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Can the left unite on Europe?

Summary:
In France, as in Germany and most other countries, the left is heavily divided on the European question, and more generally on the strategy to adopt in the face of globalisation and the transnational regulation of capitalism. While national deadlines are fast approaching (2021 in Germany, 2022 in France), many voices are calling for these political forces to unite. In Germany, however, the three main parties (Die Linke, the SPD and the Grünen) are likely to find it difficult to reach agreement, particularly on Europe, and some already predict that the Grünen (the Greens) will end up governing with the CDU. In France, the different forces have started talking to each other again, but there is no guarantee for the moment that they will manage to unite, especially on European policy. The

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Can the left unite on Europe?

In France, as in Germany and most other countries, the left is heavily divided on the European question, and more generally on the strategy to adopt in the face of globalisation and the transnational regulation of capitalism. While national deadlines are fast approaching (2021 in Germany, 2022 in France), many voices are calling for these political forces to unite. In Germany, however, the three main parties (Die Linke, the SPD and the Grünen) are likely to find it difficult to reach agreement, particularly on Europe, and some already predict that the Grünen (the Greens) will end up governing with the CDU. In France, the different forces have started talking to each other again, but there is no guarantee for the moment that they will manage to unite, especially on European policy.

The problem is that each side is convinced that they alone have got it right. In France, La France Insoumise (LFI), likes to remind everyone that the PS  (Parti Socialiste) and its ecological allies had already promised before the 2012 elections to renegotiate the European rules. However, as soon as they were elected, the majority at the time hastened to ratify the new budgetary treaty, without modifying anything, for lack of a precise plan on what they really wanted to obtain. Les Insoumis also insist that the Socialists have still not indicated how their strategy and objectives have changed and could lead to a different result next time. It has to be admitted that their criticism is justified.

But on the side of PS, EELV (Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts) and other left forces not attached to  LFI (like Generations, the PCF (French Communist Party), etc.), it is pointed out that the plan of the Les Insoumis to change Europe is far from being as precise and convincing as they claim, and that Jean-Luc Mélenchon sometimes seems more interested in criticising (or even purely and simply leaving) the current European Union than in its reconstruction along social-federalist, democratic and internationalist lines. Unfortunately, this criticism is not completely false either.

In theory, the LFI strategy has been based on the articulation of « plan A/plan B » since 2017. In other words, either we convince all the other countries to renegotiate the European treaties (plan A), or we leave the existing treaties and build new ones with a smaller group of countries (plan B). The idea is not necessarily a bad one, except that the Insoumis spend more time brandishing the threat of exit than describing the new treaties they would like to propose to the other countries, whether in plan A or plan B. In concrete terms, the LFI , like the whole of the Left, has for a very long time defended the idea of social, fiscal and environmental harmonization from above in Europe, which includes ending the unanimity rule in fiscal and budgetary matters. The problem is that the LFI does not say which democratic body should in its view be empowered to take such decisions by majority rule.

One could simply propose that tax decisions within the Council of Ministers should henceforth be taken by majority vote, with the risk, however, of perpetuating an opaque body, operating behind closed doors and favouring country-to-country confrontations. Another solution would be to give the last word to the European Parliament, with the risk this time of cutting themselves off entirely from national democratic bodies. A more innovative formula would be to set up a genuine European Assembly based on national MPs in proportion to the respective national populations and political groups.

Let’s be clear: these are complex issues to which no one has a perfect solution. All the more reason for the different political forces to talk to each other and come up with a strategy together. In particular, it is essential that specific proposals be made to other countries. For even if it is unlikely that the 27 Member States will accept the end of the unanimity rule from the outset (especially states such as the Netherlands, which have relied heavily on tax dumping), it would still be a bit of a problem if the French left on coming to power were to fail to convince at least a few countries (for example Spain or Italy) of the possibility of moving forward together in this direction. In any case, it is crucial to give a chance to genuine social-federalist proposals based on transnational assemblies before arriving at possible unilateral sanctions against countries practising dumping (not to mention that such sanctions will be more effective if they are applied jointly by several countries).

Finally, both the French and the German left must take into account that the Europe of 2022 will not be the Europe of 2012. In particular, they will have to situate themselves in relation to the recovery plan adopted this summer, which, despite its limitations, constitutes a major innovation, especially with the joint loan of €390 billion intended to supplement national budgets. Its main flaw remains its small size (less than 3% of European GDP) and its subordination to the unanimity rule, which prevents any reactivity and change of sails. It should be noted in passing that the plan has yet to be ratified by the national parliaments, which de facto each have a right of veto. Here again, in order to go further, it will be necessary to move to majority rule, ideally in the framework of a genuine European Assembly, even if this means moving forward with a subset of countries.

What is certain is that there is an urgent need to overcome old disputes and false certainties and to get out of this situation where every fraction of the left thinks it can be right about Europe on its own.

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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