Prices Don’t Have to Rule the World

When headlines report shocks, whether war- or climate-related, this provides a context for price hikes on everyday goods. What is often overlooked, is the role financial speculation plays in dictating what consumers pay. These decisions, which escape legal and public scrutiny, can be impulsive, and fuel a sense of scarcity for the sake of profit-making. In this conversation, Price Wars author Rupert Russell explains the outsized role of financial markets in our current crises and why politics cannot afford to let them run wild.

Green European Journal: Looking around the world today, we see many signs of scarcity: wars and sanctions, energy shortages, heatwaves causing crops to fail… Is this scarcity at the root of the current cost of living crisis?

Rupert Russell: Amartya Sen famously said that all famines are human made. He points to a genuine shortage of food as the cause of certain famines in history that killed people on a horrific scale. But he also explains how, since the formation of modern markets and the global economy, local shortages no longer matter that much because almost all the world, except for some isolated regions, is plugged into global markets.

Sen’s point is worth keeping in mind when we see headlines around shortages and the cost of living crisis. In the US state of Mississippi between 2017 and 2019, 15 per cent of the population suffered from food insecurity. That means that they could not always afford to eat an adequate meal. Was this hunger caused by an absolute shortage of food? The answer is no. Price is the central prism through which we have to see modern poverty. The reason for food and energy poverty is simply that people cannot afford what they need.

But surely the war in Ukraine has a lot to do with the cost of living crisis?

Food and oil are global commodities that are more or less interchangeable. They are abundant and are sold all over the world regardless of war. We see headlines about the war, stranded wheat in silos, and Russia and Ukraine being jointly responsible for a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and then think that the sharp rises in food prices are rational. However, the price of all these internationally traded commodities dropped significantly in June 2022. What happened with supply and demand? Was there a ceasefire in Ukraine? Was an embargo lifted? No – the US Federal Reserve announced an interest rate rise of 0.75 per cent, and every single financial asset from Meta to crypto to commodities dropped.

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Not only is the scarcity story around the war in Ukraine overblown and disconnected from the realities of the markets, but these are also not even physical markets – they’re financialised markets. The prices of financial assets are set by speculators, and nothing shifts the narrative more than the Federal Reserve. The gas situation is more complicated because it is a commodity that is hard to move, which is why pipelines are so important, and why Russia has been able to play games with Europe since the 1960s. It is also why the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines is so significant. That said, we are rapidly moving towards a global market for liquefied natural gas as new infrastructure is built.

What we need to remember is that markets are social institutions, and it is their dysfunctions – whether Putin using gas as a weapon or the dynamics of financial markets – that are creating a sense of scarcity. We are seeing extraordinary failures of the institutions that we’ve built to distribute goods around the world. It is precisely the diagnosis that Amartya Sen gave for famines or what in the West are called “cost of living crises”, and many people may very well go hungry and die because of it.

Financial speculators may well be aggravating the cost of living crisis. But isn’t environmental change what is making food, resources, and water more scarce?

I’m no expert on the future of food production, but there have always been discourses of scarcity. You saw them in the 1920s and the 1970s; they go in and out of fashion. They also play into the idea that the world is overpopulated, and we’re soon going to have to start eating each other. Food prices were really low between 2014 and 2021. Now people see the news about a drought in India or a fire in California and think that is why prices are high. Has there been an increase in droughts and fires that specifically accounts for prices tripling? I would argue no.

The way we have built the modern commodity market means that any perceived downturn in production can be escalated into a global crisis or shock. We’re getting more and more data – whether directly from farms or from satellite data companies. This data feeds into these algorithms, and they amplify these effects. A critique of the climate movement is that it feeds into narratives of scarcity, which then further contributes to artificial volatility through the markets.

Price is the central prism through which we have to see modern poverty.

How does algorithmic trading work?

