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Costas Lapavitsas, former MP of the Greek Parliament and author of The Left Case Against the EU, says the left needs to have honest debates about the EU and its limitations, which became evident in the political struggles associated with Brexit and Grexit

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SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome back to my conversation with Costas Lapavitsas, the author of The Left Case Against the EU, published by Polity Books. In this segment we will explore issues of nation states, national sovereignty, and how we advance into nationalism and protect workers across the borders without being a part of institutions like that of the EU. In other words, how do we protect our democracy? Welcome back, Costas.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Always a pleasure. Yes.

SHARMINI PERIES: Costas, the world over is experiencing a democratic crisis. And one very vivid example of this that the world lived through was the moment of the Greek referendum, when the troika, which is represented by the EU here, makes an offer to Greece, and the Syriza government in power poses that offer in a referendum to the people. The people come to the polls, they vote, and they say don’t accept the offer by the EU. They know what the consequences of that is, that it would force Greece to leave the European Union; at least the European monetary union. But that’s what the people decided. But the Syriza government defied that decision, and went ahead almost the very next day and asked parliament for approval to go ahead and accept the deal offered to them by the troika.

Now, this brings in questions of national sovereignty, national ability to set policies, financial policies, and of course it also brings into question the control that institutions like the EU–and how they represent the international banks and corporations. And this, of course, leads to defying national sovereignty, the will of the people, democratic processes.

And so the question is how do we retain the very good things about our democracies, at the same time defying these institutions like the EU? And all that while we also exercise international solidarity with our fellow workers in other countries? Now, you cover this in your book, so let me get your thoughts on these issues.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: I’ll be pleased to do so, because I think that on this issue the debate within the left hs produced much more heat than light. The first point I want to make is that all that–nationalism, internationalism, sovereignty, and so on–all these questions are integrally connected to democracy and the practice of democracy. You cannot separate democracy from these issues.

Now, when you look at the European Union–one can generalize to other countries, areas, but let’s look, let’s focus on the European Union. When you look at the European Union what you will recognize is that there’s been a hollowing out of democracy. It’s of paramount importance. You know, you can say the same thing about the United States, I’m sure, and other countries. But in Europe, the hollowing out of democracy is clear–by which I mean the following.

You can vote for any government you like in Europe pretty much. But the policies that the government will have to follow and apply with regard to the economy will be the same, if you’re in the European Union. You’ll be forced to follow the same policies. In other words, economic policy–which is vital, crucial to modern government–has been depoliticized. It’s been removed from the democratic process. And that has happened through the institutions of the European Union, which arrive from the outside and tell you, very nice ideas you have. The people have voted for them. But unfortunately you cannot implement them, because the economy will not allow it. Because economic theory does not allow it. Because economic knowledge does not allow it. By which they mean theories, perspectives, and approaches produced by people [chained] with universities who all go through the same process and have the same ideas. And then it’s reproduced in think tanks, and then it’s reproduced through political parties, and it becomes the dominant neoliberalism that we know.

That has effectively been detached from the democratic process; or at least the democratic process is not allowed to impinge on it. The European Union is an excellent mechanism for bringing that about. That hollowing out of democracy is understood by ordinary people. Definitely well understood by ordinary people, by working people, by the poor, by the downcast, by the plebeians of country after country in Europe. And that’s what’s behind the rejection of politics, because if politics does not allow you–I mean parliamentary politics, normal daily politics–does not allow you to change these policies on these crucial issues and areas, then what’s the use of politics? What’s the use of politics? Why should we bother with politics? What’s the use of democracy? Why bother with democracy if it doesn’t affect those areas, if it’s not allowed to affect those areas?

So democracy has subsided. Democracy has been hollowed out. And what we’ve got instead is policies by the experts, so-called; policies by the institutions, which have got a life of their own. Often also you’ve got policies by parliament which doesn’t connect anymore to the people. And that we’ve seen time and again, and we see it in Britain today. The British Parliament is not connected to the British people anymore. It has a life of its own. It sort of does things because of its own parliamentary logic rather than because of democratic logic or expressing the will of the British people, on the question of Brexit.

