As if there wasn’t already enough to read in the Guardian, what with the acres of print devoted to the revelations from the Panama Papers, I felt obliged to read yesterday’s Long Read: Yanis Varoufakis on ‘Why we must save the EU‘, subtitled ‘The European Union is disintegrating – but leaving is not the answer’. The issue addressed by the former Finance Minister who represented Greece in the negotiations with the EU and the IMF over the terms of the bailout in 2015 is an urgent one for UK citizens facing the decision of how to vote in the June referendum.
Given the mauling that Varoufakis – and Greece – received at the hands of the EU his proposition is, perhaps, surprising.In the Guardian piece, Varoufakis devotes the first part of his text to an interesting account of his upbringing in Athens and the political divisions in his family: his father imprisoned during the Civil War for his communist sympathies, while his uncle, Siemens’ general manager in Greece from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, was a neoliberal, fiercely anti-communist, and suspicious of social democracy.
That leads into an absorbing account of Varoufakis’s bruising experience during the first six months of 2015 as he and the rest of the Greek negotiating team attempted to translate Greek popular discontent with austerity into a new approach at the European level. During countless sessions of the Eurogroup, the informal council of eurozone finance ministers, he became, as he put it, ‘a minority of one’. He describes a situation in which the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, along with the Eurogroup chairman, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, spearheaded the imposition of brutal terms on the Greeks.
The Eurogroup, writes Varoufakis, is a body that operates in complete secrecy, without minutes or transcripts. No transparency, no democracy. Indeed, he was told by Schauble that ‘Elections cannot be allowed to change the economic programme for Greece.’ Varoufakis recalls the words of Thucydides (applicable, too, to the scandals revealed by the Panama Papers):
The strong do as they please while the weak suffer what they must.
In a passage in which he describes a ‘set-up designed to preclude any sovereignty derived from the people of Europe’, Varoufakis makes an interesting distinction between sovereignty and power:
During a break from that 10-hour Eurogroup meeting, in which I had struggled to reclaim some economic sovereignty on behalf of my battered parliament and our suffering people, another finance minister attempted to soothe me by saying: “Yanis, you must understand that no country can be sovereign today. Especially not a small and bankrupt one like yours.”
This line of argument is probably the most pernicious fallacy to have afflicted public debate in our modern liberal democracies. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that it may be the greatest threat to liberal democracy itself. Its true meaning is that sovereignty is passé unless you are the United States, China or, maybe, Putin’s Russia. In which case you might as well append your country to a transnational alliance of states where your parliament is reduced to a rubber stamp, and all authority is vested in the larger states.
Interestingly, this argument is not reserved for small, bankrupt countries such as Greece, trapped in a badly designed common currency area. This same noxious dictum is today being peddled in the UK – supposedly as a clinching argument in favour of the remain campaign. As a supporter of Britain remaining in the EU, nothing upsets me more than the enlistment to the “yes” cause of an argument that is as toxic as it is woolly.
The problem begins once the distinction between sovereignty and power is blurred. Sovereignty is about who decides legitimately on behalf of a people – whereas power is the capacity to impose these decisions on the outside world. Iceland is a tiny country. But to claim that Iceland’s sovereignty is illusory because it is too small to have much power is like arguing that a poor person with no political clout might as well give up her right to vote.
To put it slightly differently, small sovereign nations such as Iceland have choices to make within the broader constraints created for them by nature and by the rest of humanity. However limited these choices might be, Iceland’s citizens retain absolute authority to hold their elected officials accountable for the decisions they have reached (within the nation’s external constraints), and to strike down every piece of legislation those elected officials have decided upon in the past.
An alliance of states, which is what the EU is, can of course come to mutually beneficial arrangements, such as a defensive military alliance against a common aggressor, coordination between police forces, open borders, an agreement to common industry standards, or the creation of a free-trade zone. But it can never legitimately strike down or overrule the sovereignty of one of its member states on the basis of the limited power it has been granted by the sovereign states that have agreed to participate in the alliance. There is no collective European sovereignty from which Brussels could draw the legitimate political authority to do so.