Algo-trading can take any form. There are lots of trend-following algos out there – algorithms looking for trends and betting on them. If there is a news event, a war, a pipeline blowing up, or whatever – a bot reads it and trades on it immediately under the logic “it’s better to be first than to be right.” The impact is that you get a lot of intra-day volatility. We’ve seen 30-dollar-a-day swings in the price of oil because of the war in Ukraine. One day, headlines about embargoes on Russia. Bam, price hike. Next day, headline: Russia is going to sell their oil to India, right – sell.

The crazy thing is that we have no idea what these speculative strategies are. Hedge funds that trade in these ways – Renaissance Technologies being the most emblematic – are very secretive. The price of food and fuel is so important to our lives, to security, to the economy, and to political stability, but then you realise that these decisions are made in a complete black box. We’re in a world where the decision-making behind the very things that govern whether we can afford to eat and heat our homes is secret, and where this secrecy is both protected by law and normalised. It is a sign of the madness of the market system that rules our world.

You travelled throughout northern Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring. In 2022, we’ve seen major protests from Sri Lanka to Iran to Chile. Why do price rises have such an incendiary effect?

The link between political instability and high prices for essential goods is as old as history. In Roman times, the emperors provided bread and circuses to keep the people happy. During the French Revolution, there was “let them eat cake.” These centuries-old comparisons re-emerged in a very vivid way during the post-2008 global food crisis, which was one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring. Since 2021 there have been similar protests in at least 50 countries including India, Indonesia, Iran, and Tunisia.

All governmental systems – monarchies, dictatorships, democracies – rest on an implicit agreement between the ruler and ruled that life must be liveable. The historian Steven Kaplan once wrote that it was Charlemagne who established the state as the guarantor of the price of bread in Europe, with the king as the “baker of last resort”. This stays with us today.

Protests that happen during food price spikes are not necessarily mechanical responses to hunger but rather to the failure of a government to do its job, symbolised by high prices. In some ways, Europe’s cost of living crisis began with the gilets jaunes protests between 2018 and 2020 in France, sparked by the introduction of taxes that increased the price of petrol. The same happened in America. Petrol prices can become a lightning rod for protests and instability. With all these neoliberalism, house prices can also be integral to social contracts. Houses have become more than just a place to live; they are a form of financial security in place of the social safety net that has been eroded. In the context of the current crisis, we need to stop thinking about these different commodities as separate markets that reflect what is going on in the real world and realise that they are all part of the same financial house of cards.

Protests are not necessarily mechanical responses to hunger but rather to the failure of a government to do its job.

Governments in Europe are subsidising energy to help contain the cost of living crisis. Meanwhile, central banks are raising interest rates to curb inflation. What do you make of these responses?

Politicians and central banks have found themselves backed into a corner. The war in Ukraine has turned what seemed like transitory inflation created by the pandemic and the supply chain crunch into something much more durable. So central banks have felt forced to respond with interest rate rises.

On the one hand, the politicians who were almost laughing at the idea of price controls as recently as early 2021 are having to impose them because populations and businesses are simply unable to pay their bills. The question is: who pays, and who benefits? There is an assumption on the part of both central banks and elected politicians that this crisis is rational and reflects an underlying reality. This is resulting in enormous transfers of public money to commodity producers – all because of the price rises that have been massively inflated by speculators’ overreaction to the war in Ukraine.

On the other hand, it is true that if you raise interest rates high enough, you will bring down inflation. But when [Federal Reserve Chair] Paul Volcker did this in the early 1980s, he not only engineered a recession in the United States but also triggered a developing-world debt crisis that went on for decades. The humanitarian cost of this strategy was extraordinary, and the contagion effect from the Global North to the Global South multiplied the human suffering and misfortune caused exponentially.

We need to ask ourselves whether there isn’t another way to deal with this. Intervening at the price level is definitely a short-term fix. So far, governments have preferred to fork out cash even though regulation could be just as effective. Just think how much renewable energy such an investment could create over the next two or three years. What is happening in the United States – and I think this is a step in the right direction – is a movement towards “supply-side progressivism”. The idea is to improve efficiency, increase productivity, and decarbonise as quickly as possible.

