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Alterfederalism as a Way of Rethinking the Crisis of Europe

Do we really want more Europe, integration and solidarity? Or should we perhaps first ask exactly what ‘more Europe, integration and solidarity’ should look like? The results of the European elections in Poland show that ‘old federalism’ is retreating. Do we really want more Europe, integration and solidarity? Or should we perhaps first ask exactly what ‘more Europe, integration and solidarity’ should look like? The results of the European elections in Poland show that ‘old federalism’ is retreating.

In November 2011, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs made a speech in Berlin that made waves in our country. Although the words, which appealed for European unity and for Germany to bear more responsibility for the EU project, should have been music to every federalist’s ears, when stripped of their rhetorical catchphrases they revealed a neoliberal plan for the continent.

Radoslaw Sikorski emphasised the need for member states to maintain strict financial discipline, which has been strengthened during the ongoing debt crisis, and to create a system of automatic sanctions for countries that fail to exercise such discipline. Germany – in his eyes – should become a sort of “European policeman” due to the fact they have the strongest economy in the bloc.

The right-wing critics of the Polish minister were irritated by two things: firstly, shifting “bits of sovereignty” to the European level and, secondly, putting Germany at the centre of such a project. Polish conservatives are known for their staunch euroscepticism – but as soon as they take responsibility for governing the country they will be taking part in the same integration process they previously criticised.

 

What Did Sikorski Really Say?

Anti-German sentiment on the Polish right makes them blind to the issues that Sikorski would want to remain within the sovereign remit of the member states: “national identity”, religion, lifestyle, public morality, but also the levels of income taxes and VAT. Nor would Sikorski mind retaining national differences regarding family law or working time.

The effect of such a process would be a continuation of the conservative-liberal status quo in Poland. It would mean a neoliberal path of “development” – creating a peripheral economy that competes with others in a “race to the bottom” for low taxes and cheap labour. Even the Polish Information and Foreign Investment Agency chose to promote the country to foreign capital with a video of a smiling woman who, turning to the camera, says that “here labour is cheap, because the rise of wages is slower than the rise of productivity”.

The European project is seen as hostile in terms of the imagined threats it poses to “Polish identity” – these “threats” include access to abortion, the fight against violence directed towards women and legalising gay marriage.

 

The debate on European issues in Poland is stuck at the same point at which it was during the pre-accession debate. Its main question is still the same – are you a euro-enthusiast or a eurosceptic?

 

A New Perspective

The debate on European issues in Poland is stuck at the same point at which it was during the pre-accession debate. Its main question is still the same – are you a euro-enthusiast or a eurosceptic?

This question cuts the debate off from a perspective that in times of crisis should be shared by all progressive, political forces. I call this perspective “alterfederalism”, which can be summed up as follows: yes, I support the idea of the European Union and the deepening of European integration, but in a different way from that which has been pursued over the last 20 years. In practice this means abandoning support for most of the current policy choices made by the EU, that in Poland were supported by progressive forces due to their fear of the rise of euroscepticism.

We now need to ask what solidarity means to its proponents. Is it just confined to a common market and a common currency, or does it include something more, such as social and ecological objectives? Do we think about integration in a top-down manner, built on inter-governmental cooperation, in which the strongest member states have the most influence; the European Commission, which is not directly and prone to lobbying; and the European Central Bank, which works in the interests of capital and over which there is no democratic control?

Or maybe we want a form of integration that would make the European Union more democratic and more focused on the needs and interests of its citizens? Should solidarity mean just promoting austerity for the sake of common debt reduction, or should it mean sharing responsibility for debt, harmonising our tax and social security systems and investing in the ecological transformation of our economy?

 

Where the Eurosceptics Are Right

Before and shortly after Poland joined the EU there was no political space for an alterfederalist narrative. Discussions centred around the issue of whether or not to join the EU. One could have argued that, although not everything in the European project was as bright as it should have been, criticism should have been postponed, because it was assumed that any critique of European policy choices would fuel the eurosceptics and result in Poland not joining the EU.

But, disciplined by the international financial organisations after the transformation of 1989 and the EU during the accession negotiations, Poland didn’t have the strength to try to influence the shape of the Union before getting on board, nor did it wish to– the EU was an object of desire and a place where we would soon find ourselves if we politely pursued the neoliberal policies that were proposed to us.

Now is the time to seriously look at the critiques that are being put forward by eurosceptic populists – not for the sake of destroying the EU but, on the contrary, to strengthen it. The critique of the lack of democracy in the European institutions – even if made by right-wing politicians with authoritarian tendencies – is not baseless. If we want to build a different, better Union it is nonetheless important to accept that some critiques of the EU can be legitimate.

