Rewrite or Escape the EU? Two Strategies from Southern Europe

by Steve Rushton

27 December 2015

Last Sunday, Spain’s national elections altered its political landscape, ending the two-neoliberal-party state. The new anti-austerity party Podemos ran for the first time. But with the rise of another new party Ciudadanos, which is firmly pro-market, the majority still voted for the right. Negotiations continue over who will form the next government. It seems everything and nothing has changed.

If Podemos had kept its original radical platform, there is a strong case that it could have done even better in the elections. Podemos started far closer to the 15M movement – a catch-all term for the millions who took to the squares of Spanish cities between 2011 and 2012 – with its call against EU imposed austerity and for direct democracy. Whatever the results of the negotiations, Podemos’ first outing at a national election raises an important question: would a radical party be able to challenge a system dominated by financial and corrupt interests from within, or do we instead need to look to escape this system?

To explore this dilemma, I spoke to radical politicians from Greece and Spain, two European countries hardest hit by austerity. Zoe Konstantopoulou, the former president of the Greek parliament, initiated a formal debt audit; a tool to challenge debt and reclaim democracy. When the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, failed to stand up to the creditors and implemented further and harsher austerity measures, she was among the many to leave Syriza.

Eulàlia Reguant and Josep Manel Busqueta are two MPs from Catalonia’s CUP. This is a party unrecognisable to those mired solely in the familiar Westminster line-up; it is a pro-independence party, anti-capitalist, anti-EU, and pushes for feminism and equality. CUP holds the balance of power in the Catalan parliament, which is initiating independence moves from Spain. A weeklong convergence of debt activists from around Europe, in Barcelona, provided the opportunity to meet these radical politicians.

Using debt audits to reclaim democracy.

In June of this year, Greece’s Truth Committee on Public Debt published its initial findings that Greece’s debt was illegal, illegitimate, unsustainable and odious.

Konstantopoulou explained: “It is a tool to show how the EU institutions involved in the debt burden of the country have grossly violated their obligations, acting as creditors instead of as guarantors of the rights and freedoms and prosperity of the society and the people.”

The committee’s findings were the first official document in Europe against austerity, asserting what anti-austerity movements had been saying for years: austerity is a premeditated attack on democracy committed to benefit finance. In the past, unjust debt has been cancelled through debt audits. When Ecuador did this 2007, it meant money that would be spent on debt repayments could instead go into public spending. It is worth noting that Ecuador’s situation was very different to Greece. Ecuador was a country with its own currency and far more sovereignty. Greece on the other hand is controlled by its creditors in European institutions.

“I believe this [Greek Commission] report created panic amongst the politicians and creditors, because it could constitute the basis of debt abolition and reparations for the destruction caused knowingly by them,” Konstantopoulou said.

She explained how in Greece there was a focused campaign of fear and smear against the members of the debt commission, mounted by politicians and the mainstream media. More broadly, Syriza’s election pledge to challenge the debt was met by ferocious opposition across Europe, from politicians and corporate media alike. The threats included being ejected from the EU, and international finance that was economically asphyxiating Greece to strong-arm it into accepting further conditions.

Lost opportunities.

Even though the government of Tsipras was under immense pressure, Konstantopoulou informed us that this was not the full story. With hindsight, she thinks the prime minister and his close team probably cut a deal even before they came to office.

Commenting on the potential to challenge austerity, she says: “It’s criminal that the work [of the committee] was not used in the negotiations with the creditors.”

She told how the government came to office with mass movement on board, but sent mixed messages that eroded and confused this support. On 20 February, Tsipras signed an agreement that Greece would continue paying its debt. At the time, he assured people in the party this was only going to be a short-term measure: that they would stand up against the creditors.

Looking back, she thinks this agreement was inexplicable: “Why when you had the opportunity to challenge and cancel the debt, why would you concede with such a formulation?”

In addition to deactivating the social movements and sending mixed message within his own MPs, Konstantopoulou suggests, there were other missed opportunities. The government could have supported plans made by Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister, to implement a parallel currency. This would have created briefing space so that international finance would have not been able to exert pressure on Greece to accept another bailout memorandum. Other options available to Syriza included tackling elite tax evasion, pushing production, shifting money away from Greece’s massive military budget or refusing to repay the loans.

It is the realm of alternative history, to imagine whether Syriza may have challenged the debt if it had used all the options at its disposal. Considering what did happen, it is clear the EU as a project is attacking Greece and democracy.

“It shows how quickly a transition to a totalitarian, undemocratic and authoritarian regime has materialised,” Konstantopoulou said.

Emergency exit.

“The way Europe is constructed it is impossible to alter from within. Syriza shows this. It is impossible to change the European Union as it is not just political constitution, it is a power constitution: an imperialist construction,” Josep Manel Busqueta explained.

Busqueta is an MP from CUP, Catalonia’s radical independence party. CUP won 10 MPs in September’s elections, which were held as a proxy-independence referendum. Together with a broad pro-independence coalition, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), it is part of a pro-independence parliamentary majority.

