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Democracy, Borders and Brexit: Can Europe Solve its Crises?

The border crisis worsens, the EU’s sham democracy attracts scrutiny, and the question of whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU divides the British left. To see in Novara Media’s week-long investigation of Europe, in this week’s Novara Wire Long Read James Butler lays out the crises facing Europe and asks whether there can be a solution:

I. Three Crises in Europe.

Underlying current political conflicts in Europe, we can detect three interlocking crises:

  1. An economic-political crisis emerging from unequal distribution and the dissonance between national economies (i.e., between the more social polities of the south, and the ordoliberal polities of the north), and the way those tensions manifest within the currency union.
  2. A political crisis over Europe’s democratic deficit, within its parliament and its institutions, and the meaningfulness of any notion of European citizenship without any apparent purchase or weight in its decision making.
  3. A major crisis, of substantial humanitarian and political dimensions, over the treatment of refugees and migrants, and of migration more generally, both at Europe’s borders and across the constituent nations of the union.

Each of these crises, all of them long-simmering, have the potential to be serious threats: the first to set off an economic crisis dwarfing its previous iterations, the second to mobilise serious popular resentment across a continent alienated from those ruling them, the third to erode the basic internal principles of the EU’s organisation, while multiplying its external walls, its containment camps and boosting domestic xenophobic movements. Each individual crisis can be contained by the mechanisms of compromise, fudge, threat and imposition the EU has used in the past, but together they are likely to reshape the politics of the continent away from the consensus of the past thirty years, in a direction yet unclear but in an atmosphere currently dominated by the nationalist right. These are not merely abstruse questions, therefore, but directly relevant to the lives of people in Europe and beyond.

In Britain the debate on the forthcoming referendum has thus far been cast rather narrowly: its arguments about British economic benefit stand comfortably in the shadow of Thatcher, whose singular obsession with the British rebate was said to have reminded the Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti of a landlady berating her tenant over the rent. Questions of sovereign power have been almost exclusively the domain of the right’s exit campaign; little can be found in the campaign to remain challenging the various measures intended to make Britain a ‘hostile environment’ to migrants, for fear of spooking the electoral horses. Whether Britain remains in the EU or not, the three vectors of crisis outlined above are connected to deeper questions from which Britain cannot isolate itself: of democracy, citizenship, and the relation between states, their peoples and international organisation in an age of globalisation.

Though the three crises are intertwined, they are not immediately assimilable to a single solution. The question of democracy is, in different ways, central to all three. This is most obviously the case in the first two crises: the EU’s arrogation of economic powers to itself above individual states has gone hand-in-hand with the growing gap (already wide) between European officials and electorates, bridged by a hobbled parliament typically administered by grand coalitions and unable to mount effective opposition to the Commission. Even more fundamental questions of democracy are posed by the migrant crisis: who gets to be considered a citizen in Europe, what obligations Europe has to those at its borders. And, given the foregoing, what kind of political solution can be brokered with any legitimacy for electorates suspicious of its distant, corruption-riddled and oligarchic power structure?

Were one forced to pick a single figure to embody the problems facing the EU, its overstuffed rogue’s gallery would make choosing difficult. It is tempting to opt for Jean-Claude Juncker, current President of the European Commission, ‘selected’ (in contravention of Treaty specifications) despite leaving office as prime minister of Luxembourg in disgrace, in the wake of revelations about his role in multiple corruption scandals, fixing huge tax exemptions for corporations operating in Europe, as well as covering up state-led bombing campaigns designed to initiate a ‘red scare’ in the 1980s. But more apt is a rather more faceless figure: Olli Rehn. Rehn, having been thrown out of power by the Finnish electorate, made his name in Europe as an economic hardliner and intellectual disciple of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Rehn was promoted to Commissioner for Monetary Affairs and the Euro in 2010, just as the Greek crisis began to bite in earnest. But in 2012 he also used the new powers accorded to his office to demand the Belgian government cut €1.3bn from its newly proposed budget. The Belgian Enterprise Minister, Paul Magnette, summed up the problem by asking:

“Who knows Olli Rehn? Who has ever seen Olli Rehn’s face? Who knows where he comes from and what he has done? Nobody. Yet he tells us how we should conduct economic policy. Europe has no democratic legitimacy to do this.”

