A man carries a European Union flag in London June 24, a day after voters in the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. (CNS photo/Neil Hall, Reuters)

Populists are often accused of being close-minded, but diehard supporters of the European Union might be just as bad. Invoke the slightest criticism of an EU directive in front of them and their liberal values go out the door. Like expressing any sympathy at all for those who voted in favor of Brexit, skepticism over the benefits of further European integration tends to be greeted with scorn. EU critics are seen as naïve at best, xenophobic at worst, and backwards either way.

Knee-jerk hostility toward nearly any common European policies on one side, empty rhetoric about saving the European Union on the other; this is the dreary state of the debate ahead of May’s elections for European Parliament. In the Continent’s three most populous countries—Germany, France, and Italy—the campaigns largely pit unrepentant champions of the EU’s current trajectory against nationalists claiming to represent “the people.” This divide leaves much to be desired, with those committed to a different sort of Europe—one that works for ordinary people, regardless of their ethnic or religious background—squeezed out of the discussion.


It would be a mistake to reduce all criticism of the European Union to nationalist backlash.

The most dominant strain of Euroscepticism has an unmistakably xenophobic flavor. Italy’s Lega, Germany’s AfD, and France’s National Rally party (the rebranded National Front) all devote much of their energy to criticizing immigration. They charge the EU with facilitating “open borders” and flooding their respective countries with an unsustainable influx of foreigners. The National Rally complements this narrative with a robust defense of the French welfare state, but bashing immigrants remains the party’s bread and butter. It’s a similar story further east: in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, Eurosceptic parties have all entered the halls of government, combining their criticism of Brussels bureaucracy with nasty attacks on migrants and religious minorities, including both Muslims and Jews. 

Still, it would be a mistake to reduce all criticism of the European Union to nationalist backlash. There are plenty of reasons to be angry, and they have to do with economics and an indisputable democratic deficit. While Europe’s postwar welfare states once sought to protect citizens from the ravages of global capitalism, today’s European Union moves in the opposite direction. Taken together, its various directives, regulations, and fiscal rules have worked to hamstring states from acting in the best interest of their working-class majorities. Underlying it all is an opaque decision-making process that insulates Brussels from the millions of lives that EU policies shape.

The European Union is governed by a series of astonishingly strict fiscal rules. According to its Stability and Growth Pact, member states cannot run deficits that extend beyond 3 percent of GDP or maintain levels of public debt that exceed 60 percent of GDP. Since 2013, member states are also required to pursue balanced budgets. These restrictions make little economic sense, especially since there are no pan-European debt-sharing measures and the European Union can't issue bonds of its own. The world’s most powerful economies, moreover, would all be in violation of at least one of these rules: China ran a budget deficit worth 4 percent of GDP in 2017, the year with the most recent available data; Japan has held a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 200 percent since the financial crisis; and the United States currently boasts a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3.9 percent and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 104 percent, with the country’s Republican president not even pretending to care about balanced budgets.

On top of these constraints, each member state’s budget needs approval from the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch. The institution is made up of appointees from the governments of member states—a fact that gives it some democratic legitimacy, but not nearly enough given its immense authority. To put it in U.S. terms: imagine a newly elected state legislature in Michigan determined to tackle poverty, but first having to run its entire budget by a Congressionally-appointed committee in Washington, D.C., only to be told that it needs to scrap its plan and instead focus on trimming spending. That’s roughly what happened to Italy’s new populist government last year. After Rome presented an original budget in defiance of the European Union’s deficit and debt rules, the Commission threatened the Italian government with what’s known as an “excessive deficit procedure,” a set of hawkish fiscal policies to be carried out under its close surveillance. The costs of noncompliance can be prohibitively high. If it had been ignored, the European Union could ultimately have leveled a fine worth up to 0.5 percent of Italy’s GDP, a whopping €9 billion. Facing these risks and mounting anxiety from investors, Italy eventually conceded and settled for another budget that involved less spending. It doesn’t take a flag-waving Lega voter to see the problem here: there’s basically nothing the people affected by these arbitrary economic rules can do about them.

At the same time, the European Union has implemented a series of regulations (laws that are immediately applicable across member states) and directives (general principles that must be enacted through national laws) that have together chipped away at public oversight of the economy. Over the past few decades, the European Union has approved directives that require the liberalization of gas and electricity markets, telecom markets, and the postal service. It’s also put into place a series of regulations and directives that force countries to open up their public rail systems to private-sector competition. This comes in addition to the ruthless waves of privatization the European Union required of countries seeking bailouts after the financial crisis of 2008: Ireland was forced to privatize its electricity and gas supplier, Portugal was forced to privatize its energy operator, and Greece was forced to sell off its regional airports.


