Europe today sells itself to other powers like China - philosopher
Years of austerity, immigration, poverty and a growing wealth gap – the European Union today is far from the Utopia some used to imagine when it was created. Now, with current politicians unable to solve the issues people are facing, the whole Union is being torn apart by rising far-right and far-left parties; People seek innovation in politics, seeing EU’s stagnant leadership unwilling to act. But are these new parties able to deliver on their promises? Is there even an alternative way for Europe? We ask these questions – and many more! – to a philosopher, activist and author of 'What does Europe want?' Srecko Horvat is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Srecko Horvat, philosopher, political activist, author – welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, on the one hand, right parties are on the rise across Europe: in France, the UK, Finland, Austria… on the other hand, there’s the triumph of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Is Europe headed towards a rupture caused by extremes? Is the “center” disappearing?
Srecko Horvat: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say the center is disappearing, I would say the center is stronger than ever and we should call this center - “the extreme center”. It’s, as you probably know, a Ping-Pong play between the center-right and the center-left, but what is new in Europe in the last several years is precisely what you’ve said: on the one hand we have a rise of right-wing extremism, which is also part of Parliaments, even the European Parliament as so on – and on the other hand we have new left radical political parties like Syriza and Podemos and both of these are in a way a result of the crisis of the extreme center, of the austerity measures all around Europe, of the completely lost geopolitical ways of the current political leaders of the European Union.
SS: We’re going to talk about the austerity measures in just a bit, but I want to talk a bit more about how the power balance is distributed between these parties: Podemos and Syriza have raised the hopes of the left intellectuals, but they aren’t really halting the advance of the far right – and there’s no fundamental change going on in Greece. Is the European “Left” powerless?
SH: I wouldn’t say that the European left is powerless. On the contrary, I would say that the success of Syriza and also the possible victory of Podemos in autumn this year at the national elections in Spain, is a clear sign that left is back again in Europe. But, what we have seen after the first Eurogroup meetings between Syriza and finance ministers of Europe was that the Troika or the so-called “Institutions” - which means the European Central Bank, the IMF – will do everything in order to prevent left wave in Europe, because it is clear that the left parties are completely opposed to new indebtment, to the enslavement, to austerity measures, new privatizations and so on. So, what we could have seen isn’t an impotency of the left – I would say, it’s a clear sign that Greece should at least reconsider exiting the Eurozone, because what we have seen during these negotiations is that it is not possible to negotiate with capital.
SS: But also, I mean, there are a lot of thoughts on what should happen to Greece, and one of them is that Greece’s creditors should be forgiving the country’s debt. Is it fair? Does it not annoy you when someone borrows a thousand euros from you, let’s say, promises to give it back, and then tells you that it’s not happening? That’s not good, is it?
SH: I wouldn’t agree with you. You know, if we go back in past, we will see that the so-called “economic wonder” of Germany was realized precisely because the huge part of their foreign debt was forgiven. So, in 1953 we had huge debt conference in London, when the superpowers of the world from that time decided to forgive the debt of Germany in order for it to recover. So, what Syriza is proposing is that we should have similar debt conference in Europe, where we should, in a way redefine the debt – and it is not something which is utopian, you know – we had something similar in Ecuador several years ago, where this succeeded to show that 30% of the foreign debt was illegitimate, because it was debt towards institutions like IMF, private banks and so on. So, the money which Greece today gets from the EU, isn’t the money of German taxpayers – it is actually the money of private banks, so Greece is supposed to return money to private banks who will make a new profit out of this debt. So, in a way, this is a thing which is scandalous – the real scandal is not “not repaying the debt”, the real scandal is to repay the debts to private banks.
SS: Now, let’s talk about austerities. The opinion that austerity is leading Europe nowhere has been voiced and heard since the beginning of austerity. Why is it still a thing?