Democratic legitimacy did not trouble Rehn, however. Under threat of massive fines, the Belgian government revised its budget at his behest; Rehn would go on to replicate the same austerity line in Greece. But Magnette’s question will not go away: through economic force, the EU has been able to impose its budgetary criteria on delinquent governments. Rehn clearly expects the cost of such actions – erosion of any persisting sense of European solidarity and citizenship, the inescapable impression of Europe governed in the service of financial institutions rather than its people – can be absorbed by the now rarefied structures of the EU. But such absorption cannot continue forever: this situation, in which economic decisions are lifted out of the hands of national powers and insulated from democratic consultation, but where national governments are left to implement austerity and absorb popular resentment, cannot but raise fundamental questions of the EU’s basic legitimacy. As it stands, it is a pseudo-democratic structure in which accountability flows only upward, rather than down and outwards to its people. The questions, then, are: how did the EU come to be this way? Can it be reformed? Is it worth attempting to do so? And can it deal with the three crises outlined above?

II. The Union and Its Politics.

The story the European Union likes to tell itself about its founding is as follows: after the second world war, a far-sighted group of European diplomats and functionaries conceived of a European federation bound together economically and politically, so as to make another such war impossible in Europe. As a scheme for perpetual peace, it hearkened back to Kant and the Abbé de Sainte Pierre, and this goal was explicit in the Schuman declaration, which announced the first phase of such an integration in the pooling of coal and steel production in the European core. This first phase contained, in embryo, what are today the governing institutions of the EU: its court, its central commission, and its parliament. The subsequent phases of geographical expansion, the creation of the common market, abolition of trade barriers and monetary union, were all governed by this fundamental aim.

So the story goes. It is not in itself untrue: the early founders certainly had peace in Europe as a goal, they were distrustful of nationalism and wary of popular passions, and they believed in an economic solution to the problems of national strife. It has the benefit of underlining how far the initial founding was the work of diplomatic officialdom and political elites, often unelected, something that remains true of today’s EU despite its democratic swaddling. Yet like all official stories it is most notable for its omissions: it overstates its break with preceding European history, and understates the number of serious changes and contortions over which its institutions have presided. Little is said about the changing geopolitical role of the bloc over the period: from early French expectations that it would constitute itself as a ‘third power’ between Moscow and Washington, through the subduction of its security apparatus into NATO, and the rapid accession of the ex-Comecon states alongside the reunification of Germany. Nowhere to be found is the story of European integration as a means of assuring continued extraction and dominance in Africa, despite this being a central plank of early moves toward integration. (This throws some light on the derision which greeted Morocco’s application to join the European Communities in 1987.)

Still less is the economic story given its full scope: the construction of the early European community involved as much domestic political calculation as it did dreams of world peace, a grappling with new international dynamics in capitalism and technological advancement. The massive rise in growth rates and explosion in international trade which ensued gave European states the ability to invest in social measures – state housing projects, expanded pensions, health and welfare – successfully fending off postwar legitimacy crises, and inoculating European workers against the allure of communism. The collapse of Bretton Woods and economic decline of the late 1970s signalled the waning of social democratic aspirations, major defeats for organised labour and anti-capitalist projects across the continent, and the growing dominance of right-wing liberalisers in policy circles. Whereas the creation of the EEC had been partly marked by a concern for safeguarding electorally important national constituencies from the depredations of competition (thus the Common Agricultural Policy and certain industrial protections), the impetus of the Single European Act (1986) and the Maastricht Treaty (1992) was decidedly market-oriented, choking off the hopes for a ‘social Europe’ held dear by earlier pro-integration campaigners. This period marks the apogee of Britain’s influence in Europe, with Thatcher’s imposition of her agenda on the articles of the Maastricht treaty. It also inaugurates the current phase of economic integration, including monetary union, the creation of the ECB, and the transfer of significant fiscal and economic power to a supranational level.[1]

By reintegrating an account of the economic evolution of the EU into a history of its political formation, four things become clear: firstly, that national interest and domestic electoral concerns have very often preceded any consideration of the European whole; secondly, and relatedly, the economic structure of the EU conceals a number of asymmetries and power imbalances – for instance, in unequal access to structural and regional funds for ex-Comecon states, or the freedom of powerful states to breach strict fiscal rules without punishment (France and Germany’s breach of the Stability and Growth Pact after the turn of the millennium is a key example). Greece is a special study in this asymmetry. Thirdly, that major political changes in the EU are typically initiated by exogenous shocks (Bretton Woods, German reunification/post-Soviet accessions, and post-2008 financial crisis); fourthly, that the political change which results is marked by the avoidance of any constitutional-democratic moment, and, wherever possible, the avoidance of popular consultation (both Maastricht and the ill-starred constitutional referendums of the mid-2000s are exemplars here.) Therefore, the political institutions governing the Union have not substantially changed in form, while the economic field and territory they administer have both changed profoundly; their highly centralised and insulated nature can give the impression, in Tom Nairn’s words, of a ‘sheer bureaucracy devoted to sheer capitalism’. Worse, the Commission’s virtual monopoly on initiating legislation, and the parliament’s commitment to anaemic co-decision procedures rob it of a feature hitherto considered essential in democracy: a meaningful opposition.

