Tag Archive | Europe

Europe as antipolitics machine

Entropa Total

Photo: Daniel Antal via Flikr

The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of  suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are  putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.

Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone Greece and Ireland.  Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.

Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD  and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly  avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised –   and instead  stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.

The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.

However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable  substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.

Cyclists demonstrating

Photo: Gesimpopos via Wikicommons

For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.

But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the  hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?

European Commission flags

Photo: Sebastien Betrand via Wikicommons

The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank  (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).

I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.

Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China.  But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability

It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers.  In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945.  The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist  challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.

Sligo yeats

Photo: Rowan Gillespie via Wikicommons

And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming  - surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the  literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast  politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? -  to be born

A spectre of … something is haunting Europe

Occupy London - occupy sign
Photo: Tom Morris, via Wikicommons

 At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe.  At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.

At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics  in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times.  ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.

The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.

 (The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).

 Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.

Demonstrators on Army Truck in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Tahir Square. Photo: Ramy Raoof via Wikicommons

 Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.

 Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?

By evening I have  moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea –  for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas.  Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this Populism in Europe and the Americassecond event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear - ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )

 I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book  (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision  I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the  Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties  almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.

Europe’s loose change

  It has to be the single oldest thing in the entire house:  a silver one Gulder piece from the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy minted in 1878, given as a curio to one of the kids by a Czech relative.

About the size of a British two-pound coin, it’s well made and in surprisingly good condition, it would – as far as I can work out from a brief online trawl of historical statistics – once have been a sizeable chunk of someone’s weekly income. Or at least someone from lower social strata.

Its good condition is probably explained by the fact that it probably wasn’t in circulation that long. In 1892 the Gulden (known in Hungarian as the forint, in Czech the zlatý)) was replaced by a new Austro-Hungarian currency the Krone tied – with a degree of fiscal discpline that some modern day of the Euro would no doubt appreciate – to the Gold Standard. Further background can be found on the found here on the Policy and History website in a paper written by Richard Roberts in 2011, which seeks to draw lessons from the Habsburg experience of a single currency without one state. The main conclusion is that budgetary indiscipline can be fixed by tough minded independent central bank(s) policing tough fiscal rules for governments, which wish to play ball.

Despite the popularity of the Uncanny Historical Parallel as insight way into the present – BBC Radio 4′s The Long View documentary  series, for example, does a fascinating  job of ‘uncovering the present behind the past’, especially in interviews with contemporary politicians – I’m not sure if the Habsburg model of European integration, if that is what it was, has that much to tell us. As Richard Roberts notes, there is something of a difference between two governments co-ordinating to govern a single currency and  17 (or in a broad  sense 27). He also seeks the EU’s (surely now stalled?) enlargement agenda as the important and potentially derailing difference of the EU/Eurozone with the Dual Monarchy which is seen as victim of exogenous, apocalyptic shock of WWI.

All this seems rather oddly to ignore more basic political issues of identity and democracy. The Habsburg Dual Monarchy and its currency crumbled due to its inability, among many other things, to create and accomodate national political structures – six states emerged from its former territory in 1918 (today by my reckoning 11) – while the current EU seems to be struggling due to  inability to roll back and rein in well entrenched national states .

Perhaps, at bottom, despite huge democratisation of European political systems a century on, the problem is really the same – mismatch between political forms, political identities and functional economic necessities, the type of conundrum outlined by Gary Marks and Lisbet Hooghe in their ‘postfunctionalist’ take on integration a couple of years ago.

A quick root around around the odd coins and other bits of funny money amid the odds and ends on the mantelpiece reveals some Czechoslovak crowns from 1950s and 1970s and a 50 Euro cent piece with the national design of Greece.

European integration: A view from 1943

The internet has pretty much done for the traditional second-hand bookshop. I used to know of a least a dozen within half an hour’s walk in Brighton. Now I can only think of a couple. And besides, these days I don’t have the time or need to go browsing for second hand books. A cheap copy of anything is source-able through Amazon, Abebooks and the like.

This is a pity in some ways. It’s killed off the art of stumbling on a chance, obscure book that offers a sudden fresh, potentially paradigm-shifting perspective. After all, didn’t Philippe Schmitter come up with the idea of democratic (neo-) corporatism after a chance second-hand find in aBrazilian livraria ?

Despite this, I did stumble on something like this amid the celebrity biogs and crime thrillers on the book shelves of our local Oxfam shop: The Unity of Europe  (Victor Gollancz, London 1943) by Hilda Monte, a thin hardback book of just under two hundred pages printed on yellowing wartime paper, published as part of the 1936-48 Left Book Club series, which served as a popularising outlet for socialist and communist ideas.  The book says Not For Resale To The Public – presumably you had to subscribe to the LBC – but I bought it for £1.

