Under the aegis of Lisbon
Coming next May, the second largest democracy in the world (India is the first) is going to call its 400 million citizens to the poles and elect the 751 representatives that will reconfigure the European Parliament. Dully distributed by 28 countries, these parliamentarians, organized according to their political families as in any other national Parliament, will then electorally rectify the designated candidate to the role of President of the European Commission (and the team of Commissionaires). This means that the next European Parliament, acting fully under the new rules of the Lisbon Treaty, will be directly responsible to legitimate Barroso’s successor, and that for the first time a pan-European political analysis of the incoming elections will be crucial in defining our collective future.
This new set of rules will also decisively intervene in consolidating a European political imaginary – now considered as a natural extension of our national politics -, contribute to the introduction of (some) democratic practices into the inter-complex institutional European network, and providing us – European citizens – with an (indirect) opportunity to make accountable those who have led and steer the collective destines of the Union in these last 5-10 years. Complementary, and as an immediate reaction to this new institutional configuration, and finally acting as ‘normal parties’, all main European parties have decided to present a single-candidate to the executive position at stake (president of the European Commission) , chosen their candidates from within the ranks of their political families using more or less democratic and transparent methods. Furthermore, by presenting defined and clearly identified candidates, with a common pan-European political manifestos vouched by their sister-parties, we should witness an injection of political conflict in this campaign, framing this time the debates not on a cumulative set of national agendas but around the true differences between the political forces in dispute. This new layout would also force – I hope – to break through the consensual lethargy European institutions have dive into and present concrete alternatives to the current austerity policies stubbornly followed by Brussels, under the leadership of Berlin. And as without clear alternatives and political conflict democracy is crippled, we need this debate to be fierce and elucidatory, and to provide us the sharp differences between voting for the European Socialists, the Popular Party, the Liberals, Greens or the New-Left.
The new layout established by the Treaty of Lisbon will also irreversibly allow the introduction in European politics of a political-ideological frame similar, and parallel, to our national ones. As consequence we are to expect – in the incoming years – the consolidation of an independent European party system (already sitting in the benches on the European parliament) and the transposition of party conflict and ideological competition to the European level; allowing us – European citizens – to finally catch up with our political elite and understand European politics as a complementary carryover of the national level, finally empowering a normalized European political sphere that could democratically (and politically) validate the growing integration of the Union’ public policies. In another words, we should begin to look at our own countries as mere ‘constituencies’ of the (European) Union, the same way we understand that our local electoral and political constituencies are part of our national institution, i.e. our countries. As such, in the same way we recognize that our national states comprise different political and administrative levels, and we act and interact with them differently, our states are also administratively part of a super-structure called the European Union. And as we were able to institutional design different political systems at the national level, within a multi-layered power sharing administrative layout, we must accept that – by vouching (so far) the rules of European integration – we abdicate parts of our national sovereignty to contribute to the establishment of a wider (European) political project. This concept is not so distant from the one we use when climbing the different levels of our nation’ administrative outlines. In doing so, we concede that within our national states power and public administration are shared between national, provincial and local levels; a power sharing that does not question (in most cases) the authority of such institutions nor the political cohesion of our countries. In this sense, been a part of the European Union only inserts a complementary super-level structure to this sequence, consequently re-conceptualizing the nature of our administrative boundaries, widening the parameters of our (common) identities.
Interestingly, this undisputed reality has already been silently accepted by our political elites and dominant oligarchies, validated every time they set foot on a plane and head-off to another European summit. In doing so they fully and conscientiously accept the decisive dimension taken by Europe in (co)designing our national public policies, today no longer fully set in Ljubljana, Warsaw or Lisbon, but in Brussels and Strasbourg. These well-informed and all powerful elites (so they think) are fully aware of such status quo, but cynically insist in attempting to convince their citizens that national politicians and governments remain in full control over their public issues, that Europe is this inoffensive entity with no real power or ambitions. They frequently downplay these meetings as pro-forma and mundane, as inevitable and deprived of substantial supra-national meanings, still claiming to defend and stand up for their country’s interest above all, and in going against ‘Europe’ in all events that challenge this perceived vision of sovereignty.
