Syriza’s failure was no coincidence. In this interview, Lisa Mittendrein and Lukas Oberndorfer discuss how the EU’s treaties, procedures and institutions are ruling out genuine political change – and why there are still better options than leaving.

The EU has experienced a number of shocks in recent years. Britain is exiting; a refugee policy based on solidarity has failed. From your point of view, however, the conflict over Greece was a central factor. Why?

Lisa Mittendrein: Because it was the first attempt to implement what social movements and leftists in Europe have been proposing for years. The Syriza government wanted to end the austerity policies that were causing record poverty and deepening the recession. At the same time, it wanted to stay in the EU and the euro and initiate progressive reforms from within. It said to the left in Europe, “Look: in Greece, we’re laying the foundations for the change of course that we all want”. This strategy failed on a colossal scale. Syriza ultimately had to decide to break with austerity or stay in the euro. They’re now continuing with the old policy, the one that led to this catastrophic situation in the first place.

How did the situation end up like that? It’s not as if their task had ever been easy.

Lisa Mittendrein: That’s correct. After the election victory in January 2015, Syriza was faced with the situation that the agreement with the creditors, the “memorandum”, was about to expire. As a result of that, the promised loans would have expired and Greece would have faced state bankruptcy. The previous government and the Troika – that is, the EU Commission, ECB and IMF – deliberately set the timeline so that Syriza would be coming into government under maximum pressure.

How did Syriza seek to end austerity while still remaining in the euro?

Lisa Mittendrein: They wanted to kick off negotiations with the Troika and the Eurogroup (that is, the finance ministers of the other euro states) as early as possible. Their goal was to obtain a better agreement. The strategy was to have the best possible suggestions, to persuade others with their arguments, and to hope for the support of social democratic governments.

Once the negotiations started, however, Syriza simply accepted the logic of the opposing side. They agreed to continue cutting the deficit and sovereign debt, though this only served to bring about a years-long deepening of the crisis. It was incompatible with the purpose for which they were elected, namely to end austerity.

Which were the misconceptions underpinning this strategy?

Lukas Oberndorfer: Primarily the ones Lisa mentioned. Syriza set out to use clever negotiating positions to create the necessary pressure to enable a different Europe. In retrospect, it is evident that this did not work. Based on what we know today, their focus should have been that it is only possible to bring about a different Europe if people are told from the outset, “We can’t achieve the necessary change as a result of clever politicians negotiating effectively. We will only succeed if you, the people, become active, mobilised and ready to fight. It is possible that we will be thrown out of the euro and the EU. This could lead to emergencies – to bottlenecks in medicines, oil or perhaps even water. We need to prepare ways of organising and enforcing an alternative policy, even in this worst case scenario.” Syriza did not do this, either in the 2012 election campaign or in 2015. If you fail to prepare your members and population for these scenarios and to explicitly engage them for the long haul, they won’t exhibit the necessary resilience for the vital grassroots break from the status quo.

Interestingly, the same misconceptions can be found within the left-wing platform within Syriza, the former euro exit wing. They, too, failed to assert a position of, “We can only achieve Grexit with democratisation from below. We need to build local democratic coordination which should deal with how we shape this process.”

As such, neither the reform nor the exit camp in Syriza asked the really central question of, “How do we succeed in politicising and democratising the society to the extent that we have the strength to break with neoliberal politics?” Both had an excessively government and state-centred understanding of how this conflict should be managed.

Lisa Mittendrein: I believe the people of Greece were uniquely prepared to do this. For five years, they had offered unbelievable resistance; they had shown that they were finished with austerity. Then came the referendum in July 2015. The government asked, “Should we accept the Troika’s proposed austerity programme?” The entire political establishment and all of the private media were in favour of a yes, but a significant majority of the population said “oxi” (no). This shows that people were prepared to contemplate an exit. But the Syriza leadership had never wanted that and had not prepared for it. Finally, they did the opposite of what the people wanted and surrendered to the Troika.

It is always easier to make better decisions in retrospect. Many of Syriza’s assumptions were also shared by us, allies outside Greece. We, too, believed that Greece could embark on a fundamental course of EU reform. Was this always completely unrealistic?

Lukas Oberndorfer: The situation was, indeed, very open. Our expectation was not that Greece would do it alone, but rather that the impetus might spread to other countries. We thought it might be possible for a European dynamic to emerge and drive the various factions from below. That was possible at the time, and I still see it as a possibility today.

