10. Welcome to Europe

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Reveal and reclaim

With popular support for the EU on the rise, a left-wing exit no longer looks feasible. So where do we go from here?

Exit Closed

Illustration by
Mirko Rastić

It was all kicking off.

The banks on Wall Street had suddenly collapsed and the shockwaves were rippling fast across the Atlantic. By 2011, a rebellion was rising in the streets of Europe against an establishment that had betrayed the people it claimed to serve.

We had arrived at last at the interregnum. “Everything is possible,” Wolfgang Streeck wrote of the “Bonapartist” moment, “but nothing has consequences.”

With the edifice of the establishment falling away, a space was clearing for a new radical politics. Whether it would be left or right in character remained an open question. But one thing was for certain: the repressed had returned, and the European Union would finally pay the price. “The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union,” Cédric Durand predicted in June 2016, “is the first movement of what has now become a very likely — if not yet inevitable — process dismembering the EU.”

What a difference three years make.

The European elections in May 2019, far from tearing down the remaining edifice of the political establishment, largely reinforced it. Angela Merkel’s European People’s Party may have lost 34 seats in the new parliament, but they were more than compensated by Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe group picking up 39. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the other half of the EU’s political duopoly, may have lost 31 seats, but their climate-conscious friends in the Greens gained 22 of them. Horses were traded, in other words, but the game remained unchanged.

The rebellion on the left — once heralded as an existential challenge to the European Union and the technocrats that managed it — has scarcely survived. In the May 2019 elections, the number of seats for the GUE/NGL group — the great container of Europe’s left parties — fell by 20 percent, down to the same level that it had in 2004. Two months later, the Greek national elections saw Syriza’s defeat, which not only empowered a new right-wing government in Greece, but also deprived the left group of its sole representative at the European Council. Three months after that, the Spanish national elections saw the vote share for Unidas Podemos shrink by over 40 percent compared to its 2016 showing. The left-populist party would join the coalition government — but only after the socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez made Podemos’ junior position painfully clear to the country.

Taken together, the results of these elections reflected a stunning reversal of fortune for the European Union. Britain’s exit from the EU did not inspire the “dismembering” of the Union, but its opposite: according to the 2019 Eurobarometer survey, support for the EU has rocketed to its highest level since 1983 — with favorability ratings strongest, by a long shot, among young people aged 18-29, who turned out in record numbers to vote in the EU elections.

Back in Brussels, the wheels of the institutions just keep turning. Commissioners divvy up responsibilities. Parliamentarians bargain over committees. And lobbyists swarm the corridors. “Europe is like a long marriage,” said the new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her opening statement in July 2019. “The love does not increase after the first day, but it deepens.” The slogan for her five-year presidency is equally inspired: “A Union that strives for more.”

So what happened? How did Europe’s existential crisis dissipate into business as usual? How did an insurrection for radical change become a promise to “strive for more”? And with the COVID-19 pandemic returning the continent to crisis, what does this series of events mean for the future of the European left?

“Whatever It Takes”

To answer these questions, we must first give credit where credit is due.

From the start of the financial crisis in 2008 — and even more impressively since its second phase, the sovereign debt crisis two years later — Europe’s political establishment has acted creatively, commandingly and adaptively to stave off insurrection.

Consider the case of the European Financial Stability Facility. In May 2010, with markets still in a conniption, the EU convened a weekend of emergency meetings to allay fears of financial meltdown. “We brainstormed,” said Olli Rehn, then Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, of his repeated late-night sessions in the boardroom. “Why [were we] stuck and how could we solve that? Then I came up with the idea: why don’t we set up a special purpose vehicle?”

From Rehn’s head to the negotiating table: after hours of frantic phone calls the European Financial Stability Facility was born, a special institution based in Luxembourg that would allow the EU to lend fresh money to distressed member-states without violating any of the EU’s famously obstinate treaties. And it worked. With the Commission’s guarantee, bond yields among Europe’s southern periphery fell sharply in the two months that followed.

By the EU’s telling, the invention of the EFSF is a tale of cunning statecraft. “Thanks to the political courage and ingenuity of a few people present, we took bold steps to defend the stability of the euro,” Jean-Claude Juncker has said.

But the more important lesson was that Europe’s establishment was willing — to borrow a phrase from Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank — to do “whatever it takes” to keep a bankrupt system from total collapse.

If these were system-saving solutions, they were far from system-solving ones. Draghi’s vast campaign of quantitative easing, to take another example of establishment creativity, proved effective at containing a dangerous deflationary slide in the European economy — in the short-term. But it did nothing to change the harsh constraints of austerity that strangled Europe of public investment. Even with the ECB spraying money across Europe’s financial sector, net public investment in the Eurozone fell to zero in 2015 and stayed there.

