A Europe of One Extreme: Interviewed by Thomas Fazi on the European Parliamentary Election outcome

Europe went to the polls last weekend. Here is my take on the election results – in an interview with Thomas Farzi (author of The Battle for Europe: How an Elite Hijacked a Continent – and How We Can Take It Back).

– What’s your general take on the results of the European elections?

For four years now, European institutions are the field on which incompetence and malice compete with one another, seemingly with an eye to winning the prize for the greatest damage done to the idea of shared European prosperity. The result has been a wholesale loss of trust in the institutions of the EU and the demise of the ‘assumption’ that European integration was an unstoppable, benign force. Naturally, the recent European Parliament elections reflected this mood.

The international press has summed up the election outcome as a sign that the economic crisis plaguing Europe has caused voters to be lured by the two ‘extremes’, meaning the ultra right and the extreme left. This is a verdict that the European elites, whose shenanigans are responsible for Europe’s deconstruction, are comfortable with. They see it as evidence that, despite some errors, they are on the middle road, with some wayward voters straying off the ‘right’ path both to the left and to the right. They hope that, once growth picks up again, the ‘strays’ will return to the fold.

This is a misrepresentation of the most recent electoral result. Europeans were not lured by the two extremes. They drifted to one extreme: that of the misanthropic, racist, xenophobic, anti-European right. Extreme, anti-European, leftwing parties saw no surge in their support anywhere in Europe. To portray SYRIZA as anti-European, or as extreme, is disingenuous. SYRIZA is a party that has its roots in the eurocommunist movement of the early 1970s, consistently arguing in favour of the EU (even of the Eurozone), and committed, to this day, and in spite of the catastrophic effects of EU policies on the Greek people, to seek a solution to the crisis within the EU and within the Eurozone.

So, let’s be clear: Europe’s inane handling of the inevitable Euro crisis (due to the faulty architecture of our monetary union) has triggered an electoral result that is a clarion warning that Europe, under the present policy mix, is decomposing. Hiding behind the fabrication of the rise of the extremes (when only rightwing extremists did well) is yet another excuse that the elites are hiding behind so as to retain their failed policies.

– What scenario do you foresee for the near future? And in the longer term, if you were to speculate?

There is no sign on the horizon that the elites will respond creatively either to the economic crisis or to its political ramifications. They may ‘go easy’ on austerity, to absorb some of the shockwaves caused by public discontent, but they have neither the analytical power nor the interest in proceeding with the architectural changes necessary to reverse the decline. Nothing short of a democratic backlash against Europe’s establishment can impede the process of Europe’s fragmentation.

– What does SYRIZA’s success mean for Greece? Do you think the Greek establishment would ever allow a SYRIZA-led government, given the country’s complex history and polarized politics? What role could the EU play in this sense?

SYRIZA’s performance at the European elections is a crucial milestone along a long road. By topping the polls, SYRIZA has proved to itself that it is no bubble; that it enjoys a powerful dynamic which can, if handled well, put it in the leadership of a progressive government. One ought not underestimate the importance of this psychological turning point, particularly for a party that, until two years ago, commanded 4% of the popular vote. Undoubtedly, the local cleptocracy will fight tooth and nail against the creation of such a government. It is already laying mines and booby-traps along SYRIZA’s path to government. As for the EU, not only does the Brussels-Berlin-Frankfurt triangle consider a SYRIZA government to be a mortal enemy but, importantly, they are actively working on a sinister plan of how to bolster their local allies (i.e. the current government) and are setting up a trap for a possible SYRIZA government; a blackmailing tactic which will, they hope, force Alexis Tsipras to capitulate on the day he assumes the prime ministership.

– On a wider horizon, would does Tsipras’ rather successful pan-European campaign mean for the European left? 

Tsipras’ candidacy was successful in that it seems to have added energy and to have infused hope into leftist parties outside of Greece, lending them some of SYRIZA’s oomph. Having said that, on a personal note, I am disappointed in the European Left’s performance. It has failed to capture the imagination of the victims of vicious, irrational policies imposed undemocratically by the neoliberal establishment. Time to acknowledge our failure, stiffen our lip, and reconsider our narratives and strategies.

