An idealised image of the EU is paralysing the left. Here, Andreas Novy and Martin Konecny discuss how we got into this strategic impasse – and how we can find our way out of it again.

There is a specific image of the EU that is shared by large parts of society, from left to liberal, from the Social Democratic Party of Austria to the Greens to the NEOS. What does it look like?

Andreas Novy: For this left-liberal milieu, the EU is fundamentally a place of hope. It acts as a counter to the nation state, which is perceived rather negatively and evokes images of narrow-mindedness, a fossilised social partnership system and even the dark fascist past. By contrast, the EU is associated with openness, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism. It is considered a model for the entire world, an example of how nations can overcome their hostilities. And there are arguments in its favour – with regard to gender equality, for example, where the EU was a driver of positive, progressive change.

What does this positive image overlook?

Andreas Novy: First of all, Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world. Its history doesn’t only include positive aspects like human rights, the rule of law and democracy, but also evangelisation, colonisation and the pursuit of a world trade system in its own interest. The ambivalence that exists in this regard can only be understood by considering the history of Europe as the history of 500 years of capitalism. During this period, Europe occupied the dominant role for many years, then assumed that of junior partner to the US. The idea of “cosmopolitanism” is only imbued with such positive emotions because Europe mostly gained from it.

On the capitalist periphery, in Latin America, Africa or Asia, this is different. In these regions, nationalism was mostly rooted in anti-colonialism: the nation state protecting people from the colonial powers and the world market. In Europe, this idea exists only in southern Europe, in countries like Portugal and Greece. In Central Europe, nationalism was, at the very beginning, a movement against the feudal order and the reign of nobility. Soon, it became associated with racial and ethnic purity, with the catastrophic consequences with which we are all familiar. This is why, today, the idea is so widespread that Europe is good and the nation state is bad. This makes sense to me from a historical perspective, but is nevertheless incorrect.

Both the nation state and European integration are political projects, and both have been contested throughout their history. Both have been controlled throughout their history by different groups for different purposes. Neither the nation state nor the EU are inherently good or inherently bad. We need to learn to look at both in a more unemotional way.

You mentioned that we need to understand the history of Europe and the EU as being intertwined with the history of capitalism. This represents a departure from the liberal EU image, where the EU is seen primarily as a peace project, not an economic one.

Andreas Novy: It’s both. The EU was a peace project, but also one designed to enforce a capitalist system.

Martin Konecny: There is truth at the core of the peace project narrative. We no longer have wars between Germany and France, and the significance of this should not be downplayed. But the peace project narrative ignores at least two important factors. Firstly, the First and Second World Wars did not take place between small European nation states, but between imperialist world powers. They are not called “world wars” for nothing; they were brought about by the vested interests of powerful global forces, not by small nationalist movements. The second reason the peace project narrative falls flat is that the wars frequently took place beyond the borders of Western Europe. Two examples of many are the French crimes in Algeria and the role of Belgium in the civil war in Congo.

Andreas Novy: We must not forget the Cold War. This drove the integration of one part of Europe and, at the same time, was clearly directed against another part.

Martin Konecny: There is no doubt that individual participants worked from a place of deep conviction in the European unification process. But there is definitely a significant mythical aspect to the story. The EU rising from its dark past like a phoenix from the ashes – this is an oversimplified distortion.

Andreas Novy: At the same time, we must not forget the positive aspects of so-called “Western civilisation” – human rights, democracy, the rule of law. Even social movements elsewhere, in Turkey or Brazil, for example, invoke these as a precedent.

Martin Konecny: Well, of course we have to defend these values – but are they really Western? They may have a certain Western history, but there are also radical traditions from other parts of the world we could refer to in this context. I think we need to understand concepts like democracy as universal values – and we can only do that if we de-westernise them. To do this, we have to engage with the criticisms of the Global South and people of colour.

