There is no need to believe, with George Soros, that the EU is on the verge of collapse to believe that it is on the verge of irrelevance. Becoming little more than a dysfunctional common market shun by its citizens and promoting tensions and antagonisms between states and between people.
There is no Plan A for Europe. Mild adjustments to the status quo – the Juncker investment plan, the youth guarantee, additional fiscal leeway of a few decimals points or a banking union already surpassed by history – are unable to seriously address the historical challenges banging at our doors each day.
Plans for increased integration of parts of the European Union get regularly touted. There is ground to be diffident of such plans. Any deepening of integration risks in fact reinforcing the undemocratic nature of a Union of financial rules deprived of democratic accountability.
At the same time there is no viable national Plan B either. There is no space for political emancipation through a more or less harmonious abandonment of the European Union. The sirens of nationalism – be them on the right or on the left – sing a song of destitution and disempowerment.
Sovereignty belongs to the people, not to states or to institutions. Too often is this forgotten. Popular sovereignty is not going to be recuperated by the construction of micro-nations barricading and barking against flows of people and of capital but ultimately at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere. There is no return to the golden age of the Bretton Woods agreements, when financial capital could be trapped within national boundaries for an emancipatory vision of “capitalism in one country”. Today, national boundaries can only trap refugees escaping war. Their invocation plays squarely in the hands of the far-right.
The last years have marked a watershed with a post-1989 world-view marked by talk of the end of history and of a third way of non-conflictual management. This is evident in the return of a political rhetoric that dares put into question the fundamentals of our economic and democratic system – from Sanders to Corbyn via Spain and Portugal. While, less promisingly, it is equally evident in the rise of a new far-right in Hungary, Croatia, Poland, and France.
One thing is sure. This is no longer the time for the status quo. And that means relinquishing despondency and melancholy and rebuilding the ambition for root-and-branch change – at all levels.
We need to stop portraying the EU as an all-powerful behemoth impeding any real change at national level. This rhetoric is false and only benefits supporters of the status quo. What we lack is the capacity of articulating and promoting a new vision for all those policies over which national sovereignty makes sense. Ambitious plans for income redistribution, fighting of privations and protection of the commons, fair integration of migrants, tax justice, fair and free access to education for all, and more. In this sense, the campaign of Bernie Sanders is inspiring.
Failure to achieve progressive national policies is not due to the EU. It is due to the incapacity of the progressive field to win popular consent. I have much sympathy for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Oskar Lafontaine, and other old left leaders who met recently in Paris to expound a Plan B for Europe. But I often feel their attacks on the EU have more to do with justifying their political failure nationally than opening up a new field of action for their countries.
At the European level, ambition means returning Europe as the place where we can regain power to define all that is no longer possible at the national level. Not because the EU impedes it, but because on certain issues medium-sized nations no longer have a say.
Europe is the only space large enough to be able to rein in the rule of financial capital, forcefully addressing the scandal of 62 people in control of half of global wealth. It is the only space where to free Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and provide a new technological infrastructure free of surveillance. Where a new ecological understanding of development can be fostered and forced on the rest of the world through commercial treaties based on climate justice and not competition to the bottom. Or, again, where to nurture a multipolar alternative to U.S. militarism and the rising nationalism – often with an ethnic basis – of many emerging powers.
It is the capacity of deciding through political struggle how to tackle systemic and historical issues such as these that popular sovereignty should really be about.
Until today European parties have failed to articulate and organise a convincing way out of our multiple crises. National parties have hidden behind unpronounceable acronyms at the European level – who knows the meaning ofGUE/NGL? – creating umbrella-groups where they individually maintain their feeble autonomy and collectively maintain their tragic impotency.
A genuine multi-level political force – and not necessarily a political party as traditionally understood – is long overdue. A transnational coordination summing up the plurality of national forces into a single and recognisable European political actor capable of campaigning and organising over all those issues that require European-level action. We have an example of this multi-level dynamic – albeit limited at the national level – in Spain. Where a clearly Catalan force such as the list headed by Ada Colau participates, at state level, in a political project that is able to act as a national political subject in its own right.
Rebuilding power for change ultimately means rebuilding ambition and innovating political practices. Beyond sterile arguments over the benefits of an independent nation-state or of a united Europe, what we should really be talking about is how to organise to transform both.
This article was published in Open Democracy