– What chances do you think Tsipras and European Left have of influencing change at the European level? 

The best chance in a generation or two. This crisis is deep, un-ending and vicious. Tsipras has shown that the Left can offer an alternative to the crisis’ perpetuation without compromising its radicalism. It is up to the Left to take this and turn it into a new hegemonic narrative that challenges the establishment’s TINA (“there is no alternative”) from Ireland to Greece and from Finland to Portugal.

–       If you were to indicate 4-5 realistic policy priorities for Tsipras and the European left more in general, what would they be?

The Left wants to bring on a better world. Yet the task in hand today is to arrest human suffering as a result of a crisis that is unfolding on four fronts: First, there is the humanitarian crisis caused by austerity, with people struggling to put food on the table, to keep a roof over their heads, to heat their families, to provide for basic health care. Secondly, there is the banking malaise which is wasting an enormous part of Europe’s overall surplus, to the detriment of everyone except the bankers. Thirdly, the explosion of public debt, due exclusively to the implosion of the toxic financial sector, is fuelling the austerity that causes so much pain. And fourthly, there is the dearth of investment that condemns Europe’s periphery to depression and its core to stagnation. The Left must offer sensible, immediately implementable policies that deal with these four acute crises. They will not bring about the socialist world that the Left dreams of but they will certainly stabilise the present, stop in their tracks the marching fascists and, importantly, create the circumstances in which dreaming of a better world can, once more, become possible.

As for the specific four policies that the Left can adopt in order to deal with these four crises, Stuart Holland, James Galbraith and I have presented them in what we entitle ‘A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis’.

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  • Hello Yani,

    Just a quick question so I can understand how to read your policy prescriptions: are you a “leftist” economist that suggests specific policies closely connected to the Left, or are you a value-neutral economist that simply tries to help the government of Tsipras?

    These are two very outlooks in policymaking [or at least, policy-suggesting, as you do], so I find it extremely important to understand where you are coming from. I also assume that you would want to be upfront with any of your biases and predilections, so I am sure that this question does not insult you.

    Of course, I understand that people ALWAYS have some kind of ideological / normative background upon which they base their whole set of ideas. Nevertheless, it is important for the average Joe [or “Giorgos”, if one is Greek] to understand where you come from exactly.


    Stelios Mandragoras

    • A “value-neutral economist” is by definition a dead one, so your question does not make sense. Economics is about choices made on the basis of a value system of one sort or another; it is not about accountancy or book-keeping.

    • @ Guess (xenos) [May 30, 2014 at 01:31]

      I never talked about accountancy or bookkeeping.

      But, it is a completely different thing to operate under the guiding assumption that the postulates of the Left are the only relevant postulates in the world of economic thinking, and a totally different to operate under a more open set of beliefs, i.e. allowing for the possibility that some policy suggestions that arise out of the ideas of your value system can be completely falsified under proper methodologies of social science.

      It is a totally legitimate question. I see no reason why a) it does not make sense, and b) why Mr. Varoufakis would not answer it.

    • Stelio
      Social science does not have “proper methodologies”, and economics even less so. Karl Popper tried to instill the profession with some seriousness but it is bitterly resisted. Even in the natural sciences people make their careers not on serious research which results in falsifications of hypotheses but in politically acceptable innovations that the world’s rich and powerful approve of. Economics is far worse, and always starts from axiomatic value assumptions that are known to other economists but may not be so obvious to others.

  • Addendum: The first sentence of the second paragraph should read as follows: “These are two very DIFFERENT outlooks in policymaking [or at least, policy-suggesting, as you do], so I find it extremely important to understand where you are coming from.”

    • These plots contain some grave mis-representations. Not the most reliable report, overall.

      (a) The table of party seats (top right plot) sums to 710 MEPs not 751. I am not sure where the 41 missing MEP affiliations lie.

