Will the EU elections shake the “European project”?

Is it a choice between nationalism and Europe? Between the far-right and democratic rights? Or is there more?

All over Europe, politicians and parties have started their campaigns for the European Parliament elections in May. Opinion polls point to an end of the “grand coalition” between the EPP (European People’s Party) and the S&D parliamentary fractions. Especially the latter are worried about the elections, which could see them lose further support and drop to historically low levels in the polls. This could lead to crises in ruling parties and/or governments in various European countries. 

Also, the likely further rise of far right and right wing populist parties frightens many, especially young people on the continent. Their strengthening is a problem for the European ruling classes, as well. This is not because they have a fundamental problem with their racist, sexist and anti-democratic positions. But because the end of the “grand coalition” and the rise of the far right can increase the influence of Russia and can, together with the deepening conflict between the EU and the USA, speed up the centrifugal tendencies within their “project Europe”. 

The economic backdrop to the crisis

The backdrop to the crisis of the EU is the economic situation and the ensuing crises of the political institutions. The effects of the 2007 economic crisis have not been overcome, and the much-praised recovery has not trickled down to wider layers in society. And now the weak recovery is coming to an end already, putting the ruling class in a difficult position. 

The economic growth forecast is far from rosy, especially because of the weak performance of big economies like Germany, for which the OECD had to half its forecast, France and even more Italy which, most likely, will enter recession in 2019. The insecurity in relation to Britain and Brexit, which could have wide ranging effects on the EU and the Euro, is a further worrying factor for Europe’s ruling classes. 

The more serious representatives of capitalism know they do not have the money to promise higher public spending in order to win votes. They are aware about the growing anger and are in fear of the protests and class struggles to come. Hectic debates go on behind curtains over how or if a recession could be postponed through interventions. However, at the same time, they are aware that their starting position is even more difficult than in 2007 as the debt situation has worsened.
The return of nationalism reflects economic needs, the opposition to the EU and the absence of the left offering a real socialist alternative.

The capitalists are trapped by their own contradictory needs. The EU always had various functions for European capitalism. It aims to provide an umbrella for pooling resources in order to strengthen the collective impact of EU-member states when dealing with other economic blocs, especially the USA and originally Japan. Later this shifted towards China and for more geopolitical reasons, Russia. This is reflected in the debates about a European Army and the increased tensions with the US. Although painted as a conflict with “mad” Trump, there is a more solid, economic backdrop to this, rooted in the protectionist measures taken and competing imperialist interests. 

Another function has been to keep Eastern European and Balkan countries under European control. Last but not least, the EU can be used as a weapon against the European working class to implement the “necessary” measures to keep each state, as well as European capitalism, competitive. For a period of economic growth, the competitive pressures of capitalism between the national interests within the EU could be pushed to the background. But, at least since the onset of the 2007 economic crisis, these have returned. 

The EU has always been a compromise between national interests that would come to an end, in its current form, once the price of these compromises became greater than the benefits. The question of when this point is reached depends on the various economic interests of different capitalists. The growth of nationalism among the ruling classes is only a reflection of the fact that capital, while operating internationally, still, in general, is linked to its own nation state. The fact that various parties in a number of EU member states are more or less heading towards nationalist protection does not represent ideological differences, but competing economic interests. 

Parties from the EPP and especially the S&D block that are worried that the strengthening of far right and populist forces can speed up the centrifugal forces within in the EU. Russia is increasing its influence through political and economic links to far right parties and governments like the Austrian FPÖ, which signed a five year friendship treaty with Putin’s “United Russia” in 2016. The Italian Lega is said to benefit from a very profitable oil deal with Rosneft. Hungary will be the new home for the headquarters of the Russian International Investment Bank (IBB) that will, in return, finance some of Prime Minister Orban’s projects. It is important for the Russian ruling class to strengthen its influence in Europe, not only to get rid of the sanctions related to the Ukraine/Crimea conflict, but for wider political and economic reasons. Given the increased influence China tries to get in Europe, partially via the Balkans and the ‘Belt-and-Road’ initiative, this is worrying for the European-based ruling classes.

Social democracy replaces the working class with the EU

With their bourgeoisification the social democratic parties found their new mantra in the EU performing as the ideal representation of the interests of capital. In losing their social base and connection to the working class, nearly all social democratic leaders abandoned even any verbal talk of popular struggle and developed their reformist ideology into the idea that a well-organised, functioning capitalism would be best for all.

