Ten ways to get on the offensive

by Ralph Guth, Elisabeth Klatzer, Lisa Mittendrein, Alexandra Strickner and Valentin Schwarz

We began The European Illusion by asking what role the European Union is playing in achieving our political goals. Our ultimate aim is clear: a good life for all. All humans living today and in the future should enjoy social, economic, cultural and political human rights. They should have a right to food, water, housing, health, political participation and equality. The rights of nature should also be guaranteed. This requires that the way in which we produce, consume and live is organised quite differently than it is today (see box).

Seven paths to a good life for all

A good life for all is only possible if the economy ceases to function according to a profit-based mentality and is democratically reorganised. Attac [Austria] does not propose one single fixed alternative model to capitalism, but seven paths of transformation to gradually overcoming it:

A financial sector oriented towards the common good: The casino is put out of business, and the financial sector is reduced to its necessary economic functions. Banks no longer work for profit, but for the benefit of the public.

Glocalisation of the economy: Instead of global trade as an end in itself, we need an economy of short distances. Anything that can be produced locally, is. Trade is based on solidarity, not competition.

Food sovereignty: The food system no longer serves the interests of the agricultural industry, but the human right to food. Production, distribution and consumption are shaped via democratic mans.

Energy democracy: Fossil energies are replaced by decentralised, renewable energy sources. Energy supply is socially just, ecologically sustainable and democratic.

Commons: Instead of privatisation, we must develop new ways of sharing common goods. These should be managed by users themselves, with the goal of equal, equitable and self-determined access.

Humane working conditions: A holistic view of work replaces the unequal distribution of pay and care work. The focus lies on fulfilling the needs of all. Livelihood security is no longer dependent on wage labour.

Comprehensive democratisation: All people have the right to shape their society and the environment in which they live. Democracy is extended to all areas of life, including work, education and housing.

Long version in the Attac Austria Declaration 2010 at www.attac.at/declaration2010

A clear picture has emerged in all policy areas: that the EU is not an ally, but stands in the way of a good life for all. This does not look set to change any time soon. The EU’s present neoliberal character is enshrined in its treaties and institutions as a result of historical developments and political conflicts. Its very way of functioning shields it from changes from below. The European Commission and the European Central Bank are not required to stand for democratic elections, and any genuine change requires unanimity in the Council. As such, a fundamental reform would require left or progressive governments in all or at least the most powerful member states. This is unlikely, if not completely infeasible.

First, there are almost no points of engagements at the EU level for initiating change from below. As a powerful executive, the EU Commission is easily accessible for capital interests, but is shielded from pressure from below. The ECB mandate lays down a neoliberal monetary policy without scope for democratic intervention. Secondly, while many people believe that a change in the balance of power in individual EU states is all that is required to facilitate EU reform, this is easier said than done. The economic and social relations between groups and their interests are deeply rooted in social institutions. More favourable election results are not enough to change them. Thirdly, the EU is working to stabilise existing power relations and sometimes to actively prevent change, with Greece being a prime example. Fourthly, individual left-wing government projects cannot wait decades for conditions to change elsewhere, but must be able to take immediate steps on their own.

At the same time, the EU is not an external enemy. We cannot solve the problem of the EU simply by exiting it. Economic interdependence, the depth of the neoliberal reforms of recent decades, the enormous concentration of wealth and economic power, and the right wing and neoliberal hegemony prevent this. It is hard to imagine that a single EU country would be better placed to implement progressive politics following a break.

So if the EU cannot be saved and an exit is not a solution, then what? The strategy section of this book compiles various approaches that can empower us to act on the basis of this outlook. Only if we develop new ways and strategies for getting on the offensive will we have a chance to inspire people and change society together. The following ten points summarise the strategies and options for action based on our debate to date.

1. We must stop idealising the EU and demonising the idea of an exit.

“I’m in favour of the EU, but …” is a mantra for many progressives. Criticism is permitted only so long as their commitment to the EU is repeated, mantra-like, in the same breath. The same is required of those who take a critical stance on the EU. But such pledges obstruct our view of the reality of European integration. The EU is not inherently good or progressive. The widespread obligation to avow our allegiance makes it harder to establish the necessary in-depth criticism. Instead, it benefits the neoliberal elites, who push ahead with their European project in the interests of the rich and big business.

