The European Revolt Against the Neoliberal EU (1/2)
Catarina Principe, co-editor of Europe in Revolt, says a left movement against austerity must pursue the restructuring of public debt, nationalization of key sectors, and public control of the banking system, but none of this can be done within the European Union
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
What started off as a financial crisis in Europe has now turned and become a crisis of the eurozone. There has been unprecedented wave of mass strikes, signifying the discontent of the working classes. In Greece, for example, people elected the leftist SYRIZA Party and voted no to austerity debt deal offered to them by the Troika. In France, there has been consistent strikes against efforts to reverse labor rights by the so-called socialist government. Among other interesting developments in Portugal, the people elected a socialist party which vowed to curb E.U. austerity. In the U.K., they voted for Brexit. Some claim that this was due to the antidemocratic neoliberal structures of the European Union.
So what exactly are the limits of the European project? And how does the left seize the moment to build a popular movement of the left across the continent?
Joining us now to discuss all of this is Catarina Príncipe. She is the coeditor, along with Bhaskar Sunkara, of a new book, Europe in Revolt. She’s a social movement activist from Portugal, and she’s a member of Bloco /dɛlkəˈreɪdɑ/ [de Esquerda?] in Portugal and Die Linke in Germany and a consulting editor for Jacobin.
Thanks for joining us today.
CATARINA PRÍNCIPE, ACTIVIST AND WRITER: Thank you.
PERIES: So let’s begin with the very topic of your book and Europe in revolt. So what are the indicators that you see across the continent that Europe is in revolt? And what is breathing beneath it all that gives way to a leftist popular movement?
PRÍNCIPE: So, first of all, thank you for inviting me here. Well, I think the book is called Europe in revolt because we have witnessed over the last decade, maybe a little bit more, we have witnessed movements and new parties, new party formations that reveal the restructuring of the left since the end of the ’80s, ’90s in Europe. So that is a very interesting experience, and that’s what the book tries to cover; it’s all those experiences, the ones that were not so good and that have been problematic, like SYRIZA in Greece, but also the ones that kind of give us hope, like Podemos in Spain and what is happening in Portugal.
And what we think is that the European project as a whole, it has always been a neoliberal project, but has been able to disguise itself with a kind of, like, social political project. And that is kind of, like, cracking up, especially since last year, when SYRIZA tried to negotiate to end austerity, and the threat imposed by the European Union clearly demolished it.
So what we see today in Europe is a sort of a pluralization of politics. So we have the growth of the far right, as we know, for example, in Britain, but we also have the growth of the far left. So in that sense Europe is in revolt, because there is a turmoil that we don’t know exactly where it’s going to end. So this book tries to be a contribution to understand the development of the left in the last few years.
PERIES: And do you see that this revolt has a transcontinental nature to it?
PRÍNCIPE: Yes and no. So I think it does in the sense of a lot of it are questions that have to do with the way that the European Union has been structured for the last decades and the limitations that the European Union imposes. So if we’re looking, for example, at Southern Europe, the similarities are very big. So entering the European Union for us has meant the destruction of our productive sector, over-dependency on the core countries, like Germany or France. And that has forced us to take, for example, huge amount of debt that now has been, like, forced into us to pay off very quickly with very high interest rates. And that’s how the crisis in Southern Europe have developed. So for sure in Southern Europe there are very strong similarities with the imposition of austerity policies also.
In the core it’s a bit different, because the positions between, for example, Germany or Portugal are very different in the structured economy of the European Union.
So I would say, yes, there are similarities. So there is a certain, like, transnational feeling to it, because it is–this transnational feeling comes from the chains and the bounds that the European Union has imposed to us. But at the same time, they have very specific national phenomena and dynamics.
PERIES: And the reason I ask about the transcontinental nature of this is because neoliberalism and the European Union’s austerity measures are applied transcontinentally, and therefore the revolt against it must also be transcontinental. And people looked, you know, people were watching Greece very carefully. And now that Brexit has actually passed, Greece, people in Greece are looking at it going, wow, they could do it, we could do it. Is it that kind of sensibility around the continent?
PRÍNCIPE: I think–so two things. First, I think the European Union is not–so the European Union is for sure a transnational project. But it is a transnational project that is composed by competing nation-states. So the importance of the nation-state in the way this process is in itself composed, so the competition between core-periphery countries or the fact that the periphery countries have transformed their productive sectors into sectors of nontradable goods in order to import what the core countries are producing so that they can export, so this tension between core-periphery in Europe is very clear. So it is a transnational bloc, but composed by competing nation-states. So it’s not only a transnational bloc. And that’s what makes it different, these two levels.
