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.