Nonetheless, Draghi’s famous proclamation reflects the command and commitment with which the European institutions reacted to their existential crisis. The high officials of the EU did not break, divide, smash, or grab what they could on their way out of the door. Instead, they behaved with steely solidarity for their fellow technocrats — far better internationalists than the left movements against which they clashed.

In the case of Greece — the most flammable in Europe, where a rebellion on the left had risen to demand an end to the country’s debt bondage — the so-called “troika” of the Commission, the ECB and the IMF lived up to their name, iron-clad and neatly choreographed. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde may have had profound reservations about the merits of austerity — and she may have expressed them sympathetically to the Greeks on the other end of the negotiating table — but she never went so far as to undermine her partners’ position. The bonds of solidarity between Europe’s technocrats, we learned, were much stronger than those of the left that sought to challenge them.

The Rise of Techno-Populism

Of course, the institutions of the troika were not able to pre-empt every political challenge — particularly those that came from the right. Since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2010, the forces of the far right have found a new voice and strong political foothold to advance their brand of Eurosceptic rage.

In some cases, like Germany or in the historically red Spanish region of Andalusia, these parties entered parliament for the first time. In others, like Italy, the far right even came to government on a promise to confront the political establishment in Brussels. “We will go to Europe to change the rules that have impoverished Italians,” Salvini vowed back in March 2018.

But here — it must be said — Europe’s establishment has moved masterfully to accommodate, tame and neutralize the populist threat.

Consider Hungary. Since assuming the premiership in 2010, Viktor Orbán has moved faster and more aggressively than any other politician to push Hungary toward full-blown authoritarianism, rewriting the constitution, rewiring the judiciary, centralizing authority, controlling civil society, crushing academic freedom, criminalizing humanitarian aid, and — of course — building a giant fence along its border. And he has frequently clashed with the European Union in the process, arguing that “people who love their freedom must save Brussels from Sovietisation, from people who want to tell us who we should live with in our countries.”

And yet Orbán and his party Fidesz remain members of the European People’s Party (EPP), home to Angela Merkel and a broad set of familiar faces from Europe’s center-right. Back in March 2019, the EPP formally suspended Fidesz from its ranks, stripping it of its ability to attend meetings or nominate its members to high posts. But suspension is very far from expulsion and the intervening months suggest that the EPP is in no hurry to alienate its Hungarian friends.

In late August, Merkel joined Orbán in the city of Sopron to celebrate the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border 30 years ago. Merkel’s intention might have been to send a signal to Orbán that generosity to refugees is an essential feature of their shared history. But Orbán saw it differently. “We have now built walls on the southern borders, so that those Germans for whom walls were brought down 30 years ago can now live in safety.” Merkel, for her part, acknowledged “different views” between Germany and Hungary, but supported Orbán’s view that Europe must improve its border security.

When Merkel ally and EPP member Ursula von der Leyen decided on the distribution of portfolios in the new European Commission, Orbán was not denied his due. László Trócsányi, Orbán’s trusted ally and former justice minister, was appointed as EU enlargement commissioner, in charge of managing relations in the “neighbourhood” of Europe — and the flows of migrants that pass through it. So much for a suspension: von der Leyen went so far as to name the migration portfolio “Protecting Our European Way of Life,” before amending the name after an intense public backlash.

If the EPP is attempting to find a balance between jingoism and liberalism among its ranks, governments at the national level have sought to fuse them.

Greece’s New Democracy provides perhaps the best example of this hybrid. On the one hand, New Democracy is undoubtedly the party of the political establishment: prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the son of a former prime minister, who — following stints at McKinsey and Chase Manhattan Bank — returned to Greece promising a “bold wave of reforms” to make sure that Greece was “no longer the black sheep of Europe.”

On the other hand, New Democracy has risen to power on the strength and shamelessness of its right-populist rhetoric: Mitsotakis vehemently opposed the Macedonia name change, siding with the nationalists rioting in the streets of Greece; he also appointed a cabinet that includes Holocaust deniers and advocates of mass deportation of asylum-seekers.

The result has been neatly described by Chris Bickerton as “techno-populism” — technocracy + populism. It is a strange blend that is also on display in Italy. When Matteo Salvini pulled his party Lega out of its governing coalition, the Five Star Movement found a new partner in the Democratic Party — those social democrats who proved neither social nor particularly democratic in their steadfast implementation of austerity in the crisis period. In Italy today, then, some of Europe’s purest populists are wedded to elements of its deepest establishment, an existential threat first posed by Five Star to the European Union has been downgraded to a mere preference for reform. “I was never one of those who wanted to leave Europe or weaken it,” Italian foreign minister and Five Star leader Luigi di Maio told the Economist in April, just three years after his confident pronouncement that he would, in fact, “vote to leave the euro as it stands.”