So the role of the state will have to grow to fill the shortfalls?

It’s common sense. In France, we have seen the massive nationalisation of the country’s main energy producer because they simply had no choice. Governments have been backed into this corner because, for over 40 years, we’ve lived under the markets. It was a system that worked but that was extraordinarily fragile and had all kinds of interdependencies within it. The fragility metaphor extends all the way from the financial system to supply chains. Europe’s dependency on cheap Russian gas was one of the greatest fragilities. As far back as 2012, then-Polish prime minister Donald Tusk was warning that relying on Russian energy was really not where Europe wanted to be.

Over 40 years of neoliberalism, the shock absorbers have been hollowed out of the system. Now we are bouncing from crisis to crisis. We have to start unwinding that fragility.

The crisis of 2008 provoked discussions on the reform of the financial system. But many of these conversations subsided as the economy recovered. Does the cost of living crisis bring these bigger economic questions to the fore once again?

I shied away from making too many policy prescriptions in Price Wars. The one message I wanted to convey is that we are living in a world of prices, but are in denial. Prices provide the structure of constraints and opportunities that we all live in – from Biden and Putin to Mark Zuckerberg – and enable and limit all our decision-making and ability to act. These numbers run the whole world.

This endpoint was the whole purpose of neoliberalism. It was an anti-democratic project to say that markets are more efficient voting systems than democracies, with their special interests and trade unions. We’re living in that world now, but it was a political decision to empower prices, and prices in turn constrain politics. What we need is a political imagination that tries to move beyond that, and this is what I see people in some parts of the green movement trying to do when they talk about degrowth or decommodification.

Recessions and periods of inflation are very difficult for progressive forces as they are often followed by austerity and the rise of xenophobia. What narratives should Greens and progressive parties use to explain the current period of insecurity?

During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, there was a brief sense of “we’re in it together”, which flourishes when the state intervenes in a big crisis and is backed by a sense of collective action. I think this was real. It’s not a made-up story. People care.

We don’t need to treat people as atomised consumers. They recognise that being given 400 euros to help with their electricity bill that’s gone up by five times that amount isn’t really helping them. People’s household budgets will speak for themselves. The atomistic neoliberal contract becomes implausible when your pay just doesn’t match your outgoings.

The Greens and the centre-left in a broader sense need to offer a response that can lean into feelings of patriotism, community, and collectivism. Here’s a collective answer to your individual problem. It’s an exact flip of the neoliberal idea that for every systemic problem you need an individual solution. The time has never been better for that break.

The Slippery Slope of the Energy Descent

The EU’s current energy scarcity is unlikely to be temporary, and Europe’s poor are bearing the brunt of it. Try as they may, member state governments will be unable to solve this problem by relying on new fossil fuels, nuclear power, and recommissioned coal plants. They will have to find ways for European societies to use less energy. Swen Ore considers the concept of “energy sobriety” and explores rationing and progressive energy pricing as socially just ways of managing the energy descent.

With Russian gas to Europe disrupted and an energy crisis looming, rationing is back, albeit in disguise. To avoid a clash with the ideological underpinnings of our society of abundance, instead we are more likely to hear the terms “reduction of consumption”, “demand management”, “sufficiency”, and even “energy sobriety”.

But what exactly is energy sobriety? And, even if it remains somewhat taboo, could the principles of rationing offer an alternative to the current state of rising energy poverty amid ecological crises?

The term “sobriety” has a very particular resonance to ecologists. For the philosopher Ivan Illich, a radical thinker whose writings inspired the nascent political ecology movement, sobriety conveys an anti-productivist understanding of society based on an ethic of “conviviality”, which encourages people to maintain autonomous and creative relationships with each other and with their environment. As he wrote in Tools for Conviviality in 1973, “People will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves.”[1]

When applied to energy, sobriety reflects a long-term political vision for a society empowered to escape from the cycle of repeated crises by becoming less dependent on energy. It is not about simply saying that “we” should consume less, as if social inequalities did not exist. Rather, it challenges us to achieve structural change in energy use that is both democratic and socially just.