Well, they are lying. They lied all this time. National states no longer hold all the keys of traditional sovereign power, as they want you to believe (they never did actually, since they decided to join the Union), nor is ‘Europe’ an amorphous political being, a shapeless kafkian experience designed to produce paperwork, norms and institutions; a variety of a bureaucratic grey-blue Leviathan without political soul or ideological taste. No. Europe today is a political entity. Full-grown. The Barroso commission (swiftly and gently guided by Berlin) produces policy on a daily bases, and within an ideologically framed background: a (neo or post) liberal one. And this neo-liberal guidance, combined with Germany’ post-Weimar obsession with deficit limits, inflation control and austerity, has direct influence on our national policies and in the lives of millions of European citizens. Ask anyone living in under Troika intervention if this Europe is not political and ideological…
The Barroso Commission shelters this behaviour in the discourse that There Is No Alternative (T.I.N.A.), depositing an absolute faith in the invisible hands of the privates and markets (and their good-will spirit), depositing in them the backbone elements of current European policy, instead of the people they ought to serve. And TINA, as the idea-synthesis of EU neo-liberal current political praxis, intends to make us believe that there are no alternatives to both the diagnostic and the cure Brussels, Berlin and Paris elaborated in 2008 to tackle the European financial and economic crisis. And with the help of well-breed Ivy Leaguer doctors, diagnosed an intensive application of austerity policies to cure us of the evil of public indebtedness, designing strict programs to control inflation and public deficit and, of course, assure that the states pay their national debts. And in doing so, they essentially guarantee that the crises’ agents provocateurs – the international finance system and their brokers, multinational Banks and big corporations – too big as they all are to fail, are kept in the top of the (financial) latter, together with their profits, disdain and disrespect for any transparent or truly accountable overseen.
Cynically they want to make us believe that it is inevitable to dismantle, or reduce, the Social role of the state (and correspondent instalments) and implement a mixture of (ultra)liberal models in order to regain our financial health and balance our national budgets. This is done by theoretically inserting People in a robotic binary system that transfigure regular citizens into numerical equations, graphs and numbers. Their desire to create “Low Cost” societies of limited national sovereignty, leaving to the privates, to the international markets and their respective oligarchical elites the management of our collective well-been. This idea, TINA, repeated in loop and intensely communicated by media outlets controlled by big economic corporations, totally dominates current European institutional narrative, serving complementary as the legitimate base for right wing pretentions to re-found the states (and reduce it to their minimum size) and privatise most public sectors.
Plus, in order to achieve the necessary ‘efficiency’, to accumulate the magic combination of statistics linked to a 5 stars credit rating by Moody, Fitch or Standard & Poor, states should re-evaluate all sectors of public sphere threatening the deficit, dismantling or downgrading those sectors that burden most the public budget. This implies (more) privatisations and the replacement of key public sectors (such as health, education, water supplies, sewerage, energy, communication networks – as highways, trains -, public television and radio) for private entrepreneurship, with the promise of a less impact on public expenses and, of course, of better management, one of right wing’s favourite’s mottos. And the ultimate cynicism of this prescription, or the clouded traits of its shameless cowardice, is that they target essentially peripheral and medium-range economies as Portugal, Ireland or Greece, national economies highly connected, and interdependent, internationally, whose markets are sufficient big to justify – from the profit point of view – a calculated external intervention, but small to the point of not offer much resistance to the pressure of the ‘international markets’. Complementary, these excel doctors also enjoy themselves prescribing the inevitable and so-liberal (again, read with irony) increase on taxes, targeting consumption and private revenues. And, of course, the preordained cut in the ‘fats from the state’: public functionaries salaries, pensions, social benefits, etc.