He added: “The EU is power that organises the lives of Europeans. It was built by politicians that want austerity and neoliberalism. There’s no way to make things better with these institutions. We want to build another Europe that makes a better life for the people.”

Busqueta suggested that since its initial creation – built around the major countries’ coal, steel and other corporations – the EU was always driven by big business interests.

Catalonia’s CUP is in many ways unique, anti-EU whilst also internationalist and radically progressive in its outlook.

“We love Europe: but we don’t love the European Union. We want a union of people, not based on markets or economy, but based on democracy and values and the exchange of ideas and people. Why don’t we make a union of Southern Europe?” said Eulàlia Reguant, another MP from the party.

CUP differs from many left and radical left wing parties in Europe – not just as it holds the balance of power in its parliament. It also organises through direct democracy. It has grown slowly since the 1990s, beginning at the municipal level, only standing in Catalan national elections in the last two parliaments. The MPs are limited to one term each, and the major decisions are taken by the base, through an assembly model.

In many senses, CUP’s political model is what was initially promised by Podemos. However it has been emulated by the citizens’ initiatives that have reclaimed local politics across Spain, such as Ahora Madrid and Barcelona En Comú. These organisations have run in confluence with Podemos for the recent elections, with large successes like winning Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Speaking of CUP’s model Reguant told me: “By keeping the decisions at the base with the members in general assemblies, power is kept with the members and not usurped by the representatives.”

Within this approach, leaving the EU makes perfect sense. How could you rebuild the EU top-down?

Eulàlia Reguant told me how independence from Spain and the EU offers a means to build new sovereignties, not just a new nation.

“We are trying to break with the logic and main structures of the state and system. Independence is a way of not following the market or traditional capitalist logic.”

CUP advocate many progressive ideas. Economically it wants to enhance Catalonia’s already strong cooperative sector. Politically, it aims to build a new constitution: crowd-sourced and progressive. In social terms, it wants to build on the welfare state and go much further. Ecology is also deeply integrated into the party’s vision.

Busqueta said: “We need to show another path of relations between the people, pushing things like the cooperative economy and self-organisation of energy. We think that it is possible: We can show a different from the capitalist path.”

They both tell me that this path will not be easy. Spain first outlawed Catalonian steps towards further autonomy, and more recently it criminalised the democratic process of independence. Spain’s moves have served to galvanise the recent wave of support for independence. Ultimately though, Busqueta suggested that the fight for independence is as much with the EU as with Spain.

“The decision on Catalonian independence is made in Brussels. As both Spain and Catalonia are under the power of the Troika: this is the reality for now at least,” he said.

A progressive paradox.

The manner in which the EU has attacked democracy and pushed a devastating policy of austerity, especially on Greece and Spain, means it makes sense to escape it. Power has been centralised and organised away from the people into institutions, such as the European Central Bank and the EU Commission. As the debt audit makes clear, these organisations serve the interests of international finance.

European Union creates a near paradoxical problem for progressives: you want to leave it as it is so powerful and dominating, but it is hard to leave for the same reasons. The scale of the challenge of escaping to build something else offers a reason why so few progressives across Europe advocate leaving it. Additionally, the anti-EU territory is often co-opted by far right parties. But ignoring power and not discussing it only enforces it.

More entanglements.

The way to a progressive Europe – as in the continent – is also blurred by other complications. Take CUP and Catalonia. The ideas presented by CUP do not reflect all the views held within the entire Catalan independence movement, although the party is the growing force within it.

Many Catalonians want to leave Spain, but remain in the EU. This means those opposing independence threaten that if Catalonia leaves Spain, it will leave the EU, a position which would perfectly suit CUP.

Contradictions in the EU debate are epitomised by David Cameron. He has said an independent Catalonia will be last on the list to re-join Europe. This statement implies that he thinks the EU is the club to be in. But on the other hand, he wants a referendum and talks up the chance of the UK leaving this same space.

Reading between the lines, the threats against Catalonia are probably more to do with London’s attempts to dampen Scotland’s independence momentum. Whereas Cameron probably really wants to stay in the EU, he also wants to renegotiate a deal with fewer rights for people, especially migrants, and softer rules on business.

The only thing that seems clear is the EU is in a mess. There are far more questions than answers about how to create a Europe for the people, not for big business. Part of the problem is that it feels like playing into the far-right narrative to speak of EU exits; but if we do not ask difficult questions, we enable the right to generate a racist narrative that enables divide and rule.

Drawing comparisons between ‘radical’ and ‘reformist’ approaches is often simplistic. Both suggest we cannot accept business as usual: the break-austerity-from-within-the-EU-strategy Tsipras promised and the CUP anti-capitalist strategy can both be said to dissolve the glue that holds capitalism together. They both shatter the ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) narrative. Instead, there are multiple strategies leading to plenty of alternative systems.

Photo: Toni Brugués/Flickr

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