Sobriety or sufficiency?

At first glance, the use of the term sobriety may lead to confusion with the fight against alcoholism. This was experienced at first-hand by French green thinker Luc Semal, one of the authors of the landmark publication Sobriété énergétique, during his first meetings with grassroots organisations. But once the misunderstanding is dispelled, the metaphor remains. As with alcohol, we have a civilisational thirst for energy. Both should be properly produced, well chosen, and consumed in moderation, and, like alcohol, the abuse of energy can be destructive to both physical environments and social structures.

In the English-speaking world, the term energy “sufficiency” is more frequently used than sobriety. For the purpose of this article, the two will be considered equivalent. Both concepts recognise the need to say “enough is enough” and create an alternative to our societies’ insatiable use – and indeed wastage – of energy.

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Energy production and consumption in France – including the embodied energy of imports – have grown continuously since 1945. Various energy management have been tried out since the 1990s – even earlier if we consider the anti-waste campaigns of the 1970s – but these policies either focused on energy efficiency or were nothing more than gesture politics.

The story is the same for the energy policies of the European Union. In 2012, researcher Maria Edvardsson was unable to find a European Commission text that dealt directly with the concepts of energy sobriety or sufficiency.[2] Little appears to have changed. When the terms do appear, their use reflects a confusion with the notion of energy efficiency.

The dominant discourse around energy saving remains deeply embedded in the growth paradigm, in which technical innovations have the upper hand. The influential work of American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin on the “third industrial revolution” expresses this most clearly. According to his vision, internet technology and renewable energies will allow hundreds of millions of people to produce their own green energy. These decentralised infrastructures will replace our ageing nuclear-, gas-, and coal-based systems. This new world of highly interconnected technologies will create millions of jobs and “countless new goods and services”, perpetuating economic growth.

In this context, energy saving is seen as a possibility offered by technical innovations to cut production costs and accelerate the pro- duction of new technologies to shift toward a decarbonised economy. Energy efficiency pushes the boundaries of growth forward, thereby ultimately leading to greater global energy consumption. It is this line of reasoning that led French president Emmanuel Macron to declare in February 2022 that, in order to reduce France’s energy consumption by 40 per cent, the country has to “grow in sobriété”. He stated that this can be achieved “without self-deprivation” by means of “innovation [and the] transformation of our industrial processes”.

For ecologists such as Luc Semal, this does not represent the emergence of the society they dreamed of. The energy sufficiency they strive for is political. It concerns the fair distribution of energy reduction efforts, not the development of technological innovations. For them, sufficiency is about rethinking global energy demand. To do this, we must also rethink the economic foundations of our democracies.

The “natural contract” as an amendment to the social contract

In capitalist democracies, access to energy is expressed either as a right for the poorest or as a freedom for the richest. As such, efforts to green these democracies – which implies policies that reduce global energy consumption – give rise to fears of insecurity among some and, among others, the sense that their freedom and way of life are under threat. Energy sobriety thus requires the redefinition of a social contract in which resource limits are finally taken into account to collectively define what “enough” actually means. Philosopher Michel Serres calls this the “natural contract”.

The objective here is to reduce inequalities through the creation of new mechanisms of solidarity based on resource scarcity rather than abundance. The concept of sufficiency is a challenge that can make discussions over energy more tangible and demands a rethinking of equality and justice through the lens of energy consumption.

The purpose of such a policy is to anticipate – in a democratic fashion – what economist Christian Arnsperger and philosopher Dominique Bourg describe as “a forced return to sufficiency, in inequitable and violent forms, that destroys authentic human dignity”. In other words, the rise in energy poverty amid the current crisis.