Jacques Delors once called the EU an ‘unidentified political object’, unassimilable to conventional criteria for assessing political entities. Most of its theorists, however, tend to agree on two things: that it is not a state, and that it is fundamentally democratic, even if at times suffering from a ‘democratic deficit’. There is cause to question both of these conclusions, but most gymnastics are undertaken in defence of its democratic status. Giandomenico Majone, one of its key theorists, deploys a concept of ‘nonmajoritarian democracy’ to defend many of the EU’s bodies: while the concept of insulating certain key areas of political life from the tyranny of the majority is commonplace – human rights, the protection of minority groups – this is the first time it has been applied to banking and budget-setting. This is less a different form of democracy than its utter absence. Another European theorist, Andrew Moravcsik, argues rather more explicitly that the ‘arcane and obscure’ policy and regulatory prerogatives of the Union do not require popular consultation, are of low salience to electorates, whose participation in such matters is doomed to be ‘ignorant, irrelevant and ideological’ – and those who insist otherwise are labouring against a consensus on ‘how advanced democracies actually work’. Thus speaks the court philosopher of European technocracy.

This attitude towards democracy is not confined to Europe’s theoreticians. In 2012, Dany Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt put together a short manifesto entitled For Europe!, which sought to make the case for further integration as the solution to Europe’s current political impasse. The two are improbable bedfellows, but represent the heterogeneity of Europe’s federalisers: Cohn-Bendit a ’68er turned Green reformist, Verhofstadt the liberal former Belgian prime minister. (The latter made a name for himself last year by berating Alexis Tsipras at length in the European parliament; his role on the boards of huge firms standing to profit from Greek privatisations – Sofina and Exmar – doubtless played little role in his outrage.) The contours of 2015’s response to Greece are visible in the manifesto’s monody to fiscal discipline and prostration before the ECB. In the accompanying interview, Cohn-Bendit muses that the bourgeois EU might be the predecessor to a genuinely social internationalism, but Verhofstadt captures the mood of the European bureaucracy in a tetchy dismissal of democratising demands:

“The order of things should not be reversed: first of all there was the British State, then there was British democracy. First of all there was the French state, then French democracy. It is not democracy which leads the State, it is the opposite and the movement is still carried by a bourgeois elite. … I think therefore that it is false to say that it is necessary to create a functional democracy first for a European federation to emerge from it.”

This is commendably novel historiography – democracy as a simple gift of the state – but sums up the world as seen from Brussels, denuded of struggle or political antagonism, freed of the turbulence of popular democracy, and subordinated to an austere and remote central bank. Even as far back as 2006, as staunch a defender of the EU as Majone could worry that increasingly hardline decisions by the ECB, and the absence of its promised universal prosperity would erode its already narrow legitimacy basis; in the wake of its behaviour towards Greece last year, that legitimacy looks more precarious than ever. But those most devoted to the EU have rarely searched looked solely to popular acclamation or accountability for legitimacy. It is no accident that when Mark Leonard, at the height of British elite europhilia under Blair, searched for an analogy to explain the EU, he did not reach for comparison with any democratic state or political structure, but with an international credit company: Visa.

III. At Europe’s Borders.

If Europe’s multiple political crises sometimes seem abstruse and distant, the crisis at its borders seems ever more real and pressing. The stories from the crossing-points and the camps grow darker – from companies producing deliberately non-buoyant lifejackets, to wall-building projects and regular police violence – while fears about migration occupy an ever-more prominent place in European political sentiment. 3m migrants are predicted to make the crossing into Europe this year, yet little progress has been made on any settlement to the crisis.

