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With Progressive Syriza’s Victory, Is a European Spring Coming?

Syriza’s victory will certainly galvanize other populist parties in Europe, especially those on the left.

Supporters rally with Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras in May, 2014. (Photo: Mirko Isaia)

In the wake of the victory of the progressive party Syriza at the Greek general election on January 25, 2015, some have started talking about the coming of a European Spring, a democratic uprising against the political status quo in Europe.

This status quo has imposed brutal austerity policies on countries like Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland. These policies have protected and advanced the interests of banks, and more generally, of those holding large financial assets. They have protected and advanced the interests of large corporations. They have generated unbelievably high unemployment rates, a huge squeeze on workers’ wages and an astonishing number of bankruptcies among small businesses. They have resulted in dramatic cuts to social security and public health systems.

These are economic issues, but they are also moral issues. Robbing a whole generation of European youth of the possibility of finding a decent job is stripping them of their hopes and dignity. But alongside these issues, there are other features of the European status quo that are outrageous. Through a variety of mechanisms – from the memoranda of the Troika to EU pacts and treaties – European institutions have robbed European citizens of any meaningful democratic control over political decisions. For all of these reasons, a European Democratic Spring is urgently needed.

So far, the only parties that have challenged the status quo are those disparagingly labeled as populist by the EU elites. Syriza’s victory will certainly galvanize other populist parties in Europe, especially those on the left. An alliance between Syriza and the Spanish party Podemos has the potential to be very significant. There will be a general election in Spain by the end of 2015, and Podemos is now leading the polls. An anti-austerity, left-wing Southern-European front is now a real possibility.

This is important because Syriza and Podemos – though in different ways, with different histories, and different styles – have strong links with grassroots movements. For this reason, they can act, as Stathis Kouvelakis recently put it, as “a catalyst of energies and prevent a gap from opening up between what’s going on at the level of grassroots mobilization and at the level of government.” Because of this, these parties have the potential to push EU politics in the direction of more popular democratic control, after many decades of forces pushing strongly, ruthlessly and very efficiently in the opposite direction.

One risk, though, is what we might call the “Hollandeization” of Syriza and Podemos. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the current French President, Francois Hollande, made many anti-austerity promises. He won against the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, partly thanks to those promises. But once in office, Hollande quickly surrendered to the finance-led EU status quo. There are some who predict that Syriza and Podemos will be a disappointment for those who want radical change, just as Hollande was. We personally do not want to make any predictions. We hope Syriza and Podemos succeed in making Europe a genuinely more democratic place. But there is a danger that European elites and oligarchies will use Syriza and Podemos to further their own interests, and this needs to be addressed.

Just like the supporters who endow these parties with strength and potential, Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias – the leaders of Syriza and Podemos respectively – are committed to European solidarity and to the project of a peaceful and efficient cooperation in Europe (and elsewhere). This is a reason for hope for all Europeans, especially those in the battered Southern-European and peripheral countries. However, changing European governance to make it more democratic and more responsive to the needs of citizens – as opposed to the interests of banks, corporations, and elites – requires a radically different model of integration. It requires less political integration of the kind so far pursued and more reliance on local democratic institutions, and on the transparent interaction and cooperation among such institutions.

The struggle for real democracy in Europe has an important institutional component. Many commentators have argued that the democratic deficit and the lack of perceived legitimacy of EU political institutions can be amended by strengthening the electoral-representative institutions at the European level, so as to be able to elect a parliament and an executive strong enough to impose, among other things, the redistribution of resources from areas or segments of the population that are benefiting from the political and monetary union to those that are not.

The idea is this: The common currency creates an advantage for German exports and German companies, and it puts at a disadvantage the periphery countries of the union and more generally the poorer sections of the population across Europe. These imbalances need to be counteracted; they can and they will be counteracted by a stronger and more integrated EU parliament and EU executive.

A proposal of this sort has been put forward by many commentators, including Thomas Piketty in his Manifesto for Europe and in a variety of interviews he has given in the last few months. Since publishing Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty has become a point of reference for the European left. His book has done much to draw attention to the problem of inequality and to the threats it poses. But the idea that European democracy can be saved by strengthening its electoral-representative institutions, and that the inequalities between and within countries can be addressed in the same way, has to be rejected.

The ideal of European democracy should not be equated to the idea of a European-wide electoral system, nor to the idea of a supranational European Government put in place by such an electoral system.

Traditional electoral-representative institutions have a tendency to be captured by oligarchic and elitist powers. In general, the larger the scale, the stronger the oligarchic and elitist grip on electoral-representative institutions. The institutional system of the EU is currently a tool of oligarchic and elitist domination, as shown by the policies implemented since the financial crisis of 2008.

Strengthening this tool would mean providing the oligarchs and the dominant elites with an even stronger weapon. It would perhaps increase the perceived legitimacy of EU institutions, but only superficially, without increasing popular control over the policy-making process. It would endow the EU with a more seductive democratic façade, but in a way that would make the various lobbies that already control policy making even more politically powerful.

Piketty has recently endorsed Syriza and Podemos (and has also agreed to be an informal economic policy adviser to Podemos). Given Piketty’s prominence and influence, this is to be welcomed. But despite Piketty’s intentions, the dream of an all-powerful European Government is a reactionary dream. The pursuit of this dream contributed to the political and economic conflicts that can be observed between debtor countries and creditor countries, and between financial powers and the ordinary people who see their economic prospects shattered.

Even more importantly, pursuing the dream of a more powerful and more integrated European Government will push us further away from real democracy; that is, it will push us further away from genuine popular control over political decisions that affect the lives and well-being of hundreds of millions of European citizens. There is a high risk that this dream will be used by EU elites and oligarchs to domesticate Syriza and Podemos. This must be avoided. Peaceful and efficient cooperation in Europe is possible without the creation of an all-powerful European Government.

Syriza and Podemos have strong links with grassroots movements. This is perhaps their most crucial asset. Under the guise of trying to change EU institutions from within, these parties might be coopted and exploited by EU oligarchs and elites. Alternatively, Syriza and Podemos might develop and strengthen ways of doing democratic politics that work in favor of genuine popular control. We hope they will take this second path and, by doing so, genuinely contribute to the coming of a European Democratic Spring.

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