The martial, authoritarian reactions of the neoliberal elites showed that they considered the situation perilous. They shunned democratic and legal principles. One example of many is that at the end of the conflict, the Eurogroup simply excluded their Greek member, Yanis Varoufakis, from the decision not to extend the aid package for Greece. Normally, their decisions are unanimous – so ultimately, what they did amounted to inventing complete new rules overnight. Shortly after that, the ECB turned off the supply of money to Greek banks in an aim to bring the government down. Even conservative European lawyers believe that such an action does not fall under the ECB mandate.

Lisa Mittendrein: We knew that the ECB was capable of bringing the economy to its knees overnight. Previously, Varoufakis had referred to this as the “nuclear option”. However, we did not expect the ECB to use this option so quickly and in such a targeted way. One lesson from this is that we now recognise more clearly where the real centres of power are located in the EU. In addition to the ECB, they are the Eurogroup, parts of the European Commission and, above all, the German government.

One misconception was that the unity of the EU and the euro would be inviolable for the European elites. Syriza thought the Grexit threat would be a strong argument in the negotiations, but in practice, they weren’t willing to let it happen. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Minister of Finance, called their bluff. He said, “If you don’t do what we want, we’ll throw you out.” For the neoliberal elites, the unity of the euro was of secondary importance. Maintaining austerity and containing the danger from the left were key.

You’ve mentioned several of the actors who emerged as being more powerful than expected. Who turned out to be weaker?

Lisa Mittendrein: The actors of European social democracy, with whom Syriza had been anxious to make alliances. Syriza had hoped that Hollande, Renzi, Faymann and others would recognise and seize on the possibility to gain leeway over the EU’s austerity rules in their own countries. What actually happened was completely different. Faymann, who was Austrian chancellor at the time, made a symbolic visit to Athens, but this was mostly to distract from problems within his own party. The French government got involved once Syriza had already backed down, sending experts to Athens to help formulate the offer of surrender. Social democratic parties were not partners of the left, but appeared to be mostly interested in stabilising the status quo.

How did the social democratic finance ministers of the Eurogroup behave?

Lisa Mittendrein: What happens in the Eurogroup is secret. But we have heard plausible reports from Varoufakis that the debate always took a similar course: Schäuble or one of his allies began a discussion, stated a position, and everyone was asked for their consent. Sometimes, the French minister Michel Sapin formulated an opposing position. Ultimately, however, they agreed with Schäuble’s wishes.

What lessons can we learn from all this? If we want a different economic policy, is an exit the only way?

Lukas Oberndorfer: No, that would be a fallacy. The EU is more than an international organisation; it is a material condensationof a relationship of forces. Its members are economically intertwined by production chains, flows of goods, a common currency and financial markets. It would not be possible to leave it and immediately obtain all of our desired scope for manoeuvre. As such, “leave or remain” is the wrong question. Macedonia, for example, is in neither the EU nor the euro, but has little scope for political action anyway.

Lisa Mittendrein: Yes, we need to distance ourselves from this dichotomy. Both the reform and the exit camps tend to romanticise their positions. For some, the only thing standing in the way of a social EU is the absence of a plan to make this happen. For others, an exit is the answer. They see better politics as only a “flick of the wrist” away. In any case, the discussion of purely institutional questions is not something that inspires majorities. What interests people are their own living conditions and those of their family, friends and neighbours. To improve these, we must focus primarily on building an effective counterpower, regardless of the level on which this occurs.

Lukas Oberndorfer: Exactly. As many people as possible must get involved – through social movements, democratisation and politicisation. This is how we implement real political improvements. These conflicts lead to grassroots breaks with the prevalent logic of domination and exploitation. If these breaks connect across borders, there is a real possibility for a different Europe.

What else can we learn from Syriza’s experiences? Could we conclude that it is not helpful to approach our opponents with arguments and considered suggestions?

Lisa Mittendrein: Definitely. In the left and social movements, there is a tendency to always seek the perfect counterproposal. We often get bogged down by this. It is irrelevant to discuss details of the much-desired European social union, because even with a perfect model, it is not likely to come to fruition. Such notions do not help us organise people, form alliances and build counterpower.

Where does this need to be a “model student” come from?

Lisa Mittendrein: From the mainstream parties’ technocratic understanding of politics. Within this understanding, there is one theoretical solution that is optimal for all sides and must be ascertained by experts. Other interests and conflicts are ignored.

Lukas Oberndorfer: Left-wing parties assume that they have to abide by the rules of the game. They overlook the fact that the other side is constantly breaking democratic norms. This can be observed in the manner in which the prevalent EU budgetary and economic policy rules emerged: a small elite from governments and national banks made the decisions without public debate or the inclusion of different voices. At the beginning, this at least occurred in compliance with the formal frameworks. Since the beginning of the crisis, this has no longer been the case.

Can you give examples of this?