So that’s what’s behind much of the unrest, the political unrest you see in Europe, and the rise of the right. Because what’s behind the rise of the right is precisely this disillusionment with politics. In the past the left, the radical left, always understood itself as a force that’s against capitalism, that wants to overthrow capitalism and wants to change the basic structure of society, destroy the institutions of capitalism that have come out and said this is the reality of democracy in Europe. We need to break the institutions and create new ones. The left doesn’t say that anymore. What it says is let’s fix it. Let’s move in and tweak it. Let’s improve it. Let’s blame sensibly, because of course you can’t be radical. Then the left wonders why we’re losing influence. That’s why. We’re losing interest because we’re not connecting with ordinary people, the poor people, the working class people, and the right is. And what the right also does is to relate these ideas, then, with racism, anti-immigrant feeling, misogynism, you name it. The usual stuff of the right. And then we have this terrible situation rising in Europe.

SHARMINI PERIES: Costas, then how do you combine national sovereign policy and pursuit of what’s in the interests of ordinary people in a country, based on elections, and democracy, and votes, and so forth, and the mission of the left, which is also a form of internationalism? You know, which is why the European Union, at least the aura of the European Union, is so appealing to so many people, and so many young people.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Indeed. The first step is differentiating the internationalism of big business, internationalism of capital, and internationalism of labor. The left is for the internationalism of labor. The left is the original internationalist politcal body, and it is for the internationalism of working people, of the poor, of the plebians of the world, who have got common cause. Not the internationalism of big business, which is basically the rights and opportunity and ability of big business to exploit labor across the board, to move across borders and to shift labor across borders and shift money across borders as it pleases to search for profit. That’s not our internationalism. It never has been in the traditions of the left; never has been since the day Karl Marx developed most of the theory on which we still draw.

Our internationalism is of a different type. It’s an internationalism of labor that starts from the rights of working people, [incument on] working people, people who live in a particular country as well as people who come from abroad, and stresses the essential commonality by giving them rights. Equal rights and equal protections. The left has always been about that. But it seems to have forgotten it, and seems to be mistaking the internationalism of capital for the internationalism of big business.

Now, in the context of the internationalism of labor, in the context of the European Union, this debate has become toxic now, among the left. The European Union is a transnational body, for sure. It’s not an internationalist body. Its a transnational body. It still comprises nation states. The nation states are there, they haven’t gone away. And they implement policies that national elites and national ruling classes choose partly through the mechanisms of the European Union. That’s the reality of the EU. But it is also a transnational body, to be sure. That transnational body works in the interests of big business and in the interests of capital, not in the interests of workers, in the interests of the poor in Europe.

So the first step in defending the interests of the foreign workers in Europe is to reclaim sovereign power domestically. But sovereign power understood from the perspective of labor, not the perspective of capital. And sovereign power from the perspective of labor means popular sovereignty. That idea has almost gone out of the window. The left used to talk about it all the time. We are for popular sovereignty; in other words, the ability of working people, the ability of the poor to have a say and to take part in institutions, mechanisms, and practices that actually matter for the workplace, for the neighborhoods, for the town, the city, and the country more broadly. It’s definitely possible. It’s happened In the past, to a small extent. That’s exactly what we need again, because it has gone away. It has retreated. And that popular sovereignty that we’re talking about is, of course, connected to democracy. It’s impossible to have popular sovereignty without democracy. That’s why the poor and the working class are the main defenders of democracy, because it’s in their interests. The working class cannot protect what it needs in society without democracy it relies on democracy.