One may retort that the European Union’s democratic credentials are beyond reproach. The European Council comprises heads of governments, while Ecofin and the Eurogroup are the councils of finance ministers (of the whole EU and of the eurozone respectively). All these representatives are, of course, democratically elected. Moreover, there is the European parliament, elected by the citizens of the member states, which has the power to send proposed legislation back to the Brussels bureaucracy. But these arguments demonstrate how badly European appreciation of the founding principles of liberal democracy has been degraded. The critical error of such a defence is once more to confuse political authority with power.
A parliament is sovereign, even if its country is not particularly powerful, when it can dismiss the executive for having failed to fulfil the tasks assigned to it within the constraints of whatever power the executive and the parliament possess. Nothing like this exists in the EU today.
For while the members of the European Council and the Eurogroup of finance ministers are elected politicians, answerable, theoretically, to their respective national parliaments, the Council and the Eurogroup are themselves not answerable to any parliament, nor indeed to any voting citizens whatsoever.
Moreover, the Eurogroup, where most of Europe’s important economic decisions are taken, is a body that does not even exist in European law, that keeps no minutes of its procedures and insists its deliberations are confidential – that is, not to be shared with the citizens of Europe. It operates on the basis – in the words of Thucydides – that “strong do as they please while the weak suffer what they must”. It is a set-up designed to preclude any sovereignty derived from the people of Europe.
While opposing Schäuble’s logic on Greece in the Eurogroup and elsewhere, at the back of my mind there were two thoughts. First, as the finance minister of a bankrupt state, whose citizens demanded an end to a great depression that had been caused by a denial of our bankruptcy – the imposition of new unpayable loans, so payments could be made on old unpayable loans – I had a political and moral duty to say no to more “extend-and-pretend” loan agreements. My second thought was the lesson of Sophocles’s Antigone, who taught us that good women and men have a duty to contradict rules lacking political and moral legitimacy.
Political authority is the cement that keeps legislation together, and the sovereignty of the body politic that engenders the legislation is its foundation. Saying no to Schäuble and the troika was an essential defence of our right to sovereignty. Not just as Greeks but as Europeans.
After reading such an analysis you might assume that Varoufakis has washed his hands of the European Union and its ‘lack of political and moral legitimacy.’ But no: quite the opposite. His position might be summed up in the headline the Telegraph gave to its recent profile of him: ‘Europe is too important to be left to its clueless rulers’.
Recently Varoufakis launched the Democracy in Europe Movement, or DiEM25, whose central message is that ‘Europe will be democratised or it will disintegrate’. The DiEM25 manifesto demands that meetings of the Eurogroup, ECB board and European Council of heads of government be streamed live. It would elevate the European Parliament, federal Europe’s only directly elected body, to primacy above the executive, the European Commission, and the European Council.
This week he publishes a new book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, a detailed analysis of the origins of Europe’s financial crisis. Its basic thesis is that the eurozone is not the route to shared prosperity it was intended to be but ‘a pyramid scheme of debt with countries such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain at its bottom’. He concludes that Europe ‘is too important to be left to its clueless rulers’, and that the EU must be democratised if Europe is to avoid a repetition of the 1930s, with financial chaos, the rise of fascism, and the spectre of conflict.
Varoufakis’s view that Europe is broken and undemocratic might seem to lend encouragement to supporters of Brexit. But in his Guardian essay he argues that Britain must remain in the European Union. The argument that the UK can leave the EU, thus regaining its full sovereignty, yet stay in the single market is fallacious, he insists.
To have a single market you need three things: common industry standards; common labour market rules; and common environmental protection standards. And to have these you need common legislation; you need a common judiciary that will enforce these laws, and an executive for implementing them.
In other words, you need a pooled sovereignty. And if you get out of the European Union while staying in the single market, effectively you are transferring the three branches of power to Brussels. So I think in the end you will end up with less sovereignty, not more, because you won’t have the power of veto.