SH: That’s a good question. I would say, because austerity is the main ideology today – you know, beside debt you have austerity, because, I would say, most of the power elites today are completely incapable of projecting or imagining a different economical system which wouldn’t be based on austerity. Since, if you have austerity, it’s the easiest way to do… What the powers, either Social-Democrats or Conservatives in the country where I come from, the newest member-state of the European Union – Croatia - are doing is austerity all the time, in the sense that they are privatizing public companies, like they are now trying to privatize the railway, healthcare system, education is partially already privatized and so on – and in that sense they are, in a way, building up the budget, and this is just to survive the next four years until the next elections. But what should be done is to have a vision which would go beyond that – what we will do in the next 20-30 years if we will still have austerity? If we will still have austerity in the next 20-30 years, my thesis is that we won’t have the European Union anymore…
SS: Okay, but is there a way back? Can you turn the trend around? Is there even an alternative to austerity, and what would that be?
SH: I wouldn’t say there’s a way back, because I don’t think Communism of the XX century is a solution: I would say there’s only way forward. There are different examples which show there are different ways of reorganizing the economy. So, for example, in Porto Alegre in Brazil you have the participatory budgeting – the idea behind the participatory budgeting is very simple. The citizens should decide, at least partially, where the budget should be spent, or, for example, you have workers’ cooperatives in Mondragon in Spain, and as you know, Mondragon is not a communist company, it’s competing on the market, and it is very successful. Also, in the country where I come from, I mean, previously, once upon a time, I don’t know if people still remember, it was called Yugoslavia as well, we had something called “self-management” – so the idea was that the surplus value doesn’t go to the financial elites, to the CEO’s, to the managers, but the surplus value goes back to the economy, it goes back to the workers, it goes back to the people who produce every day. So, there are, actually, real Utopias, which are not Utopias from the XX century, but they are models which can still function in the XXI century. If you ask me, you know, capitalism has shown that it cannot function for a hundred times, it shows every day that it cannot function.
SS: I think, there are plenty of people in European countries and in America as well, who are of the same opinion as you, that the capitalism in its present state isn’t functioning anymore – so we see protests in southern European countries like Spain and Greece and Italy, etc., and they’ve been so plentiful – and it had so little consequences! They even ceased to be real news – but are these a sign of things to come or just a waste of time and energy?
SH: Of course, if you start a protest or if you participate in protest and then things don’t turn out as you expected them to turn out, you can be rather pessimistic or Walter Benjamin says, “there can be a sort of melancholia left”, you know, but of course, if you look at the map of the current protests, for example, Tahrir square or Occupy Wall Street, of course you could say “yes, everything had to change yet everything stays the same”. I mean, after the Tahrir square and so-called Arab Spring we got the Muslim Brotherhood, then we got the Army nomenclature again... After the Occupy Wall Street, which was opposed to Obama and to the bailouts and saving private banks and so on, we got Obama again and so – but I wouldn’t say this is a reason to be pessimistic. I would say, there was a sort of paradigm shift after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, that in the sense, that all these protests, like Indignados in Spain – that was the main reason why a new political party like Podemos is possible now; and of course, I’m the last one who would say that the new political parties will succeed to change that status quo. What my thesis is and what I can see while participating or following different protests all around Europe is that the new political parties have to stay in contact with these protest movements and it is the other way around as well, it is a sort of Hegelian dialectics: that the protest movements need new political parties in order to be stronger, so it is not over yet, I would say.
SS: You’ve said something very interesting, that the closer the left parties come to power, the more accusations we hear that they’re not radical enough anymore. Do you feel they should stay radical when in power?
SH: That’s a tough question, and we’ve seen that in history already, after the period of 1968 we had huge debate between Rudi Dutschke and his thesis on the long march through the institutions with the thesis that yes, we have to enter institutions in order to change the institutions from within – but we know how it ended, it ended with German Greens and with the Social-Democrats who are not radical at all. On the other hand, after 68 in Germany, for example, you had, of course, the RAF,Rote Armee Fraktion, which is terrorism – and they also failed. So this is the true question, but I wouldn’t say that they’re not radical anymore. The biggest tragedy today is that, for example, take for example Thomas Piketty and his book on the capital in XXI century: the biggest tragedy is – and Thomas Piketty is not a Marxist, he said that himself – the biggest tragedy today is that progressive taxation on wealth would be a radical measure. The biggest tragedy today is that even social democracy would be a radical thing today if we look at the current social-democrats all over Europe and the completely inexistent welfare state. So, yes, even if Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain succeed to build a functioning system of public healthcare, a functioning system of social security, pensions and so on, in the current situation, unfortunately, it would be radical.
