At the end of March a coalition of progressive parties and groups organized a meeting in Helsinki focusing on fostering change in the European Union (political program summarized here). For anyone seeking to transform the present EU of the 1% into an EU for the 99% (see my new book, The Economics of the 1%), the conference provided hope for the future. This is despite ominous signals coming from the upcoming elections for the European Parliament.
As the discussion and debate unfolded, the various arguments made from the podium and the audience could be assigned to three broad positions. First, I consider what I label the Unconditional Support position, which I summarize as follows. The European Union is far from perfect, but less flawed than political systems at the national level. Regional economic and political integration represents an inevitable wave of the further, dictated by the irreversible process of globalization.
Opposition to European Union, including calls for radical transformation of existing institutions (e.g., the European Central Bank) are reactionary in two senses. First, this opposition seeks to recreate a world of the past, as impossible as attempting to return to an agrarian-based Europe. Second, it is advocated by the most right-wing, often anti-democratic political groups in Europe. For progressives there-is-no-alternative to supporting the European Union in its present form, though changes are urgently needed. All progressive changes must and will occur through deeper integration among EU members.
A second, quite different position that I label Conditional Support is most coherently advocated by the Euro Memorandum Group (find its latest report here). I urge people to read the EuroMemo documents, and hope that I accurately characterize it. The system of governance of the European Union is fundamentally flawed, undemocratic and lacking transparency. Closely related to the political flaws are the dysfunctional economic rules of the union that serve the interest of capital, not the European majority. These dysfunctions include ECB operations and mandate, fiscal rules, and the role of the Troika in mis-managing the debt and deficit crisis.
These political and economic dysfunctions can only be solved within the confines of the European Union, though the elements of the solution will certainly require radical changes. For example, the ECB must be made accountable to the European Parliament. In addition, the various pro-cyclical fiscal rules must be repealed and replaced by an active macroeconomic policy. Essential to progressive reform will be an EU-wide fiscal policy based on a substantially increased common budget, from five to ten percent of EU GDP. As for the Unconditional Support position, all progressive changes must and will occur through deeper integration among EU members, though the Euro Memorandum Group is unambiguous in its commitment to a social democratic Europe.
In the Conditional Support analysis European integration is not the product of an irreversible historical trend, but the consequence of practical policy considerations. With capital globalized, national policies are ineffective in regulating financial markets. This links to an ineffectiveness of national monetary and fiscal policy, both of which rely on those financial markets.
A third position, which represents my analysis, might be called Social Democratic Europe. It shares the Conditional Support critique of the European Union structure as currently organized and governed, but does not reject the possibility of solutions outside that structure. Stated briefly, this position argues that the political goal of progressives should be a social democratic Europe. That would be best achieved at a continental level. A multi-country union would reduce the danger of social democratic development being arrested and reversed by the reactionary pressures from world markets, especially financial markets.
However, the present governance system of the European Union presents an almost insurmountable obstacle to a social democratic continent. This leaves progressives with two possibilities 1) attempt to alter the present system, or 2) reconstruct multi-country cooperation on a progressive foundation. The latter would by necessity require a transitional period in which economic and social policy revered to the national level. My commitment is to a social democratic Europe, with European unity a means to that end.
In my opinion the Unconditional Support position is unsatisfactory prima facie. Its teleological vision of European Union reminds me of Friedrich Engels’ notorious statement in Anti-Duhring that “freedom is the insight into historical necessity”, the street translation of which is “let the party do the thinking, comrade”. If, indeed, there is no alternative to the present form of European integration, then membership in the EU would not be voluntary.
The choice between Unconditional Support and Social Democratic Europe to a great extent derives from practical, empirical considerations. It may be true that many economic policies are more effective at the European level than at the national level. But, how much more effective? I think that the difference is one of degree, not binary. If this is the case, we must make an assessment of trade-offs. For example, an assessment should be made in Greece as to whether the suffering of the population would be worse after withdrawal form the EU than by adhering to the near-criminal austerity packages of the Troika. I am convinced that had the social democratic government decided to withdraw in late 2010, both the Greek people and the policies of the European Union would be better today.
Serious consideration by a national government of withdrawing might stimulate those dominating EU decision making to moderate their right wing, neoliberal project. It might also promote even more extreme policies as opponents abandon the internal EU struggle for a progressive Europe.
With all the major EU countries now governed by right wing parties with the exception of the woeful Socialist government in France, debate among progressives over tactics requires innovative thinking and tolerance of opposing views. On the eve of elections to the European Parliament, at least one clear message came from the Helsinki conference, developments in the European Union should set off alarm bells among the 99% through the continent.