The question of migration has been a perennial problem for Europe, in both of its forms: between states within the Union, and from outside. Both provoke intermittent popular resentment (particularly in Britain, deeply hostile to internal European migration) and the political response has typically been one of gesture, minor concession, and the expectation that such fears will recede in times of prosperity. Very often, the chief political strategy seems to be silence. Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt are again illuminating here: though they extol Europe’s ‘shining example’ to the nations of the world – with little time spent on either the old colonialism of empire or the new colonialism of the sweatshop – migration itself is rarely addressed directly. Its major defence is mounted pragmatically: migrants are good and ought to be welcomed because only through migration will Europe ‘maintain its prosperity’. Europe’s ageing population requires young people ‘to maintain its current standard of living’; 60% of the population of ‘the Arab world’ is under 30 (and educated) the authors tell us, as if the solution should be obvious. Asylum gets a bare half-sentence mention, though there is plenty of praise in the abstract for European values and human rights.

Like good liberals, the authors deplore xenophobia sweeping Europe and locate the problem in nation-states stubbornly retaining control of their asylum policies and backwards politicians demanding the renationalisation of the Schengen agreement; consistently, their diagnosis for Europe’s problems is rooted in an anachronistic nation-state, its solution a fully federal Europe, a ‘postnational revolution’. But the real contours of migration are transmuted in this argument: all forms of migration are subsumed into ‘good’ economic migration to prop up Europe’s gerontocracy (are there no other reasons for migration? Is economic usefulness the sole criterion by which it is justified?) Meanwhile, anti-migrant politics is discussed through the lens of Schengen, which governs the free movement of European citizens within its borders: conveniently, objections to this can be laid at the feet of nationalists, but the treatment of migrants at Europe’s borders is co-ordinated by European agencies, subject to harmonised European regulations and protocols, and uniform in its aim. It is a model European policy. This problem is treated only with silence.

Hostility to migration across Europe has remained relatively high for the past decade: it was key in both French and Dutch rejections of the European constitutional treaty in 2005, and has resulted in periods of violent explosion on the streets and the electoral success of parties like Fidesz in Hungary, or hard-right parties in Denmark and Sweden. It is occasionally leavened by moments of humanitarian response to headline images of tragedy, but, so far, such twinges of sympathy have not coalesced into a serious change of public mood. (Conditions in the border camps, or routine abuses by Frontex garner less column space.) In Britain, dehumanising language (from tabloid ‘cockroaches’ to prime ministerial ‘swarms’) is de rigueur; married to security concerns, it has proved an effective electoral cudgel for the right. Such fears are increasingly weaponised in European political fights: Panos Kammenos, the head of Syriza’s right-wing junior coalition parter ANEL, threatened to unleash a wave of economic migrants into the rest of Europe during last year’s negotiations; in a more explicit articulation of the racism underlying this fear, Berthold Seewald called in Die Welt for the exclusion of Greeks from Europe on an ethnic basis, claiming that modern Greek people, as a mix of Byzantines, Albanians and Slavs had ‘broken in’ to the European ship by deception. The two phases of this xenophobia, often collapsed into one by its purveyors, are here visible: fear of movement from within an expanded EU to a wealthier European core, and fear of movement from without the EU, as refugees or asylum seekers (always implied to be false, deceptive or parasitical.)

Given the prominence of migration in the debate on Europe – scaremongering about the camps in Calais abounds – it is possible that much of the left’s activity in the lead-up to the referendum will be myth-busting: that the migrant crisis is focused neither in Calais nor in Britain, and that Britain ranks barely mid-table in the paltry number of refugees it takes. Equally, that the waves of migration we were promised from the European periphery never materialised, Britons are net claimants of benefits across the EU, and claimants here have a minuscule impact on the welfare bill. Moreover, the UK’s legal obligations to asylum seekers are overseen by the Strasbourg court of the Council of Europe, not that of the EU. The UK has consistently fought asylum claims in this court, regardless of the complexion of government: the Soering, Vilvarajah and Chahal cases up to 1995 were fought over the very applicability of the European Convention on Human Rights to such claims. EU withdrawal would not in itself exempt the UK from that oversight; however, frequently floated government plans to withdraw from the convention and draw up its own, more limited, bill of rights, are likely to be boosted by an exit vote. (The legal mechanics and implications of such a process are, however, far from clear.)

