EU

Central Europe snubbed in the vote for EU agencies

The EU tightens the grip on the institutions in its core while leaving Central Europe behind. Equality and geographical balance are pretty words, but when it comes to making decisions, Western Europe seems to have little patience for “snivelling” Eastern neighbours who don’t tow the line.

That is undoubtedly the main message that will be taken out by citizens in the countries like Slovakia, Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic from the vote to relocate two EU agencies, which took place on Monday 20 November. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Authority (EBA) are currently based in London, but have to be moved as a result of Brexit, which caused a fierce race between EU Member States to attract them to their national capital.

Given the supporting words of Commission President Juncker (who few months ago gave a reassuring speech in the sense that the EU is a Union “of equals”, where “its members, big or small, East or West, North or South,” would all be treated the same), there was a broadscale expectation that at least one of the two agencies will go to a Central European country. In fact, Slovakia and the Czech Republic cooperated in advance to support their respective bids – with Prague standing behind Bratislava’s effort to host EMA, while Bratislava advocated the Czech capital’s proposal to host EBA. Instead, Central Europe got snubbed and EMA will go to Amsterdam and EBA to Paris.

In practice, either Central European governments spell this injustice clearly and start to have a common position in the Council (and not just rhetorically, when speaking to domestic audience in national capitals), or this will worsen as Prague, Warsaw or Bratislava continue being sent against each other, as they scramble for small, individual concessions from Brussels.

Donald’s Populist Moment: Revolt of the Masses or Revolt of the Elites?

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The gloom in the eyes of the genteel EU folk in Brussels on Wednesday 9 November was a perfect reflection of the city’s rain-filled skies that morning. “The current tenant of the White House is the first Black President of the United States,” a colleague of mine quipped as I passed by his cubicle, “the guy we are getting now is a vulgar clownish buffoon, a Putin’s pal with hands on a nuclear switch.” As smart and talented as my colleague is, what escapes him as well as so many otherwise intelligent individuals of the “EU bubble” is the utter dissatisfaction of people with elites.

It is quite natural that Western political, financial, economic and media elites do not see it, since they are the exact target of the brewing popular anger. To borrow the words of Alain de Benoist, demanding they accept themselves as the root cause of resurgent populism is same as putting in doubt their raison d’être. Being in “shock”, “despair”, or “dumbfounded” about uncouth Donald Trump does not help, however. It only serves to underscore the elites became smug and live in a self-centred bubble to which day-to-day reality does not penetrate.

As non-Western media are too ready to point out, this lack of a capacity for self-reflection is a sign of political immaturity to which many Americans and Europeans have fallen. When I asked our editor Alice Máselníková for a comment, she aptly pointed out that elites pat themselves on the back and nurture each other with neoliberal convictions. They reject any different opinion immediately and without consideration as bigoted, racist, or extremist. If someone disagrees, so the logic goes, it must be only because they are not sufficiently educated or are not equipped with the right facts. If they were, “they would see through.“ Well, there you go, they did not. Now is the right moment to ask why.

Being “dumbfounded” is not a good enough response, says Jonathan Pie and does not mince his words while doing it!

Those who see hope in Trump and populism do not give a damn about all that mocking, eye rolling, crying emojis and emergency plans for emigration to far away lands. If there is something most human beings can agree on, it is that no one likes being treated as an idiot. Note well: Trump did not win regardless of his insensitive and direct utterances, but rather because of them. Pollsters who were putting Hillary Clinton in front of the race until the very last minute (as seen on the forecasts graph from New York Times) did not realise that people were quite likely hiding their political preferences because of fear of being blamed and shamed. Political correctness pushed the dialogue over ideology out of social discourse, to the extent a candidate who expressed himself vulgarly yet frankly, gave people the sense of choice and empowerment.

Chance of Winning Presidency - until Trump started winning, pollsters engaged in wishful thinking. © New York Times
Chance of Winning Presidency – until Trump started winning, pollsters engaged in wishful thinking. © New York Times

Democracy is based on the idea that in civic matters, everyone is equal. If certain criteria such as the age of maturity are met, every citizen has something to contribute to the debate and decision-making. Our life experience is different, each of us fights own battles and is given personal opportunities. Each of us, therefore, is also a bearer of certain wisdom, which does not correlate with profession or the formal level of education. Only if we share our individual wisdom and put it to the scrutiny of others, we can hope to correct for errors and mistakes that are also individual. Czech thinker Petr Robejšek is correct in saying there is a powerful wisdom in the wisdom of the crowds, since a collective offsets excesses made by a single human being.

For that reason, I have little doubt that Trump’s victory will be once written in history books as a fundamental moment of political change. Trump is the first President-elect in the 200-year old American history that did not hold any public or military function. Tremendous opposition from all traditional outlets of the mainstream notwithstanding, American people said no to the establishment and that after decades of electing sanitised and well-spoken presidential candidates who ended up offering zero palpable change. Obama was the last establishment candidate in whom people put their trust, only to see him put Citigroup and Goldman Sachs grandees on top posts in his Cabinet. Unsurprisingly, this betrayal had its political consequences: former Obama strongholds firmly sealed the election’s result when they turned to Trump.

