If the European Union Doesn’t Democratize, It Will Crumble

Walter Baier

After a decade that produced a series of shocks, the European Union seems to have weathered its worst moment of crisis. Yet the EU still suffers a fundamental lack of democracy — and the Left should be in the forefront of demanding its reform.

European Parliament president Roberta Metsola (at the rostrum) speaks during the conference on the Future of Europe in the European Parliament on December 2, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. (Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Interview by
Adam Baltner

Today, the politics of the European Union don’t offer the Left much cause for hope. From the creation of the Eurozone at the end of the 1990s, to the failed ratification of a European Constitution, to the extortion of Greece by the so-called troika in 2015, being a left-winger in Europe has typically meant fighting against whatever has been implemented under the banner of “Europe.”

Yet the question remains as to how the Left should relate to EU institutions, whose decisions affect hundreds of millions of Europeans, or indeed to the European Parliament, which can meet and deliberate but not produce legislation. Should we reject and ignore the EU? Or should we avoid abandoning the field to neoliberals and the Right, and try to use the EU to give visibility to socialist alternatives?

Founded in 2004 and now home to more than twenty national parties, the Party of the European Left (EL) has opted for the latter approach — either from within governments, such as currently in Spain and Slovenia, or from parliamentary opposition or the streets.

Following an upswing in the wake of the financial crisis, the EL has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years and has parted ways with several member parties. But how is the EL doing today? And what does it see as its task in a time when the political right appears to be gaining steam?

Last month, the Austrian Marxist Walter Baier was elected EL president. Jacobin’s Adam Baltner spoke to him about the limits of EU democracy, opportunities for left-wing politics, and the problems posed by the war in Ukraine.

Adam Baltner

You were recently elected president of the Party of the European Left (EL). What is your analysis of the general state of the Left in Europe?

Walter Baier

First, it’s important to establish that the European left is more than the EL. Trade unions, social movements, ecological movements, feminist movements, artists, scholars — all of these are the Left in a broad sense. And regarding party politics, there are also parties outside of the EL that share some of our goals.

When describing the EL, I actually prefer to speak of the socialist left. After all, the term “Left” implies an identity somewhere on a spectrum ranging from left-liberal to radical left.

Adam Baltner

“Left” is a much vaguer term than “socialist.”

Walter Baier

Yes, and it’s also politically misleading. With the war, we’re now seeing how differences along the left spectrum are becoming more clearly delineated. But this is happening with other questions as well, such as how to approach Islamism and anti-Muslim racism, or whether to stand in solidarity with particular governments that stake a progressive claim.

My concern is the part of the Left that has the overcoming of capitalist relations of production at the center of its program. Right now, I think that the war and the urgency of confronting it sit atop all other questions. But the demands we make in confronting the war are of course dependent on our overall analysis.

My overall analysis is that the world is in the midst of an objective process of transformation. The question isn’t whether we’re for or against a multipolar world order — this world is emerging either way. This global process of transition forms the framework within which we have to deal with the ecological crisis. The ecological and social crisis — and above all, the opportunity gap between the Global North and South — are linked in a contemporary crisis of transformation overdetermined by competition between various imperial centers.

This is a very explosive combination. The most important task is to prevent these contradictions from erupting into a world war. This calls for the broadest possible alliances. The point — if you will — is to save the world without losing sight of the fact that another world is necessary and possible.

Adam Baltner

The EU is a notoriously antidemocratic and pro-capitalist institution. It has a variety of mechanisms to promote market liberalization and prevent nationalization. It can even force member states to implement austerity, as we saw most dramatically with the case of Greece in 2015. What might a productive socialist approach toward such an institution look like?

Walter Baier

I agree with what you’ve said. At the same time, the EU exists, and the transnationalization for which it provides a political framework is primarily an economic process from which we can’t simply exit.

The EU is neoliberal, just as its member states are neoliberal. And like these, it is just as much of a field of struggle where social, class-determined contradictions are played out. You’re right to point out that the institutional framework of the EU is undemocratic. Given how much more power the European Council has than the directly elected European Parliament, the EU is closer to enlightened absolutism than parliamentary democracy.

If the EU submitted an application for EU membership, it would have to be rejected due to how it allocates power between its institutions. This situation is proving increasingly dysfunctional in the current crisis. At meetings of the Council, nationalist egomaniacs come together and try to promote themselves to their national publics, which often causes resolutions — including useful and necessary ones — to be blocked.