Energy sobriety reflects a long-term political vision for a society empowered to escape from the cycle of repeated crises.

Rationing and collective sufficiency

European history is replete with examples of rationing policies introduced during wars or oil crises. Governments are quite capable of intervening drastically and fairly in the market when required. However, these policies are only accepted by populations insofar as they can offer both fairness to the poorest and security to the richest.

In France, rationing remains associated with the German occupation during the Second World War, when it was used as an instrument of deprivation. But the French experience of rationing twenty-five years earlier, during the First World War, shows how it can also be used to fight social injustice and overconsumption.

In 1915, the war drove up inflation on food products and coal. The first government intervention to tackle this involved obliging retailers to display average food prices in shop windows alongside their own. However, costs continued to skyrocket, and tensions rose in the population. In response, the government decided to set maximum prices in 1916, first for sugar and coal, then gradually for other staples. But this also failed to curb increasing inequalities.

In 1917, Parisians demanded that the government go further by rationing coal. In spite of initial resistance from the parliamentary majority, the decision was taken to limit its purchase by the upper classes, thus ensuring access for all. This political decision was well received by a public that could no longer afford a resource that had become rare and too expensive. The fact that the setting of prices and quantities by the government only occurred as a last resort and under popular pressure is worthy of note.

The implementation of coal rationing required significant administrative reorganisation. The Ministry of Armaments decided on the national allocation of coal via the National Coal Office, which then organised distribution at the departmental level. The key principle of this policy was “one fire per household”, which of course disadvantaged the wealthy. The coal allowance could be slightly increased for larger households; this tended to benefit the working classes.

The political wrangling that took place in the parliament and the senate on the introduction of coal rationing pitted the interests of the (more rural) producers and owners against those of the (more urban) consumers and workers. In the end, this public intervention in the market and the private sphere succeeded in easing social tensions and safeguarding social cohesion through to the end of the war.

Rationing was also a feature of the oil crises of the 1970s. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo on countries that supported Israel, including the Netherlands. As a result, oil prices quadrupled, and the Dutch authorities had to act quickly. From November 1973, private cars were banned from driving on Sundays. In January 1974, this restriction was replaced by oil rationing via a coupon system. The objective of this measure, which was supported by oil companies and the den Uyl government, was to reduce demand in line with the decline in imports, i.e. 30 per cent. After one month, however, imports resumed, and rationing was abolished. The government subsequently continued its energy reduction programme by limiting speeds on the roads.

In our current context, it is reasonable to assume that energy rationing would successfully anticipate oil depletion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and limit the human activities that are causing biodiversity loss. But how feasible would it be to introduce energy rationing outside of situations of war and acute crisis? The historical examples presented above differ from our current context in at least two ways. First, the ecological crisis is not temporary. The goal of implementing a sufficiency policy would be to establish a “new normality”. And second, energy dependence is greater now than ever before. Oil in particular appears to be impossible to replace in the transport sector without initiating profound changes in infrastructure and mobility services.

From the energy crisis to a “new normal”

Returning to the present, disruptions in the supply of Russian gas to Europe have caused prices to rise dramatically. These price hikes have mainly affected the most vulnerable in society and have forced EU governments to take a range of much-discussed emergency measures: energy price caps, reduced VAT rates, super profits taxes, windfall taxes on energy companies, subsidised social rates extended to lower-middle-income families, and energy allowances for households and businesses.

The common denominator of these measures is that they focus solely on prices; quantities and uses never enter the equation. No distinction is made between the heating of water for a shower and for a private swimming pool, or between a mile travelled to go to work and one travelled for sightseeing. This, however, is the crux of the problem. How can we justify subsidising kilowatt-hours that are put to pointless or even extravagant uses? How can we agree to pay collectively for certain practices that are incompatible with our ecological commitments?

Like alcohol, the abuse of energy can be destructive to both physical environments and social structures.