Triumph of populism

It is not so much Donald Trump who is the winner of this election, as the anti-establishment movement as such. In fact, history was already made when Trump became the Republican candidate and when Bernie Sanders made such an excellent performance during Democratic primaries. Someone for once addressed head on problems connected to immigration and globalised economy. The Trump phenomenon is about breaking the rule that some things should not be spoken about. As disgraceful as Trump’s comments about women or Muslims were, these kinds of words are heard by people everyday, be it among “their buddies”, in a supermarket, or at their work on a construction site. While the form may and should be certainly questioned, it remains clear that Trump spoke in an understandable language about topics that concern people on the street.

Hillary Clinton and the establishment were certain they will have the White House. This witty video leaves them astonished as “mad dog” Donald snatches the coveted prize instead.

It is a triumph of populism, albeit with Trump of a xenophobic kind. Populism, however, is not an ideology but a political style. It is also not synonymous with demagogy, as populists and elitists alike are perfectly capable of deceiving the people. Ernesto Laclau defines populism as a political disposition through which people constitute or reconstitute themselves as a historical actor, starting from the moment characterised by antagonistic plurality of views. Populism is thus fundamentally linked to democracy. In the US, such a moment is becoming increasingly visible as the clash between the establishment and its neoliberal ideology of globalisation, and forces that to various extent question such fundamentals. As the traditional dichotomy between political left and right increasingly loses importance, it is being replaced by the division between “up” (elites) and “down” (people).

Trump represents the vulgar sort of populism and his political style managed to capture the anger of white working and middle-classes of the American Midwest. Formerly an industrial heartland of the United States, it was the area hardest hit by the outsourcing of jobs to cheaper locations in Asia. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had not voted for a Republican candidate since the 1980s, and most polls showed Clinton ahead by comfortable margins in those states. Ohio went for Obama in the last two presidential elections, as did Iowa. Trump won them all.

Changing social landscape due to influx of migrants, bursting of the housing bubble, and unaffordable education and healthcare that were not solved by any of the neoliberal “reformists” further added voters to the Trump camp. Vote for Trump meant a vote against Washington and against hollow moralising of corrupt elites that rely on their hold at institutions to push forward their own agenda. In one word against everything that the Clinton family symbolically represents. If Trump did not present himself as a xenophobe (as well as a misogynist) and appealed directly to African and Latin Americans of both sexes, his support would have been undoubtedly much higher still. Even then, as can be seen in the chart below, compared to Mitt Romney in 2012, his support among Hispanic voters increased by 2% to 29%. His highly antagonising rhetoric notwithstanding, he even gained some support among black voters, Jewish Americans or American Muslims.

Which voters won it for Trump: Comparing exit polls from 2012 to 2016. © The Telegraph
Which voters won it for Trump: Comparing exit polls from 2012 to 2016. © The Telegraph

Entirely another question is if the controversial figure of Donald Trump can fulfil his voters expectations. For once, he never expressed his policy with any great clarity and there are some indications that his attitude might change when he enters the White House. While he reaffirmed his commitment to “build the wall with Mexico”, his tone during the victory speech was calm and conciliatory. His Cabinet is also likely to include some well-known establishment figures. He is also a “capitalist par excellence” and one cannot expect that the United States will turn on Wall Street, but this largely reflects the economically liberal nature of American populism. It remains to be seen to what extent Trump’s rejection of environmental policies, widespread deregulation, reducing corporate tax from 35% to 15%, or return to more private healthcare is capable of answering popular calls for a more just society.

On the other hand, Trump offers some sympathetic policy proposals such as large-scale investments into infrastructure to secure jobs, an amnesty for the repatriation of big companies’ money from overseas, or protectionism against dumping prices of Chinese imports. All the above taken together, Trump and his team believe, should deliver a big fiscal stimulus to the American economy. The promise of higher investments were positively taken up by financial markets, which quickly jumped up from the initial “shock” of Trump’s victory, notwithstanding predictions to the contrary from such economists like Paul Krugman.

European tragicomedy?

And what about Europe? The European Union does what it knows best: on Sunday it organised another summit. This time it was a “panic dinner” where these political pygmies, so-called European leaders, struggled to find a response to a turnaround in American foreign policy. Rather than having a normal political reaction, the EU behaves like a company board that suddenly lost its CEO.The outcome of this meeting was predictable – the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Morgherini issued a bland comment that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the transatlantic partnership. European citizens, please translate: waste of your tax money.

More interestingly, the meeting seemed to have been snubbed by the UK, France and Hungary. Financial Times reported that “British foreign secretary Boris Johnson dropped out of the Brussels meeting, with officials arguing that it created an air of panic, while French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault instead opted to stay in Paris to meet the new UN secretary-general. Hungary’s foreign minister boycotted the meeting, [labelling] the response from some EU leaders as ‘hysterical’.” One is entitled to ask if the EU is showing first cracks in its façade.

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission infamous for his drinking antics and former career stint in facilitating tax evasion as Luxembourg Prime Minister, wants to teach Trump “what Europe is and how Europe works”. Perhaps Mr Juncker should be reminded by his advisors that at least as far as Central Europe is concerned, Trump knows it better than him. His Czech ex-wife Ivana Trump is poised to become Ambassador to the Czech Republic and their children speak at least some level of Czech.

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn during a press conference. EU's foreign policy statements became infamous for their lack of any clear political message. JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn during a press conference. EU’s foreign policy statements became infamous for their lack of any clear political message. JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

What European politicians cannot process is that Donald Trump openly admitted that he would put “America First”, make reasonable deals with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and fight alongside Bashar al Assad in Syria. In other words, he is completely reversing the decades of American liberal interventionism in global affairs. Since so many politicians in Europe made their career out of thoughtless pursuit of American political interests, it will be extremely interesting to see how they will react when they find themselves facing a President beating to a different tune.