SS: Now, Croatia is the latest state to have joined the EU in 2013 – what that changed for the country? Was that a positive step?
SH: I was very critical of the entrance of Croatia to the EU, and I would be the first to say that there were no positive effects of entrance to the EU, except cheaper mobile phone calls or easier travel around Europe. For the majority of the population things didn’t really change, and especially if the new trade agreements like TTIP and similar stuff will be agreed upon – I think, even worse times will come. I should say that Croatia is the new record-holder, when it comes to the turnout to the referendum about becoming a new member state to the EU. Before it was Hungary, there was 45%, I think, and now it’s Croatia, with only 43% of population that turned out on the referendum. So, I think, this is already a clear sign that the atmosphere is changing. Before, in 2004, for example, when Slovenia – another ex-Yugoslavian state – entered EU, there was huge enthusiasm and everyone though that “once we enter the EU, we will arrive at a society with prosperity, with stability, peace, equal opportunities” and so on. But today, I think, go to Serbia, for example, or to go to Montenegro – other ex-Yugoslavian states – there isn’t such big enthusiasm anymore…
SS: Yeah, but you know, Serbia is still pushing to be part of the EU, and so is Albania and so is Macedonia; Turkey for that matter. Why do you think these states are actually lining up to share Europe’s problems? What do they stand to gain at this point? Like you’ve said, it’s a different Europe at this point that it was in 2004…
SH: First, I have to say that I will be critical again – I still think, Europe, the idea of Europe which is not the EU, is an idea which is worth fighting for; in this sense, it is Europe which created the Trade Union movement, it was Europe that created a huge feminist movement, it was Europe where we had Paris Commune, October revolution if you want, 68 and so on, self-management, anti-fascism, non-aligned movement… so there are a lot of ideas which we can still inherit from Europe. But the problem is the European Union. When you mentioned Serbia, for example, I wouldn’t say Serbia is pushing towards European Union. You know that Russia is very strong in Serbia, but not only Russia – you have Arab capital, you have Chinese capital. So, my thesis is that precisely because of the austerity measures all around Europe, the perfect example is Greece and port of Piraeus, 50% of which was bought by the Chinese, Europe is actually geopolitically loosing ground. So, from all parts of Europe, foreign capital is entering, either from Russia, either from UAE, from China and so on; so it is precisely because of these current political decisions and the way of Angela Merkel, Juncker and so on, that Europe is actually losing the role it had in the XX century – and this is a tragedy again, I would say.
SS: Ukraine is also hoping to gain much from its association with the EU, planning for future membership, for instance. You’ve said the EU is not answer to Ukraine’s troubles: does Kiev realize this?