Today, these allegedly Western values are invoked mainly for the purpose of demarcation and ostracism. There is a lot of talk about democracy and the rule of law, but only for the purpose of differentiating ourselves from “Islam” or “the refugees”. These values are used to legitimise an authoritarian policy: barbed wire on our borders and headscarf bans. We end up with a situation where a policy that is undemocratic and violates human rights is enforced in the name of democracy and human rights. What enables this contradiction is the consideration of democracy and human rights as exclusively Western values. If we want real democracy and real human rights, we have to learn to think of them as non-Western and non-European.

So the liberal image of Europe, which refers to itself as cosmopolitan, actually serves to enforce racist exclusion?

Martin Konecny: That’s putting it in rather polemical way. It is true that today, it is not only the extreme right that is driving a policy of exclusion, but also parts of the liberal and left-liberal milieu. And that’s not just because they have surrendered to the right; there is also a liberal tradition of racism and exclusion.

Andreas Novy: I wouldn’t say racism. But in the liberal tradition, there is certainly an incredibly hierarchical understanding of human rights. Take John Stuart Mill. For me, he is one of the enlightened liberals, he was very open to women’s rights. But the prospect that the “barbarians” in India could ever govern themselves was unthinkable for him. Liberalism definitely has paternalistic and authoritarian traits.

A common argument is that those who do not support the EU must inevitably support the nation state. What’s wrong with this?

Martin Konecny: Even the juxtaposition is misleading. The EU has never sought to vanquish the nation state. It has taken over many of its responsibilities, such as maintaining a border to the rest of the world. This has recently had dramatic consequences for tens of thousands of refugees. But inside, the boundaries continue to exist. I don’t just mean the reintroduction of border controls; also, the economic situation in the states could not be more different. This is a consequence of the EU. It is deliberately designed to promote competition between member states rather than equalisation of its members. As such, it does not eradicate nationalism, but rather produces nationalism of a different sort: economic nationalism.

What do you mean by that?

Martin Konecny: In the wake of the Greek crisis, it has become acceptable in wealthy Northern and Central Europe to speak of the “lazy Greeks”. This is an old stereotype that had long been forgotten. Now it has been brought back to life, and with it, nationalism. Today we talk of the “bankrupt Greeks” for whom “we” are paying. Something similar is happening in Greece, where we see Schäuble being drawn in SS uniform. This renewed flaring up of nationalism is the result of the economic crisis, which is in turn the result of the structures of the EU and the euro.

Andreas, how do you see this? Is the EU weakening the nation state, or perhaps even exacerbating some of its more unpleasant features?

Andreas Novy: It has driven change in some respects. After the First World War, there was much talk of “small-state mentality” in Europe. Actually, by world-wide comparison, the states are tiny and therefore unfit for capitalist development. Anywhere else, they would be just provinces. So the EU has imposed itself as a modernisation project.

And the market wants this?

Andreas Novy: Yes. From a capitalist perspective, the EU functions very effectively. It does not abolish the nation state, it merely adds a new level to it, assigning it a new role in the economic system. The liberals hoped that the EU would be a step towards world government – that at some point, all borders would disappear. This idea has great appeal for them and, incidentally, for radical left actors too. I think that hope is naive.

I don’t think we’ll ever eradicate borders. Borders must be democratically managed and less rigid than they are today, but they are also the prerequisite for democratic politics. Whatever our preferred interpretation of democracy – from urban self-determination to nation state – it will always be anchored in a particular territory. For a long time, the liberals failed to acknowledge that just because a border is no longer drawn on the map, it still very much exists in terms of its real-word consequences. We need only look at the examples in the Mediterranean or Ukraine to see this. This naivety is catching up to us today.

So measures at EU level are not automatically superior to those at national level?

Andreas Novy: Exactly. We Greens often demand “European solutions”. In refugee politics, I fear that this will end badly. The “European solution”, which has majority support and is enforceable, is a disgusting border regime.