They argue that a bigger cake would lead to a bigger share for the poorer layers of society, even if the distribution rate does not change. For social democratic leaders, the EU and the instruments at its disposal became a golden calf. As traditional social democracy lost influence on a national scale in a number of countries, the EU and European parliament have become even more important for its leaders. Many trade union leaders went further in looking to the EU to provide reforms. A similar logic applies to other “progressive” parties, like the Greens, as well as for the openly neo-liberal trends. This concept could be in danger if there is no majority for the EPP and S&D block after the coming elections. So even if they will use some left-wing or more social rhetoric in the campaign, their main orientation is towards holding the EU together. They will exaggerate the role of the EU parliament which, in itself, is not the power house of Europe but has a strong propaganda function. The more important decisions are taken by the EU commission or even outside of the limited “democratic” structures.If the status quo cannot be maintained due to the growth of right wing, nationalist and populist formations, the future of their European project is in danger. The growing support for various populist parties mainly reflects the growing alienation with both the current situation in each country and the EU, as such. The EU elections will also be a test for various new or newish political formations on the right, as well as on the left, that have benefited from the general alienation in the recent period but became part of the establishment and its politics. Disappointment with these formations’ development, as in the case of Syriza but also Macron’s party, En Marche, will increase alienation with “politics” and be a complicating factor for left projects in the future.

European values?

The EU was always sold with a lot of propaganda about acting as a peace project, an instrument for social stability and democracy – and it never was! But with the even more aggressive attacks on democratic rights from right wing governments in Eastern Europe, and the threat of election victories for anti-democratic far right organisations, part of the ruling classes in Europe, for propaganda reasons, return to the argument of “defending democracy” (while attacking democratic rights, at the same time). 

The main topics the far right concentrate on will be those of “security” and refugees. In the absence of a left critique of the EU’s capitalist and undemocratic character, it will be far-right opposition as well as government parties, like Fidesz, in Hungary, or the Lega, in Italy, that will beat the racist drum and combine criticism of the EU with nationalism. 

Orban claims that “the epoch of liberal democracy has come to an end” is, in a sense, more honest than what is being stated by liberal so-called defenders of democracy. Orban’s authoritarianism does not stop companies like BMW, Daimler, Continental, Bosch, Thyssenkrupp, Schäffler and Siemens from investing billions in Hungary. It is true that right wing governments like those in Poland and Hungary, took steps to increase their grip on the media and bring the state apparatus, especially the justice system, completely under their control. But we must not forget that also France has maintained a state of emergency in place for two years. 

Protesters demanding independence, as in Catalonia, are attacked by the Spanish state and taken to court. EU member states and the EU itself took part in military conflicts. The EU also finances dictatorial and corrupt rulers in the north of Africa. Its “fortress Europe” policy causes the deaths of refugees at its borders every single day. At the same time, EU leaders talk about “our values” that have to be “defended”. The brutal austerity forced on Greece by the EU and the Troika (IMF, EU and World Bank), as well as the anti-working class and anti-trade union policy of the EU and the EU’s component national governments, gave away the lie behind the propaganda about a “social Europe”. The EU, its institutions, and even aspects of the capitalist system, lost a great deal of authority. The increasingly uneven distribution of wealth and the fact that the rich are becoming richer while working class people suffer cut after cut, helped to unmask the “social union”. This is reflected in a decrease of turnout in the EU elections, dropping from nearly every 2 in 3 eligible voters turning out in 1979 to just over 40% in 2014. It is also reflected in a general mood against “the elite”, “the rich” and “the system” and blaming, correctly, the EU for the results of its policies (although the national governments are responsible, as well).

The European ruling classes are aware that a reform such as reducing roaming costs for mobile phones across the EU is not enough to convince wider layers in society of the benefits of the EU given the experiences of brutal cuts and attacks on democratic rights within the EU. Therefore, they need to stress the question of “values” even more. It is most likely that the election campaign for the EU parliament will be presented as a battle between populist nationalism, on one side, and defenders of democracy, on the other side. 

To defend its economic European project, the ruling classes use fear about the growth of the far right. Opinion polls put the German AfD at 10-16% and Rassemblement National (former FN) in France even in the lead. Research by the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) expects the various far right/right wing populist parties to reach between a quarter and a third of the seats in the future EU parliament. 

What position should socialists take?

The mood in relation to the EU is mixed and confused, to say the least. This was shown by the Brexit vote, which had a strong working class element of social revolt against austerity policies and the bosses’ EU. The Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) calls for a pro-workers’ Brexit, making clear that the solution is not a more or less European capitalism but the struggle of working class people and the unions against austerity and capitalism. If Corbyn would call for a clear workers’ Brexit and on the trade unions to struggle against all austerity, this would be attractive to workers, including those that voted for right-wing parties, in the past. The Tories right wing, austerity agenda creates the conditions for the growth of populist right parties. By ending any more compromises with the Blairite-dominated Labour parliamentarians and councillors, and mobilising the working class and youth with clear anti-cuts and socialist slogans and campaigns, Corbyn can cut the ground beneath populist right wing forces. 

There are anti-working class attitudes among some progressive campaigners. They paint working class people who are furious with the EU and consider voting for populist and/or far right parties as “stupid” and “uneducated”. Instead of campaigning for working class organisations that really defend the interests of working class people these activists take refuge in this top-down “explanation” that ignores the negative effect of so-called left parties simply managing capitalism and trade union leaders who are not prepared to struggle. The other side of this coin is the logic of “lesser evil”, that means calling for a vote for social democratic or green parties (or similar “progressive” pro-EU parties). This strategy would mean a continuation of exactly the same policies which laid the ground for the far right to build its support in the first place!

