The crisis calls for a cultural revolution in Europe

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European Alternatives co-president Niccolo Milanese gave the following interview to the Greek newspaper Tovima (in Greek).

Do you believe that the common currency can survive without more fiscal and political integration in the near future? Could this lead to a form of federalism (aka the United States of Europe) in the not so distant future?

Some forms of fiscal integration are already being adopted: the European semester by which the European Commission will be able to approve national budgets before they are submitted to national parliaments, joint debt through the European Stability Mechanism … and in the proposals for the new treaty, there is talk of debt ceilings and automatic penalties for countries that break the ceiling. Europe’s decision-makers have not ruled out Eurobonds or the ECB acting as a lender of last resort either.

What has been largely ignored by Europe’s leaders so far is the dimension of political integration, and the ‘intergovernmental’ nature of the new treaty proposal is the latest sign of this. Fiscal integration alone is simply a matter of discipline, whether that discipline is doled out by the European Commission, or by the most powerful members of Europe, or by the markets being allowed to attack the weakest parts of Europe’s economy. The common currency will survive for as long as the people submit to this kind of discipline. How long that will be is not guaranteed.

To do more than survive, to really live as the common currency of the people of Europe, political integration of some kind seems to me to be essential: there has to be a decision of the people about the economic direction of Europe, not subservience to market dictats or economic orthodoxy. Only then would the euro be our currency.

I do not think that such a political integration must take the form of a ‘United States of Europe’ or federal model as it is traditionally understood. The nation state as political form may break down in many different ways, and we should be open minded about exactly how it is replaced.

You argue that a European economy is impossible without a genuinely European democracy. Would you agree with the idea that a cure for the so-called “democratic deficit” could entail a plural political existence, with the creation, perhaps, of European political parties?

Maintaining a dynamic European economy without fostering genuinely European democracy is only possible by setting peoples against one another in competition, and the shortcomings of that logic become apparent as soon as the economy becomes unbalanced, and one part of the economy is asked to support another part that previously it had been in competition with.

The pretence until recently has been that the European economy (and the economy more generally) is outside of politics, something automatic which is in tune with the laws of nature and therefore does not need human oversight. That pretence has been exploded by the very obvious intervention of most states to ‘prop-up’ the economies of their countries. Political decisions are taken about the European economy as they are about every other economy, and those political decisions are not neutral from an ideological point of view – they correspond to a set of values and priorities. Even the decision to let the market decide everything is a political decision – the politics cannot be escaped. The crucial questions are who is taking the decisions, what legitimacy they have, and what values they are advocating.

The decisions concerning the European economy are decisions concerning the common good of all Europeans. The institutions in which those decisions are taken need to respect the common good of all Europeans. There is no reason to suppose that this common good is best represented by the leaders of the different nation states. Firstly, if all the spaces for decision are nationally bounded, there is no reason to suppose anyone need directly consider the common European good, rather than their own short-term interests from their national perspectives. Secondly, there will always be the temptation to ‘free ride’ on other nation states or attempt to gain a benefit at the expense of others. Thirdly, for as long as politics and political reflection remains nationally bounded, the new political possibilities opened up by a radically changed transnational space remain hidden. For all those reasons I think the future of a European economy which is livable for Europeans and which supports a decent European society requires the emergence of transnational political parties which can present different visions of the common good, and democratic institutions with decisional powers in which those political parties can present their competing visions and a decision can be taken with transparency.

What are, in your opinion, the most significant challenges, in terms of democratic participation and social equality, in the debt crisis- stricken EU of today? How could we overcome them?