And Brexit, it’s a very interesting development on European politics. My opinion is we have to be a little bit careful about it because, on the one hand, it does open a space, but the way that the campaign was drawn, the left wasn’t able to capitalize on the discontent. And I think a lot of the discontent that showed, that people showed by voting Leave has not to do with racism or xenophobia; it has to do with the fact that actually neoliberal policies that are imposed by the European Union have torn apart people’s lives, have thrown people into unemployment and poverty. But the fact also is that the right was able to capitalize on this discontent and the left wasn’t. So I think we have to be careful on the way we approach what is happening in the U.K. right now.
PERIES: And a lot of the discussion around Brexit was about how the youth feel this affinity with the European Union because they feel that they must have the freedom to move about the continent and they like that. So a lot of young people, it was framed as if this was the preference of the young. Was it?
PRÍNCIPE: I can’t really say. I mean, I think there is for sure a class dynamic happened in the referendum, so tendentially more working-class people voted for Leave. The reasons why are very different, I think. I think the more educated urban class, younger people, voted for Remain. And I think it is true that the discourse, the narrative of European integration, the European process that I grew up with–I grew up in ’86, the year that Portugal joined the European Union, so of course this is part of the way that my identity was framed. So it is the idea that we can travel, that we can do Erasmus and, like, go to other universities across the continent, don’t have to ask for visas, can migrate easily–that is for sure something that we grew up with. And people are afraid of losing that possibility of movement, which is a good thing.
But I think the reasons why people voted for Leave or Remain are a bit more complicated than just that.
PERIES: Yeah. The labor mobility is a big factor, particularly for the youth, because they want to be able to go to other countries and work for the summers and come back home and go to university and so on. However, you’re saying this is a much more complicated issue than just that. What are the options available? I mean, one doesn’t have to have the eurozone in order to mediate and manage all of this mobility of labor across nation-states. It was possible before, and it could be eased, it could be loosened up. If that issue was dealt with, for example, would they make the same kind of choice?
PRÍNCIPE: Probably not. I think the clear fact that the E.U. is not purely a transnational bloc is that the nation-state structures and the borders are still at place, right? So it would be possible to imagine a united Europe that is a sort of a federation of different states that are left-wing from below, democratic, really democratic, where people actually can control the economy and the way that the states and their life are structured, but that’s not the European Union. So it would be possible to have open borders–open borders from within, and also for everyone else that is coming from outside of Europe. And I think that would answer to what–a lot of young people that voted for Remain because of the border question, that would be a much serious answer to that. But that seems a bit more far away than what is possible today.
PERIES: Let’s take a look at France. In the last four months we’ve seen a great deal of labor unrest with Hollande, the Socialist Party of France imposing by decree all this rolling back of labor rights in France, and there’s been mounting discontent and a movement growing. How strong is those protests?
PRÍNCIPE: They’re very strong. They’re probably some of the stronger protests we’ve seen in France in the last many years. And I think there’s two very amazing things. On the one hand is that it is a sort of–like, it’s reclaiming against this feeling and this flare from the /akəmˈpadəz/, from the people that occupy the squares, a little bit like Occupy here also. There are some connections to that.
But at the same time, we see a very clear intervention of the trade unions and the trade unions trying to–and the movement and the trade unions trying to work together. And that is a very interesting experience. And it’s not been a common thing in Europe. It’s been difficult to navigate the space between the unions and the movements. So I think that is a very good qualitative jump in what is happening.
PERIES: How long will this last? Now, it is clear that each of the unions that are protesting at this time–the pilots, the teachers, the trade workers, and so on–each of them are being dealt with by the Hollande government in terms of negotiation. So projecting ahead, I see [them] one by one being taken out of the protesting mode. What are the projections here, particularly given that now the motion has passed? I know there’s a few more steps in putting it into law, but the main union organizing this has said, the law might have passed, but our protest will remain into a reorganized intensity coming up in the fall.
PRÍNCIPE: I cannot give a clear answer to that. I think it will also rely on–and that’s why I also said that this quality of, like, having the movements and the unions together, even if the government may be able to negotiate with some sectorial trade unions on some deals, if there is a movement that is bringing all those people together, is occupying the streets, that is working together with the unions, than that might be the air that this movement needs to go on if they manage to keep on fighting together. But I cannot say exactly how things will develop in the fall now.
PERIES: And are there states looking at this situation in France as a inspirational assertion of the working classes and unions and student movements together as something they could take away from and formulate?
PRÍNCIPE: Well, I sure hope so. I mean, it has been a discussion for many years about–in Portugal also, very much so, because we have a very, very high number of precarious workers. It’s basically maybe now more than the half of the Portuguese working population. And our question has been for years: how do we revitalize the labor movement under such difficult circumstances of organizing when collective bargaining is disappearing? So I hope that Nuit debout and all this experience in France can be kind of an inspiring moment for us also to realize how we can bring those topics together and take the different social actors together in a stronger and more organized movement.
PERIES: All the protest in France and Greece and other places has had very little impact on the leadership of the European Union, and they are treading along as if nothing has happened here. How stable is the eurozone?