TINA still justifies the absurd and divine need to keep the suicidal and immoral austerity felt in most peripheral Europe, in essence disseminating – without any popular support – severe precarity and social misery. And the current right-wing discourse, surely one of EPP’s top topic on the next European campaign, is to make us believe that TINA worked, that the path of austerity should continue because «we are all better off now», and that through the leadership of the current Commission, duly steered by miss Merkel, our public finances are finally organised, and those ‘bad states’, the ones that were living above their possibilities, are rightfully (and finally) aligned with the premises of the Bundesbank (read stability pacts). I do think that the EPP politicians must be referring to the top 1%, to those few who make profit with the misery of others. And so obsessed they are with their narrative that they fail to understand that austerity is the perfect fuel for right-wing extremism, populism and extreme nationalism; that austerity is helping to destroy the European dream and is responsible for the generalised state of collective disillusion towards European institutions; that austerity widens the gap between rich and poor, abolishes any notion of social equity and condemns to poverty millions of European citizens. They just can’t believe that austerity doesn’t work. But what do they care, as long as the PowerPoint’s presentations demonstrates that their excel calculations and their macro-economic analysis fit the right numeric targets, whatever they might be (and even if they don’t, they just ‘revise’ the parameters of calculation…).
And the most bizarre feature is that most states don’t even know in full detail the nature of their public debts, or have in any given moment developed a political and critical analysis that would differentiate the debt contracted to build an hospital, a public school or to renovate the sewerage systems, from the one accumulated in bail-outs, in interest rates on international loans, or in the millionaire commissions paid to politicians and/or lobbyists dealing with privatisations or deals made in the name of the state. In this sense, it could be interesting to challenge the parameters of our national debts, understand and discriminate what part was acquired to boost public sector or to improve citizen’s lives or to facilitate privatizations, rescue private banks, to pay interest rates or luxurious fees. Now, I am not advocating forfeiting our debts, or not to pay them, only to question its nature and develop a critical interpretation of its parameters with the purpose to make it real and socially fair.
Now, behind this narrative, behind TINA and the attacks on the Social state, we find not an altruist vision of Europe and society but the will to implement a set off ‘Low Cost’ states that could feed the recent transformation of the international ‘capitalist system’, literally caught with their pans down in the 2008-2010 economic crises debacle and challenged by the popular uprisings that followed (from Lisbon to Madrid, from Cairo to New York). From these events derived the need to implement a new state of affairs assuring that the (capitalist) world order would not be severe affected and guaranteeing that their unchallenged supremacy over the World economy – and their profits – would not be questioned or contested. These faceless men (as we are mainly talking about a CEO’s all-boys club), hidden in the penthouses of their New York based corporations needed to quickly certify that the promised change would come only to keep things as they were, consolidating the status quo. And the following episodes – the bailouts and TINA (that ironically walk alongside), together with the academic and ideological support of the recently revised liberal theoretical models already mentioned -, encapsulate the main features of this transformation. And the demonstration of this argument is that today the rich are richer, the poor poorer, all the hope gathered in 08 faded (remember Obama?) together with the momentum mustered by all the ‘occupy’ movements. No longer the system is on the verge of collapse, as in 2008. Business is back, and profit too, and all bigger then in 08.
Now, obviously that these lines are over-generic and provocative; they intended to be. Naturally that there are several political alternatives to TINA, and hopefully they will be presented on the curse of the incoming European campaign. They’ve always existed in numerous party programs, in the milliard of civic platforms micro-working in society, and essentially in the minds and spirits of concern European citizens, those who knows that the Idea of Europe – although printed in Brussels – is not the black & white cartoon this Commission is selling for a penny. Is much more colourful. And its up to us, European citizens, voters, to be informed on the current alternatives and – taking in consideration the wider European scope -, to take the next European elections as an act of the outmost importance.
This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue 15 (spring 2014)
Photo: World Economic Forum / Flickr
The European Council will present these names, after taking into consideration the overall results of the incoming May elections.
The European Green Party, following a parity method, will present 2 candidates, a man and a woman.
In what respects these internal selection processes, at least from the organizational point of view, we do need to emphasise the democratic process pursue by the European Socialists (a sort of ‘primaries), pioneers in democratically electing Martin Schultz as their candidate
I’m not considering the votes for nationalist, extremist or anti-European parties.
While they lower taxes on corporations and big business, in name of competitiveness.
 In several countries (as in Portugal, Greece, Spain, Belgium) there are NGO and civic movements working exactly on appreciating – and politically validating – the different constitutive elements of their national debts.