Europe: Alternative to populism
Have the courage to think of a different Europe, urges Yassamine Mather
Eurosceptic parties made major gains across the continent in last week’s elections. The Financial Times called it the victory of “populist parties” and the term summarises the position of the various forces of the right and left that have increased their MEPs.
In France the Front National got 25% of the vote, giving it 25 seats - ahead of the centre-right UMP (21%) and the Parti Socialiste of president François Hollande, whose 14% represented its lowest ever vote in a European election. In Britain, of course, the UK Independence Party got the largest share of the vote with 27%, while in Greece the far-right Golden Dawn now has three MEPs, having won 9% of the vote. In Denmark the far-right Danish People’s Party came first, gaining four seats, and in Germany a neo-Nazi party won a Euro seat for the first time: Alternative für Deutschland was on 7%.
At the same time a number of rightwing populist parties did not do as well as expected. In Italy the continued popularity of the new government led by Matteo Renzi gave his centre-left Partito Democratico 40.1% of the votes, while the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo finished a distant second. In the Netherlands, the anti-Muslim Freedom Party of Geert Wilders lost votes. Having topped all opinion polls for weeks before the election, it could only manage third with 13%.
Leftwing parties standing on anti-austerity platforms did well in some countries - in Greece Syriza came first with 26.5%, while in Spain Podemos came from nowhere to take 8% of the vote. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, said the vote sent a clear message against the budget-cutting austerity measures tied to Greece’s €240 billion euro bailout from the International Monetary Fund. He also called for immediate national elections. Meanwhile, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, promised to work with deputies from Greece, Italy and Portugal: “We don’t want to be a colony of Germany and the troika” - meaning the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF.Across the board, the centre-right European People’s Party will have 212 out of the 751 seats. It is still the largest group, but with 60 seats fewer than before. The centre-left Socialist bloc will have 186 seats, Liberals 70 and Greens 55. However, the populist parties of the left and right will occupy a quarter of the new parliament, but they are so diverse that no-one expects the formation of new blocs.
There can be little doubt that the populist vote was a protest vote. On the whole, in the absence of viable leftwing forces, the parties of the right and extreme right have benefited from the frustration of less affluent sections of society at the sharp end of austerity and unemployment. Many believe the rightwing propaganda that immigration is the main source of their problems. Populist politicians like Ukip’s Nigel Farage and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen are seen as anti-establishment.
However Farage and Le Pen are keen to portray their parties as anti-elitist rather than anti-establishment and, although they have benefited from the current discontent, it is unlikely that either party will be able to repeat this success in a general election.
Disaffected working class voters in France believe that the mainstream elite do not understand their concerns about austerity, rising crime, immigration and job losses. Le Pen campaigned on a platform of immigration control and opposition to the planned EU-US trade pact. A large vote against the French Socialist government was predictable: Hollande has become the enforcer of economic austerity policies, leading to more unemployment for the working class, while the elite has mainly benefited. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the Labour Party’s support has fallen to 10% as a result of following similar policies.
In Greece, Spain and Portugal, the countries worst hit by the recent euro zone crisis, the parties of the left gained from their opposition to austerity measures. However, in all cases anti-EU votes reflect a period when misinformation and exaggerated hype from the rightwing media have created illusions in the power of ‘national sovereignty’, ‘economic independence’ and even ‘liberation from global capitalism’. Speaking after her party’s victory, Marine Le Pen said: “The people have spoken loud and clear ... They no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalisation and take back the reins of their destiny.”1Such remarks could easily have come from the reformist left.
But what does this mean today, when finance capital dominates the world economic order? How would leaving the EU empower any country, be it the UK, France or Greece, and free it from globalisation? It is understandable that the far right repeats the arguments of small business and the populist media by painting a picture of prosperity outside the EU, but what is more alarming is that some on the left also make such claims, not on the basis of policies that can pave the way for socialism, but what is better for the ‘national economy’ - the capitalist economy.
Ukip and Eurosceptic Tories claim that the UK will get a better deal outside the EU. According to Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Business for Britain, a Eurosceptic pressure group, “Business leaders in Britain are increasingly looking to places like China and India for trade, yet the EU is dragging its feet on free trade deals with these countries. As the world’s sixth largest economy, we hope the government’s renegotiation includes getting Britain a stronger voice on bodies like the WTO.”2
However, the idea that UK - or any other country - can just pull out of Europe and trade internationally on the basis of World Trade Organisation rules is a total myth. The WTO director-general has already poured cold water over such illusions - Roberto Azevedo warned in February that Britain would risk losing all influence in trade negotiations if it left the EU. His comments came soon after similar warnings by Unilever and Airbus, along with City of London bankers. According to the UK head of the aerospace giant, the Airbus Group, Eurosceptics would need to offer a “compelling” explanation of how Britain could operate outside the EU without putting growth at risk. Banks and financial institutions have made explicit warnings to the treasury about the costs for the UK economy if Britain were to leave Europe. The United States position is clear: Britain would risk losing influence in trade negotiations if it left.