Martin Konecny: What we tend to forget is that a “European solution” existed until 2015, until the “summer of migration”. It was called the Dublin Regulation, the mass deportation agreement. If it had been applied consistently, millions of people would have had to be deported to Greece, a humanitarian disaster. Fortunately, the “European solution” was suspended at that time.

On the left, criticising nation states for their border policies is perfectly normal. If we then turn the same arguments on the EU, there is more resistance. Why?

Andreas Novy: Because according to liberals’ understanding, the EU stands for cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness. In their mind, if you criticise it, you are attacking the idea of human rights. This association is deeply anchored – not only in the minds of liberals, but also in the minds of their opponents. We must not overlook the fact that when the right wing attacks the EU, it is actually often the case that they are attacking human rights. For the Hungarian and Polish governments, human rights are a luxury they can no longer afford.

The extreme right is on the rise in many EU countries. How much does this danger contribute to solidifying the idea, in left and liberal minds, the idea that the EU should be defended at all costs?

Andreas Novy: A great deal. The polarisation of liberals and the right wing, as we saw between Van der Bellen and Hofer, exacerbates this defensive position. If we leave the current path, people fear we will end up immediately with another Orbán or Kaczyński. This is not entirely far-fetched, but forces us into a completely defensive position. We have to get out of this “either-or” mindset.

Martin Konecny: There is a quotation from the Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás that applies in this regard: “The shrinking liberal minority regards it as a possible safeguard against murderous crowds, a quintessential ‘liberalism of fear’ that bodes ill.” Even those members of the left wing who are pursuing more radical goals fall back on the EU as their last line of defence. My fear is that they are tying themselves to something without a future. Fear has eradicated their ability to forge their own path.

How does this manifest itself in Austria?

Martin Konecny: It’s almost impossible to express your opinion on the EU without being backed into a corner. As soon as I question the institutional make-up of the EU, I am deemed a nationalist. Then, I hear phrases like “You’re no better than Strache (head of the Freedom party and deputy prime minister since 2018)” or “Left and right are all the same”.

The interesting thing about this is that the emerging nationalist tendencies are not even anti-European. The extreme right is not overly keen on the EU institutions and the euro, but maintains a fundamentally positive image of Europe. A far-right congress was held in Linz in 2016 with the slogan “Defend Europe”, i.e. “defending Europe” against Muslims and refugees. The right-wing extremists do not have the same image of Europe as the liberals, but they also do not have the opposite.

Andreas Novy: As I see it, the right has cleverly appropriated a concept of its opponents. They want to position Europe against Islam and orchestrate a religious war. It is fortunate that no support for this approach can be found from the current pope. The right has also successfully hijacked other terms, such as (popular) sovereignty – which once stood for the fight against feudal rule, not for nationalism. The reason why the right is constantly conquering new terrain is because it has – and pursues – a project of hegemony. The left has no such project. As such, it falls back blindly on defending the EU for no other reason than that it is being attacked by the right.

Martin Konecny: The left lacks a project of hegemony, but why? Because it is not even able to formulate one. The left is in a strategic dead end. Its sole accomplishment has been to envision a different world. It has not devised any plausible way of getting there.

What about when we apply this to the EU? Well, certainly, I can imagine a completely different EU, one that protects and expands the welfare state rather than destroying it. Much has been written about this. But we are lacking a credible strategy to achieve it. What is worse is that the most realistic route for many leftists has just been attempted, and has ended in massive defeat.

To what are you alluding?

Martin Konecny: To Greece. In Greece, the left went to the government with the plan of approaching the EU institutions and winning them over with expert know-how, effective arguments and negotiating skills. It wanted to carve out room to implement a new policy, the primary component of which was to end austerity in Greece. This strategy was built on the assumption that Greece would find allies in European social democracy. It wanted to change the EU step-by-step.