We must not compel ourselves to blindly defend the EU if it is attacked from the right. To act in a politically effective way, we need independent analyses and positions anchored in our own set of political categories, not the elites’. If we fail to achieve this, we distance ourselves increasingly from social reality. This is because the notion of a progressive EU that improves our lives bears no relation to the everyday lives of most people.

Those who criticise the EU quickly find themselves branded as nationalist and grouped in with the right. However, not every criticism of the EU and its rules is nationalistic. The same applies for references to political action in the nation state. Even if we do not consider an Austrian exit to be a sensible demand at present, the debate about it can open up progressive leeway elsewhere. The euro is not without its alternatives, and there is a lively scientific debate on alternative forms of monetary cooperation. Let’s conduct an open debate on the EU and the euro and overcome the stigmatisation of any and all criticism as “anti-European”.

2. We must not unintentionally legitimise the EU with our words and actions.

“The EU must do this; the EU should do that.” For many progressive organisations, such demands are part of their everyday work – but they might be doing more harm than good. The idea of a genuinely progressive EU social policy, for example, is completely unrealistic. By ignoring this fact and asking the EU Commission to implement it anyway, we will achieve nothing but to legitimise the EU’s functioning as an undemocratic institution. At the same time, we will promote its approach of subordinating social issues to competitiveness and mask the fact that its policies seek to reduce social rights. This does not mean that we should never address political demands to the EU level, but we should consider carefully when we do this and why.

If we demand things from EU institutions in the context of a strong campaign, we apply pressure to both the EU and national governments. If a movement is strong enough, it can succeed in enforcing concessions. Sometimes, progressive windows open up in the EU’s neoliberal fabric in which our demands are actually enforceable. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Even unrealistic demands to EU institutions can, in certain cases, make strategic sense – if only for the purpose of making visible that the EU is acting against the interests of the broader population.

In certain cases, we can try to go further and actively delegitimise EU policies. In 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided to stop accepting funds from the EU and its member states on grounds of its abhorrent EU refugee policy. In doing so, they sent a strong message that their humanitarian mission is incompatible with EU refugee policy.

3. We should learn to differentiate and include the views of other countries and social groups.

Far too often, politicians, journalists and scholars make generalisations based on their individual views of the EU. However, the way in which we experience the EU depends very much on our social background and living conditions. Do we have the language skills, financial resources and contacts to enjoy freedom of travel, or are we restricted by money worries or duties of care? Do we study at university and have wealthy parents who can allow us to spend an Erasmus semester abroad, or are we threatened by unemployment and wage dumping? A lucky minority of us are able to take advantage of the positive aspects of the EU, but this does not apply to the majority. Only by recognising this can we go on to develop meaningful EU strategies.

The EU debates conducted by social movements are also shaped by the country in which they take place. Austria’s major companies are benefitting from the single market and the EU’s eastward expansion, while EU criticism comes primarily from right-wing forces. Both are shaping the progressive EU debate. In Southern Europe, the consequences of the euro and austerity policies have proven disastrous for the majority of people. Strong social movements are making the conflicts visible on the streets. Because of these conditions, the debate of a euro exit in Greece – where an exit represents a potential alternative to austerity policy – is completely different than in Austria. For Portugal, too, which has a strong left but has been downgraded to a low-wage country within the eurozone, an exit might be an option and opportunity.

Whatever way we look at the EU, we must recognise that people who share our political goals are living under different economic and political conditions – and might come to different conclusions because of this.

4. We must be pragmatic about the political level at which we address our demands.

Many of the problems of our time are global, which means that progressive forces are seeking international solutions. Only a solidarity-oriented European refugee policy will ensure that people are able to find the protection and security they need. International agreements will be required to regulate financial markets effectively, and climate change can only be tackled if we fight it together. Currently, none of this is happening to an adequate degree or even at all. Simply waiting for European or global solutions will not bring us closer to our goals. Instead, it will render us incapable of action and blind us to the fact that political change can begin elsewhere.