Eurosceptic Tories and Ukip claim that the UK’s economic relationship with the US would compensate for the loss of the European Union. Another myth - the US administration could not make it clearer: the ‘special relationship’ will be a lot less special if Britain was outside the EU. Similar arguments can be made about France or indeed any other European country. In a globalised economy, larger entities such as the European Union have the greatest influence in the negotiation of trade deals. Contrary to Le Pen’s ignorant message, you cannot escape globalised capital by leaving the EU. All you would achieve is becoming a smaller player in the same global capitalist order. So why do some on the left focus their opposition on the European Union rather than capitalism? Mainly because it gives simple, easy answers.
As far as the populist message of Ukip and the FN are concerned, the idea that the French or British state is subservient to an external body is absurd. For all the ‘interference of the European Commission’, and opposition to the Iraq war by France and to a lesser extent Germany, the UK government joined Bush’s ‘war on terror’ in the early 2000s. The French state is independent enough to carry out wars in Libya and Mali without taking any notice of Brussels, or indeed anyone else in Europe.
Of course, the current union is bureaucratic, undemocratic and expensive, but can we argue that its economic policies in a period of global stagnation are different from those of any individual national capitalist state? The editors of the French Marxist journal Carré Rouge are correct when they take issue with comments made by Cédric Durand, Razmig Keucheyan and Stathis Kouvelakis in the daily paper Libération on April 24:
Durand, Keucheyan and Kouvelakis ask us to consider “the true nature of internationalism” today. According to them, it is “an internationalism of the dominant classes”, but in fact, there is an internationalisation of capital, which has nothing to do with internationalism. The authors create further confusion by saying: “The EU is an incarnation of this internationalism of capital” and the euro is “at the heart of this internationalism of the European capitalist classes”. Hence, a new internationalism, corresponding to the interests of the “lower classes” (sic), is summed up in their conclusion: “Breaking with Europe to end the neoliberal nightmare: this is the true internationalism.”3
The Carré Rouge editors ask:
… what is the basis of their strange internationalism? It is to be hoped that a government that is truly of the left can come to power in a country of the European Union and, following that, everything can begin to tilt favourably. Such a government would undermine the European treaties and leave the euro zone, would reinstate its national currency to regain control over its budget, courageously attacking the evils of neoliberalism and therefore leaving the framework of the European Union.
And what would be the condition of the country concerned - that of Greece, for example, assuming the leader of the left party, Syriza, would be at the head of such a government …? Let us suppose this government decides to cancel Greece’s debt, and not buy any more weapons from France and Germany. Syriza decides to impose high taxes on ship-owners and the orthodox church and to renationalise what has been privatised. Well, the Greek state will not implement those decisions. Any major change in economic policy will require more than a Greek withdrawal from Europe: the Greek population will need a revolution, which would create its own modes of organisation and action.
The state is not a neutral body ready to apply measures adversely affecting the interests of the dominant classes. The European Union and all the treaties that go with it have indeed been concocted by the heads of state and their experts. It has not arisen suddenly to divest itself of friendly national states or their social prerogatives. All this has been called for and organised by statesmen, bankers, heads of major companies - a ruling class which in the era of globalisation in line with the movement of capital relies on the powers of complementary institutions: IMF, World Bank, WTO, European Commission, European Central Bank, but also and more than ever the apparatus of national states. It is absurd to think that the dominant classes could do without all this.4
I would add to the comments made by Carré Rouge by posing further questions: how would a devalued Greek drachma help the economic plight of the Greek working class? What would the new left government do about the continued flight of capital and the bankruptcy conditions international capital will impose on Greece, should it default on the repayment of loans?
Yes, confronting European capitalism and international capital needs a “new internationalism”. But not the one proposed by Kouvelakis and co. We need an internationalism that fights all border controls - one that can end the rule of capital across whole continents. This will require a more sophisticated understanding of how global capital operates and a vision of how we can put an end to its existence.
The current EU is a bureaucratic monster, which defends the interests of global capital. However, the call to combat it by reasserting ‘national sovereignty’ and upholding the ‘national interest’ has nothing to do with international socialism. We can leave the owners of small business in EU member-states to worry about such issues: after so many defeats the working class must abandon all illusions about national roads to socialism.
We must have the courage to think of a different Europe - one where a united working class develops a programme for working class rule. Anything else is a road to disaster l