To concentrate solely on British responses to migration would be to miss the wider European problem. The UN states that 130,000 migrants made the Mediterranean crossing in the first two months of this year, far higher than the equivalent period last year, and a flow set to increase as winter eases. Fences have sprung up along the Greek border with Macedonia, and around Hungary and Bulgaria; the Greek state declares itself on the verge of being overwhelmed, with a predicted 200,000 migrants likely to be stranded in the country by summer. Plans to staunch the flow include subsidising containment measures in Turkey, and according more powers to Frontex, despite concerns about refoulement and existing abuses. Fragmentation of the Balkan route and moves by the region to draw up its own migration policy threaten major humanitarian disaster. Looming elections in Germany, where Merkel is under pressure from the right on migrant issues, are likely to weaken resolve from the European core to find a just settlement; the current proposed quotas are politically contentious,[2] and Czech and Hungarian authorities have stated they do not regard them as binding (Hungary has announced it will hold a referendum on them). Meanwhile, Britain and other northern states are fighting to retain the current protocols on registration and finger printing, which force refugees to make claims of asylum in their first country of arrival. It looks increasingly like the de facto solution will be the proliferation of permanent ‘temporary’ camps in countries of arrival, with partial reinstitution of border controls in the periphery and beefed-up military-style policing on migration hotspots.

This is not merely a story of opportunism, recalcitrant electorates and tenacious racism. Immigration is ranked as the most serious political issue facing the EU in every state except Portugal. 89% of Europeans want stronger action on illegal migration, though only 58% support a common migration policy. Refugees – such as those fleeing the war in Syria – are generally thought to be the least controversial of migrant populations, but polling shows a sharp divide in Europe on their treatment. For all the fantasies of its armchair colonels, 77% of Britons think more should be done by the EU to help refugees, above the European average. But in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, 29% or under agree with this aim.[3] In part, this is because these states have borne much of the enforcement work of Europe’s hard border policy (thus Italy trends toward agreement with them) and regard the Dublin protocol as unfair, but it is also fuelled by resentment at inequalities within the EU (underdevelopment, access and scope of structural funds, internal hostility) exploited by a nationalist right often now posing as ‘anti-neoliberal’. The mutually interlocking crises outlined above are also at work here: questionable democratic legitimacy makes resolution difficult, especially on migration; European commitment to austerity makes it equally difficult to gather support for even relatively small sums of support, provoking a chauvinist egalitarianism which resents such expenditure in the absence of domestic safety nets.

The picture is not entirely bleak: alongside Orbán’s official racism, there exist social movements of migrant solidarity – as is also the case in Greece, and at the British border (such as London2Calais). Domestic movements in the UK are working against the draconian asylum and migration regime here, and attempting to change the public conversation on migration. But the work of these grassroots groups is focused on conditions in the camps, or aiding small numbers making crossings, and operate on an ad-hoc basis; they tend not to operate in the sphere of formal politics, and are wary of media engagement. Yet it seems obvious that the crisis will not be resolved without the emergence of a strong pro-migrant political formation among European citizens, willing to articulate arguments against the current consensus as well as support action among migrants. Certainly, it is a crisis of European dimensions: no one country alone can deal with it, yet even the highest estimated flow of migrants can be comfortably accommodated in Europe (they are 0.6% of its population). The structures of organisation, transfer and legal compulsion necessary for such a settlement exist in the EU as in no other supranational entity. Yet to do so would require not only the emergence of a strong pro-migrant position, but the democratisation of its governing structure to enact such a strategy. Privately, European leaders fear that migration is the rock on which the EU may break itself, but the current situation is worse than inaction – it is complicity in a scale of crisis unseen in Europe for sixty years, and which has reached this intensity in part because of the Union’s border regime and deferral of previous migration crises. Moreover, though the war in Syria is temporary, migration on this scale and the demand for citizenship – not least from climate refugees – will characterise the next century. Can Europe be democratised in this direction?

IV. Democracy or Bust?

The recently-launched Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM), spearheaded by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, claims that without democratisation the EU will disintegrate into isolated, backwards and chauvinist nation-states. It presents a far-reaching set of aims, the scope of which would utterly transform the union (likely, though this is unstated, requiring treaty renegotiation.) Such ambition is refreshing to hear on the European stage. But is it possible?

Any answer to this question must take in perspectives on what the EU actually is, especially in its relationship to individual member states, its status as a unique political structure, and the relationship between its economic and political functions. Rather than a simple relation of corruption (where personal benefit weakens political constraint, though that of course exists), we see in the EU a process of depoliticisation which isolates the administration of the economy from the sphere of politics, and in turn drains the sphere of politics of antagonism, contest and orients it to the implementation of economic diktat. It is this process, and the splitting of competencies between individual states and the union, which caused one of its most eminent theorists to describe it as an ‘emergent and novel form of political domination’, difficult to place in previous analytical frames around statehood or intergovernmental organisation.