A solution to this problem is the progressive energy tariff, which helps us to make a distinction between uses. Under this system, the first kilowatt-hours consumed are inexpensive, and prices then increase in stages. A progressive tariff thus guarantees that essential needs are met, while large consumers pay a premium. A well-known formula by political scientist and journalist Paul Ariès sums up this approach: “free use and expensive misuse”.

It is no mystery that energy consumption (and therefore CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts) increases with income; a progressive tariff is therefore also a social tariff. This principle can also be applied to businesses and industries based on their ecological, social, and economic impacts in order to maintain and increase our collective power to live with dignity.

In his interviews with people who unwillingly endure energy sufficiency in their daily lives, Luc Semal found that explaining the concept sometimes led them to reverse the social stigma around this issue: “Overconsumption is the preserve of the rich, while sufficiency can be the virtue of the poorest. A more political conception of ecological inequalities then emerges, which goes hand in hand with a critique of economic inequalities.”

A more radical way still to distribute energy equitably would be through personal quotas. The system of Domestic Tradable Quotas was first proposed by policy analyst David Fleming in 1996. Under this proposal, a carbon budget is set at the national level. This is then divided into individual emission rights. Everyone in a given society would receive the emission rights necessary to purchase fuel or electricity (alongside the normal financial payment). The sale and purchase of rights would be authorised, but no further emission rights could be issued, which would produce a redistributive effect.

Many variants of this idea have been developed including personal carbon trading, personal carbon allowances, and end-user emissions trading. Proposals for such a scheme even gained considerable government interest in Britain in the early 2000s. However, during the tumult of the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government declared that it was “an idea currently ahead of its time” and simply abandoned it.

The slippery slope of the energy descent

Paradoxically, it seems that the more energy a society consumes, the less people are aware of its materiality. If abundance relegates the management of energy to the private sphere and, considering voluntary simplicity, to the moral and philosophical sphere, its scarcity brings it back to the political field. In a zero-sum game, one person’s consumption may be at the expense of another’s. This interdependence is the first stage of politicisation.

A social contract will not be enough, however. The principle of gradually diminishing aggregate quantities requires a kind of “natural contract”. As nature is unfortunately not able to speak for itself, limits would have to be set rather than externally imposed. However, it is the very purpose of political institutions to organise and administer distribution, arbitrate needs, and prioritise uses.

The drastic travel restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 crisis showed that the rapid implementation of policies is possible, but also that such measures highlight inequalities that can imperil their acceptance. Effective rationing policies can only be achieved in the long term if they recognise the experiences of the groups for whom scarcity is a daily reality. Failure to build fair and united mechanisms for organising energy rationing (such as progressive energy tariffs) could lead to large-scale social conflict due to shortages.

At the time of writing, the war in Ukraine is leading to a major energy crisis. While states are adopting measures to support people on low incomes, it is clear that this is not just a matter of price but also of usage and supply, pushing policymakers in the direction of rationing. In France, the term “sobriété” is no longer a dirty word. President Emmanuel Macron himself promised a “plan de sobriété énergétique” to dispense with Russian gas in July 2022.

Once more, sufficiency policies are being implemented in response to crisis. In Sobriété energétique, the authors question whether our democracies are actually capable of proactively choosing energy sufficiency as a means of bringing about a truly ecological society. What is undeniable, however, is that energy is a matter of democratic debate. Today’s concerns about energy prices should not obscure the twin crises looming large before us: the fragility of our energy supply and the need to organise a large-scale energy revolution, which will necessarily imply sufficiency. The use of energy, as a limited resource, should contribute to the global common weal. Building a system of energy distribution that makes a distinction between uses is the best way of tackling both rising energy prices and overconsumption. As environmental sociologist Mathilde Szuba writes: “Unthinkable? Unfeasible? Not really, and in fact, we’ve done it before.”

Footnotes

[1] The term “energy slave” refers to the quantity of energy needed to replace human labour. Ivan Illich (1973). Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row.

