Can the European Union be reformed?

Can the European Union be reformed?

Anti-EU sentiment is rising across much of the continent. The European Union’s institutions can appear undemocratic. And the wisdom of its commitment to austerity policies in member states like Greece has been roundly questioned. Almost everyone agrees that the EU needs to be reformed. But is it possible? Hilary Wainwright and Grace Blakeley take sides.

Making the case for YES is Hilary Wainwright, a Fellow of the Transnational Institute and co-editor of Red Pepper. Her latest book is A New Politics from the Left (Polity Press).

Arguing NO is Grace Blakeley, a political economist and author of Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation (Repeater Books).

Hilary Wainwright: There’s an important distinction to be made between European Union treaties in which neoliberal economics (reducing public expenditure, deregulating labour, privatization, etc) are inscribed and, on the other hand, the implementation of particular austerity policies at particular times. Changing EU treaties requires electing pro-social justice and public-spending governments across Europe. This cannot be achieved by the victory of the Left in one country. But it can be taken forward by leftwing governments forging continental alliances and shifting the balance of power.

Portugal illustrates my point: after four years of austerity imposed by the EU (and the IMF), the people first revolted through mass protests and then voted against the party of austerity. The result was an anti-austerity alliance of Left parties. The EU opposed this and manoeuvred to bring down the government in favour of the Right. The Left alliance stood its ground, mobilized the people, made alliances with other leftists in Europe. The EU backed down; partly because of the balance of power in Portugal and partly because there were forces in the EU who were reluctant, after the experience of Greece, to be responsible for again imposing austerity on a rebellious population.

Here was a successful experience of what I’m advocating: being ‘in and against the EU’.

Grace Blakeley: You’re right to state that the plausibility of the ‘remain and reform’ argument hinges on the balance of power in the EU, rather than questions of European law. Political, economic and legal institutions, after all, serve to reflect and reinforce the interests of the powerful. If the EU is neoliberal, this is simply because this reflects the interests of the dominant class. The question, then, is whether these class relations can be transformed from within it. I don’t think so.

Such a continental transformation would require labour and social movements to mobilize in every country across Europe simultaneously to disrupt capitalist power relations at both the micro level, through direct action, and at the macro level, by taking control of a political party and, through it, the state. As it stands, such a situation is hard to imagine because membership of the Eurozone militates against socialist transformation in Europe’s periphery, from where revolt is most likely to emanate.

Portugal has just about managed to claw its way out of recession but, while there have been no new spending cuts, austerity has not been reversed. It remains hemmed in by the Stability and Growth Pact, which forces Eurozone states to keep fiscal deficits within three per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, the people of Greece and Italy have been immiserated and humiliated by the euro, which benefits northern Europe at their expense.Here was a successful experience of what I’m advocating: being ‘In and against the EU’

Hilary: Our debate is as much about how we achieve a socialist transformation of society – an end to the exploitation of labour and the pursuit of private profit in favour of a political economy in which the free development of each individual depends on the free development of all – as about whether or not the EU can be reformed. Fine! While we share an internationalist perspective, I disagree that this can happen only through a simultaneous mobilization to disrupt capitalist power relations.

For sure, I would urge maximum trans-European mobilization and disruption of this kind but it has to be combined with struggling to implement reforms in the face of EU opposition (as well as the opposition of the City of London and other parts of the national and global ruling class). In reality, we need to prepare for a long-term process that is uneven and hybrid.

The stopping of TTIP [a secretive EU/US trade treaty that would have given transnationals huge power] in 2016 illustrates the value of this dual ‘in and against’ strategy. The Greeks’ failure, by contrast, came from believing they could persuade the EU to let them carry out their anti-austerity policies. They abandoned their base in extra-parliamentary struggle.

The British state is a reactionary institution and the achievement of a socialist, federal United Kingdom would involve the end of many of its key institutions, but our strategy still involves struggle within it as well as against and beyond it. The same logic applies to the EU.

Grace: The case of within and against the state is very different from within and against the EU. This is because EU institutions are inherently anti-democratic. The power of the elected European Parliament is stringently limited by the combined power of the Council and the Commission, which represent the interests of heads of states and the European bureaucracy. The Parliament cannot override these bodies, and the option of using the electoral process to gain control over the executive is removed.The only way forward is to build new institutions that extend solidarity throughout the continent

Another issue is the dearth of democratic accountability for members of the European Parliament. The nail in the coffin of the ‘remain and reform’ argument came earlier this year when Britain’s Labour MEPs agreed to support Ursula von der Leyen – a rightwing candidate backed by Emmanuel Macron – for European Commission President. Von der Leyen secured the post with a majority of just nine votes. There are 10 Labour MEPs in the European Parliament. The Labour leadership in the UK called the move ‘anti-democratic’, but without strong mechanisms to hold MEPs to account for their actions in Brussels, there is little they can do to prevent such outcomes in future. 

The case of TTIP is instructive. I was at some of the earliest protests over TTIP, whose failure was framed as a victory for European citizens. In fact, the agreement was blocked by France over concerns about the impact the deal would have on French agriculture, protected by the Common Agricultural Policy: a regressive measure that has been terrible for ecological diversity and driven down commodities prices for farmers in the Global South. Hardly a victory for the international Left. 

Hilary: You are right, Grace, the institutions of the EU are not the same as those of the nation state. But even from your own description of its limits, it’s clear that the national dimension is important in shaping EU policies. You say that the European Parliament’s power is limited by the combined power of the Council and the Commission ‘which represent the interests of heads of states and the European bureaucracy’. It follows then that a radical UK Labour government that adopted an ‘in and against’ strategy could provide an anti-austerity opposition in the European Council, making alliances with other progressive governments and encouraging presently beleaguered Left parties across Europe. 

Moreover, without implying that the European Parliament is genuinely democratic, it does have sufficient powers of scrutiny over EU treaties – indeed more powers than national parliaments. For example, anti-TTIP MEPs successfully insisted on seeing the documents prepared for the TTIP negotiations and leaking their contents to civil society.

You’re right that France was indeed important, but it was more acting in defence of small farmers and consumers against US agribusiness than in defence of the Common Agricultural Policy. If the campaign hadn’t exploited every contradiction in the EU then TTIP would now be in place and chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef would become the affordable food options for the majority.

Grace: Today’s Europe – sandwiched between a hegemonic US and rising China – is, if anything, more focused on the interests of capital than before the 2008 financial crisis. The most significant economic debate in Europe at the moment is whether the traditional focus on competitive markets should be sacrificed in order to facilitate the emergence of European monopolies that can compete with Chinese state-backed enterprises. The stand-off between the German, French and Danish leaders in the wake of the merger of Siemens and Alstom, blocked by the European Commission, is an expression of two competing visions of Europe’s future: laissez-faire or monopoly capitalism.

In the absence of democratic European institutions even the most powerful pan-European socialist movement imaginable (itself vanishingly unlikely to emerge at the current conjuncture, as the experience of Diem25 in the 2019 European elections so depressingly demonstrated) would find itself either ruthlessly suppressed or strategically ignored (probably both) if it mounted a real challenge to the established order at this moment of existential crisis for European capital. 

The only way forward for internationalist socialists is to build new institutions that extend solidarity between socialist movements throughout the continent and the world – outside of the oppressive and exploitative remit of the World Bank, IMF and European Union.

New Internationalist issue 521 magazine cover

This article is from the September-October 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
Republished with permission from New Internationalist

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