Sunday, February 10, 2013

The peril of historical regression of Europe and the responsibility of European Socialists and Democrats

by Evangelos Venizelos

Europe is experiencing the threat of a great historical regression. The European acquis in the second half of the twentieth century is under intense questioning and the irony is that this has resulted from the combination of the most ambitious step in the process of European integration, the euro, as well as the financial and fiscal crises that feed into one another and are addressed symptomatically in a piecemeal way, but not structurally.

What is now being questioned is not just the European welfare state in its different versions, but also, as we see happening already in many countries, the level of employment and income, the sense of security and quality of life, the model of growth, the competitiveness data and the redistribution mechanisms. We see arising now a problem of social cohesion and solidarity, a problem of intolerance, lack of pluralism, a problem of European historical memory and consciousness. Therefore, we see now a problem for democracy and the rule of law, through the rise of different versions of an extreme right that is overtly violent and pro-Nazi. This is mainly occurring in countries that are at the heart of the crisis and are applying pro-cyclical fiscal adjustment programs that exacerbate recession and unemployment. However, the entire European economic and social environment is recessionary, pessimistic and insecure.

This historic retreat of Europe is certainly and largely due to the new global economic interrelationships, as well as the emergence of new players and new decision-making centers. It is also due to the fact that Europe became dependent on the financial sphere of its economy that grew excessively large in relation to the sphere of the real economy. But Europe was also dependent on the international capital and money markets through its huge public debt and hence the equally massive borrowing needs of the European states. Although similar observations can be very easily made about the U.S. but also the Japanese economy, the issue of Europe is of particular interest because these developments are linked with equally large changes of an ideological and political nature:

Twentieth-century Europe as a historical synthesis owes much to the ideas of European social democracy, the implementation of Keynesian policies, the postwar emergence not only of price stability but also of full-time employment and redistribution policies as imperatives of the prevailing political and social thinking. European societies and economies reached an enviable level of development at the turn of the 21st century, under the strong influence of the ideas of social democracy, to such an extent that we can say that Europe as a continent and European integration as a historical project are “social democratic.” This does not mean that the role of conservative, popular and Christian democratic parties should be underestimated, or that the pressure applied by the trade unions or the influence of the ideas of the communist left under conditions of global bipolarity and the Cold War should be ignored. But the European project is “social democratic” in the sense of the unique character of the European model of development in relation with that of the U.S. in particular. Namely, in the sense of an internationally developed and competitive economy combined with the guarantees of the welfare state and the entire chain of ideas and practices that we would call in short the "European model". Or, even better, we would probably call it "the European historical and social compromise" through democratic functions and the alternation in power or the cooperation of the major political families, depending on the political and electoral cycles of each country and of Europe as a whole.

The fall of real socialism and the radical change in the big geopolitical picture at the beginning of the final decade of the 20th century coincide historically with the political decision to accelerate European integration and particularly to establish a monetary union, an idea based on assumptions that basically questioned European social democracy’s critical imperatives of values and the economy:

Maastricht’s macroeconomic balance and financial stability did not rule out in principle the goals of so-called social Europe, or the goal of full-time employment. But it was only price stability that was introduced as a statutory objective of the European Central Bank. And this whole system, designed to work under normal conditions, came under a tough test after 2008 and the outbreak of the international financial and fiscal crisis. Because the crisis found Europe and specifically the Eurozone institutionally and operationally unprepared and under pressure not only from the aggression of the markets and the economic situation, but also from the economic nationalisms that emerged in fiscally sound countries in the form of fear of possible “contamination” from the fiscally prodigal countries.

The main ideological defeat of European social democracy was the distancing of Keynesianism from the academic, financial and ultimately political scene in Europe. An equally basic institutional defeat was the creation of a European system which, under the pressure of the crisis and the markets, would surrender without a battle to neoliberal economic ideas and conservative disciplined and disciplinary policies. European solidarity never ceased to exist, but it became dependent on very strict macroeconomic, fiscal, structural and ultimately ideological conditions.