      (b) In the bottom plots, the “pro-EU” (which is really the pro-austerity, or at least austerity tolerant camp) includes the Greens. Last time I checked they were *very* anti-austerity, so they should properly belong in the “EU-critical” side.

      Accepting the rest of the numbers, I would say that 467 (EPP+S&D+LibDem) are the MEPs in either pro-austerity or “austerity tolerant” camp, and 284 are clearly against current EU policy.

      Playing around with these numbers, if, say, 50% of S&D MEPs abandon austerity, then the pro-austerity camp becomes a minority of 362 (vs. 389). Probably very hard politically to ally an
      anti-austerity majority, but still, food for thought…

  • As far as I can discern there was progress of the Left (real Left, not those center-right social-democrats) in two states: Greece and Spain. Everywhere else, with maybe some partial exceptions the Left was stagnated or even fell. The most striking case in the last years has been Italy, where a maverick populist movement, strongly suspect of far right affinity, (cinque stelle) has managed to absorb the discontent, while Rifundazione Communista has collapsed. But in France, Germany, Portugal, etc. there is no clear sign of progress of the Left either.

    I guess that this is somewhat “normal” as “middle classes” without a working class ideology collapse into poverty but it is a very undesirable outcome in any case. But the worst has been what we have seen in France (and Denmark), where the Fascists have won the elections, putting Europe in a situation very similar to that of the rise of Hitler in 1932-33. Naturally, Fascists have no effective solution of any sort for the economic crisis nor the social woes but they have something “better” in the short term, it seems: scapegoats – be them immigrants, gypsies or the neighbor nation-state. And that appeals to empty-brained masses which don’t see themselves as a class but as ethnic atoms, if anything at all.

    It is notable and scary that this electoral rise of Fascism happens precisely when Fascism has been imposed by dirty means (they got very little in votes) in Ukraine, which is a clear example of how the EU-IMF plans to deal with any disobedient state that decides not to play their debt-cum-austerity game. Ukraine is the model for EU right now: populist violent nationalism against whoever questions the bankster-imposed rules of the game.

    But that the very people freely choose to march in military line to the Hell of Fascism, as is happening in France, is total madness. Women and men voting for the suppression of their own human rights in the name of what? A flag? A piece of cloth? I’m totally astonished and disappointed.

    And I am truly scared as we all must. Because if Le Pen takes power in France, what is not out of the realm of possibilities at all, or even if the fear to the Far Right makes all the rest to rally around the slightly less Far Right of the UMP, as already happened with Chirac years ago, the result will be bad. Actually, even if the Fascists are kept outside power by the rally of everybody else, that will surely only increase their support in the mid term. And what will happen when they take the Elysée? The only way forward within historical fascism has been war. And of course forget about EU continuity in any way.

    • According to Wikipedia “fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism”. What irritates and worries me is that many people identify fascism more with racism and xenophobia (hideous as they are) and less with authoritarianism and nationalism.

      I have felt since 2009 that the people of Europe are governed by “radical authoritarian europeanism/eurozonism” (what Yannis calls “bankruptocracy”).

      The ’30s nationalist rise was fueled by the struggle of nation-states to dominate over others (esp. after WWI and the Red Revolution). In my eyes, the current, post-modern version of this is the rise of “governance by undemocratic transnational organizations and the rule of international law over constitutions”—which in the case of EU include, e.g, the ECB, the Troika, the Stability Pact+sixpack etc.

      So far, the opposition to this new rise of bankruptocracy seems to consolidate around parties with a (more or less strong) racist tendency. Focusing on the racist dimension is going to be the major evasive strategy of the bankruptocrats in their struggle against this threat to their plans. [e.g., Schauble’s comments about FN]

      Not an easy situation…

    • Fascism is the fall-back line of Capitalism and its most terroristic expression. It is state-nationalist (do not confuse with people-nationalism, which is quite different and much more legitimate) because it is statist (strong state power all the way to totalitarianism) and populist (xenophobic nationalism as an empty trick to rally the masses around the national flag, lacking any meaning other than allowing the frustration to be vented against minorities in a clear case of organized bullying). Fascism is bullying to the nth power, so no wonder that police agents and military officers, often former schoolyard bullies themselves, tend to like it so much (there are many honorable exceptions, I know, but it is a trend).