That’s why the retreat of democracy in Europe is the retreat of popular sovereignty as well, and the sovereignty of capital has taken over. Now, is that unconnected to national sovereignty? No, it is connected also to national sovereignty. Nations exist, whether we like it or not. Nations exist. And the internationalism of workers doesn’t mean that we pretend that nations do not exist, nor does it mean that we all become one nation. That has never been the case for the left, the left has never argued that. Karl Marx, Lenin, all the great people of the left never argued this. We don’t need to create one nation in the world in order to get internationalism. We can have internationalism of labor perfectly effectively, the way we want it, while maintaining nations, of course. But the nations that we’re talking about must be shaped by workers. Workers must become the nation. That’s how we understand it. That’s how Karl Marx understood it in the Communist Manifesto. Workers must become the nation, must be the dominant class. They must put their stamp on the nation. They must place their own priorities and their own concerns for the nation. And that’s how the nation should be.

If that’s the case, then you can have internationalism. True internationalism. In other words, go back to the … use an old phrase. Internationalism starts at home. It doesn’t start in the aether. It doesn’t start with some kind of ill-defined space among nations, between nations, out there somewhere. Internationalism is not some kind of abstract notion that exists in hyperspace. It starts at home. You control where you live. You control the towns, cities, nations, countries where you live. And by controlling them, you put across different internationalist perspectives; one that relies on, for anything, one that relies on the essential commonality of working people across the world. These are really old ideas I’m sorry to say, but the left has forgotten them, and keeps talking in ways which astound me, in Europe and elsewhere.

SHARMINI PERIES: That’s because they keep talking about the European Union, and not about the European monetary union, its demands, and that group you were referring to, called the Eurogroup. As a departing explanation to us, tell us what the Eurogroup and their role is in terms of how they flex their muscles when it comes to the European monetary union.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: I’m happy to talk about the Eurogroup, which is an appalling institution, but may I say, this is just the Eurogroup. There is also a whole array of other institutions. The European Court of Justice is a similarly bizarre and undemocratic institution. The European Court of Justice is a high court which is unlike any other kind of supreme court in the world. It’s not subject to any kind of democratic accountability. It is suspended by its own bootstraps. It’s been created by a number of different states; state [inaudible] is behind it. It’s not accountable to anybody. There is not democratic process that constrains it, or makes it accountable in any way. And it creates vast amounts of law; supplements law created by the Council of Europe, which is yet another undemocratic institution. And that law, that huge body of law, now has precedence over national law. So that also applies to how business is done in Europe, and how people live their everyday life in Europe. That is another crucial way in which democracy is bypassed.

Now, you combine it with the Eurogroup, which you just mentioned, which is a phenomenally powerful institution in the monetary union, and you’ve got a combination which is deadly. Put in that the Council of Ministers, which is the original institution of power, and add to it the ineffectual parliament of Europe, which is not really a parliament in any sense that we would recognize; it’s not elected in the same ways. It’s not really accountable. There’s no political debate or political conversation in the normal way. And what you’ve got is a bizarre–it’s a Frankenstein, what exists in Europe, which masquerades as a democratic totality. There’s nothing democratic about it. It is totally undemocratic and pro-big business.

Let me give you one final example of that. The second most prominent place in the world for lobbying–the first is, of course, Washington. That’s where big business lobbying is highest. The second most prominent place for lobbying by big business in the world is Brussels. Actually, all these institutions and mechanisms, mechanisms which are fundamentally democratic, are very closely connected to big business through a huge lobbying machine that basically does its business in the usual way of lobbying, and makes sure that the interests of big capital is protected at all crucial moments. That’s the kind of institution they were confronted with. The idea this could be transformed, this could be made into a democratic totality, this protects the interests of working people, is nonsense. It’s just gone too far.

What is needed now is for the left to reassert some of the radical ideas of rupture and rejection of this stuff, which always used to characterize the left, in the hope and in the expectation of opening up new ways for working people in Europe. It’s urgently necessary because if the left doesn’t do it, the right and the extreme right will.

SHARMINI PERIES: I’ve been speaking with Costas Lapavitsas, the author of The Left Case Against the EU. We look forward, Costas, to having you here at some time to expound on these issues. And we thank you so much for joining us today.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Costas Lapavitsas is a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London