SH: Regarding Ukraine, which is a tough question, I can only answer with a joke, a joke from a communist times. You have a listener who called Radio Erevan and he asks: “Which tea is better, is it Chinese tea or is it Soviet tea?” And the answer is “Don’t get involved in the fight of the superpowers; drink coffee”. This is a false dilemma – should Ukraine choose Russia or should it choose the EU. I think both choices are false and are a bad in a way. What we have to reinvent today, is a new non-aligned movement, which started precisely 60 years ago in Indonesia, when Surkano invited Tito, Nehru, Nasser, Indira Gandhi and so on, and then, afterwards in 61, in Belgrade, the non-aligned movement was created. I mean, of course, you could say “this is some historical bullshit and so on”, and of course, the non-alignment movement still exists today, but it is completely impotent, I would say. If you have powers, new powers, such as Syriza, or if Podemos comes to power, and if they connect with Venezuela, Bolivia or so on, maybe, a new force could be created that could oppose both of these dilemmas – is it the U.S. or is it the EU, is it Russia or is it China – no! I think we should create something completely new, and the pity, is – if I just can add – you know, you probably remember because Snowden is still in Russia, when Evo Morales was going from Russia back to his country and he was forced to land in Vienna because there was a suspicion that Edward Snowden was onboard… If you ask me, this was the biggest diplomatic scandal of the XXI century! How can you force a President to land? I mean, what if something similar would happen to Obama? It would be a huge scandal; so my answer is, if we would have a functioning non-aligned movement, maybe, this wouldn’t happen. He wouldn’t be forced to land in Austria, because other forces, other countries, not only Latin-American countries would oppose such geopolitical situation that the NSA from the U.S. can force a Latin American president to land.
SS: Back to the whole idea of Europe and how it differs from the concept of European Union, you wrote that the new members have not been treated as equals by the established Western European states. But the EU is the community of equal nations, I mean, in theory it is – was there ever something real behind those words?
SH: I don’t know if there ever was something real behind those words, I suppose some people believed in it, and so on, but we have to remember that the EU was, first of all, an economic union, it was never humanitarian, I don’t know, emancipatory union, it was always an economic union – and you can see it now. One of the lines, of the official anthem of the EU, says in German “alle Menschen werden Brüder” – “all people become brothers”, but you know, several weeks ago, one thousand people died at the shores of Europe. And what is Europe doing now? They are doing military operation in order to shut down, to sink all the boats – not with immigrants, but without immigrants and so on, in a way to prevent immigrants from entering ships, which is, if you ask me, pretty bizarre – it reminds me of a nice saying by Oscar Wilde, who said that if you’re walking a street and you gave a penny or a dollar or whatever to a beggar, to a poor person, you are actually sustaining the same system. What we have to do in order to get rid of people who beg for money is to create such a system on such basis that would make poverty impossible. I would say, if it comes to military operations to sink smuggler ships who are trying to smuggle immigrants to Europe’s shores… the answer is not to sink ships, the answer is to create such a system that people from Libya, from Tunisia, from all other where wars were created, actually by the European Union, wouldn’t have to need to go to Europe.
SS: I actually want to talk about that as well, because you bring up a very good topic – immigration, which is one of the biggest stumbling points in Europe. You believe Europe has a responsibility to solve the problems of say, African states, as well as accepting these immigrants. How is EU going to help solve problems of Libya or Congo when we’ve just talked about its inability to solve its own problems, and why do Europeans have this responsibility in the first place, anyway?
SH: The question would be not only “how can Europe solve these problems if they cannot solve their own problems”, but how can Europe solve the problem of illegal immigration, these waves of immigrants, you know, one thousand people died in one week, this is almost the same as Titanic – it is like five or six or seven flights have collapse in one week, that’s a huge scandal, I would say – but the question is if Europe is creating the problems, how can it solve the problems? Let’s not forget that it was the European Union, the French President who had a role in war in Libya, that European troops, NATO, are still present in Afghanistan or Iraq. So, if you have European troops there, or if European Union creates wars in the Middle East or in North Africa, are we surprised that people who are affected by war are trying to get to Europe? And the answer of Europe is again cynical – we all know what outsourcing of labor is, you know, you build a cheap factory in Asia and so on, and you outsource work in order to have cheap products. What European Union is doing now is actually that they are outsourcing deaths, in the sense that they are now building walls in Morocco, in Tunisia, in all the other countries in order to prevent them to come to the Mediterranean Sea. So, one year ago we had a huge celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we now have walls all around the world – and that’s very cynical. I’m not seeing that the EU can or wants to solve these problems.
SS: Mr. Horvat, thank you very much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Srecko Horvat philosopher, political activist, author of “What Does Europe Want?”, talking about the existing divides in the European Union, if member states can find a common approach to solve their issues. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.