IN THE RADICAL PRESS / MEMOIRE DES LUTTES
By Frédéric Lebaron
A debate is raging among economists and French leftist intellectuals on the future of the eurozone and the relevance of a national strategy to exit from the single currency. The conversion of leading French economists to this strategy (of which Frédéric Lordon is the latest) has provoked controversies, and responses that argue for “another euro”, on the basis that the Euro today is irrevocably linked to unending austerity. No political movement can escape the questioning of established frameworks of thought, but we must admit that the political and intellectual left is particularly prone to the intensification of ideological and doctrinal tensions over the future of the European Union (EU) and the euro.
The pursuit of austerity policies has contributed to an unprecedented deterioration of support for European integration and the euro, which is the most advanced expression of the integration project. The latest Eurobarometer shows trust in the main institutions of the EU continues to decline in Europe and France: the European Central Bank (ECB) for example, garners a favourable opinion among just 34% of EU citizens surveyed, against a negative judgment of 51% (up 2 points). This is even worse than the performance of the European Commission (36% favourable compared to 47% negative). In France, the fall is more brutal: only 30% of French citizens polled trust the ECB, against 52% who do not (a negative swing of 8 points)
There is still majority support for the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), with a single currency , according to Eurobarometer, but it has also been eroded, with 51% in favour, a decline of two points. In France, the drop is 7 points, but the ‘pro’ camp is still 62%, far ahead of those who reject it (33%), which suggests backing for the euro remains solid in France.
European quality of life declining
Even fairly stable indicators, like quality of life, dear to the economics of happiness, have been hit too. The proportion of respondents indicating ‘satisfaction with the life they lead’ is decreasing across the EU, (75%, down one point) and even more clearly in France, which, albeit starting from a higher point, is down three points to 83%. And where the majority are dissatisfied, it is accelerating, in Cyprus, Spain, Bulgaria, Poland (although in Greece the fall has halted).
Other polls confirm a drop, among the French, of trust in Europe, particularly pronounced among employees in the popular classes. This dynamic of distrust is clearly one of the most immediately palpable consequences of austerity policies at the European level and applied, with variations in the fashion of implementation, by the various national governments.
It is therefore not surprising to see the intensification of the political and economic debate on the appropriateness of backing the EMU in the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. According to a survey by IFOP, 64% of French respondents in September 2012 already indicated that they would now vote “no” if a new referendum were held. The negative dynamics have since accentuated. Thus Europe is in a deep crisis of legitimacy that is expressed in different ways in different national contexts: the creation of an anti-euro party in Germany, the “Grillo effect” in Italy, a rise in the polls of Eurosceptics in many countries, including the United Kingdom and France, political reconfiguration in the countries most directly affected by the crisis, social movements in Bulgaria and various other countries, etc..
Unity among Left of Left
For the forces to the left of the Social Democrats and the Greens, the critique of European integration has been a unifying theme for a long time, as illustrated by the mobilization against the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Some organisations make exit from the euro and the break with the EU (In France, the M’PEP and the POI) a requisite for any left-wing policy.
Germany’s Oskar Lafontaine is moving towards this position. In contrast, the forces of France’s Left Front, led by the French Communist Party, remain wedded to a reorientation of European construction “serving the people”, a position which, however, already implies heavy institutional failures, particularly with regard to the ECB.
The virulence of the economic debate is strengthened by conclusions that may incur significant strategic and tactical revisions. Compounding this context is the propensity of the intellectual and political left to anchor themselves around binary oppositions and claimed identities (internationalism / sovereignism, “another Europe” / exit from the euro, etc..) On top of this the Left continues to focus on the search for doctrinal and theoretical coherence around political and economic pragmatism.
For this debate suffers primarily from one weakness: if, on both sides, the protagonists accuse each other of a lack of political realism, jumping straight into the examination of the costs and benefits of the economic and social output of euro for each country (foreign trade developments, a renationalisation of monetary and fiscal policies etc..), others remain silent on political scenarios of a likely national “exit” , or a fortiori, of a coordinated dismantling of the single currency. Projecting into the brain of an abstract national decision – and, inevitably, of the Left – they do not enter into the detail of political conditions under which, today, the future of the eurozone and the EU, hangs.
One of the phenomena making a possible dismantling of the eurozone more likely is a potentially massive right-wing challenge to European integration in the next round of European and national elections.
Challenge by Eurosceptic right
The Eurosceptic right-wing parties are most clearly set to benefit from the current crisis of confidence and could leave the forces of the “left of the left” trailing as they seek to impose an exclusively “non-cooperative” approach to Europe’s future, potentially leading to national mercantilist strategies based on the German model. In France, the support achieved in recent partial elections and polls by the Front National – which has a politico-economic strategy based on a French exit from the euro area – and as questionable as they are in the absence of campaign, leaves no doubt about the party’s ability to strongly capitalise on the crisis, especially among the lower social classes.
At a European level, the situation is certainly more ambiguous, but where the growth of the Left is most pronounced – in Greece, Portugal and Spain – it is not accompanied, to date, by an exit strategy from the euro, but rather a reconstruction project based on European solidarity around a new internationalism and a new relationship between sovereign nations.
In the next European elections, the political momentum of the “Left of the Left” could certainly emerge: the Left Front and Left Party in Northern Europe (both currently polling around 9% in the pre-election polls) with SYRIZA in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal, United Left in Spain, showing potentially strong growth in Southern Europe. But without a strong electoral presence in the Eastern European countries, despite a revival of social movements, this “other Left” will be faced in the European Parliament by a strong rise in the Eurosceptic right: around the Front National, UKIP in Britain, the Italian right and far right (not to mention “grillinistes”), of the Greek far right, and the myriad of different “nationalist” and “populist” eastern European parties.
The increased fragility of European political institutions that follow the 2014 elections would result from a double shift: a significant boost to the EU-critical right, and moderate growth in critics on the Left. If one or the other contribute to challenge the hegemony of the alliance of the European People’s Party, Party of European Socialists, Liberals and Greens – who currently enjoy a overwhelming majority at European level and in different countries – this will be a blow to EU integration, as it was in the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in 2005. A European Parliament without a strong majority, less stable and uncertain than ever, could be complemented by the arrival of governments in several countries with weak institutions, as illustrated by the Italian case today.
The need for alliances
In this political context, a Euro-critical force of the Left, even if strengthened, should seek alliances. These seem, for the moment, mainly possible – both at a national and European level – among the left-wing of the Greens and social democracy, and among activists and political representatives who are confused by the austerity turn in their own parties. That includes currents that define themselves as “federalists” and who are not ready to endorse a short-term strategy to dismantle the euro area, let alone the EU, at least unless these strategies are accompanied by a revival of international solidarity at European level.
In the absence of seeking an unlikely alliance – European or national – to exit from the euro (which probably would require a minimum agreement between Eurosceptics), there’s every chance that political-economic programmes will simply provide material for strategic and doctrinal controversies. And thus will fail to gain political traction, with no means to implement them. At least until the next crunch point in the eurozone crisis again changes the political agenda …
Frédéric Lebaron is Professor of sociology at the University of Picardie-Jules Verne, Director of the University Research Centre on policy and politics – Epistemology and Social Sciences, UMR 7319, and president of Association Savoir / Agir (Knowledge / Action Association).
Edit/translation by Revolting Europe