It is suggestive that supranational organisations like the EU’s predecessors proliferated at a time of global changes in capitalism, and, like its current incarnation, were highly responsive to its needs. Yet, at least early in its existence, so renowned a theorist of the left as Isaac Deutscher could see in the common market a ‘timid and conservative prefiguration’ of an internationalist and socialist Europe. Deutscher’s argument is that nation-state has become an anachronism in the current era, and this reality is one to which bourgeois politicians are slowly having to acclimatise. Here, Deutscher strangely seems to echo Alexandre Kojève (with whom he had little in common politically) in a note written to De Gaulle at the end of the Second World War: ‘The period of national political realities is over. This is the epoch of Empires …’ Empire may well be a suitable frame for the EU; the funeral bells for the nation-state, however, have been rung too soon. Resistance to the EU’s directives frequently takes on national form, either reactionary (as Hungary over migration) or progressive (as in the dominant arguments in Greece last year concerning democratic will and popular sovereignty). But national interests also dictate the behaviour of powerful states within Europe, and the attention they pay to its regulatory framework: Germany has frequently ignored EU regulations on state support for business (and been fined for it), similar relationships exist between the state and the arms industry in Britain. These violations sit alongside the insistence of the European core that ‘market-conforming democracy’ is the necessary medicine for its periphery, despite its spotty application at home.

These torsions, between national and international priorities, the dominance of large national economies, and differing national ‘versions’ of capitalism, are the source of some of the obstacles to democratisation. (It is worth highlighting that monetary union and its subsequent crisis has exacerbated and clarified this problem – as was predicted by left-Keynesians and others long prior to its arrival.[4]) And because of the tension between individual states and the EU, it has been typical to assume that the political framework used to understand the former is inapplicable to the latter – and consequently the same democratic demands are equally inapplicable. Yet the work of a scholar like Stefano Bartolini is highly suggestive in placing the EU in a lineage of processes of state-formation – not the same as a nation-state, no, but recapitulating many of the same processes at a different level. It is rewarding to see the relationship between states and the EU in this light, especially in what we have seen of its disarticulation of the economic from the political: an evolution, far from untroubled, from the European states typical of the first half of the 20th century.

Bartolini is aware of the problems of legitimacy and democratisation faced by the EU, even as he was writing before its present crises. If his account can sometimes make the EU seem an unchangeable monolith, it is not because he endorses the facile distinction between the properly political and the merely technical beloved of Brussels functionaries, a manoeuvre which often turns a descriptive claim (about what the EU currently does) in a normative one (about what it should do). In fact, he suggests such divisions are difficult to sustain, ‘weakening… national political structures without producing alternative European political structures.’ No clear option beyond unsustainable technocracy emerges: he makes clear the difficulty of EU reform, yet in his account, despite citation of ‘mass politics’ as a key factor, popular political will is essentially an unmapped continent, almost invisible, save for the occasional fluctuations in electoral results. This may be a significant underestimation.

There are other accounts of the EU and its potential future in which change is more rapid and far-ranging: Jan Zielonka’s stimulating vision of ‘polycentric’ networks of powerful city states, regions, corporative bodies, NGOs and other non-state formations (all within a hard, integrated border) – arising as a failure of the EU to integrate in its conventional, centralised form. There is much in this speculation which is stimulating, but certain questions of state power remain important: with whom does deciding power lie? And who gets to be ‘in’? Does its internal heterogeneity depend on a hard border? If so (and Zielonka’s invocation of state power on matters of migration would suggest it), and if without fundamental economic transformation, the ‘neo-medieval empire’ begins to look much more like a conventional empire. In such a configuration, a kind of new Keynesian settlement would be possible, for a time, but would depend on maintaining highly exploitative external free-trade agreements and outsourcing arrangements, militarised borders and high-bar conditions for citizen status. Such speculations are useful – they demonstrate the need for a more heterogeneous political imagination – but they return us to central questions of accountability and administrative power.

Explicit proposals for democratic reform circulated before the current crisis, but perhaps underscore some of its difficulties – they typically focus on the role the internet could play in scrutinising Brussels, or procedural reforms such as allowing for ballot initiatives similar to those seen in some US states. Writing at the turn of the millennium, and confident of basic European economic and monetary stability, Philippe Schmitter proposed a wide range of possible reforms: Europe-wide referendums, multiple votes for adults with children (in the interests of genuine universal suffrage), popular control of term limits, or the conversion of money spent on the CAP and Structural Funds to fund a stipend for the lowest third of wage-earners across the Union. Such broad thinking might be taken up and extended by a European popular movement for democratisation, and something like the latter would have serious redistributive potential among normal Europeans. His proposals on the parliament are more arcane, but he worries more about mass apathy than the anti-democratic instincts of European officialdom; his model is essentially ‘democratisation from above’, an instinct very common even among left Europeans.

