzzlement of leftwing internationalists who dreamt of, and struggled for, a transnational republic from the Atlantic to as far to the East as possible.
The Left, lest we forget, traditionally opposed the bourgeois belief in a one-to-one relationship between a nation and a sovereign parliament. The Left counter-argued that identity is something we create through political struggle (class struggle, the struggle against patriarchy, the struggle for smashing gender and sexual stereotypes, emancipation from Empire etc.). DiEM25, therefore, by calling for a pan-European campaign of disobedience with the transnational elites, in order to create the European demos that will bring about Europe’s democracy, is in tune with the Left’s traditional approach – the very approach that is under fire from Fassina and others who argue for the return to a one-nation-one-parliament-one-sovereignty politics, with internationalism being reduced to “co-operation” between Europe’s nation-states.
To support his prioritisation of the national level, Fassina evokes Antonio Gramsci and his advocacy of the “category of ‘national-popular’ to give popular roots and hegemonic capacity to that Italian Communist Party, which in its symbol had the red flag with a hammer and sickle resting on the flag of Italy”. Gramsci’s point was, indeed, that, to achieve progress at the international level it was necessary to create a progressive movement at the level of the town and of the nation. It was not, however Gramsci’s intention, to prioritise the national over the transnational level and to argue that transnational democratic institutions are either infeasible or undesirable.
In the same Gramscian spirit, DiEM25 insists that our European rebellion should happen everywhere, in towns, regions, nation-state capitals and in Brussels, without prioritisingany level over any other. Only through this pan-European network of rebel cities, rebel prefectures and rebel governments can a progressive movement become hegemonic in Italy, in Greece, in England, indeed anywhere.
Finally, one may cheekily ask: “Why stop at the EU level? As internationalists, why don’t you campaign for worldwide democracy?” Our answer is that we do campaign for democracy everywhere and from an internationalist point of view. Indeed, DiEM25 is building strong links with Bernie Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ in the United States and is even signing up members in Latin America, Australia, even Asia. But, given that history has, for better or for worse, delivered a borderless EU, with common policies on the environment and a variety of other realms, the (by definition internationalist) Left must defend this absence of borders, the existing EU commons of climate change policy, even the Erasmus program that gives young Europeans the opportunity to mingle in a borderless educational system. Turning against these splendid artefacts of an otherwise regressive EU is not consistent with what the Left ought to be about.
DiEM25’s Progressive Agenda for Europe
Progressives have a duty to lead the fight for re-politicising political decision making and democratising this reclaimed political realm. Donald Trump in the United States, right-wing Brexiters in Britain, Le Pen in France etc. rose up as the result of an economic crisis that was brought on by the crisis of financialisation and of liberal democracies that can no longer function as liberal democracies in the era of financialisation’s crisis. The question for Europe’s Left, for progressive liberals, Greens etc. is, now, whether this struggle, this project, should take the form of a campaign to leave the EU (e.g. Lexit) or, as DiEM25 suggests, of a campaign of civil, civic and governmental disobedience within but in confrontation with the EU.
DiEM25 rejects the euro-loyalists’ campaign to reform the EU by working within the framework of the EU’s establishment where change is either glacial or in the wrong direction. We also reject Lexit’s rationale of turning the EU’s disintegration into our objective. DiEM25 was formed to create a genuine alternative: a borderless surge of unifying politics across Europe (EU and non-EU countries alike) based on an alliance of democrats across various political traditions (including the Left but not confined to it) and at all levels of political engagement (towns, cities, regions and states).
To recap, to those who berate DiEM25 and its call for a pan-European democratic movement as utopian, our answer is that a transnational, pan-European democracy remains a legitimate, realistic long-term goal, one that is in concert with the Left’s time honoured internationalism. But this objective must be accompanied by pragmatism and a precise plan for immediate action:
- Oppose any talk of ‘more Europe’ now, when ‘more Europe’, under the present circumstances, translates into the iron cage of institutionalised austerity envisaged by the EU’s establishment.
- Present Europeans with a blueprint (a comprehensive set of policies and actions) of how we plan to re-deploy Europe’s existing institutions in order to stem the economic crisis, reverse inequality and reinvigorate hope.
- And ensure that the same blueprint makes provisions for keeping internationalism alive in the event that the EU establishment’s incompetent authoritarianism causes the EU’s disintegration.
“The EU will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!”
This was, and remains, DiEM25’s guiding pronouncement. We cannot predict which of the two (democratisation or disintegration) will occur. So, we struggle for the former while preparing for the latter. And we do this by working towards a Progressive Agenda for Europe that is put together both at the grassroots level and with the help of progressive experts. Its purpose? To defeat the worst enemy of democracy in Europe: euro-TINA, the reactionary dogma that there can be no genuinely progressive alternative to current policies within a united Europe.