      There’s no difference between racism/xenophobia and the demagogic forms of nationalism: in Merkel’s Germany European citizens have been largely deprived of our communitarian rights exactly as happened under Hitler. Germany also practices ius sanguinis, so basically they have all the traits in this aspect as Hitler’s regime. Why would anyone want to emigrate to Germany in such conditions?, I wonder.

      On the other hand there are forms of people-nationalism (Irish, Basque, Kurdish, etc.) which are perfectly legitimate and left-leaning and have nothing to do with Fascism but rather with anti-imperialism, democracy and human rights. So speaking about just “nationalism” is extremely ambiguous. Intriguingly these left forms of nationalism usually align better with the French notion of nation than the German one, as people is not part of a nation or even a ethnicity because of their origins but because of where they live.

      The idea is to integrate everyone around the basic elements of national unity such as language and culture. Totally different from xenophobic/racist forms of fascism, which attempt to create apartheid-like layers in society instead of unity around the core, nation-defining, ethnos. That way Fascism (and other slightly less obvious forms of excluding nationalism) plays by of divide and rule, splitting the Working People along ethnic lines that are mostly irrelevant, in order to pit the people’s segments against each other for their benefit.

      So definitely a key trait of Fascism, especially the Nazi-like variant that the FN and most modern European fascisms spouse, is xenophobia and racism (although it may take various forms, for example racism against Jews is not anymore that “fashionable” it seems and some go without it but still preach hatred against Africans and other communities).

      Pointing this is critical to understand modern (and to some extent historical fascism). But let’s focus.

      These fascists will not fight against EU’s ultra-capitalist regime. They say they are against it but what do we see where they actually reach power as in Ukraine? We see that they slash salaries and pensions, that they take oath of paying the “national” debt (their own debt reassigned to the citizens) and that they attack freedoms and democracy with brutal means (Odessa, but many other instances, including the ongoing aggression against the Eastern republics). Fascist “anti-EU” ranting is just demagogy (they are good at that: their leaders are great liars usually, propaganda, the art of lying credibly, is their main tool) as is whatever stunt they perform in alleged favor of the working class (the German Nazis even supported one strike with their militias as electoral stunt but when they reached power their policy was all for the corporations and against workers).

      “Focusing on the racist dimension is going to be the major evasive strategy of the bankruptocrats in their struggle against this threat to their plans.”

      Sounds like one of those highly biased TV programs in which all commenters are from the Right. Argh!

      I know that fear of fascism has been played occasionally by the (not so much) “moderate” Right to rally the citizenry around them, for example Chirac some years ago. But that’s precisely one of the roles the Fascists play: to support as fake opposition the bourgeois regime. Exactly the same role that Islamists play in the Muslim World, effectively supporting the reactionary Saudi-like regimes and even Zionism itself.

      The other role they have is to serve as terrorist shocktroops to scare the populace into submission.

      And finally they have the fall-back regime role, which is which they are most infamous for, and which has invariably enjoyed the support of the bourgeois Right. In many cases the Fascists even live politically inside the mainstream conservative parties (USA, Spain, etc.) being not just unable but also unwilling to organize their own political formations. But when the time of real class struggle comes, as happened in Spain in the 1930s, they massively realign themselves as Fascists and even displace real convinced Fascists from power (but to implement Fascism anyhow).

      There’s no alternative at the Right: it will be the same in what regards to IMF and bankster domination of the continent. If there is an alternative, this one is in the Left.

