The concept of crises engendering opportunities for the “rebirth” of Europe should have died with the Greek experience in the most dramatic phase of which Yanis Varoufakis took an active part. Having worked with former Prime Minister George Papandreou before embarking on his “radical Left” experiment, which nearly cost Greece its place in the Eurozone, Varoufakis should have learned that courting the abyss and generating crises is never a good way to change what needs to be changed.
Mr. Varoufakis’ stance is not entirely surprising, since calm, sobriety, thinking before acting, political unity through deeds and not words – these are not tools suitable to Europe’s “radical Left” and the proponents of the “crisis as a plague” theory. The Greek experience is, again, highly illuminating. Former governments and the Greek political system as a whole have a huge responsibility for the state of the country’s finances and the predicament of the Greek people; the handling of the crisis by the European institutions and the IMF-inspired “cure” were deeply flawed, both politically and economically.
But by ignoring the institutional framework in place, by misjudging the political rapport de forces in European bodies and societies, by acting as both help-seeker and lesson-giver, by having a discourse which was politically radical and technically infeasible, the government to which Mr. Varoufakis participated not only obliterated any “opportunity” for the Greek people but ended up accepting more of the “cure” it was supposedly combatting.
Varoufakis uses the Catalan crisis as a mere illustration for his favorite topic, which he espoused after he quit the Syriza government and denounced its policies: the reconfiguration of the European Union with “radical” changes like “fiscal autonomy”. He now has another radical idea: fostering regional governance (that’s where Catalonia comes in handy) and even creating a “Code of Conduct for secession”, facilitating regions all over Europe (why should one stop in Spain?) to become autonomous. This is presented as a progressive idea. In fact it is, to my eyes, both a misrepresentation of reality and a rallying call for nationalism, which, for all non-radical socialists, and a majority of democrats, constitutes the opposite of progressiveness.It is simply not true that the current crisis “would not have erupted the way it recently did had Europe not mishandled the Eurozone crisis since 2010, imposing quasi-permanent stagnation on Spain”.Click To Tweet
The Catalan question flared up not on the basis of the economic situation in Spain but because of a combination of political mismanagement, or pure populism, by both sides of the conflict. The right-wing government of Mr. Rajoy challenged the special regime for Catalonia established under the socialist government of Mr. Zapatero, tolerated then disparaged a first referendum on independence, never treated the Catalan government as equal, constantly sought legal remedies to political and societal issues and opted for repression where it should have opted for dialogue. Still independence is at best a 50-50 option for the Catalan people and not an inescapable conclusion. On the other hand, the current Catalan government has been elected on an “independentist” agenda, but it overplayed its hand and misjudged both the Spanish environment (although it provides about 20% of Spanish output, Catalonia is only one of 17 regions) and the European drive for unity and integration.
Real push forward
The financial crisis has indeed acted as a catalyst, but in exactly the opposite direction from the one put forward by Varoufakis. It is true that it has destabilized almost all European countries and shred their social fabric, most importantly by introducing mass youth unemployment, uncertainty for the future and resentment of democracy; but we are now, albeit belatedly and still not forcefully enough, in the next phase, where both the European Commission and the majority of EU leaders, especially of the big states, have realized that the only way forward is more common political initiatives and more political unity.
The progressives in Europe would be fighting the wrong battle if, at this point, when Mr. Juncker has acknowledged the need for a much deeper European social policy with new organs and attributions, whereas the Presidents of France and Germany are moving together for the reconstruction of the eurozone’s economic governance, Europe were to split up, the Treaties to be revised to enshrine “regional fiscal autonomy” and the issue of sovereignty tackled from the worst possible angle. Instead, the democratic, non-radical and crucially non-populist Left, would be well advised to push with all its force and exert all its influence (which hopefully goes well beyond its electoral results) in favor of a new governance and a new notion of sovereignty around the common European good.
“Regionalization” is not the answer, nor do we need a crisis as dramatic as Catalonia’s to understand this. Regionalism is already a part of the European project – Varoufakis gets the relationship between Spain’s central government and Catalonia’s regional government or Barcelona’s City Hall completely wrong and of course there could be no such thing as a “secession (of rich regions like Veneto or Catalonia) with an obligation to maintain fiscal transfers” (to the poorer regions), since the main reason for secession would be to stop paying for others. From both a political and a legal point of view it is obvious that the EU framework allows for many types of regional settlement (ranging from advanced autonomy to federalism) other than separatism. The non-negotiable and unilateral “secession” of Catalonia evokes the populist themes of Brexit much more than the nuances of a regionalist settlement.
What we need is not further fragmentation but deeper political unity with more social cohesion. Not unnecessary and traumatic crises but bold and realistic solutions. The proponents of “more crises for more opportunities” are anti-European in the same way that the “radical” Left has betrayed, when in power, the ideals of the Left.