It’s time to stop aiming for the level that is theoretically optimal or prescribed to us by the other side. Instead, we must focus on the level where we are best placed to actually achieve something. In the fight against TTIP and CETA, our aim was not to convert the EU Commission to our stance, but to mobilise communities to put pressure on national governments. Long before a global UN climate treaty existed, numerous municipalities had begun pursuing a policy of energy transition. In France, a new law is allowing corporations to be brought to justice for human rights violations, even those committed abroad. It would seem only natural to demand the codification of such a regulation at EU level. But if the movements in France had waited for this to happen, the law would probably never have come about, or would only exist in a much weaker form.

Too often, politicians point to the need for a solution at EU level to absolve themselves of responsibility. But the EU level is not always automatically the best place to start. We can and should push for political change on other levels.

5. We must urge governments and politicians to break with neoliberal rules.

Neoliberal policies are so deeply rooted in the EU’s treaties and structures that the implementation of alternative economic policies has become almost impossible. We must stop thinking of this set of rules as an immovable object. Investments in social infrastructure, for example, are only possible if we disregard the EU’s budget rules. In order to place energy supply under democratic control, we must override the EU obligation to liberalise. And we can only promote cooperative and ecological economies by defying EU competition law.

This strategic disobedience against EU rules opens up new perspectives not only for leftist governments at all levels, but also for social movements. We must stop letting politicians justify their inactionwith the pretext of constraints from above. The reality is that wecan stay in the EU without subjecting ourselves to all of theseproblematic rules. If we break them successfully, we will create newpolitical scope for manoeuvre and simultaneously weaken the rules’enforceability. The concept of strategic disobedience empowers us todo more than simply run abstract campaigns against competition law orthe Fiscal Compact. Instead, it opens up conflicts about actualpolicy change – which can only be enforced in opposition to EUregulations. As such, strategic disobedience enables thepoliticisation of the neoliberal foundations of the EU. If EU lawmakes social, sustainable and democratic politics impossible, orworsens living conditions, then an elected government has a duty todisregard these rules. And we have a right to demand that they do so.

6. Countries are not the only political actors. Cities, municipalities and regions all have the power to effect change. We must work with them.

If it is not possible to achieve what we want at the EU level, does this leave the nation state as our only option? Not at all. Cities, municipalities and regions also function as political arenas in which certain demands can be enforced.

Theforerunners of this idea are the movements in Spanish cities(Barcelona, Madrid and others) that use the city as a jumping-offpoint for a different sort of politics. Anchored around the principalof “el municipio” – the municipality – they refer tothemselves as “municipalist“. They anchor their politics ineveryday life and the living conditions of the people, and attempt todevelop grassroots solutions for social problems. After 2015, insteadof waiting for the then conservative Spanish government to take inrefugees, Barcelona made efforts to do so independently. In this way,the city became a lever in the fight against the policies of thecentral government and potentially also those of the EU.

In the future, cities and municipalities will be well-placed to play a central role in the fight against privatisation and liberalisation. The local level is where the consequences of the EU’s forced liberalisation are most noticeable – and is often the easiest place to implement alternatives. Cities can serve as places of experimentation, for political measures as well as for new forms of democracy.

Municipalities also play a central role in the fight against EU trade policy. Across the EU, TTIP-free zones are networking and building political pressure. Small municipalities are playing a trailblazing role in the fight for refugee rights and against deportations. Cities, municipalities and regions can and should experiment with new forms of international cooperation, which should never be the sole preserve of nation states.

7. We must reimagine international cooperation and reclaim the concept of internationalism.

Globalsolidarity and international cooperation are fundamental values ofthe alter-globalisation movement. The EU has claimed these values forits own, even though the only form of internationalism it practisesis an internationalism of capital. But we must not be deterred: wecan be internationalist without glorifying the EU. Instead, we mustwork on new models of international cooperation that go outside andbeyond the EU framework. Let’s learn from the experiences of otherworld regions, such as ALBA in Latin America. Instead of unrestrictedtrade, which often means the opposite of solidarity-orientedcooperation, ALBA focuses on the principle of complementarity. InEurope, countries or regions could build common public enterprises tocombine their respective strengths.

Barcelona is currently working to build a network of municipalities against privatisation. Such forms of cooperation show that “international” does not have to mean “intergovernmental”. Rebel cities, for example, can jointly test new forms of urban citizenship that give people political and social rights regardless of their residence status.

