Just over a hundred years have passed since the greatest failure of European social democracy. The workers’ movement was unable to halt the needless slaughter of World War I. First, Jean Jaures was assassinated, silencing his powerful anti-militarist voice. Soon after, the German SPD voted to authorize war credits for the Kaiser. Proletarian internationalism gave way to social patriotism.
Between the collapse of the Second International during the war and the divergent responses to the Russian Revolution, a rift opened up between socialists and communists in Europe that persists until this day.
Representatives of these two political traditions now find themselves at odds in a Eurogroup presided by Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the Dutch PvdA. The backdrop is one where events in the Balkans have the capability of triggering a much bigger conflict. And once more a situation has arisen where ultimatums issued by the strong against the weak run the risk of only making the conflagration worse.
The key points of disagreement are not technical but political. The eventual size of Greece’s primary surplus, for instance, is important for economic but also symbolic reasons. The real issue is what sort of Europe will emerge out of the ongoing negotiations.
One possible outcome is a deepening of a Europe split on debtor-creditor lines, organized in a manner that leads to an ever-increasing divergence between the core and the periphery. This is a Europe divided into those who give charity and those who beg for alms, as opposed to a Europe with automatic mechanisms of solidarity. This is a Europe acting as a potent incubator for mutual recriminations and rapid breakdowns in good will.
Merkel, Rajoy, and Passos Coelho all favour this outcome. In spite of their different national circumstances, they are united in their preference for a hard line on account of shared preferences and a shared project. The ties that bind them are ideological.
Many social democrats too are reproducing the debtor-creditor fault line. In the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, with democracy being hollowed out, with inequality on the rise, and with the far right on the march, social democracy is once more unable to act as a cohesive European actor. And the rise of Syriza has exposed its internal contradictions.
The Syriza negotiators are presenting a direct challenge to the powers that be. Their audacity consists of suggesting that the European institutions should be more responsive to the democratic process. They are making the point of principle that national elections should not be entirely irrelevant.
At stake is the credibility of the electoral road to a more progressive Europe – this is the basic premise of social democratic strategy in Europe, not some harebrained crackpot scheme. A negative outcome for Syriza is bad news for anyone who believes that once the votes have been counted the votes should count.
The choices facing the likes of Jeroen Dijsselbloem are therefore stark: they can either work to consolidate a Europe of subjects or defend a Europe of citizens. They can look to enforce the status quo or attempt to change the rules of the game. They can choose to represent the European institutions to their electorate, or to represent their electorate through the European institutions. They can look out for the part or for the whole.
If they fail to rise to the occasion, the historic price to pay will be very high. A bevy of far-right nationalists is waiting in the wings, eager to scapegoat internal and external enemies, and prepared to promise to safeguard sovereignty against an unresponsive and disconnected European elite. The risk is not abstract; they are already comfortably installed in parliaments across the Union, rising in the polls, and ready to take advantage of the situation. If the progressive challenge fails, the fascist challenge is up next. The end of the end of history is well upon us.
At this crucial juncture, while a mutual face-saving solution – probably based on euphemisms – is necessary, a strategic choice is required between either Schäuble and the failed centrist coalition or Varoufakis and the possibility of a different majority in Europe.
A social democracy that cannot credibly threaten to build an alternative majority will have very little leverage in the future. Change will come about by altering the democratic balance of power in Europe or not at all. And only with more European solidarity will a progressive alternative be possible; after all, its tragic absence led to a split a century ago.
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