The result was an astounding defeat. The alternative proposals were simply quashed. Something similar, albeit less brutal, happened in autumn 2016, when Wallonia resisted the signing of CETA. Here, too, the EU side responded with threats and blackmail. The lesson for the left is that any attempt to instigate change via a pro-EU stance and honest arguments will usually end in a dead-end.

Andreas Novy: My strategy proposal is to push back EU rules and regulations so as to extend the scope for action from below. By this, I mean primarily at the city and regional level, not at the nation state level. The key is to experiment with alternatives to the neoliberal system on a small scale – this is the only way can overcome capitalism in the long run and progress towards a good life for all. It’s not possible to design a new society on the drawing board.

Martin Konecny: This is an important point. Our previous strategies were far too state-oriented. Whether at the national or EU level, the way of doing things has always been to approach the government in order to be able to enforce a certain policy. There’s no question that this approach is now obsolete. A good life for all cannot be achieved by passing a law. We need to develop alternative, bottom-up economies that operate according to a different logic than the capitalist one. Though government policies – whether at the municipal, state or EU level – can facilitate and safeguard such alternatives, they cannot usher in the post-capitalist society itself.

Andreas Novy: I agree with you – and there’s one thing I would like to add. For the last ten years, the green and left-liberal camps have been convinced that the solution to a great number of problems was centralisation. It is not by chance that the proposed “Green New Deal” makes reference to the “New Deal” under US President Roosevelt, which represented a massive step in the direction of centralisation. Prior to the “New Deal” in the US, there wasn’t even a federal police force. The Greens’ idea was that the big tasks ahead of us, such as eco-social transformation, should be implemented at EU level. The more clearly the balance of power in the EU becomes visible, the harder it is for this idea to exist with any integrity. It is simply impossible to make headway with progressive proposals.

How are the Greens solving this dilemma in practice?

Andreas Novy: Interestingly, when it comes to TTIP and CETA, they have no problem positioning themselves in the same political camp as nationalists like the Austrian Freedom Party – i.e., the EU-critical one. With refugee policy, the situation is ambivalent. At first, the Greens welcomed the suspension of the deportation rules that Martin referred to earlier. Since then, however, they have begun to seek a “European solution” once more. In my opinion, they have estimated the balance of power incorrectly. It would be better for them to search for progressive solutions that can be implemented without a majority in the EU.

The Greens are increasingly finding themselves limited due to their inability to distinguish between being critical of EU institutions and being against European integration itself. In the case of individual projects such as TTIP and CETA, they have eventually chosen to take an anti-EU position. But their attitude remains ambivalent; it varies from case to case. It is not underpinned by any real strategy.

One example of a Green politician who recently went on the offensive in regard to the EU is the Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen. He made his pro-EU stance the centrepiece of his presidential campaign, even against the advice of his election campaign manager. Although the EU is somewhat unpopular in Austria, this approach may have won key votes among conservative and liberal voters. How important is this idealised image of the EU to the liberal milieu and its political identity?

Andreas Novy: It’s key, without a doubt. Van der Bellen appealed to many left-liberal and liberal people on a powerful emotional level. This mobilised them in such a way that it became the only thing that mattered.

But his campaign did more than that. It was full of pro-EU messages, but his posters also had an Austrian flag. He made frequent and emphatic reference to his childhood in the Kaunertal in Tyrol. It was a clever double strategy to engage both the left and right-leaning sides. His message was that patriotism, homeland (Heimat) and Europe are not mutually exclusive. To give him his due, I can recognise in it a sort of “homeland-anchored cosmopolitanism”. For me, this is a progressive concept: that you can be grounded in a certain place and still be cosmopolitan. In fact, the decision was primarily tactically motivated – it was about scoring votes in rural areas. The Greens and Van der Bellen are some distance away from a strategic realignment on how to link Austrian and European political agency.

As Andreas says, Van der Bellen’s pro-EU election campaign electrified many liberal and left-liberal people. Why is this stance so emotionally charged?