Merkel, Hollande, Juncker and others spent last several months insulting and lecturing Trump at every opportunity, yet now they will have to back down and sit with him at international summits. Also various sorts of media commentators and “think tanks” openly wished that Clinton took up the reins and continued the bellicose stance towards Russia that would have made the world at the very best an extremely unstable place. In this context it should not be forgotten that “the non-flying zone” in Syria proposed by Clinton would lead to a war with Russia. It is unlikely these organisations will change the tone as George Soros and others will continue in their hefty funding. Will they now advocate that Trump is overthrown, so that the promotion of the American liberal hegemony at gun barrel point may continue unrestrained?

One should remain cautious about expecting (or fearing) too much from Trump, as he will be inevitably constrained by the Supreme Court as well as by Congress and powerful military-industrial complex. It also has to be noted that most of the Republican party does not support at all Trump’s realistic approach to international affairs. Especially through the figure of Mike Pence, future Vice-President, they will try to continue in the course of global interventionism.

The great hope is that the change in American foreign policy may ultimately be good for Europe. Since European politicians completely showed the utter lack of capacity to promote Europe’s sovereignty and independence, Trump’s withdrawal of support for NATO might do it for them. The EU may be very well forced to rely on its own means for defence, which would be an ironic achievement after the decades that the Americans spent on undermining Europe’s efforts to do so.

Last but not least, it becomes clear that liberal democracy with its focus on more of the same (political correctness, consumerism, corporate globalisation, disrespect for collective identities, preferential treatment of minorities to the problems of majority), does not offer solutions to social problems that we have also in Europe. The essential question is if the elites realise that and work together with people in solving their problems in a manner that is fully democratic, without demagogy and false promises, and just to all citizens without distinction. If they do not, and it would be due to their stupidity, greed and short-sightedness foremost, more and more extreme and extremist individuals will get elected into power also in Europe. Already in the 1990s American thinker Christopher Lasch spoke of the revolt of the elites, and that, I think, not the revolt of the people, is a fair assessment of the current situation.

European Commission’s neoliberal agenda in France: weaker employee rights

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If you are following political developments in France a bit, you couldn’t have missed the recent waves of massive strikes and protests that hit the Hexagon. The cause is Hollande’s government push for “reforms” to the labour law. Obviously, the word reforms here stands for a range of measures in line with neoliberal tenets that take away rights from employees and give them to corporations. Namely, allowing less favourable local agreements on wages (to undermine collective bargaining of national trade unions) or making it easier to hire and fire staff. Crucially, the French government decide to invoke Article 49.3 of the Constitution that gives it the power to bypass parliament and impose reforms by decree. That way it also sidestepped critics in its own ranks, such as Parti socialist MP Laurent Baumel, who called the move ‘anti-democratic’ and labelled it as ‘a heavy-handed way of using the constitution to prevent the nation’s representatives from having their say.’

What is less apparent is that the French government’s attack on employee rights has a European dimension. Revealed recently by the association Corporate Europe Observatory, the European Commission is using all its new powers gained after the financial crisis of 2008 to move France in the direction of ‘liberalisation of labour code’. ‘Simply put, France has been required flat out to ensure higher profitability for businesses by driving down wages,’ say the authors of the study. For those interested in how the European Union stands on the side of austerity and neoliberalism, this is an interesting read that shouldn’t be missed.

No need for EU’s own propaganda: for a frank dialogue with people

The EU intends to continue a propagandistic communication policy, bombing its citizens with good news. The Juncker Commission even stepped up a gear, as it increasingly uses media, culture and science as instruments of soft power.

“The European Union needs to communicate better about what it does well”. That was former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy’s conclusion after the Brexit and seems to be the dominant analysis in the EU bubble. This week the American-owned communications agency ICF Mostra won another 26 million euro contract to promote the EU’s policies.

But the strategy is contested. “A constant flow of good news has no effect, you should also explain to people what doesn’t work”, states professor Hendrik Vos, head of the centre for EU-studies at the University of Ghent. Welsh-born Gareth Harding, Managing Director of communications company Clear Europe, agrees: “Europe needs to foster debate, give people information so they make up their own mind. Otherwise it’s propaganda, and propaganda doesn’t work.”

The absence of a common media platform for a EU-wide debate, allows politicians as Nigel Farage to profile themselves at the expense of the union, without being challenged for it. But instead of fostering such a debate, the EU chooses to spend its generous communication budgets on semi-propagandistic media, outdated brochures and a series of obscure NGOs and think tanks.

Hearts and mind

In 1989, then Commission President Jacques Delors famously said, “One doesn’t fall in love with a common market”. Europe was about to make the transformation from a purely economic community to the beginning of a real political union. In the following years it would be doted with a single currency
and a common foreign and security policy.

But the European project didn’t manage to sparkle the love Delors was alluding to. Apart from the flag and the anthem, the structure evokes no emotional associations. And the attempts to win the hearts and minds of its citizens, remind too much of indoctrination.

