Democratising Europe – interviewed by James Lock for NOW THEN magazine

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In recent years we have seen far more of the workings behind the curtain of neoliberalism than we ever have before. This is in part, I believe, due to the work of Yanis Varoufakis. A Greek economist educated in Britain, Varoufakis first made headlines for his integral role as Finance Minister for the Syriza government of Greece between January and September 2015.

In February 2016, with the support of progressive leaders, academics, artists and activists across Europe, he initiated the co-created Democracy in Europe Movement 25 (DiEM25), the aim of which is to democratise the EU by 2025. While in the process of facilitating this pan-European movement, which I would encourage anyone reading this to engage with, Varoufakis continued to advocate for progressive policies across Europe, acting in an advisory role for many political parties and leaders, including Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Given the recent EU referendum result in the UK, the election of Trump in the US and, at the time of writing, the potential for the rise of far-right governments in France and Austria in upcoming elections, the need for innovative progressive voices has never been more urgent.

Are there parallels between the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump?

Of course there are. Brexit, Trump, the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’ in Eastern Europe, Le Pen in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the AfD in Germany etc, are all different manifestations of the globalised establishment’s inept handling of the inevitable financial sector collapse.

Since then, on both sides of the Atlantic, we witnessed colossal political failure at coordinating economic policy, with the establishment putting all its energies into cynically transferring the financiers’ losses onto the shoulders of the weakest citizens. As a result, a Great Deflation is now gripping Europe and the United States, reviving political forces that had lain dormant since the end of World War II.

What’s wrong with the EU and why does it need reforming?

The EU is a democracy-free zone. Highly political decision making in Brussels has been depoliticised, and when this happens you end up with terrible economics and regressive politics.

To put it differently, for decades the EU has been operating like a cartel. Think of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In the good times, the bureaucracy of such a cartel is pretty good at distributing the profits. But during crises, technocracies are terrible at distributing the burdens. It is at that point that the dearth of democracy and the massive incompetence of the technocracy become apparent, and that’s when the EU lost its legitimacy. This is why DiEM25′s foundational slogan was, and remains: “The EU will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!”

Specifically, how should we change the EU and its decision making processes?

Our first priority is to work through participatory means to compile DiEM25’s comprehensive Progressive Agenda for Europe. Our dialogue on the main issues of this agenda takes place in communities spanning the whole of Europe. This dialogue shapes the agenda and, at the very same time, it shapes DiEM25. It is a two-way process. More precisely, DiEM25’s agenda focuses on six main aims, which we consider fundamental: European New Deal, Transparent Europe, Open Europe [migration and refugee policy], Working Europe, Green Technological Transition, and Europe’s Constitution.

Given that Article 50 is likely to be triggered in 2017, how do you hope to engage people in the UK in democratising the EU?

Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and progressives are obliged to find it and to press it in the service of large majorities everywhere. More specifically, before the referendum, DiEM25 campaigned for a vote to ‘Stay in the EU and against this EU’. The referendum result saddened us, in particular the xenophobia that it unleashed and the normalisation of hate-filled political narratives.

On the other hand, as democrats, we reject wholeheartedly the demonisation of those who voted for Brexit, as well as the condescension with which some want to ignore the referendum or to call for a second referendum.

Two things are clear to us regarding Article 50 and the Brexit process. Firstly, the referendum result must be respected. Secondly, the referendum said nothing about the type of Brexit that the people want. Whatever the interpretations offered by the Daily Mail, or Boris Johnson, or Theresa May for that matter (after her Ovidian metamorphosis into a Brexiteer), the referendum result does not give the government a mandate for a particular form of Brexit – e.g. for ending freedom of movement, access to the single market, the customs union. Put simply, these are utterly open questions that Parliament must decide.

DiEM25 is currently conducting an internal debate on our collective position on Brexit. Should we support the immediate and unconditional activation of Article 50 on the basis that the people have spoken? Or should we tie its activation to the condition that Theresa May’s government commits to an interim minimalist arrangement (based, for example, on a Norway-like link) until the next Parliament, whose members will be elected with a clear mandate to debate what Brexit Britain wants and get a chance to deliberate?

All DiEM25 members get to vote on DiEM25’s position regarding the Brexit process, not just those living in Britain. The reason is that Brexit is not only a British matter, but an issue affecting the whole of Europe. So our position on it is shaped through a debate that spans the whole continent. In other words, DiEM25 practises pan-European democracy within its ranks before preaching it without.

Lastly, regarding the opportunities that Brexit creates, my fear is that both London and Brussels lack the political nous to exploit them, whatever they might be. The last thing we need is a terrible deal resulting from the political class’ unquestionable capacity to mess things up.

In the West, have we reached the end of what economic growth can do to improve society?

We have certainly reached the end of the road when it comes to quantitative growth of things that are awful for the planet and bad for our souls (SUVs, stuff that in reality we neither need nor truly want, emissions).

But prosperity does not need that putrid stuff. A wonderful and technologically advanced health, education and care system can be developed ad infinitum. Green energy projects can, and should, multiply. We can share a lot more in ways that actually enhance our joy of life and feeling of prosperity. Prosperity, smart investment and qualitative development know no limits. Growth of quantities and ugliness is well past its due date.

What hopes do you hold for new ideas and new narratives to shape Europe in the years to come – for example, basic income as a way to reduce the impact of automation?

I am a late convert, not so much to basic income but to the notion of a universal basic dividend. In a recent article, I proposed that part of the shares of every corporation should go into a public trust fund and their dividends should be redistributed equally and unconditionally across all citizens. This would acknowledge the fact that capital is, despite the narratives of possessive individualism, produced collectively and then privatised by the powerful. And it would address the problem of technologically-driven inequality, which leads to macroeconomic instability, low demand, low investment and, ultimately, to the rise of xenophobia and division.

Ideas and narratives for progressive change there are plenty. What we are lacking is effective political organisation and a capacity to turn the table on the Trumps of the world. This is what DiEM25 tries to rectify.

diem25.org
yanisvaroufakis.eu

JAMES LOCK