Lukas Oberndorfer: Let’s take the Fiscal Compact, which obligates states to follow neoliberal budget policy. This is an international treaty outside European law, but intervenes in this law regardless. This is simply unlawful. Why does this illegal action take place? Well, there is no majority for a democratically correct amendment of European law, so international law is invoked to implement the change. Another example is economic governance, which is a set of economic policy rules for the states. The legal basis for economic governance does not permit states to be sanctioned for divergent economic policies, yet a regulation has been enacted to allow the EU Commission to threaten them with penalties if they do not implement the desired neoliberal structural reforms.

As such, the neoliberal rules in the EU were not democratically legitimised before the crisis and have often been decided in an authoritarian fashion since it occurred. Because of this, I see no reason why left-wing governments should stick to them. A better strategy would be to openly state which rules we want to break; to declare that this is the only way we can implement an alternative economic and industrial policy, and to explain why the prevailing rules are undemocratic. That would be a first step on the offensive.

Lisa Mittendrein: Yes. EU law must not stop us from demanding the right thing. If we want cheap public transport for all, for example, rail services cannot remain liberalised as the EU dictates. If a government wants to renationalise public transport or place it back into municipal hands, it will need to come into conflict with EU law. The conflict can be won if the people are behind it. In this way, a state or a community can create scope for manoeuvre not only for itself, but for social movements. Etienne Schneider and I call this “strategic disobedience”.

In practice, today’s governments are breaking EU rules. Why are they getting away with it?

Lukas Oberndorfer: Viktor Orbán can build a fence and establish camps that violate European asylum law and fundamental rights, and little is done about it. But when it comes to breaking the rules of neoliberal budget constraints or even market freedoms themselves, the uproar is huge. Breaks with the rules are permissible only if they are in the interest of prevailing politics.

But budget rules have also been broken without punishment – by Germany and France before the crisis, and most recently in Spain and Portugal.

Lukas Oberndorfer: That’s correct. The rules are like a musical keyboard for the elites to play at will. If neoliberal policies are under threat, as with Syriza, they will be enforced hard. In Spain, new cutbacks would place the conservative government in jeopardy, so the rules are being suspended.

Lisa Mittendrein: Rather than fetishizing the rules, we must judge the actual content of policies. I’m against Orbán’s fence because it is inhumane, not because it is against EU law. If we do not take this approach, we will face the argument that, “You can’t demand this or that because it contradicts the rules of the single market.”

In the European Left and in movements such as Varoufakis’ DiEM25, many hold fast to the goal of fundamentally reforming the EU. They want to rewrite the EU treaties so that they follow social and democratic goals. How could this work in practice?

Lukas Oberndorfer: In practice, this is impossible to achieve via the current processes. All heads of state and members of the EU Parliament are required to approve a new treaty. After that, it must be ratified by all nation states. Take the example of a treaty that outlines the harmonisation of corporate taxation. This would eliminate competition between member states in regard to corporate taxation, leading to more tax revenue – but the states that exploit tax dumping would lose. Since everyone has to agree, one single neoliberal stronghold is enough to block the new treaty.

The lack of potential for social reforms within the treaties is no coincidence, but was planned from the outset. As early in the 1950s, neoliberal thought leaders – including representatives of the ordoliberal Freiburg school – were arguing for this to be the case. They explicitly demanded that the European Treaties should be designed in such a way that the liberal economic constitution could not be democratically changed.

Lisa Mittendrein: Many focus their criticism on the euro, so from the 1990s onwards. But the problems started earlier and run deeper. The EU is built on unrestrained trade and the single market. It is, first and foremost, a neoliberal economic project and thus an obstacle to our visions. This core cannot be changed, and that is why I consider it impossible for the EU to be fundamentally reformed.

Lukas Oberndorfer: I think a grassroots break leading to reform is conceivable, but only if the corresponding social conflicts and struggles are fought and won. These changes could give rise to a different Europe.

Lisa Mittendrein: But then the result would no longer be the EU. We need a very different form of cooperation, both in Europe and beyond its borders.

Let’s stay on the issue of those who want to fundamentally reform the EU. They often suggest convening a convention to draft a new EU constitution, proposing this as a solution to circumvent the impossible treaty change procedure that Lukas described earlier. Interestingly, the EU treaties provide for such a convention. How would this work in practice?

Lukas Oberndorfer: The convention would be made up of a complicated set of bodies. The EU Commission, national parliaments, the European Parliament and all governments would all nominate representatives, and this group would then be required to unanimously present a draft for all governments to sign and all nation states to ratify. In practice, this route is as infeasible as that of the regular treaty modification process.