For the EU to be democratic, I believe decisions within all policy areas under its purview would have to be made by a parliament elected on the basis of equal suffrage — one person, one vote. If this were the case, elections — and all other struggles over policy and power — would be contests between class-based programs rather than nations. In other words, we need to create the same framework that socialists have successfully fought for in nation-states.

I don’t really see any alternative to democratizing institutions. If it’s indeed the case that we’re currently in the midst of a great phase of transformation, then we need to acknowledge that it will require changes in property relations as well as in the way each and every person lives. Yet these changes will only happen if they achieve consensus. And consensus emerges from political struggle and ideological confrontation, and ultimately from democracy. The EU will either become democratic or crumble.

Adam Baltner

What will it take to democratize the EU? As the new president of the EL, do you have a specific strategy to push for democratization? And what kind of time frame does this strategy foresee?

Walter Baier

The main instrument of democratization has been and continues to be social movements. The point is to wage transnational European struggles. The current strikes among railworkers defending a standard of living objectively point beyond the borders of nation-states. Here, a movement to defend and expand public ownership is converging with the demands of ecological movements for another system of mobility. The task of the EL as a “connective party” is to forge links such as these, which transform a Europeanization of struggle “in itself” into a Europeanization “for itself.”

At our party congress in December, Marc Botenga, an EU parliamentarian for the Belgian Workers’ Party, said that 2023 has to be a year of campaigns. I agree. This year has to be a year of connecting the EL to social struggles. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the EL is a party of parties and can only act on a strategy that has consensus among all parties. But this is precisely my job as president: to moderate such a consensus.

The 2024 elections for the European Parliament will take place under the sign of confrontation between the socialist left and the radical right. The crisis of neoliberalism means frustration, abasement, and massive social deprivation for wide swathes of the population. In many countries, this is generating a national chauvinism and strengthening the radical right.

The nationalist, radical right, neofascist parties could form the largest group in the European Parliament, and it’s completely obvious that the liberals and conservatives aren’t able to stop them. Who besides the socialist left could become a pole around which forces on the left could regroup?

Adam Baltner

EU elections pose a danger particularly to the Left, given that the undemocratic nature of the institution makes it very difficult to bring about concrete changes on the EU level that improve people’s lives. As the Right wants to maintain the status quo against progressive change, it is not exposed to this danger. The risk that the Right won’t be able to keep campaign promises and will disappoint its voters is much lower. How should the Left deal with this danger immanent to EU politics?

Walter Baier

This is the danger of parliamentarianism in general. You stand for election and promise that a vote for your party will make everything change for the better. But the fact is that politics takes place on the basis of economic structures produced by capitalist relations. And that narrows the scope of action in both nation-states and the EU.

To be honest, I don’t see the danger of the European left fostering unrealistic expectations toward the EU. First, the Greek government’s defeat in the 2015 conflict with the troika destroyed many illusions regarding the EU. Second, European Parliament elections are also national elections where parties run national campaigns. And third, I think that an electoral campaign, whether national or European, can only succeed if connected to social struggles. The rise of Podemos, for example, was immediately linked to an enormous social movement.

Adam Baltner

One of the few recent success stories for the Left in Europe is Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise, who has taken Eurosceptic positions in the past. In Italy, on the other hand, where the Democratic Party (PD) — the successor of a once-mighty Communist Party — is completely uncritical of the EU, a politician who comes from the country’s fascist tradition was just elected prime minister. Would it not be smart for the Left to oppose the EU for reasons of electoral tactics, especially if we want to undermine the radical right?

Walter Baier

La France Insoumise is a part of the EL and the Left in the European Parliament, whereas the PD is a member of the [center left] Party of European Socialists. That’s the difference.

Moreover, it seems to me that “for or against the EU” is the wrong question. That’s the dilemma that the dominant politics wants to make us face: accept the neoliberal, authoritarian management of the crisis, or the nationalists will come. We shouldn’t accept this. Rather, in view of current power relations and within the existing framework of EU institutions, we have to admit that we are operating on the defensive and in opposition to the mainstream. This is the reality, even though parties of the radical left are participating in governments in a few countries, and it doesn’t mean that in certain areas, reforms in the interests of wage earners can’t be achieved within the system. The Left in the European Parliament has provided some good examples of this.