“Europe copies the methods of the 19th century nation states, systematically citing the most glorious episodes from history and concealing the rest”, says professor Vos. Last year, several historians complained about about political interference in the construction of the “House of European history”. The EU stood for freedom and democracy, was the message, and the continent’s conflictive past did not fit. Ultimately, the pressure to start the permanent exposition in 1946 was dismissed after commotion in the media.

Men in suits

But why can the many highly educated and well-paid bureaucrats not manage to boost the EU’s image? “The European Commission is crowding its communications department with men in suits who know little about the job and whose main worry seems to be moving up the Commission’s hierarchy”, says Gareth Harding. “If it were the private sector, they would have got rid of almost the entire communications team.”

But the staff are not the only obstacle for Europe to deliver clear messages. In its communication, the union constantly needs to watch over the balance between the different institutions and the 28 Member States. This resulted in a veiled kind of language that can impossibly compete with the sharp tongues of the likes of Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen.

Juncker takes the lead

In this complex setting, Jean-Claude Juncker took charge of the European Commission in November 2014. From the start, he made it clear he wanted to tighten his grip on the policy with an overtly political Commission.

Juncker centralised communications by taking charge of the policy himself. It used to be a separate portfolio, held by his compatriot Vivian Reding in the last Barroso Commission.

Juncker also streamlined the Commission’s press relations. Where every one of the 28 Commissioners used to dispose of a press officer, he brought that number down to 6. Consequently, the number of press releases drastically dropped. Juncker’s chief of staff, the German lawyer Martin Selmayr, coordinates the press corps.

“Selmayr thinks he is a Communications God, but he is a bureaucrat and bureaucrats rarely have the gift of good communication”, estimates Gareth Harding, who also runs the Brussels programme of the Missouri School of Journalism. “His small team can not fulfil the growing interest of the Brussels-based media. The idea was to let the Commissioners speak to the media themselves, but they barely have time to call.”

Counterpropaganda

Apart from the narrower field of communication, Europe also did not hesitate to call on media and culture for political purposes. These instruments of soft power were more emphatically applied since the mounting tensions with Russia. By the time Juncker took office, the Ukraine conflict had glided into an information war. The Russian propaganda machine turned a powerful weapon for Vladimir Putin, to the jealousy of many a leader in the free world. It was the signal for Europe to start counterbalancing Russia’s lies. The European External Action Service started doing so with a weekly “Disinformation Review” and is currently setting up Russian-language broadcasts for ethnic Russians in ex-Soviet
states.

On EuroparlTV, a TV channel that rarely draws viewers despite millions of euros in yearly subsidies, the German MEP and head of the Foreign Affairs Committee Elmar Brok in April talked about his recent experience in an Iraqi hotel room, where he could watch Russia Today, but neither the BBC nor Deutsche Welle. Brok called for extra budget and increased collaboration between European channels.

Gareth Harding does not believe the EU needs to counter propaganda with propaganda. “That would be largely counterproductive, as the people expect leaders to stand up for their values. But even if you accepted such efforts, the result is disappointing. Compared to Russia Today or Sputnik, the EU
counterpropaganda effort looks like it is designed by a twelve-year-old.”

Culture as a tool

The European soft power-toolkit has not been exhausted yet. On 8 June, European Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini and the Hungarian Commissioner for Culture and Education Tibor Navarcsics, came up with a new strategy to put culture at the heart of the external relations of the EU.

After prior consultation with NGOs it supports in culture and education, the Commission scanned how these organizations could expand their activities to the Eastern Partnership, the Middle East or some Asian countries. Russia or South-America are currently not topping that list of priorities. On social media, the sector enthusiastically welcomes its patron’s initiative, but behind the scenes resounded fear for instrumentalisation. Mogherini labeled culture “a strong tool” and Navracsics coined his portfolio “the hidden gem of our foreign policy”.

“In recent years Europe has imposed a strong economic logic on culture. We are currently not looking forward to be fitted into a geopolitical agenda”, is heard at one of the networks. “Creativity is at its best without guidance.”

Deadlock: The results of the Spanish general elections

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On the 26th of June, the Spanish government celebrated a second general election after more than six months of political deadlock. The result was yet another stalemate, but this time the conservative PP (Partido Popular, or Popular Party) grew in the number of votes and seats gained in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, while every other major political force – PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party), Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the newly-formed left-wing populist party Unidos Podemos (United We Can) – lost both votes and seats. The incumbent President Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP, was quick to proclaim victory and thank his voters for their support, despite still being a long way from recovering his party’s absolute majority, lost in the December 2015 elections.
Now, the country is faced with three possible outcomes to these elections, all of which would be the first of their kind in the history of modern Spanish democracy: A minority government, a coalition government or, once again, new elections six months from now.

A SYSTEM WITH NO CONTINGENCY PLAN

In order to grasp how this situation has come about, it is necessary to understand that the Spanish system of government is predicated on the condition that any political party that wins in the general elections can form a government only when it has an absolute majority of seats in the Congress of Deputies of Spain – this being defined as holding 176 seats out of 350. The system is meant to ensure that, in theory, any party which does not attain absolute majority must form a coalition government with other groups through agreements and compromises. The December 2015 elections resulted in no one party – even the PP, which collected the most number of votes and held the largest number of seats in Congress – being able to achieve that absolute majority, and so all four major political groups entered into negotiations with one another, ostensibly to discuss the creation of a coalition government and come to an agreement on how to do so.
But the hope that a compromise would be reached eventually faded as the months passed and the negotiations dragged on, often filled with recriminations and mutual accusations of an unwillingness to co-operate. It soon became increasingly clear that a solution to the political quagmire the country had stumbled into would not be materializing any time soon.
And so, after six long months of largely fruitless talks, new elections were held this past June. The PP grew in votes and in seats, while the other political groups lost both, but once again no one party achieved the numbers needed to obtain that elusive absolute majority in Congress. Once again, the four main political parties have entered negotiations with one another, but now the question is: What will happen if no agreement is reached?
If no agreement is reached, then the Spanish democratic system will be faced with a situation for which it has no contingency plan, as its constitution only contemplates the possibility of a single repetition of the country’s general elections, and PP currently remains as a caretaker government until further notice.

