The EU has come in for a lot of battering over the last year or so. With the prospect of an in/out referendum on the horizon, this battering is likely to reach apocalyptic proportions. While most of the attacks on the EU have come from the right in the Tory party and UKIP, ably assisted by their friends in the media, some on the left have willingly joined in. For those on the right the EU is too interventionist and too protective of the rights of workers. While those on the left accuse the EU of being a capitalist club. Both hold the EU to be undemocratic and run by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.
Both sides are wrong in their description of how the EU works. It is not run by bureaucrats, elected or unelected, nor is it undemocratic. I was pleased to come across an interesting article on Bella, by Alistair Davidson, outlining why the left should support the EU. The article also contains a very brief and succinct description of how the EU works and where the real power lies within the EU. “There is a tendency in Britain to blame “the EU” as though it is a government apart, but in fact EU policy is largely driven by national governments in the Council of the European Union. The so-called European Parliament is actually a second chamber like the House of Lords. It is the national governments who appoint the Commission and the national governments who control the equivalent of the Commons. We have a right-wing EU because we have right-wing European governments.” (my emphasis)
This is why I have titled this post as a failure of the Left. The left in its broadest sense has conspicuously failed across the EU. In member state after member state, a majority of voters have elected and often re-elected parties and governments of the right. Often a very nasty right. They have not done so on orders from Brussels or from Berlin. Yet the left, as Alistair Davidson notes above, much prefers to blame the EU, instead of reflecting on why the left has been so often rejected.
That the EU is not some monolithic superstate can be seen in the way the EU has responded to two very different and difficult challenges in the last year or so. I refer to Greece and the ongoing refugee crisis. In the case of Greece there was a very clear and consistent approach by the EU. On the other hand there has been the exact opposite when dealing with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees. There has been and continues to be, no clear and consistent approach to the refugee crisis. Yet it is the same EU in both cases.
Why was the EU able to respond in such a clear and consistent and united way to the crisis in Greece? This was because, as noted above, we have right-wing governments across the EU. All of them in favour of austerity as the only way out of the financial crisis. Wrong headed we would all agree, yet this was the position of nearly all the democratically elected governments within the EU. As they were all imposing austerity measure on their own populations, it was hard to see why they would not insist on the same measure for Greece. Remember too that it was not the EU that created the financial mess in Greece. A democratic vote in Greece does not trump a democratic vote elsewhere.
The Commissioners who led the negotiations with Greece were able to do so confidently because the had the unified support of all the other 27 member states. Not sure how this can be described as undemocratic. While the Commissioners led the negotiations, it was perfectly clear that the key decisions were all taken by the elected government ministers of the member states. It seems rather perverse to suggest that the likes of Wolfgang Schäuble or Angela Merkel or François Hollande are faceless bureaucrats. We may all agree that the choices these politicians made was wrong, but we cannot deny their right to make the decisions. Again the key question should be why has the left failed so miserably in getting left-wing governments elected across the EU? Blaming Merkel or the EU achieves nothing.
When it comes to the ongoing refugee crisis which started last spring, we see the EU working in the complete opposite direction. Or perhaps not working at all, might be a better way of putting it. For in this case the member states have been and remain unable to agree on a common response to the refugees. Each country has acted on its own behalf, with little or no attempt to find common ground with others. The EU Commission has made all kinds of pronouncements and suggestions, but to no avail. This illustrates perfectly the powerlessness of the EU Commission. Though full of ex-politicians, the Commission is essentially a civil service. And like all civil services it does what its masters tell it to do. The masters here is the Council of Ministers, where the representatives of all the 28 member states meet to decide on policy and action. Or not, as in the case of the refugee crisis.
For better or worse the EU does not have a government. The Council of Ministers or the European Council are the supreme decision making bodies in the EU. The Parliament has a role to play, but not of initiative, and the key decisions remain in the hands of the governments of the member states. Alas, when they cannot agree on a common response, we get inaction or muddling through. As we can see with the refugee crisis. Again, though deplorable, I find it hard to see how this is undemocratic.
In both cases the left has had little constructive to say. I am still not aware of any consistent programme of action from the left on how the EU should respond to the refugee crisis. No doubt there are suggestions from various groups on the left, but there does not appear to be a clear and consistent approach by the left.
In the case of Greece, even the left of centre governments of France and Italy supported the hard line taken by their colleagues. While some on the left have opposed austerity from the beginning, the broad left has not. This failure to oppose and challenge the need for austerity is to my mind the single most important reason for the failure of the left across the EU. Simon Wren-Lewis in his blog has written much about this failure. His most recent post contains this criticism of the left: “Austerity is a trap for the left as long as they refuse to challenge it. You cannot say that you will spend more doing worthwhile things, and when (inevitably) asked how you will pay for it try and change the subject. Voters may not be experts on economics, but they can sense weakness and vulnerability. If instead you restrict yourself to changes at the margin, you appear to be ‘just the same’.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Simon Wren-Lewis on this score. It is not enough for some radical parties to challenge the dominant ideology of the right. They will never win power on their own. The broad left needs to somehow find a way of coming together in coalitions to win power. Not to simply endorse an austerity lite programme, as the socialists in France and Spain have done, but to challenge the whole mythology about austerity.
However this will require some hard reflections on all sections of the left as to why they have so conspicuously failed to make this challenge. So far it seems many on the left prefer the easy route of just blaming the EU.