Alternatives To The Crisis: Why Civil Society Has Been Mostly Right

Since the crisis began in 2008, an intense European discussion has challenged official policy priorities. Civil society organisations (CSOs), trade unions, think tanks and grassroots campaigns have called for ending austerity and restoring shared prosperity, reforming (or dismantling) EU institutions, reducing inequality and making Europe more inclusive, achieving environmental sustainability and reacting to climate change with green economic alternatives.

With regard to the European project in particular, alternative responses to the crisis have emerged. A first frame is a reversal of European integration, emphasising the need for a revival of national political authority and policy processes in several fields: this includes demands for greater fiscal autonomy of national governments against European budget rules and other ‘insubordinate’ actions concerning the protection of national welfare states, fiscal rules, production activities, leading to calls for a progressive exit from the euro, or ‘Lexit’. Left political parties that share a strong anti-euro or euro-critical stance include Izquierda Unida in Spain, the Parti de Gauche in France, the Portuguese Communist Party and other minor parties such as the Greek Communist Party, the KKE. Also, various ‘Plan B’ conferences have been organised around Europe in the past year and a half to discuss alternatives to the Eurosystem (the next one is to be held in Copenhagen on November 19-20). The victory of the ‘Brexit’ option in the UK referendum has made the reversal of European integration real, opening up a crisis whose outcome is highly uncertain. This largely results from the failure of national and European policies to respond adequately to the crisis, making Europe unpopular as never before – as documented by Eurobarometer surveys. In this regard, a number of important pro-European intellectuals – such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul De Grauwe and others – are now saying that a progressive reform of the euro area appears more unlikely than ever.

A second, contrary frame is the traditional federalist argument that greater European integration is the way forward, aiming at the creation of a democratic ‘federation of citizens’, in contrast to the kind of authoritarian or ‘executive federalism’ that European elites are now pursuing. There is a relative consensus among progressive integrationists that European democracy should rest, first and foremost, upon a significantly empowered European Parliament and a revamped European Commission with a directly elected president. It has also been argued that a separate parliamentary chamber for the eurozone should be created comprising some members of the national parliaments.

A third frame for democratising Europe has focused on the project of a Europe beyond neoliberalism, arguing that most shortcomings are the result of the neoliberal paradigm enforced by European institutions. Here, the democratisation of the European decision-making process needs to go hand in hand with a reduction in the power of finance and technocratic bodies, ECB included; strict limits to the ‘revolving doors’ system between business and European politics; a move beyond austerity in macroeconomic policies; a reduction of inequalities; greater protection of social and workers’ rights and a greater role for trade unions. This has been the approach proposed by a large number of civil society organisations, from the EuroMemo Group to the Transnational Institute, from Sbilanciamoci! in Italy to Les Economistes Atterrés in France, from ATTAC to many labour organisations. Political parties that share this position include SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Bloco de Esquerda in Portugal. A recent development in this area has been the creation of Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe 2025) movement, which focuses on the democratic question in an integrated Europe.

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