We should also discard the assumption that cooperation must always begin in Europe. Many contributors to this book question the very “idea of Europe”, and rightly so. We should think of cross-border cooperation not primarily in European terms, but political ones. Does a group of states, regions or cities pursue similar goals, and would cooperation be meaningful? If the answer to this question is yes, we should try to make it happen – even if these places lie outside the geographical and cultural construct of “Europe”.

8. We must not focus on abstract ideas, but on changing the balance of power.

We need alternatives to the prevailing politics. Often, organisations and movements develop elaborate models of how EU policies could be organised differently in particular policy areas. But good proposals will not force the elites to listen. Moreover, such elaborate concepts will not help us win people over as fellow combatants. Visions and proposals are necessary, but must always be linked to concrete political conflicts. Presenting concepts for an alternative banking system is particularly effective during periods when real-life banks are being bailed out. The same applies to political values. When invoked in an abstract sense, ideas such as democracy or solidarity have almost no mobilising power. Only when we connect them to specific struggles, such as those against TTIP and CETA, can we prompt people to take action. In a similar fashion, the idea of global solidarity becomes tangible when we fight seed patents alongside farmers and agricultural workers from the Global South.

Political change is not implemented by “being right”, but by organising as many of ourselves together as possible. Alternative proposals are important, but they aren’t enough on their own. We need to pursue the right conflicts, ones that will help us to gradually carve out new scope for action. We need to build alternatives from below and make the vision of another society tangible. We need to develop forms of political action that include as many people as possible. Finally, we must stop focusing our attention on the biggest questions and the highest political level. Instead, we must take action in the places where we can develop and establish real-life solutions.

9. Let us choose conflicts that increase our scope of manoeuvre and which enable us to build new alliances.

As social movements, we fight important defensive battles to prevent further changes for the worse. But we cannot effectively fight all attacks on our social rights and our livelihoods. We have to choose the conflicts to focus on; those we can win. These choices should be informed both by our political goals and by the following three key strategic criteria.

Firstly,we should pursue the conflicts that most disrupt the centralpolitical projects of the ruling elites. TTIP and CETA are thebeginning of a new EU trade agenda. If we prevent them, we will bringdown the entire plan and thus a long-term global neoliberal project.Secondly, we must choose the political conflicts that will grant usnew leeway for manoeuvre. If movements fight against theprivatisation of water or energy in their city, they open up spacefor a fundamental discussion on the democratic control of publicservices. Thirdly, we should choose the issues and struggles thatenable us to form new and/or the broadest alliances possible.Migrants and groups affected by racism pay the highest price forneoliberal cuts and authoritarian policies. Women experience multipleforms of exploitation, and feminist movements are important actors inthe fight for a good life for all. These are just some of the manygroups who are routinely excluded from political processes. It iswith them, especially, that we should fight shoulder-to-shoulder.

10. We must build alternatives from below.

Theruling elites have no interest in a radical transformation of the EU,economy and society. Furthermore, a majority of people today find ithard to envision alternatives to capitalism. Key words and phrasessuch as “social-ecological transformation” or “socialism” aretoo general and abstract to inspire people. But we must not overlookthe fact that tangible economic alternatives already exist.Community-supported agriculture, food cooperatives, collectivefarming, solidarity clinics and the open source movement arecircumventing the logic of the market and profit-making. Together,they are developing real answers to the needs of workers, consumersor users of public services. They are enabling people to work onspecific political projects that go beyond regular campaigning orpolitical educational. As models of alternative economies, they aremaking another world imaginable.

Spain’s anti-eviction movement PAH is empowering people in the fight for their homes. It educates on and defends the right to housing, physically prevents evictions when necessary, and occupies empty houses so that evicted families can live there. In doing so, the PAH makes tangible the universal right to housing. In Greece, too, a huge network of solidarity initiatives is offering concrete alternatives to European austerity. Initiatives such as solidarity clinics and food cooperatives not only alleviate immediate hardship, but often have an explicit political claim: they oppose destructive austerity policies and advocate for political alternatives, for example in the health and food system. This shows that grassroots alternatives not only point the way to another world, but are a concrete means in the fight against neoliberal EU policy and its underlying ideology.

The aim of this book is to shatter the European illusion and reveal it for what it is: a neoliberal project at its core. Once the spell has been broken, many new paths will open up for those working for a good life for all. We hope that this book will inspire and motivate you, dear readers, to get involved!

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