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A club of ghouls: the need for rupture with the EU

After Greece, the road to a democratic, social United States of Europe passes through ‘Brexit’ and a toppling of the post-democratic tyranny that is the European Union, argues Leigh Phillips

August 3, 2015
15 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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schauble-varoufakisGerman finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble with Greece’s then finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Schäuble told the Greeks that ‘elections change nothing’.

This is the first of a series of debate articles in Red Pepper ahead of the planned referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Well, that’s Brexit, then. The UK staying in Europe hinged on enough internationally minded progressive voters thinking that despite its faults, the EU is a force for good. After the Greek debacle, however, the idea of British exit from the EU – aka ‘Brexit’ – has surged up the agenda, and there is no way that these voters will be convinced to want to stay in this club of ghouls.

Or so one would think. Some prominent left commentators such as George Monbiot and Owen Jones have said that the treatment of Greece and the imposition of a ‘new Versailles Treaty’ – as noted motorcyclist and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis describes the third bailout – may be the final straw. But others such as Green Party MP Caroline Lucas have been quick to argue against this left-wing euroscepticism, saying that the problem lies with the national governments that make up the EU, and if voters elected more progressive parties, things would be different – or that there is a difference between the villainous eurozone, which straps peripheral European economies to the rack, and the praiseworthy EU, which delivers strong environmental regulations and human rights protection.

‘It’s easy to blame the EU when free-market economics tramples across our continent’s welfare states, but it’s governments like our own who have overseen the EU becoming a byword for greater liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation,’ Lucas writes in the Guardian. ‘The left lost the last election in Britain – giving Tories a seat at the top table in Europe. Perhaps we’d be better off reflecting on our own failings to successfully inspire hope and unity, rather than kicking out at the EU.’

Unelected and undemocratic

This appears to be the argument that is going to be mounted by the centre-left ahead of the referendum: the EU reflects national policies; it’s the eurozone that’s the problem.

But this has things the wrong way round. The problems of the eurozone flow from an underlying undemocratic structure. A single currency in a genuinely democratic Europe with cash transfers from rich to poor regions would not cause fiscal imbalances. Focusing on the eurozone alone is mistaking the symptom for the cause.

The same character of post-democratic structures that govern the eurozone exist across the EU. The European Commission is unelected. The members of the Council of Ministers and its top-level incarnation, the European Council, are only indirectly elected and craft laws in secrecy with neither press nor public allowed to witness their proceedings. On a day-to-day basis, those legislating in the Council are not even national ministers, but the haggling diplomats of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (or ‘Coreper’) and its dozens of subcommittees and working groups who all, again, operate in secret away from the scrutiny of voters.

Parliamentary or congressional committees of other lands normally operate in public, with the rare exception of those bodies overseeing the various departments dedicated to espionage, surveillance and war strategy. In other words, the sort of confidential and concealed statecraft historically reserved for the superintending of spies, assassins, weapons procurement, bio-safety and treaty-making with enemy states is now the quotidian norm for law-making covering agricultural subsidies, regulation of industry and finance, and, above all, labour markets and social programmes.

The president of the European Council – regularly styled European President – is likewise unelected, but rather selected behind closed doors after hours of horse-trading by the heads of state and government, like a secular pope. The sole directly elected institution of the EU legislative sausage factory, the European Parliament, has no right of legislative initiative – that is to say, it cannot propose and pass laws; it can only amend what the Commission and Council send to it for approval. These powers are not nothing, and corporate and NGO lobbyists are as attracted to the parliament’s twin seats in Brussels and Strasbourg as they are to the US Congress in Washington, but being gelded in this way makes it like no parliament anywhere else in the democratic world. MEPs are not the representatives of a sovereign European people, but fart-catchers to the grand functionaries of EU technocracy.

If voters disagree with the policies of this European ‘government’, there is no way to vote them out, no general election that can ‘get rid of the bastards’. Yet if our European government disagrees with the preferences of voters, they regularly bully national leaders into annulling the results of elections, referenda or plebiscites that go the wrong way. Irish voters were told they had to vote a second time after they rejected the Nice Treaty, as they were again after they voted down the Lisbon Treaty. And the Lisbon Treaty itself was simply the European Constitution with a name-change after the latter was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

‘Elections change nothing’

Similarly, the drive to remove fiscal policy (and indeed any policy really) from the realm of contestatory parliamentary debate and place such policy in the hands of supposed economic ‘experts’, bureaucrats, diplomats and European Court of Justice judges exists across the EU structures, not merely in the eurozone. All 28 member states, not just the eurozone, are subject to the neoliberal Stability and Growth Pact. And since the eurozone crisis, the EU as a whole, not merely the states within the single currency, have sought and achieved even deeper fiscal policy integration.