What a difference three years make.  

It is a common refrain in Europe that “the Troika always wins.” But the emergence of these techno-populist hybrids suggests that they do not always win by force of confrontation — but also by co-optation. The populist right is far from dead, and may continue to gain ground in the coming years at the expense of the establishment parties competing against them. But the concessions made to accommodate these populist parties have meant that Brussels is no longer their bogeyman — even if Europe has, for the very same reason, become a much more terrifying place.

The Left’s Next Steps

Merkel, Rajoy and Orbán having a chat at the EPP congress in 2012. Photo via EPP / Flickr

Where does that leave the left?

The headline numbers from the May 2019 elections may not look so bad: 52 seats for the GUE/NGL group in the last European Parliament, and 41 seats in this one. But these numbers fail to reflect the bitter fragmentation that prevails on the ground — and the distinct sense, shared by all of its factions, that the historic window of opportunity cracked open by the 2008 financial crisis may have closed shut, with almost nothing to show for it.

The entropy of the European left has many drivers. One is programmatic: the differences — often overblown — between left positions on economic, social and ecological questions. On migration, for example, left positions have diverged widely, even within left parties like Germany’s Die Linke. Another is stylistic: the rhetoric and representation of those positions, and the professed association with whatever flavor of leftism past or present. And a third is personalistic: the clash and competition between old comrades, making mountains out of the molehill of personal disregard. Much of the left’s fragmentation, then, can be chalked up to the narcissism of small differences.

But there is one issue that has and will continue to drive a wedge between left parties in Europe: the question of Europe itself. This is a structural question as much as it is an ideological one, because the Europe cleavage cuts right through the left electorate. To one side, an older, whiter and more rural proletariat leans toward suspicion of the European Union and its engine of liberalism. To the other, a younger, urban and more ethnically diverse precariat leans toward loyalty to the EU and the sense of European identity that it affords.

The tension between these constituencies has had a devastating effect on Europe’s left parties. Die Linke, for example, has struggled mightily to keep its two factions together, with its parliamentary chair Sahra Wagenknecht threatening in 2016 to split with the party under the auspices of her more Eurosceptic Aufstehen (“Stand Up”) movement before resigning from the party all together. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has ripped at its seams trying to please both the Leavers and Remainers among its ranks.

The overall result of this balancing act has been to lose out on both sides. To one, the forces of the far right have been able to capture the energy of the Eurosceptics and brand themselves the true “populists.” And to the other, the forces of the establishment have been able to capture the loyalty of many young voters by declaring themselves the true “pro-Europeans.” The disastrous outcome of the general election in November 2019 is, in large part, a reflection of this deep divide.

Some progressives have attempted to disrupt the false dichotomy of pro- vs. anti-Europe, arguing that they are, instead, two sides of the same coin. In its bid for the European Parliament elections, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 — for which I serve as policy coordinator — made the case that “pro-Europeans” relied on public anxiety about the imminent end of the EU in order to strengthen support for their unpopular policy positions, while “anti-Europeans” made a straw man of the EU in order to fashion themselves as worthy rebels. “In the European Union; Against this European Union,” went the slogan.

But to little avail. In countries like France, the May 2019 election closely mirrored the presidential one two years earlier, with an electorate polarized to pro- and anti- Europe coalitions — and progressive parties pushed out of the picture.

Reveal and reclaim

What is to be done?

One option is to lean into the split. Stop looking for ways to bridge the Europe cleavage and let each side cater to its respective constituency. One side would essentially compete against the political center, making the case that its vision of a transformed European Union is better than the status quo. The other would attack from the fringes, attempting to peel away voters who have already lost faith in the EU.

It is difficult to calculate the costs of such a split. In the short-term, left parties would likely collapse, bonds between their members break and from its meager standing, the notion of a “left” in Europe may cease to exist.

The question that remains is whether — over the medium-term — these are costs worth bearing. And the answer to that question can only come from an honest evaluation of the political prospects for a raw Eurosceptic position in Europe today.

The prognosis is bleak. The vast majority of European citizens, 68 percent of them at the latest count, believe that their country benefits from membership of the European Union, up from just 53 a decade ago. Even more striking, a majority of people, 56 percent of them, “totally agree” with the statement that “their voice counts in the EU,” compared to 39 who disagree with the statement — a record low. The remaining pockets of anti-EU sentiment may be fertile ground for parties hoping to hurdle over electoral thresholds at three, four, or even five percent of the vote. But it would be difficult to make the case that this is a strategy for left hegemony.