This is all fertile terrain for the far right, and indeed, the old monsters are back.

All of the above obviously feeds into the socioeconomic resentment shared by many low-and-middle-income people across the Continent today. Where they direct that hostility varies a great deal. At a different time in European history, a powerful labor movement along with socialist and communist parties helped to aim popular frustrations more squarely at big business and the super-rich. While they were far from perfect, institutions like France’s Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) or the Italian Communist Party helped identify both the common enemies and allies of workers. Such class-based analysis would bring some much-needed clarity to the debate today.

After all, the European Union per se isn’t responsible for the woes of the working class. Get rid of it and everyone’s problems don’t go away. The ultimate culprits are the powerful multinational corporations, the ultra-wealthy, and an overgrown financial sector that have all managed to use the EU’s various rules and treaties to achieve long-standing aims. These forces favored the privatization of state services well before the creation of the monetary union, and they’d continue to if it were ever to collapse. Likewise, it’s in the DNA of business lobbies to fight to keep private-sector wages in check, just like their allies in government seek to do in the public sector. It wasn’t the European Union that birthed the modern corporation or its obsession with rewarding shareholders, and blowing it into smithereens won’t do anything to alter boardroom incentives that put a premium on pleasing Wall Street and the City of London.

Ideally, a pan-European working-class identity would take shape to counter this onslaught from capital. In fact, it already exists to some extent, especially in strongly unionized sectors. Ask a mail delivery carrier in Normandy, for instance, whether he feels like his interests are closer to those of his boss in Paris or those of a colleague in Eindhoven; the answer he’d give should be obvious. Many European labor unions, too, are already running transnational organizing drives—like those at Ryanair and Amazon—and recognize that these sorts of initiatives are critical to their long-term viability. Some left-wing political parties are also improving links to one another. While Europe’s old alliance of social-democratic parties has largely abandoned its dreams of social change, newer parties like La France Insoumise and Podemos in Spain have filled the void and sought to strengthen ties across borders.   

Still, these efforts have only limited effects. For much of the low-to-middle-income population, national identity tends to trump class consciousness, and aggrieved people often struggle to make sense of why their social status fails to meet expectations. The European Union becomes an easy scapegoat for all their woes. It is an extremely dense set of institutions and treaties—complicated by design—that doesn’t lend itself to clear analysis, allowing its critics to bestow on it an almost mystical power. The European Union isn’t just blamed for the local hospital being overcrowded or the train station closing—it’s also seen as the reason why the steel industry fled or why someone’s hometown is losing young people. In short, it’s why the world seems worse than before. According to this view, only a departure from the European Union or a return to the national currency can bring the good times back, or, at the very least, stand a chance of doing so. This kind of thinking often goes hand in hand with another trope: the idea that migrants and foreigners are to blame for boosting unemployment, depressing wages, and straining public services.

This is all fertile terrain for the far right, and indeed, the old monsters are back. From Germany’s AfD to Hungary’s Fidesz, a new crop of populists is thriving in the confusion, doing their best to target anger at immigrants and a caricatured version of the European Union—anything to avoid grappling with questions of class or wealth inequality. But they’re not the only ones to benefit from the situation.

While they’d never acknowledge it in public, the current leadership of the European Union and its allies could not ask for better foes. Well aware that voters are frustrated and that faith in the European Union is on the wane, the likes of Jean-Claude Juncker and Emmanuel Macron understand their future success hinges on remaining the lesser of two evils. The high brass of the European Union’s current ruling coalition—the European People’s Party (EPP), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)—all share an interest in portraying criticism of the European Union as reactionary and backwards, as a perilous step toward the abyss. From Paris to Berlin, defenders of the current order want all cosmopolitans with a shred of doubt over the European Union to be asking themselves one question when they go to cast their ballots in May: “You’re not one of them, are you?”

This strategy is a deeply cynical way of dealing with criticism. But it also risks further legitimizing the nationalist camp, something French Socialists experienced in the early 1980s. Still in the early days of his presidency, François Mitterrand was worried about mounting opposition from the mainstream Gaullist right. In response, he instructed the state broadcaster to give more air time to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the then-young National Front (FN), a fringe party fueled by colonialist nostalgia and social conservatism. Mitterrand also moved to hold legislative elections under a system of proportional representation instead of the two-round scheme typically used in the Fifth Republic, thereby ensuring that the FN would peel off support from the mainstream right. These moves might have satisfied Mitterrand’s most immediate goal, but they weren’t wise in the long run. The FN went on to win over thirty seats in the National Assembly in 1986, giving it an indispensable platform from which to spout its toxic views. Sixteen years later, in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the French political world by winning nearly 5 million votes and qualifying for the runoff round of the presidential election. In 2017, his daughter Marine earned more than 10 million votes in the second round.