Under the European Semester system, in which domestic fiscal policies are vetted by the EU, all member states must submit their economic plans to Brussels, not just eurozone states. There are slightly different rules for those who do not use the euro, but these are largely cosmetic. And the severe tightening of economic rules that occurred under 2012’s Fiscal Compact, with its stricter supervision and penalties, likewise covers all but three non-eurozone states as well. The eurozone just gets an added two bits of anti-democratic venality: the unelected monetary lords of the European Central Bank, and the Eurogroup, a body that does not formally exist in law but is amongst the most powerful entities in the European system.

In truth, one should not speak of the EU and eurozone as two distinct but overlapping entities, but rather of an EU in which there is a spectrum of extra-democratic fiscal and monetary integration. There are four different categories of party to the Fiscal Compact, for example: eurozone members, non-eurozone members, non-eurozone members who are bound by the fiscal but not economic-coordination provisions, and non-eurozone members who are neither bound by the fiscal nor economic-coordination provisions. The three members outside the Compact are expected to join at some point in the future, with ongoing pressure to convince them to do so.

These are not merely bad policies that in principle could be undone in the future; they are treaties and treaty-like instruments that transform the very structures of the European state in such a way that neoliberalism can only be ratcheted up. This is because these contracts between states trump democracy under the legal principle Pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept). ‘Every new government needs to fulfil the contractual agreements of its predecessors,’ as German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble put it after Syriza’s election victory in January, ‘Elections change nothing.’ European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at the same time: ‘There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.’

Elsewhere, people regularly point to the Council of Ministers/European Council as supposed evidence of democratic mandate, because ministers and prime ministers or presidents are at least elected in their own countries. Indeed, there is a category of apologist for Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble who argue that Greek democracy should not trump German democracy. But in fact the Council is the heart of the problem. The Council operates as a senate-like legislative chamber, yet there are no elections to this body. It is as if you were permitted to vote for your local MP, but there were never any general elections.

Why is this such a big problem though, and why does it result in all these other undemocratic outcomes? General elections to legislatures and not merely local elections or an endless series of by-elections are a primary requirement of a democracy for two reasons. First, voters need a regular chance at ‘overthrowing’ their rulers, not merely their local representative. In a general election, if the local candidate who wins is not a member of the party or coalition of parties that wins nationally, local voters may grumble, but they accept that the majority rules, and will now just have to work over the next five years to convince everyone else that they were wrong. This is not possible in the EU. Instead, the newly elected members have no choice but to adapt themselves to the pre-formed consensus.

Secondly, the parties seeking office need to have a material interest in appealing to every part of the country – or in this case, every part of the Union. Contrast those standing for election in the US, where both parties have an interest in appealing to voters in all states, with those who sit in the Council from Germany, who do not make any appeals to voters in Greece. It simply does not matter to German politicians what happens in Greece, because Greek voters do not vote for them.

Secondary legitimacy

These two phenomena are sides of a single coin: accountability, which is the bedrock of representative government. Accountability is not some ‘bourgeois concern’ or object of fascination to liberal constitutional experts alone and of little interest to progressives or radicals. As governance structures become steadily cut off from democratic restraint, they become much more open to elite capture. Without such popular checks on power, citizens begin to feel that there is no way to change who governs them other than through revolution. And they are not wrong in this sentiment.

Even Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organisation and ex-European trade commissioner, recognises this conundrum, not just with the EU but with the full host of transnational governance structures that have emerged in recent decades. He notes a distinction between the primary democratic legitimacy of elections to legislatures and ‘secondary legitimacy’ of these new bodies. ‘The legitimacy of international organisations remains intrinsically Westphalian. It is based on state democracy, and only provides for what I call “secondary legitimacy” — as opposed to the “primary legitimacy” conferred by the direct participation of citizens. The specific challenge of legitimacy in global governance is to deal with the perceived too-distant, non-accountable and non-directly challengeable decision-making at the international level.’

