A standard argument from the left runs like this: in principle there are three positions a country like Britain could take toward the EU, opposition/exit, support/remain, and transform. But transforming the EU is not on the table, so the choice comes down to whether a country should remain part of the existing EU with all its faults or leave it. This is a lousy pair of options, and the debate between them can’t help but be muddled and unproductive.
The interesting question for me is why the EU is such a determined enforcer of neoliberalism and so resistant to fundamental reform. I asked this on Crooked Timber yesterday, and one of the commenters (thanks!) sent me to Gerassimos Moschonas, the Greek political scientist. I haven’t read his book In the Name of Social Democracy: The Great Transformation, 1945 to the Present yet (what’s taking me so long?), but I did take a look at this article, which was published in 2009 after the first edition of In the Name and seems to summarize his position.
Moschonas is very insightful about the structural constraints on anti-neoliberal (or genuinely social democratic) politics in Europe. The EU obstructs transformative political projects at the national level; meanwhile it prevents party formation and radical political action at the supranational level. This structure, which institutionalizes the deregulation of national economies in the name of the single market and imposes anti-Keynesian policies through the Stability and Growth Pact, is intrinsically resistant to change. Moreover, it coincides with a grand coalition at the EU level whose political ideology is resolutely neoliberal. Some of this is obvious to anyone who follows events, but Moschonas’ analysis of the structural aspect of “embedded neoliberalism” (my term) is enlightening.
But there is a hole in his narrative. Somehow, during the crucial period from the mid-80s to the early 90s, this neoliberal consensus in Europe was forged, and its project was the creation of exactly those structures that Moschonas studies. How could it be that, in a Europe that lacked explicit political organization at the confederal level, such a coalition, powerful enough to create entirely new institutions, could be assembled? Here structural political analysis of the sort represented by Moschonas is useful for posing the problem but doesn’t give us the resources to begin to answer it.
I think the missing dimension is political economy. Politics does not occur in a vacuum, with ideas competing on the basis of pure logic or emotional resonance. Political economy proposes a larger terrain, in which wealth and material interests generally condition politics and make particular ideas or projects more “realistic” or attainable. I’ll be the first to admit, however, that political economists have relied primarily on indirect evidence—historical or geographical correspondences between economic motives and political outcomes—and have been mostly unsuccessful in tracing the actual processes through which they occur. Understanding them is important not only in a general intellectual sense, but also, especially, for coming up with counter-hegemonic political projects.
I see this difficulty, for instance, in Varoufakis’ DiEM25 project to democratize the EU. He has in mind a two-step process: first the political structures are changed to enable a Europe-wide political space, and then that space can used to combat neoliberal hegemony. I’m not against this, but it seems to me that the first step presupposes the second: the existing structures exist precisely because of that hegemony, and it will have to be challenged in order to create new ones. It would be interesting to get Moschonas’ reaction to DiEM25.
In any case, DiEM25 was not on the ballot in Britain. You could vote to be part of the actually existing EU or vote to leave it. Like I say, lousy choice.