Most political parties on the radical right now acknowledge the lack of a mandate for exit, diligently erasing past pledges from their party manifestos and campaign materials. But the message has not reached large sections of the left, who continue to shout about de minimis regulations as they drift from view.

There is, however, another option — an option that would involve a temporary détente between the two sides of the Europe divide. This option would require that they both acknowledge the European Union as the terrain on which they are fighting and commit themselves to that fight knowing full well that its rules are rigged against them.

Such an agreement would not require the left to adopt the language of “Remain and Reform” — language that has always over-played the allegiance to the European Union and under-played the facility with which activists could “reform” its fortified institutions. The relevant mantra, instead, might be something like “Reveal and Reclaim.” If they tell us anything, the public opinion numbers about the EU show that a majority of Europeans do not yet share the diagnosis that the EU is hardwired to protect the interests of capital against those of its residents.

The promise of uniting left forces in a continental movement that stands behind a clear set of urgent, radical and intuitive demands for EU transformation is that such a movement may reveal this twisted architecture to the European public, otherwise hidden under layers of rhetoric about unity, solidarity, and “striving for more” — and reclaim a dominant position for the left in the process.

In other words, we may have to hold our noses. The point is not to forgo a scathing critique of the EU, or refrain from plotting on its ultimate demise. It is to set a sequence of struggle that can create a win-win for the two sides of Europe’s left divide. Either this continental movement, by applying a singular, transnational force against the EU establishment, succeeds in delivering its transformation. Or through its failure, the citizens of Europe awaken to the impossibility of reforming the EU, and a new space opens for a radical rupture, for an exit. But both outcomes will require a new transnational front that is capable of binding the fragments of the European left together again.

The Interregnum is Over?

At the end of May 2019 — just days after the final results of the election rolled in — I joined representatives from left movements and parties at the Vienna headquarters of Transform Europe to digest them.

There was little good news, except from Belgium: the workers party PTB had delivered a breakthrough, tripling its vote share in the capital.

Other than that, the mood was sombre, reflective. Panel by panel, delegates shared their woes and tried hard not to pin the blame on competing progressives sitting across the room. Invariably, each panel concluded with a plea for stronger solidarity. Unity, the room agreed, was the only route to victory.

But the conference in Vienna left undefined the terms of such unity. What was each party willing to sacrifice to get it? Whose brand would we agree to stand behind? Which program could possibly unite these factions?

With these questions left unasked — and definitely unanswered — I departed Vienna with a strong sense of doubt that these parties were committed to the project of unity and the hard work it would entail to transcend those programmatic, stylistic and personalistic differences that had set them so far apart.

And why would they? For the vast majority of their constituents, Europe is an abstraction at best and a distraction at worst. For municipal movements, the project of building power at the local level — empowering communities, transforming the political economy of the municipality — takes rightful precedent over efforts to penetrate the Brussels bubble and “speak truth to power” at televised plenaries in Strasbourg. For national parties, protecting a five percent fiefdom that permits an opportunity to shape legislation in parliament is much more important than a gamble on European unity.

The problem with playing peek-a-boo, of course, is that the EU is still there, making rules and enforcing them. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this much clear: broken as they are, EU institutions continue to dictate the terms by which governments at both local and national levels provide for their citizens. It is a power that is more likely to grow than to diminish in the years to come. “The world of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries,” Guy Verhofstadt said in September. “It’s a world order that is based on empire.” The European Commission has committed €100 billion to a European Future Fund, which will sponsor the formation of mega-merged private corporations, or “European champions.”

Our only option, it seems, is to take the fight to Brussels — and to re-open the negotiations, however painful, about the terms under which we stand together to do so.

The dreadful lesson of the last decade is that a crisis will not deliver our salvation. On the contrary, it provides ample opportunity for an imperiled establishment to consolidate its power, to set its feet on firmer ground. COVID-19 is proving case in point, as the leaders of the European Union improvise — far more quickly than they did in 2010 — to deflate the political pressure from governments in Lisbon, Madrid and Rome for an overhaul of the EU’s institutional architecture. In other words, we are being outmaneuvered — again. And until we prioritize the EU as a terrain of struggle, the question of Europe will never be ours to answer.

But as we prepare for the long economic depression ahead, an opportunity is opening for the European left to reclaim its position as the humane, sensible and authoritative voice of Europe, demanding a different European Union, or no European Union at all.

The interregnum is over, if you want it.

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David Adler

David Adler is General Coordinator of the Progressive International. Previously, he was the policy coordinator for the Democracy in Europe Movement, DiEM25.

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