Alongside Lamy’s conception of secondary legitimacy, we can add Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s conception of a ‘crisis of agency’ in international relations to describe the current impasse: ‘The wedding between power and politics that was signed in Westphalia has been annulled. While politics (the ability to decide which things ought to be done) is confined to the level of the nation-state, power (the ability to get things done) has shifted to a supra-national level. This has resulted in a crisis of agency: States are entangled in international networks and lose their sovereignty, while global markets are cut off from any guidance and supervision,’ he says. ‘Closing the gap between the scope of interdependence and the reach of institutions called to service it is the most important challenge of our time.’

Such post-democratic international governance structures are popping up like weeds today in almost every possible policy area, from the IMF, UN Security Council and G7, to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and even the International Whaling Commission. We are living in the era of construction of an architecture of global governance – which is certainly necessary given the global problems we face – but in the absence of, or perhaps antipathy toward, global democracy.

But the EU is the most highly developed of all these bodies suffering from the problem of secondary legitimacy, thus it deserves the tightest focus. And as we have seen, the EU, not just the eurozone, is an affront to parliamentary democratic norms that the left has fought to establish, defend and advance for more than two centuries. Its structures are not reformable; indeed they inoculate themselves against progressive reform.

A common enemy

Rupture is therefore necessary. In the case of Greece, that means Grexit, and in the UK, Brexit.

Nevertheless, progressives are somewhat stuck. In times of growth, social democratic governments share out the spoils more fairly than the right. In times of crisis or stagnation, they share out the pain more fairly. Social democratic parties never ask why there is crisis or stagnation in the first place, for this would require a systemic and extra-national critique, a critique that has been deemed beyond the pale for 25 years now. Yet at the same time they understand that they cannot deliver on their historic promise.

In a globalised economy, 1940s-70s style social democracy is no longer possible, even in large economies. Capital flight and economic sabotage will quickly tame a left government. We have known this since the early 80s and the defeat of Mitterrand’s ‘Common Programme’, the last gasp of post-war high-Keynesianism: a raft of grand public works, a significant increase in social programme spending, industrial and banking nationalisations, reduction in working hours, increase in paid holiday, retirement at 60, and a solidarity tax on wealth. In very large economies such as the US, China, or Europe, a traditional social democratic programme may still be viable, able to withstand the slings and arrows of global markets, but we do not know for sure.

Greece provides evidence that, in a globalised economy, even left-of-social-democracy governments such as Syriza must capitulate. This insurmountable barrier is present also for the extra-parliamentary left; community solidarity efforts are necessary, but they cannot afford to purchase medicines manufactured elsewhere, to give just one example of the concrete limitations of street politics. For Greece, to imagine that outside the eurozone, markets would be any friendlier than EU structures is a delusion. Catastrophe is assured whether in or outside of the euro, whether in or outside the EU. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was absolutely correct to warn of the dangers of Grexit, even as he recognised that at a certain point, it may be the only option left.

How then are these two facts reconcilable: that nation-based politics is impotent and yet that there must be rupture with the unreformable EU? It can only follow that there is no utility to nation-based politics any more, even of the form of a Syriza or its equivalents elsewhere in Europe, and that over the medium term European parties to the left of social democracy both in and outside the EU must fuse into a single, extra-national party with a common programme: a democratic and social United States of Europe, built afresh from the ground up.

There is no parliamentary forum through which this could be implemented. The European Parliament, as elaborated above, has no powers of legislative initiative. The lack of general elections to the Council likewise precludes this body as a venue for reform. It can only be delivered through a decisive pan-European victory of social forces.

And here is where hope lies amidst the despair at seeing Syriza capitulate: in the last few weeks, we have seen a flowering of pan-European grassroots actions in solidarity with the bullied and bludgeoned Greece – even in Germany. Popular grassroots-led rallies, protests and direct action have taken place across the continent, including the cheeky, night-time projection of the Greek word for ‘No’, Oxi, on the side of the German finance ministry.

This is the germ of a new Europe. We are witnessing the emergence of a true European demos, with millions of EU citizens recognising that they have a common enemy: EU financial and political elites. If such actions could spread from demonstrations and protests to cross-border industrial actions in key sectors and at critical nodes of European production, energy and distribution such ports, refineries and airports, then perhaps we can begin to impose our will upon those who currently force us to submit with such ease.

There is no other option remaining but an international left.

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Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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