But we must also take into account that the young generation in Europe has grown up in the EU and some of them are too young to be aware of the brutal Troika cuts in Greece that began earlier this decade. This generation has been taught in schools and universities about “Europe” being a project for peace and harmony. They see the weaknesses of the EU but also in a confused way regard the notion of “Europe” as representing a progressive, internationalist idea. Hundreds of thousands of youth and workers travel, study and work in other European countries, and therefore benefit from this aspect of the EU. So “pro-European” initiatives get some echo among a similar layer of young and well educated youth sympathetic towards the idea of a united Europe. Other, especially young people, are increasingly alienated by the EU due to its brutal anti-refugee policy. They see that the EU, instead of taking action against climate change, prefers to fulfil the needs of big business, especially the car industry.

The votes given by a frustrated part of the populations across Europe for populist, often far-right parties, and the ‘lesser evil’ vote of a younger part of the population, in particular, for “progressive” parties, are two sides of the same coin: they are a product, in part, of a lack of genuine fighting working class organisations, in the various countries and on a European scale, armed with a clear anti-capitalist, anti-racist policies and a socialist programme.

A Europe of struggle

We have no hopes or illusions in the capitalist EU project. But our solution does not lie within the nation state. That is why we support the struggle for self-determination in both Scotland and Catalonia, as part of a struggle against austerity. We link this to the need to break with capitalism and put forward the demand of socialist federations in those regions and in Europe, as a whole. Since 2007, all over Europe, protests have taken place: demonstrations, strikes and even general strikes, against austerity policies. During the last few years, protests against racism and sexism have involved growing numbers. More recently a new generation of young people got active around the question of global warming that resulted in big protests, including the adoption of the working class methods of “strikes” by school students and students on March 15th. 

The EU and its institutions are correctly not seen as an instrument to solve any of these questions. Socialists must not leave those who are angry with the bosses’ Europe and its policy of cuts to the hands of the opportunist far right. And we must not leave those who want to struggle against anti-democratic and racist dangers to the liberal and petty-bourgeois pro EU-forces. We defend all democratic rights that the working class has fought for but our answer is not the EU and its undemocratic structures. 

We defend the social and democratic rights of working class people. That means we demand more money to be put into the health and education sector. We demand a reduction in the working week and, at the same time, an increase in wages. We demand wealth to be taken from the rich to be used for the needs of working class people and the youth. But we do not stop there, we fight for “the whole bakery” (and not just a bigger share of the cake). We demand democratic rights, not limited to elections every few years, but with real power over the wealth in society given over to those who produce it. 

The EU, its parties and institutions, are no tool to stop racism and the growth of the far right, as the EU is part of the problem not the solution. We fight against the Europe of the bosses, against cuts, racism and the far right. That means an end to this EU, its institutions and its policy of cuts and distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We demand equal rights for all people living in Europe, an end to fortress Europe and that the wealth of the super-rich to be used for a decent life for all be it residents and migrants. 

We fight for a united socialist Europe that is run democratically run and built on a voluntary basis. That means that our solution to the problems in Europe do not lie within the nation states but in the power of working class people to run and control economy and society, on the basis of needs not profits.

We are aware that this sounds utopian to many. But is the notion of a truly democratic, peaceful and social Europe under capitalism not really the utopian option, given the nature and contradictions of capitalism? We are also aware that, given the strength of the far right in the opinion polls, it may be asked, how this could be achieved. We must not forget that after the economic crisis of 2007, the first reaction of the working class and youth was to resist capitalist austerity policies. There was enormous openness for left, for socialist solutions. Only the capitulation of various left forces, like Syriza, in Greece, to the ‘logic’ of capitalism and their betrayal of the needs of working class people, laid the basis for the far right to gain. 

In 2016, when hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees came to Europe, the first reaction of the masses was a desire to help. Only when the left and trade union forces failed to answer the question of how to finance the needs of people who depend on help (and reduced themselves to moral appeals, as did the EU), did the far right start to make inroads. The fact that trade union leaders, all over Europe, defend the EU, and therefore also its policies of privatisation, deregulation and cuts to the welfare state (or of what is left of it) has given the far right the chance to fill the vacuum. 

So a successful struggle against the far right needs more than appeals to “European values”. It needs a fundamental change in the attitude of the trade unions towards the EU, and a fundamental change in the way they fight for the interests of working class people. It requires left, socialist, working class organisations and parties that do not fall into the trap of defending the EU as a “lesser evil” to the far right, but adopt an independent working class position. And it needs socialist forces that link the struggle against the far right with the fight against capitalism, and for a voluntary, democratic, and united socialist states of Europe.

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April 2019