Martin Konecny: Well, we are dealing with an ideology – the ideology of Europe – and ideologies cannot be completely explained from a rational perspective. This is not, inherently, a bad thing; we live by and on the basis of ideologies. The European ideology only has become a problem because of its connection with the EU and its policies. The neoliberal elites have succeeded in making progressive values (such as cosmopolitanism or women’s rights) synonymous with the EU in its current form. This is a strategically very clever move. As a result, we find people defending an institution whose policies they would normally harshly criticise. What is even more problematic is that this all prevents meaningful debate about the EU. It is scarcely possible to even discuss the point at which it might make sense to break away from the EU – in the case of Greece, for example. Anyone who tries to do this is hit with reactionary accusations of being in favour of nationalism and war.

Finally, what stance should we occupy in relation to the EU? Is European integration a valuable goal in itself, or should we seek to maintain a purely pragmatic relationship with it?

Martin Konecny: The latter. The aim is to achieve a good life for as many people as possible by acting at the highest possible level. This could be the community, the nation state or, in some cases, Europe. But it seems important to me that we do not limit ourselves by the opportunities the EU offers. Other forms of cooperation may also be possible, for example between municipalities and regions or between European and non-European states.

Andreas Novy: Actually, the EU is based on the right idea. Its motto is “unity in diversity” – in other words, that centralism does not automatically take precedence. It’s about achieving the right balance between harmonised rules and a diverse implementation. Today, experimentation is the most promising path.

To achieve this, we need to change the image of the EU in the minds of potential allies, who otherwise respond in a reactionary manner with, “That’s anti-European!” when we raise criticisms. How can we succeed in doing this?

Andreas Novy: We must build an image of Europe that is not Brussels-centred. The idea that measures are automatically good because they are implemented from there is quite absurd. One example is that Linz could cooperate with a Czech city – in the full spirit of openness and European collaboration – without Brussels’ input. The key thing is that it’s possible for European cooperation to happen in a different way than the one we know now.

Martin Konecny: We must get on the offensive and push for this debate, a process which Attac Austria initiated with its EU conference [in November 2016]. For a long time, many people did not even dare express their doubts. The experiences of recent years, on issues from Greece to the militarisation of the EU’s external borders, is changing this slowly.

We cannot expect all the left in all countries to have the same view – but that should not stop us fighting for common goals. CETA and TTIP are just two examples. Since then, it has been possible for us to build a massive European movement – a transatlantic one, even. It includes farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises, trade unions. Together, these actors are providing enormous resistance in many countries. This movement should be the dream of every passionate European! It represents the birth of a European civil society that is on the revolt. The individual parts of the movement occupy different stances on the EU, but still succeed in coming together to act. We do not necessarily need to be unanimous on the fundamental issues pertaining to EU institutions in order to work together.

Three lessons

  1. Neither the nation state nor the EU are inherently good or bad. In refugee policy, for example, the “European solution” is an inhumane border regime.
  2. We must not blindly defend the EU merely because it is being attacked by the right. Instead, we must develop our own criticism of the EU and command majority backing for it.
  3. We must aggressively pursue a critical debate on the EU in order to overcome the false dichotomy of “pro-” and “anti-European”. But we do not need to have the same stance on the EU in order to work together on EU-related issues.

This interview was conducted by Valentin Schwarz in 2017.


Hall, Stuart (1992) The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power. In: Hall, Stuart and Gieben, Bram: Formations of Modernity (= Understanding Modern Societies: An Introduction, Book 1). The Open University, 275-332.

Kaufmann, Stephan (2011) „Sell your islands you bankrupt Greeks“. 20 popular fallacies concerning the debt crisis.

Said Edward (1978) Orientalism, New York: Pantheon.

Tamás, Gáspár Miklós (2015) Words from Budapest, interview with New Left Review 80, March-April 2013.

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