I see the EL precisely as an oppositional force, on both human rights issues — the refugee politics of the EU are a moral disgrace — as well as, and above all, on socioeconomic issues. We demand the nationalization or socialization of major energy providers. We demand the abolition of the Stability and Growth Pact in order to be able to finance the ecological transformation. We oppose the armament programs that the EU is currently adopting. On the EU level, all these demands find their political expression in the EL.

Adam Baltner

In addition to being known as a former chairman of the Communist Party of Austria, you’re also known as a critic of NATO. I suspect we’re both of the opinion that NATO is an instrument of US imperialism. Every so often, the question of whether the EU should create its own army comes up in the media. What’s your stance on this issue? Should the Left support an EU army as a measure against US imperial hegemony?

Walter Baier

I think we have to pose this question concretely. Under current conditions, transforming the EU into a military union would simply create a second pillar of NATO. That would be in the interest of neither European security nor the European population.

Posing the question of NATO from the perspective of European security lets us say in general that collective security cannot develop on the basis of a military pact. Historical scholarship on peace shows that in the large majority of cases, military pacts lead not to security but war. A military pact means: I arm against someone else, this someone else arms against me, and at some point armament gives way to military confrontation. In the interests of the European population, we have to do exactly the opposite, namely, disarm.

In my opinion, at the core of the precarious security situation are the nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. This can even be illustrated empirically, as the world looks different from the perspective of the United States than it does from the perspective of Europe. I was in New York two months ago and was struck by the fact that, unlike in Europe, the war in Ukraine plays a secondary role in the US media. It’s a war like in Afghanistan or Syria — it’s one of many US engagements. Yet from the perspective of Europe, where there are 108 nuclear power plants and three hundred major cities, we have a different security scenario and different security interests.

That’s why it’s necessary to decouple European security from the United States. And that means a politics aimed at nuclear disarmament, or using international law to implement nuclear-weapon-free zones such as already exist in Latin America and Africa. All this is impossible with NATO. But only on the basis of such a peace strategy could we begin to talk about whether an EU defense force should be created, and what its purview should be.

Adam Baltner

As president of the EL, you’ve mentioned your function as consensus builder. How should the party come to consensus positions on issues where there is disagreement between its different national parties? After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, some left-wing parties weakened or dropped their opposition to joining NATO.

Walter Baier

I will try to serve a dual function. On the one hand, I will moderate and build consensus. But I’ve also studied European integration and security policy for fifteen years, and I have my own opinions on the subject that I’ll put up for discussion. When it comes to finding consensus, I start with two considerations. The first is that differences of opinion on the Left are not primarily caused by ideological differences, but by different objective conditions that lead to different political judgments. For this reason, instead of lecturing each other, we should learn to understand each other’s interests through dialogue.

The second methodological principle stems from my previous political work: of course, politics is always about compromise. Yet sometimes, in order to achieve consensus, something else is needed: namely, a deepening of the analysis. Above all, we have to be forward thinking.

The war in Ukraine is a virtually textbook example of this. Sweden and Finland are in the process of joining NATO. In Finland, the Left Alliance, an observer party of the EL, is one of the governing parties. Now, of course we can go on about how regrettable this decision is. But life goes on, and so do politics. New questions arise, such as: Will nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable delivery systems be stationed in Sweden and Finland? Will these countries allow foreign troops to be stationed within them? Will they participate in NATO interventions?

All NATO member states today face these questions. And they are point of contention. Whether Kurds in Sweden will be deported to Turkey, is a point of contention. Joining NATO doesn’t answer any of these questions; rather, it gives rise to them.

In debates about the war in Ukraine and its consequences, I think it’s less relevant to talk about broken promises to Gorbachev, Russia’s intervention in Chechnya, or NATO’s eastward expansion. I have my interpretation here, but such interpretations are always controversial.

In my opinion, we have to discuss what present and future European security requires. Of course, the war in Ukraine has to be ended and the Russian troops withdrawn. A peace treaty has to account for both Ukrainian national self-determination and Russia’s interest in a secure border. From a pan-European perspective, there’s currently the issue of the agreement between Russia and the United States to not station new medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. From this perspective, Europe should be completely freed from nuclear weapons and the level of armaments reduced. However we view the prehistory of the war in Ukraine, we need to come up with common solutions to these questions.