New Internationalist

The next move?

Issue 394

Richard Swift explores how Europe might do it differently.

mark henley / panos pictures / www.panos.co.uk
mark henley / panos pictures / www.panos.co.uk

It should have been different. The EU could have grown slowly and paid careful attention to the quality of a way of life rather than rush headlong to expand a single market based on the lowest common denominator. It could have put democracy at the centre of things rather than create the atrophied form of popular representation that is today’s European Parliament: a parliament that has no right to initiate legislation and only very limited control over the budget and the bureaucracy of the EU. Here the European Commission reigns and there is much horse-trading by member states.

This has led to the not unnatural feeling among European voters that they have very little say over EU affairs. Voting in European elections has fallen off consistently, allowing national politicians to claim a monopoly on democratic accountability. This is ironic because the relationship between the modern nation- state and democracy has always been an uncomfortable one. Our current model of democratic accountability, hemmed in as it is by the national security state and the corporate monopolists who control the market, is badly in need of renewal. Leaving national government the only meaningful site of democratic practice would be a bad idea even without the EU.

Democratic representation and forms of direct democracy need to be diffused throughout society – to municipalities, to regions, to workplaces, to neighbourhoods and to the European Union. The shift to a meaningful European community was never going to be an easy one. National sovereignty was bound to be zealously guarded by national political élites and suspicion of rule by ‘foreigners’ was always bound to lurk. But the top-down approach that has marked the history of the EU has only aggravated matters.

Why not build a Europe-wide campaign to provide a basic income for all?

As this issue of the NI chronicles, a new type of opposition to the current direction for the EU is growing. It is only beginning to come to consciousness of itself as a movement as focus shifts from fighting the imposition of neoliberal measures by the domestic state to the corporate design for Europe as a whole. Activists who once thought of themselves as simply English or Italian have to pay much more attention to doings on the European stage. Joint projects – newsletters, meetings, co-ordinated demonstrations, common campaigns, friendship links – are starting to come together. It’s early days and so far things are still a bit fragmented with piecemeal battles fought over seemingly isolated issues. But this too is changing as groups like the Corporate Europe Observatory or the web letter Spectrezine pull together a common analysis of the corporate takeover of EU institutions.

This is different from the old opposition of the nationalist Right which waves the flags of jingoism and speaks in the language of a fight against some kind of imaginary overweening superstate. All manner of fantasy grievances have been laid at the door of the EU, held responsible for everything from the loss of national identity, the collapse of the family, the breakdown of law-and-order, waves of unwelcome migrants or the growing dictatorship of a faceless bureaucracy. A wide variety of disreputable political actors such as the UK Independence Party, the French National Front or the League of Polish Families have gained traction by playing on the politics of national anxiety about the EU – which they attempt to identify with all things modern and out of control. Their solution: a retreat back to the good old days of national integrity, with wholesome nuclear families in traditional communities and presumably without immigrants or bureaucrats.

But a movement to recast the EU is unlikely to be able to prosper by taking a strictly defensive posture, merely preventing the erosion of the remnants of the current welfare state. While people have proved willing to fight hard to defend healthcare and decent pensions, the creaking paternalistic welfare state as a whole is not the stuff to inspire a new European vision. What is needed is something to gain, not just things to lose. One thing to gain might be the radical extension of democracy. Another worthwhile reform might be a programme of basic income for all those living in Europe. This could provide a dramatic boost to the equality of opportunity from the Danube to the Atlantic. In his most recent book Capitalism Unleashed the renowned Oxford political economist Andrew Glyn makes the point that: ‘Provided Basic Income could be set at a reasonable level it would give workers, especially the low-paid, greater bargaining power in relation to their employers… More fundamentally it would allow people the economic security to spend less time working for pay, perhaps none for the few with very austere needs, and more time pursuing more intrinsically satisfying activities.’

A basic income policy would also have a salutary effect on the environment, reducing the sheer number of products produced and consumed. There would be less time for manufacture and less money and hopefully desire for consumption. It would be an ambitious project – but one within economic reach, given the political imagination and will. So why not a Europe-wide campaign to provide a basic income for all? Why not make it a constitutional provision in a reworked constitution for the European Union?

Whatever the programme, in building a new vision for their continent, Europeans would do well to look South rather than just West across the Atlantic for both ideas and allies. The sclerotic US model has little to offer. While in Latin America and parts of Asia there is exciting experimentation with various forms of democracy and social development. The participatory democracies of urban Latin America have had an influence far beyond their Brazilian origins. A new sophistication is taking hold in social movements and civil society. This holds far more promise for sustaining variety in Europe than the ‘weak democracy/strong market’ model that the corporate agenda has installed in Brussels. If there is anything that Europeans are suspicious of it is this ‘one size fits all’ approach.

One of the most creative writers on politics these days is the Brazilian, Roberto Unger. In his voluminous work on contemporary politics he has virtually overthrown the old categories that have frozen political possibility for decades. He is a sharp critic of mainstream social democracy and its capitulation in its European homeland to letting the market decide. His most recent book What should the Left propose? provides an ambitious programme to give ordinary people a ‘bigger life’. He believes that only ‘a high energy’ democracy can sustain real change. Unger’s creativity lies in the fact that for him all structures are plastic and fluid – created by human beings and thus changeable by them. His belief in experimentation is a breath of fresh air in the often static world of Left politics. For Unger, successful social change must start with three basics: 1) democratize the market 2) deepen democracy 3) empower the individual. Not a bad starting point for European activists. If Europe made common cause with the Global South this would allow both to escape the economic straightjacket imposed by the Washington Consensus.

Lastly, what Europe seems to be lacking is a common political culture. There are no European-wide newspapers except for a couple of small corporate mouthpieces; no other truly European media. There are no pan-European political parties. All these things remain national. Obviously language is an important obstacle here. But perhaps not one that is impossible to overcome. There is already a fledgling movement called the Neweuropeans which plans to put up candidates in all member countries in the 2009 elections. There is a plethora of groups and movements focusing on European issues to keep tabs on the EU. Pan-European links have become a necessary part of the practice of trade unions, NGOs, trade associations and municipal governments – often in order to provide a counter-balance to corporate power.

The environmental record of Europe, although certainly mixed, gives some hope for being able to do things differently. On issues like global warming and genetic modification of foods, Europe has a much better record than North America, Australia and even Japan. While there is still much hypocrisy and a painful lack of transparency, there are blueprints and targets that are often used to embarrass foot-dragging member states. Sustainability needs to be a centrepiece of any effective opposition to Brussels-inspired corporate design. As the air gets harder to breathe, the waste piles up, energy costs escalate, and the summer days get hotter and hotter – the desire for such alternatives is bound to increase.

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