      This real Left has got some considerable support anyhow, even if not as good as I would have wished. Counting the Unitary Left and the Greens-EFA. This is the percentage of Left votes by state: 33% of Greeks, 30% of Cypriots, 26% of Spaniards (incl. minority nations), 21% of Swedes and Dutch, 19% of Germans and Danish, 18% of Portuguese, 17% of Irish (Republic), 15% of French and Austrians, 14% of Latvians, 11% of Belgians, Czechs and Estonians, 9% of Croats and Finnish, 7% of Lithuanians and (only!) 4% of Italians voted Left. Add to that an unclear apportion of Brits (Green Party, Sinn Féin, Plaid Cymru – I’d exclude the SNP because they are rather centrist). Only in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and two micro-states: Luxemburg and Malta, the real Left is totally absent.

      These results are indeed quite poor and must be improved if we are to save Europe from its worst nightmare (or at least segments of it) but in many cases are not at all negligible and in some cases they clearly show advances and are bound to cause also political changes of relevance: Syriza may well win the next Greek general elections and in Spain the twin party has collapsed so much, both, that they will be only able to rule as a naked twin party coalition after 2015, what can only result in their further erosion. In both southern states the Fascists are not growing that much (although they do slightly). If France and Italy could do the same the situation of Europe would be much more hopeful – but sadly it doesn’t seem to be the case and the discontent there have been hijacked by maverick populists (Italy) or the Nazis (France).

    • Minutes after writing my comment to Maju, disturbing news:

      The council of permanent representatives agreed (with Belgium abstaining) to a policy of GMO growth in the EU (genetically modified organisms).

      A report from the European Green party site:

      Regardless of your position on GMOs (disclosure: I am strongly against), note the main point of the linked article: the (Greek presidency’s !!) “compromise” is set up so that the people—via their elected governments—become powerless to oppose GMOs, should they wish to do so…

  • It is useful to contrast this article with Niel Clark’s recent piece “10 lessons we’ve learnt from the European elections” http://rt.com/op-edge/161936-lessons-european-election-russophobia/ as well as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard “Europe’s centre crumbles as Socialists immolate themselves on altar of EMU” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/10847034/Europes-centre-crumbles-as-Socialists-immolate-themselves-on-altar-of-EMU.html.

    Two things are clear: 1.) Free market liberalism of the Manos-Tzimeros variety is on the wane in current political and economic conditions and 2.) Socialist parties who adopt EU austerity mentality are burning themselves out very rapidly.

    As for the SYRIZA success as a proto-type, I would say that this has not yet proven itself even in Greece, where conditions are exceptionally favorable. The old guard in Greece seems to be holding on and flaunting the fairly reasonable demands of Mr. Tsipras. The EU is totally ignoring SYRIZA and even seems to be insulting them in the EU commissioner candidacy of Joncker. I have never been a believer in the Modest Proposal because I seem it too little and too late, but to add insult to injury the German EU masters seem unlikely even to give this the time of day.

    Greece is one of the most amenable countries to the EU super state concept. Generally this concept works best for the smaller poorer EU members out of their sense of insecurity and hopes of EU ‘trickle-down’. Greeks in particularly are slowly losing their sense of national identity and belief in their country. The Greek political leadership encourages this. Conversely the larger EU members are less amenable to exceptional powers to Brussels. Particularly the popular sentiment in both France and the UK is increasingly anti-Brussels and certainly not favorable to German hegemony in the EU. These are real political issues of substance that Yanis is not really addressing.

  • Dear Yanni,

    A request: an article, of your usual high quality, on Berlin-Brussels-Frankfurt-triangle’s “sinister plan of how to bolster their local allies” in Greece against SYRIZA (an assessment I agree with) would be most welcome!

    and a question: any news on the S&D’s Economics committee’s (under Stiglitz) adoption of the Modest Proposal, in particular has the S&D moved forward towards adopting the adoption? 🙂

  • As already has been observed my many others, Europe lacks a common space (demos) therefore the EU is not a democratic concept.

