From the late French President François Mitterrand, through the former social democratic President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, to the current head of European Parliament Martin Schulz, Europe’s political left has been a reliable defender of European integration against its right-wing critics. The Greek economic meltdown might soon change that, facilitating instead a rapprochement between the political left and the Euroskeptics.
A populist, anti-EU brand of leftism is not a complete novelty. A year ago, Costas Lapavitsas, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and an MP for Syriza, deplored “the conservative mechanisms at the heart of the EU” and expressed hope that the left would succeed in “sending a clear anti-capitalist message that combines radical policies with progressive Euroskepticism.”
As the Greek economy falls apart, this line of thinking is gaining traction in mainstream social-democratic circles as well. Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, recently channeled technical arguments originally made by economists Milton Friedman and Martin Feldstein—and other early critics of the euro—and concluded that “the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake.” Until very recently, his advice to the Greek government, namely “if necessary, to leave the euro,” could hardly be uttered in polite company anywhere in Europe.
The Guardian’s Owen Jones, in turn, speaks of Greece as “a society that has been progressively dismantled by EU-dictated austerity.” The British Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, claims that “the Troika’s intransigence on austerity amounts to nothing short of an attempted coup.” The sentiment was echoed by numerous Twitteratis during the night of the negotiations on Sunday night, particularly under the hashtag #ThisIsACoup.
Another Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, sounds just like former Czech President Václav Klaus, who took great pleasure in lambasting the EU’s democratic deficit, to the dismay of the EU’s intelligentsia. Stiglitz writes “[t]hat concern for popular legitimacy is incompatible with the politics of the Eurozone, which was never a very democratic project”; he hopes that “Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands,” by escaping the diktat of Brussels.
Distinguishing the voices on the left from the conventional conservative Euroskepticism is becoming increasingly difficult. A recent editorial in the Telegraph, a bastion of British Tory thought, could have been easily written by a disgruntled member of Syriza. It spoke of the “the humiliation now being heaped upon a proud and ancient country,” reminding Greeks that “without the power to make their own decisions they are always at the mercy of the unelected bureaucrats and financiers who run the institutions.” Joining the chorus on further on the right is Marine Le Pen, who applauded the outcome of the Greek referendum and called euro and austerity “Siamese twins, . . . attached at the hip.” As its deputy leader, Marton Gyongyosi, told me recently, even Hungary’s extreme right-wing Jobbik party supported Syriza’s defiant position towards its international creditors.
Of course, euro critics both left and right make some valid points. As it currently stands, Europe is too diverse a continent, with too little economic flexibility, to be a well-functioning monetary union. The EU thus should abandon the dogma of ever-closer union and allow its member states to permanently opt out of joining the Eurozone, while enjoying other benefits that come with EU membership.
But there is a flipside to this argument, uncomfortable for many Euroskeptics. Countries that do wish to be a part of the Eurozone have to accept tighter fiscal rules and a higher degree of political integration. And that will involve clear, enforceable fiscal rules—as well as those nosey, unaccountable “eurocrats” scrutinizing national budgets and perhaps even vetoing them.
By itself, the rise of the left-wing critics of the EU is not a terrible thing. The Union needs reform, and the efforts to make it more open, accountable, and flexible are valuable. However, Euroskeptics of all ideological stripes are too often keen to throw out the baby with the bathwater, trying to replace the imperfect European institutions with a utopia.
Lapavitsas, for example, wants the EU “dismantled and replaced,” in part by a system of “managed exchange rates and controlled capital flows”—thus putting an end to one of the EU’s fundamental freedoms. Others might be dreaming of a permanent system of fiscal transfers to the EU’s periphery, no questions asked—a political non-starter, regardless of what one thinks of its substantive merits.
In turn, a devolution of the EU overseen by the largely nationalistic and protectionist Euroskeptic right, exemplified by the likes of Marine Le Pen, would almost certainly put an end to the free movement of people, not to speak of trade barriers and industrial planning, which her party, the Front National, is advocating.
Notwithstanding the agreement reached between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone, it is becoming clear that the ongoing economic meltdown in Greece will lead to a backlash against the project of European integration, coming from both the left and right. While a deep rethink is necessary, let us hope that the peaceful postwar order in Europe does not fall prey to reckless populism.