Even if the European Parliament had authority to rewrite fiscal and monetary rules, it will almost certainly lack a majority in favor of taking such drastic measures.

Where does this leave everyone else—those of us who believe in a European Union that allows states to tax, spend, and regulate on behalf of the working class and one that authorizes national governments to implement the platforms citizens elected them on? Is there any hope for reviving European social democracy? Or even, as the socialists Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman once asked, going “beyond” it?

In the March issue of Le Monde diplomatique, French philosopher, sociologist, and economist Frédéric Lordon said that it’s time for left-wingers to cast their European pipe dreams aside. He argues not only that the European Union is an obstacle to any ambitious, progressive political agenda, but that it cannot possibly be reformed in any meaningful sense. Changes to treaties require the unanimous approval of member-states, and Berlin is all but certain to block any effort to change the existing order. Boasting record budget surpluses and a powerful export-oriented manufacturing sector, Germany is served quite well by the existing budgetary rules and monetary policies. Lordon may ultimately be right. Even so, it seems hard to know for certain without putting up a fight.

One of those to embrace that battle is former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. In 2016, he launched the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a coalition of parties bent on saving the EU by reforming it from the inside. Still, while DiEM25’s agenda sounds great on paper—it calls for expanding and “democratizing” the EU budget as well as a European treasury that could issue bonds—the group lacks a strategy for carrying it out. The European Parliament cannot propose legislation on its own, which means DiEM25 needs allies in national governments to make any difference in Brussels. At the moment, it has none and its coalition shows no signs of winning power anywhere. Not one of DiEM25’s electoral partners won more than 5 percent in the most recent national elections.

Another more confrontational initiative comes from La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”), the country’s left-populist party. It won nearly 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the last presidential election: but it is not without its flaws. Its most identifiable figure, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has a king-sized ego and the party suffers from a serious lack of internal democracy. Still, La France Insoumise appears to have a more convincing approach to the European Union than DiEM25, perhaps because its leaders are forced to seriously reflect on what governing would actually look like: if a left-wing government intent on carrying out its platform were to come to power in France today, it would immediately find itself in open confrontation with the European Union. This is something Varoufakis and his ilk don’t have to worry about.

While La France Insoumise’s plan is designed for France, it could also work for other European heavyweights like Italy or Spain—countries with large economies and bargaining power to spare. From day one, the domestic government in question would announce a “Plan A” and a “Plan B.” The former would be to reform the treaties, in other words, to remove the arbitrary restrictions on states’ abilities to meet their citizens’ needs. The second would be to prepare for an exit from the European Union, an option that would pressure European partners—i.e. Germany—into negotiating and ultimately making concessions on those treaties. In the meantime, the domestic government would begin implementing its agenda at home, ignoring those European treaties that pose a problem, and if necessary, moving to “opt out” of them. All this, the thinking goes, would nudge Brussels toward accepting reform.

If, for whatever reason, the state decided it didn’t want to fully leave the European Union, there is also a clear precedent for opting out of treaties while remaining in the union. Well before Brexit, the UK had already declined to join the monetary union and the Schengen agreement that ensures free movement among signatory nations. Denmark, too, has chosen not to join the Eurozone, all the while remaining a member of the European Union.

Threatening to leave the European Union might sound dangerous—especially in the era of Brexit, whose costs are on full display. But if the goal is to genuinely remove the European Union’s suffocating restraints on public investment, this seems a more convincing path than simply sticking to the current course, self-censoring criticism for fear of empowering the wrong people, and hoping the German government has a change of heart. Sadly, this remains the strategy of most left-wing parties and thinkers who proclaim faith in a “different Europe.”

Either way, changes to the treaties won’t result from the upcoming parliamentary elections. Even if the European Parliament had authority to rewrite fiscal and monetary rules, it will almost certainly lack a majority in favor of taking such drastic measures. Turnout in EU elections tends to be low, drawing interest only from the most motivated of Europeanists and the most passionate of Eurosceptics. Feeling caught in the middle and with few alternatives, most others will stay home, and it’s hard to blame them.

Cole Stangler is a Paris-based journalist who writes about labor and politics. His work has been published in The Nation, Jacobin, The Guardian and The Washington Post, among other outlets.

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Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: View Contents
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