Hilda Monte

Hilde Meisel (Hilda Monte)

 The book’s author Hilda Monte was, in fact,  Hilda Meisel, a socialist/Marxist journalist and economist of a slightly  unorthodox kind (never a CP member either in Germany or Great Britain, it seems)  of a Austro-German Jewish background who came to Britain in 1929 and remained after the Nazi takeover and into the war. Her book is one a broad genre of the period by writers of various political persuasion anticipating the political and social shaper of post-war Germany and post-war Germany. Part of this mix – awhich we we we are still grappling 60 years with this – is this issue of co-operation,  federation, integration of now, small and declining European states, whose political and economic power had peaked.

Proposals for a more federated and united Europe were, of course,  two a penny in 1930s and 1940s. Fascists, liberals, agrarians, socialists and communists all seem to have pretty much agreed that the interwar European system of multiple sovereign national states was a resounding failure. But Meisal’s argument is that as (more or less), a single economic unit, Europe needs be integrated as a whole (including Germany), rather than in the more widely floated form of two-three state federations with purely geopolitical rationales. She also rejects idea of initially integrating industrialised developed West European states – the form that integration, in fact, took after 1956 following the convenient amputation of the East by the Cold War division of the continent. The form of integration she proposes is, naturally, of the left.

Although aware of the need for decentalisation where possible (subsidarity, we might now call it), the socialist ‘‘European Union’ she envisages will be based around a European Central Authority to include both representatives of national government and the functional representation of interest groups – a prophetically Schmitterian touch – which will control post-war reconstruction, trade and immigration policies (140-1). Institutionally, she sees that a ‘… European Central Reserve Bank will need to be established, and either one single currency introduced across the Union, or a fixed relationship between currencies established’ (p.141).

Reasonably enough, given that this is 1943, she does not elaborate on just how these post-war institutions will come about or what they will look like – although the Tennessee Valley Authority of the Roosevelt New Deal is mentioned and, in general, the economic prosperity generated by Europe integration is expected to trump popular attachment to national states (at least in Eastern Europe). In outline, a kind of Marxist Monnet Method.

The book also has topical echoes in its preoccupation with inequalities and unevenness of European development. She sees the European

Inner and Outer Europe

Source: The Unity of Europe, p.40

(and indeed global) economy in terms of fairly modern terms core and periphery (‘Inner Europe’ and ‘Outer Europe’ as she puts it). However, the under-development and unevenness that preoccupies her is that between rural underdeveloped economies of Eastern and Southern Europe, on one hand, and industrial and/or modern economies of Scandinavia and Western Europe, on the other. She is thus very much focused on agrarian modernisation and peasant politics and strategies for industrialisation of the Balkans and East Europe.

Come the 21st century, such an East-West split is still with us, although it is no matter a question of industrial core versus agrarian periphery. Communism in Eastern Europe – not surprisingly, only distantly and vaguely anticipated an author writing at a time when German troops were in Stalingrad – brutally industrialised and agriculturally modernised the region, leaving its own distinct legacy of backwardness.

The Cold War division of Europe is only unanticipated: possible Soviet influence in Eastern Europe is seen as a benign complement to the socialism she hopes and believes and will develop at the heart of the continent. This is founded on a rosy, not to say naïve view of the economic and political system of Soviet Union, characteristic of much of the British Left in 1930s and 40s, as George Orwell lamented  at the time.

‘[W]ho knows’, the author asks ‘if , with fewer goods to buy and rather inadequate housing conditions, the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union have not been better off because they had not be afraid of idleness or lack of markets’ before claiming still more implausibly, as we now know with half a century’s hindsight that the USSR had ‘… devised methods of directing and controlling economic life without depriving the individual of every chance of making economic decisions’ (122, 137).

The author’s analysis of the prospects for post-war Europe has a similar dose ideological wishful thinking: ‘socialism’ – vaguely defined in terms of economic planned, collective ownership and workers’ control – is the only solution. Nothing else will do and a renewal or rebuilding under Capitalism Brought Up To Date is unimaginable. Proposals for what sound like a form of democratic social market corporatism or ‘co-determination’ – from of all quarters, the Federation of British Industry (the main employers’ organisation, forerunner of today’s CBI – are roundly rejected. A mistake, you feel in hindsight, given how easily the post-war settlement was dismantled in 1980s without formal corporatist institutions in this country.

Commemorative stone, Landhausstrasse 3, Berlin

Sadly, Hilde Meisal did not live to see the end of the war to do a second take on the subject. As interested in active resistance than writing and theorising – unconfirmed rumours say she was involved in a 1939 plot to assassinate Hitler – she became in clandestine operations of the US OSS (the precursor of the CIA) to infiltrate intelligence operatives into Germany and was shot by an SS patrol on the Swiss-German border 18 April 1945. She is best remembered as (in Germany) as a resister, leaving behind fragmentary  journalism and pamphleeting in German and English as well as two-three books for a popular audience of which The Unity of Europe is the most substantive.