Up until recently Europe has seemed to be a space with a potentially catastrophic inability to imagine new ways of doing politics, new ways of ordering society and new ways of living together. Thankfully the economic crisis and events in other parts of the world like North Africa have woken some European citizens up to the possibility, the necessity, for political innovation and experimentation. This has become a necessity for many because nothing can be taken for granted: not wealth, not democracy, not tolerance nor solidarity. Unfortunately most of the political parties remain stuck in the old world, totally disconnected from these new movements and unable to participate without appearing as frauds, because they have lost any contact they once had with the grass roots. And for the moment the movements of citizens searching for something new remain a minority. The challenge for politics in the debt-crisis EU is to articulate an aspirational politics in a way that is convincing and not hollow. The only way to do that is to build on people’s genuine desires for change, to work with their sentiments of injustice or indignation, and to articulate that there are no borders to what people working together can achieve. Europe and the achievements of the European Union should be part of that story, but unfortunately for the moment the fruit of cooperation is too often portrayed as being poisoned. The real poison is that lie, and the lie that politics is impossible because the forces against it are too strong – that is pushing people into the grasp of populists and reactionaries.

How would you explain the fact that during the crisis we have seen the resurgence of divisive populist stereotypes? Eg. Among the Greeks and the Germans, instead of signs of solidarity amongst the ‘peoples of Europe’?

Europe has been sold to too many people on the basis of a purely economic logic in which they will get richer. This has of course not only been about Europe, but the dominant logic of all aspects of Western societies since the Second World War, and therefore it is even harder to combat. Free and undistorted competitive market is not sufficient to create solidarity amongst people. A logic of economic integration is a logic of self-interested collaboration: for as long as participating in European cooperation seemed to offer the promise of prosperity for enough people, the tacit consent required pushing cooperation further was guaranteed. But now that prosperity seems much more in threat, people are reassessing their own self-interests. The way the sovereign debt crisis has been handled has exacerbated this ‘economic’ reasoning: the Greeks have had visibly to suffer austerity and pay a personal price, the Germans feel they are being asked to ‘pay’ for other countries’ problems they have had no role in creating: both the Greeks and the Germans are being made to feel like they are ‘losing’ in a competition of sorts.

The rationality of an actor in a market is not enough to create a robust community which is willing to face challenges collectively, it is only enough to create fragile coalition based on the self-interest of its actors, which will break as soon as the actors feel their interest is elsewhere. Now, more and more people both amongst the indignados on the street and the bourgeoisie looking at their capital investments are questioning whether their real interests are in continued European collaboration.

Do you think that “Europe as a community of people” (as Jean Monnet imagined it) and not just as an economic entity or a coalition of nation states, is possible? How could it be built?

I believe that for people in this part of the world ‘Europe’ might be one of the last forms of community still possible, as unlikely as that might seem. The European Union is one of the few political actors potentially big and powerful enough in the context of globalisation to genuinely allow for a community based on values that is world-oriented, open, diverse and at the same time allows for internal organisation, solidarity, mutual support and cultural invention. The alternative would be very small local communities, closed to all outsiders and incapable of acting on a large enough scale to affect global decisions, adrift in a sea of powerful world actors, both corporations and states.

Building such a European community will require above all the concerted effort of Europeans themselves, just as after the Second World War a European union was not created only by politicians and civil servants, but also in a thousand acts of kindness and solidarity shown by European citizens who realised that war between them was no longer possible. This new cultural revolution and renovation has to go hand in hand with a profound change in the institutions of the European Union.

Without ignoring the history and theory of European integration, but looking ahead, do you believe the EU of, say, 2015 could, or should, be dramatically different from the one we know today?

2015 is very soon and the situation in Europe could look significantly worse that it currently looks as continent-wide austerity bites more and more people. Pro-Europeans, but also all people who support solidarity, openness and experimentation need to be brave enough to prepare another Europe starting now, both amongst the citizens and amongst the institutions: a Europe that can resist but also propose, a Europe and European citizens that respects fundamental and social rights at home as it promotes them in other parts of the world, a Europe that upholds the highest standards of democracy and equality at home, as it promotes them in other parts of the world. We cannot predict what the political situation will be like in even 3 or 4 years, but we do not have to wait on our leaders to take action.