PRÍNCIPE: So I would like to put up an argument that–I think it’s interesting about what is also going on. I think we can’t look at the European elites and the ruling class of the European Union as an homogenous subject–I think there’s been clashes among them also. And this is very clear when you see what’s happening with parties of the Socialist International–so the Socialist Party of France, the Socialist Party of Portugal, PASOK in Greece that completely disappeared, the SPD in Germany–because during the last decades, they have basically turned themself into social liberal parties and basically picked up–they have no differentiation, clear differentiation from the right-wing agenda. They are just disappearing from the polls. And that’s been happening in Europe for the last few years.
And so I think there is sort of an opening of space right now that I think aims to, like, restructure and revive these parties that are a very important political group and political family in the constitution of the European ruling class. So, for example, in Portugal, kind of the maneuvering space that the Portuguese Socialist Party’s been giving to negotiate to its left, so to form a government supported by the Left Bloc (Bloco) and the Communist Party, has also to do with this idea that they need to tackle the left in order to restructure themselves and survive the political crisis that they’ve been going through. And this is very clear when you see the different positions that sometimes the European leaders take. For example, Schäuble, which is part of the conservative group, is much harsher on what should happen, while, for example, Schulz, which is part of the other political family, tries to maneuver things.
So I think definitely the European union as a structure is in crisis. Brexit has accelerated it. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and there can be contradictory phenomena. And it’s also in crisis because its leading figures or its elites are also in crisis and don’t know exactly how to deal with this.
So we have just known a couple of days ago that Portugal, for example, is going to have to pay sanctions for overcoming the deficit limits, which is very interesting, because that’s going to be bad for the Socialist Party of Portugal that are leading the government and we don’t know how exactly they’re going to tackle that. So they say they’re against the sanctions, but now the pressure is being applied for them to keep on the good–like Schäuble said, the good austerity road. Right? So we don’t know exactly how this is going to play out in the next times.
PERIES: I want to take up Portugal in our next segment, because I think people need a little bit more context to Portugal to understand what’s going on there at the moment. But before we do that, I want to re-address this issue about the leadership crisis.
So when you look at Greece and you look at SYRIZA–and we saw SYRIZA’s leadership fall apart and split into another organization, and now we have a number of other parties on the left, but also Popular Unity. In France, we know that the Socialist government of Hollande is now in crisis as a result of this very law that they’re trying to pass in the government. The leftists of the Socialist Party are seriously objecting to this, which might put Hollande himself into a leadership crisis. We are seeing this happening as a result of the Brexit vote, both on the Conservative side as well as on the Labour side in the U.K. What are the sentiments in terms of the popular movements that are out there? And you’re seeing these kinds of splits. Are you to seize the moment, for example, in terms of supporting Corbyn? Or do you say, no, these parties have already abdicated their right to govern from a left perspective, like SYRIZA, and formulate your own, like Popular Unity?
PRÍNCIPE: I don’t know if there is one answer. I don’t think there’s one answer to that, because the situations are very different from one another. And I think that’s also what the book tries to propose. It’s a differentiated–although there is a common thread that organizes the different pieces on the book, there’s differences.
So I think Corbyn is definitely a moment that the left needs to seize right now. I think that the PSF in France is a completely different story. The PSF doesn’t have a left-wing leadership that suddenly won the party and is able to mobilize a left-wing fringe of the population into the party that is trying to dispute it as Corbyn. SYRIZA is again a different story, because SYRIZA won under a very clear anti-austerity program that they themselves were not able and did not want to fulfill, for different reasons (I don’t want to go into detail this discussion). So of course that creates also different crisis.
So I think there is a moment, there is an opening of a moment to rebuild an anti-austerity left. And I think that anti-austerity left has to have a very clear critical perspective on the European Union–which is not, for example, what SYRIZA did. I think it has to be very clear and very objective about the limitations of the European project. It has to be aware that probably the only way to stop austerity is by disobeying, is by disobeying the European dictates, because they’re undemocratic and they’re neoliberal and they will try everything to stop any form of government movement that is actually to the left and that is [rekindling] labor rights and social rights. And I think that that has to be done by not building campaigns on, like, let’s leave the euro or let’s leave the eurozone or let’s leave the European Union, because that is very unpopular and people are very afraid of that, but I think that movement must be built on the questions and the demands that we know are fundamental to revert austerity, for example restructuring of the public debts of sovereign European countries; for example nationalization or re-nationalization of the strategic sectors of the economy, the railroad in the U.K., for example, or the electricity in Portugal; and also public control of the banking system. These three things which the left finds fundamental for reverting austerity cannot be done within the European Union today. And I think that is kind of–like, if you ask me, this is what I put forward is, like, this is the strategic line upon which the left must build, because only a movement that confronts in practice the limitations of the European Union will stop being afraid of leaving if it needs to be.
PERIES: That is a good place to end. OK. Catarina, thank you so much for joining us today.
PRÍNCIPE: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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