THE SPANISH POPULIST LEFT: LOSING MOMENTUM?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the elections was the apparent loss of momentum suffered by the far-left populist movement Podemos, which disappointed and frustrated – but above all surprised – both its leadership and its supporters, who had expected the party would become the second political force in Spain and instead saw how they wound up losing votes.
The results of the December 2015 elections were a remarkable success for the group, as they went from a party with no congressional representatives to suddenly holding 69 seats. The subsequent merging between Podemos and the far-left party Izquierda Unida (United Left) – forming the group Unidos Podemos – was expected to enjoy greater success in these elections. There was talk of a Sorpasso, a situation in which the group would overtake the PSOE in seats and votes and, effectively, become the second political force in the country.

At this point it is important to note that, on the Spanish political scene, there is no major figurehead for the far-right. France has Jeanne-Marine Le Pen, Austria has Norbert Hofer, Greece has the Golden Dawn, but Spain has only loose groups – among them reduced remnants of the Fascist Falange party – with no real unity, and no leader who can boast a significant presence either in the political landscape or in the media. Instead, it is far-left movements such as Podemos which have become increasingly relevant on the Spanish political scene, something that soon gave rise to comparisons to Greece’s SYRIZA party.
Both SYRIZA and Podemos enjoyed a remarkable growth in their early days, thanks to support among those voters most affected by the economic crisis, and their anti-austerity rhetoric is often very similar. Indeed, Pablo Iglesias – the General Secretary of Podemos – has often expressed support for Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA and now the Prime Minister of Greece. There was serious talk that the next Spanish government would be a coalition, headed by Unidos Podemos – similar to the coalition government of Greece, formed by the left-wing SYRIZA and the right-wing ANEL.
But the results of the elections have apparently put a brake on those hopes of success held by the party and its supporters, instead added only two more seats to their previous result – going from 69 to 71 – despite pre-election polls predicting much better results. A number of reasons can be put forward for this apparent setback; notably there has been a growing disenchantment among many of Podemos’ supporters, who feel that the group’s growing focus on politics has distanced them from their original anti-austerity rhetoric. This, along with visible disagreements among the party leadership and a higher number of abstentions in this year’s elections than last year’s, all seem to have contributed to the wind being let out of the group’s sails.
Whatever the reason, the current reality is that Spain’s populistic far-left, before so buoyed by an unexpected popularity and success, is now in serious danger of losing its momentum as it becomes a major player on the country’s political scene.

A LONG ROAD AHEAD

For six months now the PP have remained in power as a caretaker government rather than an official one, and no-one seems to want to contemplate what could happen if this situation is not resolved. Another repetition of the general elections has been discussed, and while it is a possibility, it is also becoming apparent that both politicians and ordinary citizens are getting tired of the stalemate and just want to reach a solution, any solution. A coalition government would, for many, be ideal, but two weeks on and no immediate agreement between any of the major political players appears forthcoming.

Another, possibly more likely, outcome is that the PP will simply form a minority government. If this were to happen, not only would it be the first of its kind in the history of modern, post-Francoist Spanish democracy, it would also no doubt please the millions of citizens who voted for them. But it would also deeply anger the millions of others who did not, and leave a divided Congress full of groups largely unwilling to give the PP any of the free rein it has had thus far to enact its policies, and determined to mount a fiercer opposition than has been faced by Mariano Rajoy.
There is a lot of talk now about what to do and what the immediate political future could be, but a common Spanish saying seems to sum up the current situation best:
Del dicho al hecho hay un trecho.
There’s a long road between what is said to what is done.

Javier Alcover

Image: “Adrian faces his first bull” by Keith Williamson, flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Brexit is a revolt against globalisation: Interpreting the UK vote

European political scene is in quite a disarray. “Right now, we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it,” quipped historian Apple Applebaum back in March (Applebaum 2016). Applebaum, wife of the Polish neoconservative politician Radosław Sikorski, thus perfectly anticipated the panic felt nowadays by our elites. Inadvertently, she also revealed how Western elites see European integration: as a project tightly intertwined with the neoliberal worldview and globalisation. In their vote for Brexit, British working classes revolted against what the EU seems to increasingly stand for: self-proclaimed global elites and their policies that benefit only the increasingly few.

Let us be perfectly clear: for Europe and for the West, Brexit is a moment of fundamental historical importance. British “red Tory” thinker Phillip Blond is not exaggerating when he states that “Western ballot boxes never before seen a greater rejection of globalisation” (Devecchio 2016). The EU came to be squarely identified with globalisation and all social and economic insecurities that it entails. For British voters, these materialised mostly as fears of immigration, which have both cultural and employment-related aspects.