In this context, any shifts of national governments, with electoral ups and downs of the social democratic forces, exercised and are still exercising very little influence on the European and international levels. By now it is obvious that the most critical interrelationships are transnational and not ideological or political. It is also obvious that due to the many, continuous and intersecting election cycles in European countries, there is always a large rolling coalition between the two major political families: the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists.

European social democracy was also confronted with all the difficulties, the bewilderment, the contradictions and shortfalls of the European architecture: with the so-called democratic and particularly the political deficit of Europe.

When I speak about European social-democracy, I am referring to the entire spectrum covered by the Party of European Socialists and the Group of European Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament: socialist, social democratic, labor or democratic parties, depending on their individual national circumstances and traditions. I refer to the whole spectrum of the non-communist left or, as we say in Greece, the center-left. Real policies and not names are what really matter.

Thus, a European situation has been formed, as it became obvious in the last European Council for the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020. This situation cannot be addressed using the current, conventional methods of political thought and action, since they now operate in a long-term and strategic mode against European social democracy (even when social democratic parties win local or national elections).

Therefore, social democracy must look again at the big European picture in terms of history and values, namely in terms that are deeply and essentially political. Social democracy must remember the tough history lessons of the European interwar period. Besides, we are now in an economic "interwar period," between the crisis we have experienced and a possible second harder phase of a conflict between states (and hence regional entities such as the European Union and the Eurozone) and the markets, namely the institutionally unregulated aspects of the markets, since there are no sufficient institutions of global economic governance. The big political issues were always and still are issues of sovereignty, such as the conflict between states and markets.

European social democracy must therefore go beyond the sphere of national economic strategies and introduce again, at a pan-European level, the fundamental questions of democracy, civil rights, political liberalism, historical consciousness, and policy priorities.

Of course, to be persuasive, modern European social democracy must give practical answers to the questions of the management of the financial and fiscal crisis, but in an insightful manner in relation to the real economy, growth and employment. The macroeconomic and fiscal balances can be based on the largest denominator (GDP) rather than a myopic consideration of the numerator. Undoubtedly key concepts, such as entrepreneurship and competitiveness, can be combined with social cohesion, solidarity and a welfare state that creates growth, as a source of employment and as part of the overall national and social competitiveness scheme, through the combination of tax and social security systems. We know very well that European social democracy is most convincing only when talking not only about production and competitiveness, but also about cohesion and redistribution.

The new tasks of European social democracy are heavy and urgent. This is because fundamental imperatives, such as halting recession and unemployment, reconstructing Europe’s competitive advantages, and preserving social cohesion and solidarity, must be put back on the table. But all these issues come up against international short-term needs, national political and electoral considerations, new scientific stereotypes about the "best" macroeconomic and financial options, and the role claimed by institutions like the IMF and the ECB.

But there are issues, such as the protection of democracy, the rule of law and the parliamentary system, as well as energy, food and water safety and sufficiency, which may be raised in the public debate with less resistance.

When it comes to the critical subject of European integration, European Socialists and Democrats should prevail by putting forward a series of proposals that go beyond the European financial, fiscal, political and developmental sense of helplessness. They need to make member-states confront the essential strategy problems that no temporary arrangement can solve. European socialists should always put themselves in the front line against the forces of historical, political, social and cultural regression or the forces of the supposedly progressive conservatism which preach immobility in the name of the preservation of individual acquis.

This is the concept of values and political priorities of the European Socialists and Democrats that PASOK connects with. These are the ideas that PASOK wants to express and claim, being always open, politically and organizationally, to those who agree, as a party with ideological and political clarity and no sterile partisan patriotism. In this respect, the upcoming Congress will be a large forum for discussion, discussion that will not end when the Congress closes, but instead will be made stronger by its decisions and the dynamics which, I am sure, they will have. -

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