[2] Maria Edvardsson (2012). La Sobriété énergétique dans la politique de l’énergie de l’Union européenne. L’inexistence au niveau européen d’un concept important dans l’atteinte des objectifs énergétiques et climatiques, Rapport d’expertise de M1, IEP de Lille

Small Steps Towards a 21st-Century Welfare State

The Green project for the Austrian welfare state is to carry it beyond a model based on male breadwinners and connect it to the issues of our time, from climate change to demographic ageing. Crises from the pandemic to energy shortages have shown that the need for such reforms is more urgent than ever.

Austria is an example of a conservative-corporatist welfare state. After the country’s experience with national socialism, the leaders of its Second Republic built a steady social partnership between employers and unions that was the basis for economic growth until the 1980s. This compromise helped Austria – a small country dependent on the economies of its larger neighbours – to build a welfare system that ensured prosperity for a large part of the population.

However, economic inclusion for working-class people failed to develop a concern for social mobility or political participation. Moreover, Austria’s welfare system stayed grounded in a 1950’s vision of society that jars with the realities of the 2020s. Families with working fathers are guaranteed support, while marginalised people are seen as responsible for their own predicaments. Social protection measures, targeted at heads of households, are often not available to individuals. Low-threshold support is available to helps combat social exclusion caused by violence, debt, illness, and disability, but intra-institutional cooperation on such challenges is poor.

This model of social protection is ill-suited to today’s Austria. More people than ever work insecure and seasonal jobs. Cohabitation outside of marriage is growing. In an ageing society, elderly care (as with childcare) is still seen as a private task for women in the home. Such attitudes mean that the care professions have a low social status and are poorly paid.

Meanwhile, the structure of Austria’s welfare system makes it difficult for it to adapt to challenges such as the impending climate catastrophe and the fallout of Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. The Greens entered government in January 2020, shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic and just as these problems were beginning to enter the public consciousness.

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The Green Party’s priorities for the Austrian welfare system were to increase the level of public funding earmarked for combating poverty, integrate the marginalised into society, and improve cooperation between social institutions. They were especially keen to implement just transition programmes and build resilience against marginalisation. The Greens were also committed to promoting measures that would halt the decline in middle-class living standards. Then Covid-19 hit.

In the wake of the pandemic, the government identified 700,000 individuals (around 8 per cent of the population) as economically vulnerable and eligible for support. The bureaucratic difficulties in reaching these people exposed the fissures in the system. Reduced working time schemes were put together quickly, and extra support for households with children was easily provided alongside family allowance payments. However, the system struggled to reach self-employed people and businesses quickly enough. In the end, Austria managed to come out of the pandemic quite well. Since spring 2022, the country has seen record employment and low unemployment rates. The war in Ukraine has not slowed this trend, even as inflation has worsened. Nevertheless, as a result of the pandemic the Greens have been unable to introduce many of their planned structural reforms. The one notable win was the carbon tax, which is automatically paid out as a “climate bonus” to the entire population on an annual basis. In response to the inflationary impact of the Russian invasion, top-up payments to the most vulnerable were increased, and a certain level of support for energy bills was introduced. However, sharp rises in both prices and tax revenues raised the question of how additional funds could be used most effectively. On the one hand, they had to benefit all population groups to ensure that as many people as possible continued paying into solidarity-based systems such as the health system, unemployment insurance funds, the pension system, and other forms of insurance against poverty and marginalisation. On the other, it was important – at least for the Greens – to ensure that people on lower incomes and those at risk of marginalisation were not left behind.

The result is a basket of measures. Tax thresholds will automatically be pegged up by two-thirds of the inflation rate every year, while tax benefits for low earners and social and family benefits will be adjusted annually for inflation from 2023 onwards. The climate bonus for 2022 has been increased fivefold, and a “power price brake” has been set to encourage users to save energy. Moreover, substantial subsidies are earmarked for businesses that switch to more energy-efficient production methods.