Explaining voting patterns

A look at the voting patterns across Britain gives evidence to deeper divides that separate the winners and losers of globalisation, and which are also visible in other European countries.  (Note that for political reasons, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain exceptional cases.) Charts are telling in showing deep class divisions. In a country where one year of undergraduate university education costs £9000 (more than €10,600), one of the best predictors of how people voted was their education level. “Remainers” tended to have university degrees, while those without higher education were much more likely to be in the Leave camp. Similar results are seen when we look at the median income – the richer the voter is, the more likely they were to vote Remain. In the UK, income and education are closely linked to geography, which explains why “bobo London” is the only part of England where people voted for staying in the EU.

Another significant factor is the trans-partisan character of the vote against the EU. As several observers already noted, Brexit would not be possible if a large proportion of Labour supporters did not vote against the Remain campaign of the party leadership. The party leader Jeremy Corbyn is himself a eurosceptic, who likely very much dislikes the authoritarianism of the EU’s neoliberal policies, lately openly revealed in last year’s economic diktat imposed on Greece, against the wishes of its people expressed also in a referendum. Why officially being in charge of Labour’s Remain campaign, his support was lukewarm, which is also the reason why his Members of Parliament (MPs) are at the moment working hard to get rid of him. What it ultimately shows, however, is that Corbyn is much more connected to the wishes and fears of the party rank and file than the MPs, who are mostly “champagne socialists” still day dreaming about the heydays of New Labour under Tony Blair.

As John Cassidy put it in The New Yorker, the implication is that “the British working classes and lower middle classes, particularly those living in the provinces, have delivered a stinging rebuke to the London-based political establishment, which was largely in [favour] of staying in the [EU]” (Cassidy 2016). The explanation is that for the working classes, salaries are at rock bottom and zero-hour contracts along with other “market reforms” put in place by the Conservative government made sure their jobs are more precarious than ever before. Property prices are astronomical, class sizes at state schools are too high, waiting times in NHS are too long. Meanwhile, good education, better jobs, and fenced-off private properties are concentrated in the hands of the growingly smaller number that are profiting from these neoliberal policies.

These are real concerns that are often disparaged or completely ignored by those with good jobs, good education, those who freely travel across Europe and come from better off families. In other words, by the European elite. Labelling Brexit as a triumph of xenophobia, ignorance or even senility (pointing to the preference of elder electorate for Leave), does not allow one to get any better understanding why an increasing number of people are standing up against the EU. Arrogant and patronising comments, of the like of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, who spoke about treating British people as deserters in the run-up to the referendum (Macdonald 2016), only paint the EU’s portrait in even darker colours. They also prevent from helping us to understand that Brexit is a part of wider revolt against globalisation, which includes both left-wing and right-wing populist movements in Europe (Greek Syriza, Spanish Podemos, Irish Sinn Féin, French Front National, Austrian FPÖ, even Slovak SMER or Hungarian Fidesz), as well as the appearance of Trump and Sanders in the US.

Concerns about immigration do not equate racism

Most of concerns with globalisation and the EU in the UK crystallised as the immigration issue. On the one hand ignored by the left (“because it is racist”), on the other, embraced by the right under the argument of positive economic contribution. While there are genuine xenophobes with hate towards black people, Eastern Europeans or Muslims, most voters cannot be simply dismissed as bigoted. The best example of this is a large proportion of second- or third-generation Commonwealth immigrants, who also supported Brexit on immigration grounds. If gross immigration to the UK was 630,000 in 2015 (or about 1 % of the UK’s population!), this represents a huge downward pressure on UK salaries and raises yet new identity concerns (Hawkins 2016). John Harris gives a plethora of practical examples of these real life concerns (Harris 2016):

  • town of Peterborough where people claim only non-UK nationals were hired because they worked for insane shifts for risible rates;
  • agricultural communities in Lincolnshire, divided between new arrivals with jobs and miserable locals who lost theirs;
  • largely pro-EU Manchester, where British-Asians talk about leaving the EU, likely because they feel their traditional jobs are at threat;
  • builders in South Shields, who had their hourly rate come down by £3 because of immigrants from eastern Europe; or
  • a mother in Stourbridge wanting a new school for “our kids”.

And so on. What is clear is that identity, immigration and economic concerns are closely interlinked. Identity is fundamentally nothing abstract – it is about shared and established patterns of living together in one space that generate understanding and prevent conflicts. It is about trust and predictability, which are built only over time, creating common history in the process. When contrasted to individual and gradual migration patterns, mass immigration poses a huge challenge for identity precisely for these reasons. This is of course in addition to the race to the bottom created by downward pressures on salaries and social security. Losing a job can in turn generate a loss of identity among those who previously took pride for providing income to their family – or simple buying a builder or fisherman in their community. With its recent push for “refugees”, a majority of whom seem to behave more like economic migrants, the EU only added the final piece into its image of the most visible European promoter of unrestricted flows of people.

Divisions in the liberal camp – a fake people’s revolt?

However, the referendum did not only divide working classes with those with a higher income – it also fragmented the British liberal elites. Leaders of Brexit campaign were all liberals who opposed the EU in the name of deregulation. This number includes the outgoing leader of UKIP Nigel Farage, who may be a social conservative, but remains an ultra-liberal on economic issues. It also makes for a big difference, between the liberals in the UK and in many other European countries, perhaps apart from central Europe. Speaking of France, Alain de Benoist noted that “while in our country, the majority of liberals are convinced that the fundamental goal of European treaties is imposing liberal tenets, starting with free circulation of goods and services, people and capital, in England many think that the market needs neither institutions nor treaties” (de Benoist 2016).