If she had survived and lived a long life, she would be 97 .

You wonder what she would make of today’s Europe, the EU and its current crisis.

Setting the seal on CEELBAS: Parties and post-communism

Logo of the CEELBAS consortiumThe Centre for East European for Language Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) research consortium which has brought researchers interested in  various aspects of Russia and CEE at UCL, Birmingham, Oxford and beyond together in a variety of events and networks over the last few years is moving into its concluding phase, at least as far as social science are concerned – it will continue as a slightly different form dealing with culture and humanities. To mark its achievements the Centre  held a  conference  which saw me chairing a politics panel trying to paint a big picture overview of post-communist transformation, as well as providing characteristically generous support for a series of  more specialised workshops, including one I co-ran with Birmingham’s Tim Haughton and my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk on changing patterns of party stability and instability in CEE.

The bigger picture conference panel, slightly to my surprise at the time – although in hindsight it is perhaps less surprising – assumed the form of kind of clash between David Lane’s pessimistic and critical view of the trajectories of post-communist states, which he saw as having been set back or impeded in socio-economic and developmental terms by the attempted creation of market societies and market democracies. He anticipated new projects of statism and/or state corporatism with echoes of interwar Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak speaks at CEELBAS conference

Aleks Szczerbiak on Poland

Other panel members – and at at least one questioner from the audience taking a social democratic perspective – questioned both some of the statistics and some of the assumptions: simple measures of output and development were surely misleading and increases in choice and personal freedom (both economic and – sometimes – political) had to be factored in. Moreover, where were the strong organised social interests required for experiments in (neo-)corportatism to come from?

The more optimistic strand of the discussion, from panelists who it must be said tended to foreground the experience of CEE, centred on the role of the EU and domestic elites in delivering relatively successful outcome, although there were some differences of emphasis about the nature of Polish politics – were the divisions between liberal and national-conservative camps that currently structure the party politics of CEE’s largest democracy legacies of Solidarity or a more durable and contemporary culture war?

I, alas, had to close the proceedings to avoid melting down the conference schedule. A rather good panel on post-communist social networks, which I caught the end of after rushing off to discuss a student’s dissertation plans with her, was waiting in the wings.

Picture of biscuits

Food for thought

The theme of party politics , as well as some of the surplus biscuits from the conference,  were, however, taken up in our smaller workshop the following week, where a dozen or so party specialist pondered the fact that – with the recent breakthough of new parties in previously stable-seeming party systems in the region – CEE party politics could no longer be understand as a weak, partical approximation of West European party systems.

The first panel centred on Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrscheider’s findings on the different forms ‘representational strain’ generated by party-voter relationships in CEE and Western Europe by parties trying to accommodate voters with different levels of partisanship. Interestingly, they find, Western Europe offers a tougher and more complex environment for parties than CEE, highlighting (perhaps) the gap in organising and campaigning capacities in the two halves of the continent. Their forthcoming book promises to be a real highlight.

Founders of anti-establishment parties

The many and varied leaders of CEE's new anti-establishment parties

Panel two saw Allan Sikk and I presenting our current work in progress on the emergence of anti-establishment, pro-reform parties in CEE. Like our fellow presenters, Andreas Bågenholm and Andreas Johansson Heinö (who has a very readable – even via Google translate – blog here dealing mainly with Swedish politics) we see the politicisation of corruption and the (party) politics of anti-corruption as an important party of the story, but we are also fans of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and causal complexity as our preliminary work suggests that not only are there  other factors are also in play and that are several ways for these parties to break through.

As Andreas and Andreas’s paper, which dealt with the impacts of the same set of moderate anti-corruption protests parties, suggests, however, ‘corruption’ may be as much a stand-in for more inchoate dissatisfaction and disgust with politics than bribe taking and –making. Some workshop participants think that a certain mix of high and low real-life corruption is needed for this kind of party to step onto the political stage, but I am swept away by the idea of corruption of a political metaphor.

Children's book about dinosaurs

What every CEE specialist should be reading?

There is more political metaphor in panel 3 in which Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause lead off with an outline of their work on larger, more enduring mainstream parties (‘hardy perennials’) and, less horticulturally, suggested a threefold recipe for survival (effective leadership, organisational capacity, meaningful programme/identity) in the electoral jungle. Although like me a fan of his children’s dinosaur books, Kevin resisted my suggestion that such large, well evolved beasts called for more of a Jurassic Park analogy.

The surprise package of the workshop – and a theme running through discussion across the workshop – was the role of party organisation and specifically its role in anchoring enduring parties in CEE, nicely highlighted by Raimondas Ibenskas’s presentation on Lithuania and – as Mazen Hassan’s presentation on party institutionalisation showed – new democracies generally. As these – and David Art’s book (reviewed in an earlier post) – suggest from being something of niche interest in party studies the study of party organisation (and what ‘organisation’ in fact means) may be moving centre stage.

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