More practically, the parliamentary and legislative structure of the EU presents some serious problems to a democratising movement: not only the contingent culture of Brussels, with its huge infestations of corporate lobbyists, but the ever-multiplying secret and unscrutinised procedures of bodies like COREPER. An insistence on transparency goes some way to addressing this, but the truth remains that regulatory matters are hugely complex and specialist: if meaningful popular scrutiny must be informed scrutiny, what new structures are needed for this? It also seems likely that any popular democratising movement will also confront problems over the limits put on political change by the EU’s treaties, especially Maastricht. Altering this is no simple procedure, and even a parliamentary insurgency faces serious bars to progress: the last serious attempt to alter the EU’s direction of travel and revivify a ‘social Europe’, by the European socialist grouping under Pauline Green in the mid-90s, foundered on the parliament’s ‘consensual’ structure despite their numerical majority. Eventually the hesitancy of domestic governments, including Blair’s, pulled the feet out from under it. Even in the wake of economic crisis rather than credit glut, similar problems would be faced today.

None of this is to suggest that DiEM’s central contention is wrong: unless the EU democratises it faces disintegration. That may be a major catastrophe precipitated by another monetary crisis, or, more likely, a quiet move into a less cohesive Europe with a bauble of a parliament, stricter controls on movement, but functioning international agreements for trade and business (with, perhaps, gradually proliferating protectionist exceptions). But the problems outlined above suggest the scope for such democratisation is thin, and would involve a profound transformation in the current nature of the union. Though ambitious, the centralising instinct of much European politics remains unchallenged here, and, as Wolfgang Streeck suggests in the conclusion to his chapter on monetary union in Buying Time, the centralising and homogenising instinct of Euro policy heads spells political death for Europe. Perhaps the time has come to go beyond the mere translation of centralised, national political institutions, with their flaws magnified, to the transnational level.

There is another problem that presents itself to Varoufakis and the democratisers: they must convince Europeans that not only is democratisation possible, but the effort to do so in the EU is worth it. That case may be made by a clear strategy and honest assessment of the current situation, but it may also be made alongside a minimalist case that exit from the EU has worse implications than remaining, however difficult its political programme seems. Certainly it requires honesty about past efforts, both inside and outside its parliament to democratise Europe, including the large but ultimately transient anti-globalisation movement of the turn of the millennium, and the various blemishes on the EU its leading intellectuals chose to ignore.[5] Without such honesty, strategy and analysis, such a movement will barely get off the ground.

V. The Referendum in Britain.

On virtually every significant matter, the British political establishment and state agree with their European counterparts, and it is because of such agreement that very minimal political choice exists in this referendum – between a British state and an ECB-led Europe committed to the same political vision with some cosmetic differences. The section of the left in the UK advocating for exit (‘lexit’) suggests that to remain would be to reconfirm British adherence to the neoliberal direction of the Union since Maastricht. But to look at the vote as a plebiscite on neoliberalism requires that the two options be clear and distinct: either neoliberal membership or anti-neoliberal exit. Instead, we are offered continuing membership in a neoliberal project, or an exit predicated on neoliberal arguments, offering ‘freedoms’ keyed to business deregulation, and tied to a range of other reactionary measures, especially on migration. In this context, it is fatuous to imagine a constellation of minoritarian left-wing groups will be able to fundamentally change the political orientation of an exit, still more ludicrous to imagine it will act as a ‘red flare’ of hope from the north to the Mediterranean left to follow in Britain’s wake. Neither option is in itself ‘anti-neoliberal’, nor can they be made so by wishing.

An examination of the history of the EU suggests that domestic concerns predominate in popular consultation on its status: this piece of political wisdom accounts for the ‘remain’ campaign’s stress on prosperity and trade links, as well as its warning of economic uncertainty in the case of exit. Tracking the reception of the constitutional referendum in both France and the Netherlands also suggests that electorates will often make it a proxy vote on migration – polling of the British electorate suggests similar, and the headlines of the right-wing press on migration and Europe demonstrate consistent intention to link the two. Any exit vote will be interpreted in the light of such polling, and of growing far-right activity within the UK and across the EU, and the electoral rise of anti-migrant and Islamophobic parties across Europe. While it is certainly true that some political instability will arise from an exit vote (given the hopelessly divided Tory base and parliamentary party), the benefits of that instability are far from clear, given how strongly an exit vote will bolster the right. To decide the vote on hypothetical measures taken by a hypothetical future left-wing government seems even less wise, especially given many of the same problems will be faced either in or out of the EU.