 

Bottom-Up Integration

It seems that the beginning of an alterfederalist stance can be seen in the social movements that are taking shape during the ongoing crisis. Initiatives, such as the march of Indignados on Brussels or the blocking of rail shipments of radioactive waste from France to Germany, can make us think about new ways of doing European politics – in a supranational and bottom-up way.

The alterfederalist stance requires us to remember how closely intertwined we are with each other and that this goes beyond borders. Fighting for the German social model, that could create more debt problems for the southern EU countries; protesting against nuclear reactors in Poland, while ignoring similar plans in the Czech republic; fighting for greater unionisation of the workers in Swedish corporations, but not anywhere else – all of these are examples of strategies that are not fit for the world of today. The alterfederalist stance could offer a way out of them.

 

Initiatives, such as the march of Indignados on Brussels or the blocking of rail shipments of radioactive waste from France to Germany, can make us think about new ways of doing European politics – in a supranational and bottom-up way.

 

The Failure of “Old Federalism”

The lack of such a perspective on the Polish political scene was palpable during the European elections. The two mainstream parties considered to be the most pro-European – the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Europe Plus – Your Movement (EPTR) coalition, did not try to propose an alternative vision for the EU. Just like the main ruling party – Civic Platform (PO) – they focused on presenting the EU as a positive project, which brings progress to Poland: democracy, human rights, development, prosperity and modernity.

The right-wing eurosceptics had a monopoly on criticising the EU. While the Law and Justice (PiS) party looks at Brussels with some degree of sympathy in order to present themselves as a “responsible” political force, they are the arch enemy of Janusz Korwin-Mikke. The return of this controversial figure from the margins of Polish politics, in which he dwelled for years, could be seen in 2010, when he came fourth in the race for the office of president of Poland. In the EP elections, thanks to the low turnout (23.83%) he managed to once again come fourth (7.15%), gaining four MEPs.

The euro-enthusiasts’ projects – on the other hand – were defeated. The SLD once more failed in gaining new voters (9.44%), and the EPTR – despite boasting some serious celebrities and well-known politicians on its lists – failed to even pass the 5% threshold (3.57%).

 

The Eurosceptics’ New Clothes

The profiles of those who voted for Korwin-Mikke are not the same as those of former populists and eurosceptics in Poland. Until recently opponents of the EU came mainly from the groups that had lost out during the political and economic transformation of 1989 – poorly educated people from smaller towns and the countryside, prone to the influence of the Catholic Church.

The Congress of the New Right (KNP), on the other hand, has a young, male electorate. Their mixture of extreme free market policies, social conservatism and a complete rejection of the EU is particularly attractive to students: university pre-elections are won by the KNP by a wide margin  despite the fact that Korwin-Mikke doesn’t shy away from misogynistic, racist and anti-semitic remarks – or maybe precisely because of this…

 

The alterfederalist project must try to present ambitious proposals which will form the basis for a more social Europe, e.g. with common responsibility for pension systems and joint and just efforts towards an ecological transition or a European minimum wage.

 

Issues that made headlines during the campaign in the countries of “old Europe” – the debt crisis, alternatives to austerity, financial sector regulations, changes in the structure of the EU, climate change – were almost completely absent from the campaigns of the mainstream Polish parties.

These issues were put forward by the Green Party, which tried to connect “European-ness”- positively understood as a vision of a high quality of life – with a new vision for Europe, forged by social movements in the spheres of ecology, digital rights, feminism and participative democracy. Although, due to the high requirements involved in collecting signatures, the Greens were present in only 5 of 13 electoral districts, they were nonetheless able to present their new vision for Europe to the electorate.

 

Democratic Sovereignty Beyond the Nation and the State

The debate on Europe in Poland is still marked by an “us” (Poles) vs “them” (Europe) divide. Both sides of this division are trying to work together in a common political project, which at the same time is being questioned due to a desire to return to national sovereignty.

Although it seems unlikely that the eurosceptic attitude will achieve dominance, neither the pragmatic nor the overly-optimistic stances on the EU can claim much success in having brought the Union closer to Polish society, be it in real (e.g. “quality of life”) or symbolic (e.g. “European identity”) terms.

The alterfederalist project must try to present ambitious proposals which will form the basis for a more social Europe, e.g. with common responsibility for pension systems and joint and just efforts towards an ecological transition or a European minimum wage.

In European nation states democratic sovereignty was achieved thanks to common territory and nationality. The EU, blurring the borders between nation states and opening them up for greater mobility, takes some of this democratic sovereignty away, putting it in the hands of financial markets and “independent experts”. The big problem with which we are faced today is how to both gain political space in Europe and also regain some kind of democratic sovereignty, which is not suited to the enclosed spaces of nation-states, but rather for the situation we currently have in the EU: the space of flows.

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