The support of a proportion of British liberals for Brexit obviously does not mean that they suddenly took up the flag of the people, realised their ideology is misguided, and decided to address fears of globalisation. Phillip Blond again correctly points out that this represents the greatest paradox – and tragedy – of the vote for Brexit: “the working classes seeking protection against globalisation followed libertarians who believe that the UK should unilaterally abolish its tariffs” (Devecchio 2016). For his part, Paul Mason from The Guardian does not shy away from calling the referendum “hijacked” and “a fake revolt” with people “falling for a scam” (Mason 2016). Mason is quite correct not only because British liberal elites have no interest to rescue people from globalisation and perverse effects of capitalism. Other reason is that nation-states are no longer capable of protecting its citizens against the power of transnational corporations, “globbish” cultural forces, or hyper-fluctuations of financial markets. British “independence day” is an illusion because the UK regained sovereignty in name only.

Tragedy of the EU and its great unfulfilled promise

The greatest tragedy of the European Union is that it did not fulfil its potential and failed on its biggest promise. That promise was to make citizens and peoples stronger rather than weaker in the face of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism. But that would have required starting European integration from bottom-up, from culture and politics, and not from economic integration. Inevitably, that would have also meant a slower expansion of the EU – building qualitative, democratic, strong structures at the expansive of quantity and extension. The UK, traditionally a maritime and transatlanticist power, always felt oddly in the continental club and attached itself closer to the US than to its European counterparts. As Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe notes, the EU has neoliberal policies at its core: its single market and trade agreements opened up the gates to globalisation, while its fiscal rules and ‘structural reforms’ put countries into an austerity straightjacket. So instead “of helping those who suffer from [globalisation], [the EU] has set up policies that hurt these people even more. It is no surprise that the losers revolt” (Grauwe 2016). Ultimately, all of us are those losers, because instead of living in communities that allow us to strive for excellence and make us stronger personalities, we are living in market societies that encourage selfishness, individualism, consumerism and wasteful lifestyles.

Martin Heidegger, a German thinker who also lived in turbulent times, used to quote poet Friedrich Hölderlin in saying that “where danger is, grows the saving power also.” For the EU, history did not end yet. However much its elites may seem incapable of reflection on what are the reasons for people’s despair over European integration, at its roots there is still the promise that the EU can be a katechon, a regulator of globalisation, rather than its chief harbinger. It is time for people and those who are on their side to grasp this thought and realise that all freedom movements against globalisation and neoliberalism need to be by necessity pan-European.

 

Publication bibliography

Applebaum, Anne (2016): Is this the end of the West as we know it? Anneapplebaum.com. Available online at http://www.anneapplebaum.com/2016/03/04/is-this-the-end-of-the-west-as-we-know-it/, updated on 3/4/2016, checked on 6/27/2016.

Benoist, Alain de (2016): Brexit : vers un effet domino en Europe ? Boulevard Voltaire. Available online at http://www.bvoltaire.fr/alaindebenoist/brexit-vers-un-effet-domino-en-europe,265172, updated on 6/29/2016, checked on 6/30/2016.

Cassidy, John (2016): Why the Remain Campaign Lost the Brexit Vote – The New Yorker. In The New Yorker, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/why-the-remain-campaign-lost-the-brexit-vote, checked on 7/5/2016.

Devecchio, Alexandre (2016): Phillip Blond : «Jamais la mondialisation n’avait connu un tel rejet dans les urnes». In Le Figaro, 7/1/2016. Available online at http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/monde/2016/07/01/31002-20160701ARTFIG00368-phillip-blond-jamais-la-mondialisation-n-avait-connu-un-tel-rejet-dans-les-urnes.php, checked on 04-07-16.

Grauwe, Paul de (2016): The EU Should Take The Side Of The Losers Of Globalization. Social Europe. Available online at https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/07/eu-take-side-losers-globalization/, updated on 7/4/2016, checked on 7/5/2016.

Harris, John (2016): ‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out’. In The Guardian, 6/24/2016. Available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/divided-britain-brexit-money-class-inequality-westminster, checked on 6/27/2016.

Hawkins, Oliver (2016): Migration Statistics. House of Commons (Briefing Paper, SN06077).

Macdonald, Alastair (2016): Juncker says on Brexit: British ‘deserters’ to get no EU favor. In Reuters, 5/20/2016. Available online at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-juncker-idUSKCN0YB1O3, checked on 29-06-16.

Mason, Paul (2016): Brexit is a fake revolt – working-class culture is being hijacked to help the elite | Paul Mason, 6/20/2016. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/20/brexit-fake-revolt-eu-working-class-culture-hijacked-help-elite, checked on 7/5/2016.

Chantal Mouffe on post-democracy: “It’s like a choice between Pepsi and Coke”

Chantal Mouffe is a well-known Belgian political theorist focusing on the concepts of post-liberalism, neo-marxism and radical democracy. Mouffe gave her talk in Stockholm on 3rd May 2016 in Stockholms Kulturhuset for the occasion of publishing the Swedish translation of her most recent book ‘Agonistik’ (‘Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically’ in English original).