None of this is to suggest most of the arguments for the EU are particularly moving, or that it is an oligarchic monstrosity: any left-wing movement will have to confront it, and deal with the legacy of Maastricht and the operation of a globalised capitalism – there is no opt-out for that. Whatever the real benefits of the current EU (limited free movement of people in the guise of free movement of labour, limited legal defence of workers’ rights by the CJEU in the ebbing of an organised labour movement, limited scrutiny and restraint of global corporations in matters of monopoly) they do not amount to a particularly strong defence, especially given a far longer indictment could be drawn up. That is to say, I do not find particularly convincing a modern version of the Deutscherite position: that the institutions of the EU could be simply captured and transformed and prefigure a better transcendence of the nation-state, though I am more receptive to the idea the institutions of Europe are at least malleable if possessed of a certain inertia. The level of the EU’s abstraction from everyday political life presents serious problems for meaningful political action, however: if Yanis Varoufakis proposes ‘civil disobedience’ to the directives of the ECB, what form will that take? The traditional strikes and stoppages, the localised demonstrations, even national-level attempts at negotiation – all the traditional armaments of protest – are ineffectual. The gap between vision and achievement looks as difficult to bridge as ever.

Both positions warrant some scepticism, and if both options in the referendum look like very narrow political choices, then one might hope that there is some potential that the debate on the EU might widen its terms. The three dynamics discussed above – of economic functioning of Europe and its states within a globalised capitalist economy, of the hollowing-out of democracy and the disappearance of political contention, and of borders and citizenship – are fundamental political questions which will be unanswered by either result on 23 June. On the first two at least, some of the desiderata of movements for democracy in Europe are fundamental: transparency in lobbying and negotiation, and the reintroduction of political oversight to institutions like the ECB. So profound a break from the current orthodoxy would those be that they even look like transitional demands, with huge ramifications were they to be implemented.

Yet it is the latter crisis I find, finally, the most decisive. Given that the British political class, the media and substantial portions of the population interpret a vote for exit as an isolationist vote against migration and for a further harshening of the UK’s border regime, it is hard to see how a vote for exit can have any functional left-wing content. Further, it is true that the EU bears responsibility for the treatment of migrants at its borders: its ostrich-like treatment of an emergent problem and its thorough subservience to US foreign policy have worsened the situation. Yet it is hard to see how a UK exit, interpreted throughout Europe as an anti-migration vote, would do anything but intensify the conflict over migration, rather than end it; moreover, the dimension of the problem requires action at a European level, with the structures of obligation and compulsion possessed only by the EU. A vote to remain does not deal directly with that crisis, it merely staves off an intensification of the current xenophobic atmosphere in Britain and in Europe. It is a necessary first step in a far wider and more difficult political task, working both institutionally and extra-institutionally, in the media and in civil society, which demands a political settlement for migrants and rejects utterly a Europe of razor-wire and machine guns, of concrete walls and detention camps.


[1] This account is necessarily schematic. A thorough history of changes in European economies is found in Barry Eichengreen, European Capitalism since 1945. Oisín Gilmore develops an impressive argument on European integration along these lines in Viewpoint.

[2] Questions have been raised about the method of calculation in these quotas. Britain is exempt from these quotas under the Lisbon treaty.

[3] These numbers are taken from the latest Eurobarometer. It should be noted that 77% of Britons might well think more should be done to help refugees, but that number may dwindle significantly if put in concrete terms of resettlement in the UK.

[4]  Most remarkably, Wynne Godley’s very perceptive article ‘Maastricht and all that’ in the LRB in 1992. Alan Cafruny charted others of these here; Cafruny’s own article from 2003, ‘Europe, the United States, and Neoliberal (Dis)Order: Is There a Coming Crisis of the Euro?’ in A Ruined Fortress? Neoliberal Hegemony and Transformation in Europe remains very much worth reading.

[5] Periodically, the EU rolls out Jürgen Habermas to defend its worst excesses: his defence of the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker must surely be a particular low point. Toni Negri’s defence of the European constitution as a means to combat neoliberalism is one of the more egregious examples of this trend. More stimulating is Negri’s more recent claim that ‘in Europe today it is the ECB that incarnates, in its own way, the Winter Palace’.

Photo: Eric Fischer/Flickr

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Published 6th March 2016

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