Varoufakis argues that the major mistake being made by both sides of the debate in Britain is that the EU is regarded as a constant, a given. But it’s not: once it was a work in progress; now it’s disintegrating, and Brexit would hasten that disintegration:
It is crucial to consider the consequences of a decision to leave. Whether we like it or not, the European Union is our environment – and it has become a terribly unstable environment, which will disintegrate even if a small, depressed country like Greece leaves, let alone a major economy like Britain. Should the Greeks or the Brits care about the disintegration of an infuriating EU? Yes, of course we should care. And we should care very much because the disintegration of this frustrating alliance will create a vortex that will consume us all – a postmodern replay of the 1930s.
It is a major error to assume, whether you are a remain or a leave supporter, that the EU is something constant “out there” that you may or may not want to be part of. The EU’s very existence depends on Britain staying in. Greece and Britain are facing the same three options. The first two are represented aptly by the two warring factions within the Tory party: deference to Brussels and exit. They are equally calamitous options. Both lead to the same dystopian future: a Europe fit only for those who flourish in times of a great Depression – the xenophobes, the ultra-nationalists, the enemies of democratic sovereignty. The third option is the only one worth going for: staying in the EU to form a cross-border alliance of democrats, which Europeans failed to manage in the 1930s, but which our generation must now attempt to prevent history repeating itself.
This is precisely what some of us are working towards in creating DiEM25 – the Democracy in Europe Movement, with a view to conjuring up a democratic surge across Europe, a common European identity, an authentic European sovereignty, an internationalist bulwark against both submission to Brussels and hyper-nationalist reaction.
Is this not utopian? Of course it is! But not more so than the notion that the current EU can survive its anti-democratic hubris, and the gross incompetence fuelled by its unaccountability. Or the idea that British or Greek democracy can be revived in the bosom of a nation-state whose sovereignty will never be restored within a single market controlled by Brussels.
Just like in the early 1930s, Britain and Greece cannot escape Europe by building a mental or legislative wall behind which to hide. Either we band together to democratise – or we suffer the consequences of a pan-European nightmare that no border can keep out.
Reading Varoufakis I badly wanted to believe in his prescription for the EU’s ills. But, immediately a wave of Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect swept over me. Firstly, I find it hard to believe in the possibility of a pan-European movement that would seriously challenge the existing power structures in the EU. Then there’s the question as to whether DiEM25’s prescription is the correct one. There’s an interesting response to their manifesto on the openDemocracy site.
It comes from Thomas Fazi who only a couple of years ago published a book – The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent – and How We Can Take It Back – that offered a similar analysis and plan of action. Since the publication of his book, however, he writes that he has grown increasingly sceptical about the possibility of achieving such a programme. You can read the essay expressing his doubts here.
As for me: well, I just cannot bring myself to vote for Brexit. It’s a gut reaction that’s partly pragmatic. I foresee perhaps a decade of serious disruption to the British economy, and even the fracturing of the UK itself. (Greenland is the only territory that has left the EU: with a population half that of the Isle of Wight there was only one issue to resolve -fishing – and yet it took three years to negotiate their exit.)
But in my gut I always come back to the circumstances that gave rise to the dream of European unity. In 1945 Europe lay in ruins. 50 million were dead after a conflict that dwarfed even the First World War in its level of death and destruction. In different parts of Europe individuals began to work towards a different kind of Europe: Schuman from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, De Gasperi from northern Italy, Spaak from bilingual Belgium. Europe’s diversity helped foster the impulse to unite.
Within five years of the end of the war, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, prompted by Jean Monnet, proposed to Germany the first practical move toward European unity, and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed. Six countries originally rallied to the concept of a united Europe; now there are 28, from both sides of the former Cold War divide.
Much tarnished, it is still a dream worth holding onto.
And here’s a positive assessment of the DiEM25 initiative from Green MP Caroline Lucas.