The scale of the crises Europe faces requires not only a raising of the policy stakes but a restructuring of its governance.
The project of pension reform in France and the strong mobilisations it has elicited in turn for several months now have appeared to many as a new episode in the eternal ‘French exception’. On the contrary, they confirm that the political and social battle over the exit from the pandemic crisis and a return to ‘normal austerity’ is well and truly engaged in Europe.
In returning to the obsession with a deferral of the age of retirement and the old refrain of balanced budgets, the immensity of unsatisfied collective needs and the urgency of a new social and ecological pact, in France as elsewhere, have been completely occluded. The crises of the last decade have however shown that the same policies embraced by the member states and the European Union itself have contributed to the dismantling throughout Europe of the systems of health, public services, the welfare state, the environment, the exercise of popular sovereignty and so on.
These crises have created an unprecedented situation, a crucial political momentum, one outlet for which will be next year’s European elections. Because either civil society and progressive political forces will succeed in prising open these breaches in the ‘Maastricht consensus’, to reorient the EU fundamentally towards a just and democratic climate transition, or conservative forces will revive the policies of deregulation and austerity, aggravating ecological and social inequalities and current democratic tensions.
Despite the public relations, European technocracy, now allied with consultancy firms and borrowing the tools of short-term management, is not up to speed with this momentum. The promises of new planning, extolled by a pro-business administration, will not begin the U-turn which the climate crisis demands. It is therefore time to regain democratic control from this ‘Maastricht consensus’.
In advocating a real, enduring European budget in favour of the climate and social transition, a European wealth tax, a tax on the profits of multinationals and a democratisation of the union, we call on progressive forces to unite around a transnational political perspective, and to impose an ecological, social and democratic agenda on the next European legislature (2024-29).
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The accumulation of health, climate and geopolitical crises has forced the EU, over the past three years, urgently to develop unprecedented anti-crisis measures.
For the first time in history, joint borrowing has shown the promise of European solidarity. A €750 billion recovery plan (NextGenerationEU) has restored capacity for action to a Europe trapped for too long by the choice of austerity. We must fight to make it permanent, increase its amount, redirect it seriously and systematically to combat climate change and subject all this expenditure to democratic control through radical transparency.
The Stability and Growth Pact, Europe’s neoliberal law, which weighed on the budgetary policies of the member states, has been suspended and a debate on its revision has opened, aiming to give states room for manoeuvre and to integrate environmental and social objectives. European social and environmental investments must be discounted from budget deficits.
The European Semester, the central mechanism of the pact, which for ten years has imposed ‘conditionality’ on member states and limits their political room for manoeuvre, has also been subjected to debate—MEPs have supported accounting differently for European spending on health, education, social and cultural issues. The semester could thus become a fully-fledged social instrument, with indicators on the application of the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights, the quality of work, upward social convergence, equal opportunities and social protection, education and investments for children and young people.
The destructive but previously sacrosanct European competition policy has been set aside and questioned for the first time in 40 years. The crisis has shown that state aids and public money are necessary for the survival of the economic fabric. The new ‘important projects of common European interest’ which henceforth make it possible to subsidise all kinds of large, innovative projects validate a turning point. When ‘market failures’ and societal challenges require public funding, in matters of health, social policy, education, research or the environment, a new capacity for public intervention is needed to finance them. They must be systematised and bold choices must be imposed—and this only public authority can take on.
The embryo of an unemployment-reinsurance mechanism has been created, in the form of the SURE programme, a European social loan guaranteed by all member states, laying the foundations for a European social-insurance system and showing the way towards ambitious social policies—which the states themselves have seemed set on scuppering domestically. Here again, original solutions, hitherto condemned by the rhetoric of TINA (‘there is no alternative’), have emerged thanks to the crisis. These measures pave the way for a social Europe which is protective and ambitious and the putting in place of a real ‘European job guarantee’.
The war in Ukraine has shown the absurdity of our energy-supply networks and the Repower EU plan is urgently trying to reorientate it. The assessment is unanimous and there is henceforth room for massive financing of clean and renewable energies, for environmental reasons of course but also to regain our sovereignty and relieve us from strategic dependence on Russia and all autocratic producers of fossil fuels.
The Green Deal launched in 2019 must be put back on the agenda—having been undermined by the Covid-19 crisis and the war in Ukraine—in agriculture, European industry, transport and so on. Left in the hands of agribusiness, multinationals and ‘greenwashed’ finance, the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 is unlikely to be achieved. The European Environment Agency is already warning of the difficulties the union will have in meeting its commitment of a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.
These anti-crisis measures, however interesting they may be, are neither enduring nor systematic, nor associated with profound democratic control. They have been wrested from the governments of the member states amid trials and tribulations but on condition that they are one-offs. They are discrete, temporary responses to the crisis.
No doubt they set precedents by opening up the world of the possible but they are far from measuring up to what is at stake. Their scope remains limited. The United States stimulus package runs to €1.9 trillion—10 per cent of gross domestic product. For France, European subsidies represent in total only 1.6 per cent of its GDP over four or five years, for Germany 0.8 per cent; for Spain and Italy, the largest beneficiaries, they reach 5.6 per cent and 3.8 per cent of GDP respectively over five years.
To exit from this exceptionalism—the forever patching together of last-chance summits and the closed doors of European bureaucracies—the EU must finally equip itself with a real budget and, to do this, it must renew its democratic institutions. No taxation without representation!
A European assembly of national parliaments, along the lines that we have outlined elsewhere, must be established alongside the European Parliament. Only an alliance of European and national parliamentarians can wrest European solidarity from the whims of powerful national bureaucracies. Only such a parliamentary alliance has the capacity to anchor European democracy in the ensemble of social and political forces, parties, trade unions, local authorities, NGOs and associations, national and European, constituting European society. The European Parliament has shown time and time again that, in the face of the legitimacy of the executives, it has not been able to do so; neither have the national parliaments, confined to their national political spaces.
This alliance between the European Parliament and the national parliaments will alone be capable of establishing new ‘own resources’. It must establish a serious tax on the profits of multinationals, building on the work of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It must establish a progressive European tax on large fortunes, assets over €2 million, which would yield 1 to 1.5 per cent of European GDP (with relatively modest marginal rates, ranging from 0.5 per cent to 3 per cent of individuals’ net wealth). This will make it possible to finance a permanent plan for ecological and social transition.
To embark on this path, a new method is needed. On the one hand, such a reform must be supported by a groundswell of democracy from the citizens themselves. It is therefore also necessary, in parallel with the trans-parliamentary alliance, to strengthen considerably citizens’ direct access to European decisions. This will go via the obligation upon member states to publish the list of beneficiaries of European funds, a breach opened by the European Parliament in recent months which will allow everyone to appropriate democratic control.
This new approach will also entail reinforcing the feasibility of European citizens’ initiatives, establishing a charter of European citizenship and giving a European status to civil-society organisations. It will be necessary to create a deliberative ecosystem at the European level following the Conference on the Future of Europe and the panel established subsequently by the European Commission, creating a permanent citizens’ assembly at the European level, interconnected with the national and local assemblies for which we also call.
On the other hand, the usual unanimity rules must not be an obstacle. Enhanced co-operation could start without delay among interested states, with other member states subsequently joining. These pioneering states could in short order sign a treaty creating a real budget for the climate and social transition, supplemented by a European wealth tax, a tax on the profits of multinationals and a European assembly of national parliaments to discuss, develop and vote on these.
Moving forward with the countries which wish to do so will allow the EU to realise its greatest advances and give member states the opportunity to rise to the demands of the historical period we are traversing.