Photo by Pamela Shultz Nybacka, 2016
Photo by Pamela Schultz Nybacka, 2016

Mouffe currently holds a professorship at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, UK, where she directs the Centre for the Study of Democracy. She became widely known for her book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy from 1985, written together with Ernesto Laclau. The post-marxist text alters some of the key concepts of traditional Marxism (such as shifting away from the stress on class division or belief in the eventual struggle-free harmonious society) and introduces most of the key concepts of Mouffe’s later work.

In her political theory, Mouffe takes inspiration namely from Karl Schmitt and his theory of the political, the neo-Marxist theorists Antonio Gramsci or post-structuralism notions of Jacques Derrida. For further reading see the above mentioned Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), The Democratic Paradox (2000), a collection of texts on radical democracy, or most recently published the Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (2014). From texts focused on art as radical tool in democratic systems look up for example articles Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces (2007) or Art and Democracy: Art as an Agnostic Intervention in the Public Space (2008).

The Stockholm’s one-and-half hour talk was fast paced and down to the point, in accord to Mouffe’s direct persona, if slightly less coherent from the moderator Stefan Jonsson’s side. Mouffe started by offering a comprehensive explanation of some of the most prominent concepts of her theory, such as that of the political, the agonistic mode of radical democracy, and the notion of passion as a vital element of political struggle. She then continued with a more detailed description of the role of passion as mobilising element in politics, the problems of contemporary post-democracy and the ultimate need for radicalisation of democracy in order for its effective implementation.

Mouffe, coming from a post-marxist stance, visualises the current state of Western society as that of a post-democratic, neo-liberal existence. Modern democracies, while maintaining the image of traditional democratic system, are more and more controlled by the elites and in their nature deny the original heterogeneous principles of a true democracy. To contest this, Mouffe presents a model of ‘radical democracy’ that aims to bring the real democratic principles back into a functional mode. In order to do this, she emphasises the need for agonistic role of the political, the ‘agonistic pluralism.’

Agonism, from the Greek word agon for struggle, focuses on the potentially positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict. This is not to say that all political conflict has positive effects, but that it is inevitably present in all political representations through different antagonistic parties, and has to be taken into account and used to our benefit.

The agonistic mode, although similar to Marxism in the emphasis on the always present political struggle, differs from Marxism in that it does not predict eventual elimination of the conflict into a harmonious society. There will always be conflict present in agonistic society. However, this conflict is not that of enemy nature, but rather that of adversaries’ confrontation, that of legitimate opponents mutually contributing to the political struggle. In order for such model to work, it is necessary to come to an ultimate, limited agreement upon basic values, a so called ‘conflictual consensus.’

It must be noted that according to Mouffe, the crucial question of a democratic politics is not to arrive at hegemonic consensus, as is currently misinterpreted in the European Union’s policies. On the contrary, the notions of ‘we’ and ‘they’ need to be established in all their antagonist plurality, since their existence is vital for any political conflict. The key role of democracy is then to convert these antagonistic conflicts into positive results.

Key problem of post-democratic, neo-liberal system is most of all the lack of real alternative, a concept vital for democracy. We have reached a post democratic’ stage presented by the absence of alternatives to neoliberalism and neoliberal globalisation. Mouffe states that the state of political alternatives is like the “choice between Pepsi and Coke.” The post-democracy aims for a more or less homogenous society of ultimate consensus and shuns any more or less ‘extreme’ options. This can be seen on the rise of populistic centrism with both left and right wing parties continuously shifting toward the middle of the political spectrum in order to attract more voters and preserve a happy façade suitable for everyone.

Mouffe’s radical democratic mode emphasises the importance of having a plurality of different struggles, the possibility of confrontation between hegemonic projects and representation of the whole range of political scale. Such elements should form the core of a democratic system. Radical democracy cultivates plural practices, mobilisation and passion that will challenge neo-liberal practices.

The element of passion in political activity is another strong term in Mouffe’s political theory. First of all, she emphasises the distinction between passion and emotion. Where emotion is an individual occurrence, passion serves as powerful and inevitable political tool: that of mobilising a common affect in a political domain. It produces an affective dimension that brings people together in collective identities. Passion should and cannot be excluded from democracy as it is essentially what mobilises affect in a progressive dimension needed for democratic representation. Without passion, it is impossible to be politically successful.

Through passion it is possible to overcome the crisis of political representation in the post-democratic, neo-liberal society. Large groups of citizens are either completely omitted or strongly under-represented on the political scene. Mouffe gives example of young people and working classes in their traditional (social democratic) sense. We have to constantly address the creation of a multi-polar world, with initiatives on the whole scale of the political spectrum (both horizontal and vertical) as a solution to under representation of the public. Collective will that is mobilised within these movements can only be truly expressed within the framework of representative democracy.

Mouffe presents a very down-to earth model of democratic system that can be empathised with both by the radicals and the pragmatists. The problem remains, however, that her theories lack certain consistency in terms of practical solutions. At the end of the talk I was left with a number of questions. What happens then, when we have achieved the necessary scale of plurality in the democratic representation? How exactly will this help when dealing with the super-bureaucratised system of the EU’s governmental bodies? Mobilisation and passion are indeed very much needed but would it not be easier to reform already existing structures, even if that means coming from slightly different political stances, rather than to constantly create new, radical democracy movements?

 


Alice Maselnikova, 6th May 2016

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German AfD candidate: ‘The EU is upside down’ (EurActiv, 25th May ’14)

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