    Last week’s election was all about basically two choices:

    1. More Europe
    2. No Europe

    For a long list of reasons the natural and best choice is “no Europe” and given enough time and space voters tend to gravitate towards such obvious outcome. (BTW, don’t confuse a trade association such as the EU might morph into which is fine with federal Europe)

    The Democratic Left (the European coalition lead by Tsipras) did not do well. Even the so claimed “triumph” of Syriza in Greece is fake for this simple reason:

    National elections have an average turnout of 70%, whereas EU Parliament elections a figure close to 40%. Syriza in an all out effort among its ranks produced a 75% cohesion/mobilization (“syspirosis” is the Greek word for it) rate last Sunday in Greece which means that the party was mobilized along the lines of a national election (70% turnout rate). Even @ such mobilization (max. capacity) failed to produce anything substantial (the 3.8% advantage achieved is below expectations for such mobilization effort). In other words, Syriza gave it “all it got” and failed to produce a safe result that would not be overturned during national elections when almost twice as many voters would be casting ballots.

    Therefore the charge remains the same: If the Left in Europe has such superior intellectual understanding of what is wrong with Europe, how come is it failing to convince the voters? This is a serious charge that only somber self-examination for the Left movement could answer.

    • There are so many errors of reasoning and axiom in your comments, that one despairs. First of all, it is not a dualistic choice between more Europe or less. There is a wide range of possible choices: only those who left school at 12 think the way you descibe,

      Secondly, democracy is failing everywhere in the developed world. The reasons for this are complex, and I will not waste your time by listing them. The result is that electoral conduct is not a clear exposition of people’s views and aspirations. Moreover, the idea that even in ideal circumstance voters are competent to judge complex policy choices is foolish. Usually, the politicians with the largest pockets and the biggest mouths win over the voters. IN Europe, it is currently more about punishing the failure of centre parties in dealing with the banking crisis and the state of real economies, as well as the eurozone.

      Your anti-Left agenda is just far too obvious. Of course, many on the left consider it not to be doing a good job, at least in attracting political support. That has nothing to do with the quality of analysis of those engaged in left politics; it may have something to do with strategy and it may have something to do with structural issues such as media ownership and propaganda financed by the stinking rich.

    • Dean,

      I think you have a charismatic leader in Tsipras but the ideology is hard core left and they are proud of it. That is where it all falls apart. A calcified ideology totally irrelevant and backward in today’s globalized world with billions of new eager entrants to the world’s labor force.

      It is the ideology that results in the Greek ports being run by the Chinese simply because the Greek syndicated port workers were always too busy promoting their rights to allow Greece to run their ports without incurring huge losses all the time. Not to mention of the fact that Greece the number one global power in shipping has few facilities to repair ships as the local unions have always made sure that there are always good salaries and little work. Somehow the non-existent Turkish unions take advantage of and supported by their weaker currency steal all the ship repair business in no time. Mr. Tsipras has not even had breakfast and all that business is gone.

      The only case Syriza has in Greece is the case for change. I think that this is one of the reasons for Yianis’s support. Greece has been run for at least 30+ years by the same group of politicians very closely aligned with a few key families. This corruption is partly to blame for this crisis.

    • If you are anti-EU as you claim, it is strange that you recommend Mats Persson of the EU-sponsored Open Europe think tank. He is a career EU employee and Merkel-EU apologist masquerading as a critic-lite. Open Europe is officially based in London but “laising” with its one “branch office” – in Berlin. Highly tainted stuff.

      In the article you cite he claims that the choice facing Europe is EITHER Europe-lite (trade association directed by national governments with no democratic input) OR a full-on ever-closer EU with a EuroParliament. This is ridiculous: to whatever extent that European countries are jointly engaged at all – whether ‘lite’ trade association or full-on federalism – any and ALL forms of engagement need to be 100% democratic.

      Meanwhile if you doubt my slurs on Perssons integrity, consider that the only names he can come up with to counter Junker are internationalist neo-liberals Trichet and Lagarde in France, Enda Kenny to – of all things – represent the UK also , and various russophobic eastern European nonentities from Germany’s backyard. As if there is no other choice….

    • The article was not a recommendation. Only a source for pluralistic debate.

      When I see the label “open Europe” I know the sort of garbage such represents. I wasn’t born yesterday.

  • There is no right or left anymore. You are either with the people or with the oligarchs.

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