The disturbing European election results, which saw parties like the French National Front and the UK Independence Party gain the largest share of the vote, on a low turn-out, tell us that many people have lost whatever faith they might have had in the narratives of the main establishment parties. In some places (Spain, Greece, Sweden) left parties have benefited from this factor.
The populist right, which includes Little Englander sections of Britain’s Tory party, seeks to use people’s desperation about worsening economic conditions to withdraw (partly or fully) from European governmental arrangements, while playing the immigration card. In this they oppose any increase in ‘Federalism’.
But these elements, wittingly or unwittingly, confuse two relatively independent aspects of European integration. The EU, and its forerunner, the Common Market, were sold to us as the solution to inter-State conflicts in Europe. By having pan-European institutions, where States could make agreements, resolve conflicts, work together, it was said, there would be no return to the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. But was generally hidden was the idea of the single market as a way of reducing costs and barriers for European capital accumulation. It is that set of arrangements, the single market, that lies behind the Lisbon Treaty and the EMU. It is that which threatens people in the richer countries like the UK with the race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions, and at the same time people in the poorer economies who have to face European prices and the domination of the richer economies. It is that single market that socialists and other radicals should be opposing, instead arguing for an economic subsidiarity, whereby economies are protected from unfair competition, they control their own monetary systems and they meet more of their own needs for goods.
And that principle of subsidiarity applies to federal government arrangements. It makes sense for local issues to be determined locally, but basic standards of social justice can indeed be agreed at a European level, and this gives a buffer against right wing opportunism in national governments. Deciding things like the control of carbon emissions also makes sense on a sub-continental basis (1).
So we should be promoting an authentic federalism while at the same time opposing the neoliberal single-market fundamentalism.
That means staying in the EU but working to transform it as the Green Party pledges. Not like the Tories want to , to reduce social protection while keeping the freedom of capital, but no, enhancing social and environmental protection while constraining the violence that capitalism exerts on people in Europe and the rest of the world.
And for Labour, that means ceasing the dalliance with anti-immigration populism and instead actually representing the interests of the mass of the people, here and globally, now and for future generations. There’s a long way to go.
(1) Europe is not a continent – it is a big peninsular on the Eurasian land mass. A sub-continent like India. Calling it a continent is yet another legacy of imperialist Eurocentrism.