Another option would be a constituent assembly existing outside the framework of the treaties. But this would need to occur as the culmination or endpoint of a broad movement, a social revolution. It would need to be enforced against the European state apparatuses, including the nation states.

Lisa Mittendrein: Advocates of such a convention often have an overly-optimistic notion of democracy. They believe that, “All we need to do is ask the people and they will back the Europe we propose to them – solidarity, ecologically responsible, socially just.” I think this is an illusion. If such a democratic process were carried out today, we would suffer a huge loss. It would lead to an even more authoritarian, unsocial and probably racist EU. Only if we were part of a broad movement and, as Lukas mentioned, riding the crest of a wave of social resistance, would such a process develop in the way we wanted it to. We are a long way from that currently.

A common argument of advocates for reform is that if there were a supportive government in Germany, everything would be different. What would actually change?

Lukas Oberndorfer: That would depend heavily on whether such a government was borne of an underlying dynamic. If such a government arose purely from elections and went on to operate exclusively in the political system, it would enter the institutional mill of the state apparatus, which crushes any reform-based approaches. This is what critical state theory tells us, and Greece’s experience confirms it.

For a potential red-red-green government in Germany, the second scenario would probably apply.

Lukas Oberndorfer: Yes. State and politics are always expressions of the social balance of power. As long as this balance remains unchanged by democratisation and social revolution, there isn’t much likelihood of the policies changing, either.

Lisa Mittendrein: In Germany, this is particularly unlikely – as hard a pill as that is to swallow. Alternative forces are facing even more obstacles there than in other EU countries. This not only applies in politics, but in universities, economic research institutes, the media. Neoliberal orthodoxy is tremendously strong and leaves little room for any alternative way. Incidentally, this can also be seen in the role played by the German Federal Government and the Bundesbank in the EU. They do not represent the interests of the German population, but of the German and European exporting industries. German institutions are more strongly tied up with capital interests than anywhere else in the EU.

In Spain, things would be different; there are strong social movements. A left-wing government there could win scope for manoeuvre more easily than a Greek one, because Spain is bigger and more economically important. But even Spain could not reform the EU from within, because other configurations of power would remain the same.

Lukas Oberndorfer: It is also conceivable that the opposite would happen. A change of government in larger countries could lead to a break with the previous EU policy – but from the right, not the left. Under Trump, there are already signs of a new kind of policy with the potential to become a new model of regulation. We also have to be vigilant about this happening in Europe. The forces in power would probably be open to such a development, since the ongoing crisis of the EU has caused them to rethink their position.

How might such a right-wing reinvention of the EU look?

Lukas Oberndorfer: The cornerstones would probably be militarisation, internal security and even more violent border regime. “If you want security, Europe is the only way – and the EU guarantees it” – this would be the message given to citizens. The increase in arms and security spending would probably bring about some growth. In terms of its outward dealings, we might see the development of a kind of European economic nationalism – by countering Chinese dumping, for example, and focusing more on isolationism.

The extreme right and the traditional neoliberal elites as partners in EU policy: how does that work?

Lisa Mittendrein: The extreme right is changing its attitude towards Europe. The Austrian Freedom Party and Orbán no longer want to leave the EU; they want to cut back on certain parts and strengthen others, such as borders, military and security. They invoke the image of Europe in a positive way against new enemy constructs, like refugees, Islam or China. The only good thing about this development is that we no longer have to scrupulously defend the idea of the EU in order to distinguish ourselves from the right.

Let’s finish with the situation in Austria. What’s possible there over the next few years of progressive EU policy?

Lisa Mittendrein: The Syriza election victory also prompted a surge of hope in Austria. In a survey, over 20 percent of the population said they could imagine choosing such a party at home. There was a brief spark, and although nothing came of it, it briefly shed a light on what would be possible.

Lukas Oberndorfer: The defeat of Syriza signified the end of a European cycle. The beginning came in Greece and Spain in 2011, when central parts of society took to the streets and occupied the squares. The momentum was broken before it could spread to Austria and the rest of Europe. Now, things are the other way around: right-wing populism is in power without being in government. The Social Democratic Party and the Austrian People’s Party are implementing their racist demands.

But these right-wing developments also shows the weakness of neoliberalism. Although it has stabilised, its capacity to galvanise large sections of the population is becoming less and less. It has no answers to the real social problems. Because it is weak, neoliberalism – and with It, the EU – has to resort increasingly to racism, democratisation and militarisation. This makes the relations of power more visible and arouses resistance. Though we must remain vigilant against the shift to the right, we should not let this cloud the fact that more and more people are open to fundamental alternatives.

This interview was conducted by Valentin Schwarz in 2017.

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