Europe Against the Left

Europe Against the Left

Bhaskar Sunkara: Europe Against the Left

It is hard to overstate the novelty of the European Union. A political fusion of twenty-seven states and a monetary zone of seventeen, the project represents an unprecedented attempt to promote the free movement of commodities, labor, and capital. The EU has battered down parochial conceits in the name of accumulation. Or perhaps it has meant even more. It’s been only a few years since such commentators as Tony Judt and Mark Leonard asked us to look forward to the bounty of peace and prosperity that a “New European Century” portended. But for all its early social democratic promise and internationalist virtues, Europe has for decades been at the vanguard of the neoliberal project. With that project in disarray, will the Union collapse with it? Should leftists hasten its downfall?

Athens is burning, but this debate has been most pointed in London. On October 24, the House of Commons defeated a call for a referendum on EU membership. The motion was mostly pushed by Euroskeptic Tory backbenchers. Beyond old chauvinisms, these rebels are motivated by opposition to continent-wide standards governing the rights of employees and the risk of further encroachments. Short of a complete exit from Europe, other conservatives, David Cameron included, would like to see the UK granted additional opt-outs from Brussels “red tape.”

The more hard-line Tories have unusual friends. Among the 111 MPs that voted for the motion were nineteen Labour Party members, including left-wingers like John McDonnell. The Communist Party of Britain, not an entirely irrelevant formation in the trade union and antiwar movements, used its Morning Star publication to support the proposed referendum. At a joint rally with British nationalists at Westminster, unionist Bob Crow presented a choice between “corporate feudalism [and] national democracy.”

This follows much of the British far Left’s participation in the “No to EU — Yes to Democracy” electoral alliance. Unlike the Euroskeptic Right, that coalition explicitly distanced itself from xenophobic rhetoric. The problem with Europe wasn’t that its cosmopolitanism threatened perceived national virtues, but that it helped fuel a race to the bottom. The protections of the nation-state, and the decommodification of certain parts of social life (like healthcare) that it at times made possible, could not be replicated on the supranational level. The EU’s structure, they argue, makes democratic transformations in the interest of the working class virtually impossible. Their alternative is a return to the arrangement that built yesterday’s welfare state: “a Europe of independent, democratic states that value its public services and does not offer them to profiteers; a Europe that guarantees the rights of workers and does not put the interests of big business above that of ordinary people.” The opposite goals of their erstwhile right-wing allies, the same short-term politics.

This irony has not been lost on the alphabet soup of Britain’s tiny radical sects. Groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty contend that demanding EU withdrawal, or even opposing entry into the euro, represents a trite nationalism. They insist that the Left should “no more oppose European capitalist integration than we would oppose the merger of two companies” and that socialists must operate from the new environment through the erection of continental trade union federations and political organs fit for the twenty-first century. But there is something nineteenth-century about this posture, one that I am sympathetic to. It evokes classical Marxism’s appreciation for the dialectical potential of an internationalizing bourgeoisie.

The British Left has made a habit of in-fighting over Europe. In 1972 Tom Nairn wrote an extended essay that spanned the entire 75th issue of New Left Review. Entitled “The Left against Europe?” it critiqued dominant socialist opinion on British entry to the Common Market. Written at a time of pitched industrial confrontation, Nairn argued that the Left was betraying its principles by siphoning discontent into nationalistic opposition to Europeanization. He opposed the counter-position of genuine internationalism to the capitalist Common Market and suggested that the institutions of Western Europe could transform stagnant British ones.

But Nairn’s essay, dating from the Indian summer of social democracy, was written by a radical seeking to “increase the tempo of revolutionary politics, and further diminish the role of social democracy.” The context today, with the welfare state barely hobbling along but the radical Left more feeble than ever, is hardly recognizable.

The main danger to the European experiment comes not from the Left, but from the elites running the show. It has become almost cliché to put it in these terms, but Greece’s collapse could create a domino effect across the more unsettled zone of European capitalism—Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. It’s also true that the major forces behind the anti-austerity campaign frustrating the ambitions of Prime Minister Papandreou and other continental leaders have come from the Left. Yet the Greek people remain deeply invested in the European Union as an idea. Seventy percent even want to stay in the euro at a time when exit, collapse, and currency devaluation on the Argentinean model seems like their only viable option.

The protests in Greece, it would seem, are not driven by narrow-minded parochialism or even animus toward specifically “German” monetary policy, but by the desire to remain a part of the Europe that so many invested their hopes in, while at the same time opposing the imposition of a crippling austerity package by unaccountable forces. It’s these undemocratic institutions, not the protesters on the street, who have made it clear that rejection of the plan is tantamount to ejection from Europe.

The Left’s uncertainty in regard to integration is telling. Neither side in the British dispute, for example, seems capable of delivering on its promises. We can try to return to the nation-state and start again, attempting to preserve hard-won concessions and force new ones from this terrain before eventually seeking to forge a new Europe on terms more favorable to workers. Or we can attempt to advance the European project while democratizing its structures, building on ground firmer than increasingly anachronistic nation-states. Progress in either case appears decades removed. It’s a sad truth that it seems easier to imagine the end of Europe than a profoundly different European Union.