DiEM25’s antidote to euro-TINA is, indeed, the Progressive Agenda for Europe which DiEM25 will be rolling out, in consultation with local, regional and national actors, over the next eighteen months. Putting together our European Agenda, throughout the continent and its surrounding isles, is our way of demonstrating to defeated, disheartened and disillusioned Europeans that, astonishingly, there is an alternative.
DiEM25’s Progressive Agenda for Europe will be pragmatic, radical and comprehensive. It will comprise policies that can be implemented immediately to stabilise Europe’s social economy, while:
- affording more sovereignty to city councils, prefectures and national parliaments,
- proposing institutional interventions and designs that will reduce the human cost in case the euro collapses and the EU fragments, and
- setting up a democratic Constitution Assembly process that enables Europeans to generate a European identity with which to bolster their reinvigorated national cultures, parliaments and local authorities.
DiEM25’s Progressive Agenda for Europe aims at a unifying campaign with which a European Progressive International can counter the Nationalist International that is now going from strength to strength.
Conclusion: The Way Forward
The EU is at an advanced stage of disintegration. There are two prospects.
- The EU is not past the point of no return (yet) and can, still, be democratised, stabilised, rationalised and humanised
- The EU is beyond the point of no return and incapable of being democratised. Therefore, its disintegration is certain, as is the clear and present danger of Europe’s descent into a postmodern version of the deflationary 1930s
DiEM25 believes that dropping the campaign to democratise the EU would be a major error for progressives in either case. If is still possible to fashion a democratic EU (a prospect that is wearing thin by the minute), it would be a pity not to try. But, even if we are convinced that the existing EU is beyond democratisation, and thus salvation, to abandon the struggle to democratise the EU (and to turn ‘exit’ and ‘disintegration’ into an end-in-itself) will play into the hands of the only political force capable of benefitting from such an agenda: the intransigent, xenophobic Right.
So, what should progressives do? DiEM25’s answer is:
- Campaign vigorously along internationalist, cross-border, lines all over Europe for a democratic Union – even if we do not believe that the EU can, or ought to, survive in its current form
- Expose the EU Establishment’s authoritarian incompetence
- Coordinate civil, civic and governmental disobedience across Europe
- Illustrate through DiEM25’s own transnational structure how a pan-European democracy can work at all levels and in all jurisdictions
- Propose a comprehensive Progressive Agenda for Europe which includes sensible, modest, convincing proposals for ‘fixing’ the EU (the euro even) and for managing progressively the EU’s and the euro’s disintegration if and when the Establishment brings it on.
 In the words of its Manifesto, DiEM25 appeals to European democrats that “…come from every part of the continent and are united by different cultures, languages, accents, political party affiliations, ideologies, skin colours, gender identities, faiths and conceptions of the good society”.
 i.e. a left-wing call, and support, for referenda proposing exit from the EU
 I stand convinced that many other European democrats, Greens and liberals, who do not think of themselves as on the Left, also have a duty to confront the EU’s authoritarian incompetence.
 And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat of Global Stability, London: Bodley Head and NY: Nation Books, 2016
 There is a second qualm I have with Navarro’s article on a matter unrelated to Lexit: Vicente misunderstood my Universal Basic Income proposal. It is not envisaged as a substitute for the standard social security/welfare system. The UBI I favour will be funded not from taxation but by transferring equity over all capital to a social trust (e.g. 10% of all shares of all listed companies) from which UBI payments will be drawn. But this is best left for another discussion.
 The EU’s and the euro’s break-up will most certainly cause the creation of at least two Europes. One will begin at the river Rhine and expand eastward (north of the Alps) to the Baltics and the Ukraine, based on a revived version of the Deutsche Mark whose unstoppable appreciation will generates deflation and mass unemployment. The other, Latin-Catholic Europe (with or without the addition of Greece), will revolve around depreciating currencies that spearhead acute stagflation (a combination of high inflation and high unemployment). In this bleak economic environment, EU and non-EU countries (like Britain, Norway etc.) will become cesspools of right-wing bigotry. It is the post-modern 1930s that I am referring to.
 Speaking from experience, right-wing nationalists in Northern Europe would be mightily helped in bolstering their campaign if I were to call upon my fellow Greeks to vote in favour of Grexit. Similarly, with other Spanish, Italian, Portuguese left-wingers calling upon their compatriots to exit the EU. In contrast, DiEM25’s call for a pan-European, internationalist campaign of civic and governmental disobedience within and against the current EU denies them access to disaffected Europeans.