The Austrian Greens entered government to drive both ecological and social change. Their aim is to enable more freedom and creativity for individuals through social security reform, as well as to ensure that Austria uses its room for manoeuvre (as one of the richest societies in the world) to combat climate change. The pandemic upended the rules of the game, and by no means could all these challenges be tackled at once. Nevertheless, when it comes to social security, the government proved capable of increasing financial assistance for the most vulnerable, introducing annual social benefit adjustments, and beginning the work of approaching social and environmental policy as one.

The risk of poverty and marginalisation still hangs over too many people in Austria. The welfare institutions that should be reaching out to them still have to learn to work together. The good news is that small steps are being taken to make this a reality.

This piece is part of a series in the edition on how Greens in government in AustriaBelgiumCroatiaFrance, and Scotland are responding to the social crisis.

Faces of the Crisis

A refrain often used in relation to the sequence of crises the world faces is “the hardest hit are the most vulnerable”. But what does it look like to be vulnerable to energy and price shocks? And what does it mean to experience it acutely?

This panorama gives a snapshot of lived experiences of the cost of living crisis as well as where government responses are falling short. We hear about asylum seekers’ long struggle with overcrowded housing, petty allowances, and discrimination on the housing market.

We hear about deepening period poverty in Europe and how that is shaping some women’s unique experience of the cost of living crisis. We also hear how young people struggle to make ends meet and many elderly people could be plunged into poverty and loneliness.

These accounts paint a very real picture of the devastating impacts of the crisis and the difficult choices many face.

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Asylum In Ireland: Trapped In A Cycle

Contribution by: Bulelani Mfaco

Many asylum seekers were struggling long before the cost of living crisis. They often live on a meagre weekly allowance of 38.80 euros for years – until they receive refugee status, subsidiary protection, or leave to remain. During the wait, many are restricted from building social networks and financial independence so transitioning into their life after receiving paperwork can be demoralising. This can mean poorly insulated and damp houses. Even before the current energy crisis, the first energy bill would inevitably come as a shock. People from migrant backgrounds often support families back home. Some have left their children or spouses. Others have elderly parents or siblings who depend on them. This crisis is forcing many people to make difficult choices about how much money to keep to support themselves and what they send home. It’s difficult enough supporting one household let alone two across borders.

Both the Irish Refugee Council and a government advisory group have long called for increasing the weekly allowance for asylum seekers. But the government has refused. The Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) has also called for asylum-seeking children to be given access to child benefit like their Irish peers to avoid trapping children in a cycle of poverty.

Ireland’s housing crisis is a contributor to the struggles of migrants. Around 4000 people with legal status are currently living in asylum centres because of difficulties finding rental accommodation. Many who make it out of asylum centres would take whatever they find, which can mean living in poorly insulated and damp houses, and paying high energy bills each month.

To meet the housing needs of refugees and homeless people, the government introduced the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) – a scheme where the government, through local authorities, pays the capped rental allowance to the landlord. The problem is that there is so much competition for rental accommodation. At a viewing, you might find 50 people queuing up for the same apartment. And landlords generally prefer not to deal with HAP and its bureaucracies. It is not just migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who are priced out of the market and competing for a limited housing stock. The national broadcaster recently reported one case of 20 people living in a four-bedroom house. Despite the shortage and poor housing conditions, the government has neglected the development of social housing, abdicating this responsibility to the private sector.

In response to rising energy costs, the state is providing around 200 euros to help cover energy bills in 2022, with another 400 euros planned for 2023. These one-off payments are not enough: energy costs are rising and you don’t need energy once in a while but continuously. Some migrants – including international students and those on work permits – cannot access this support because their visa forbids access to public funds and welfare support. This condition was waived during the pandemic, but the government has so far failed to announce a similar waiver for the cost of living crisis. The result is that non-EU nationals living and working or studying in Ireland are reluctant to seek support. In many ways, the Irish government is placing a bandage on a wound without cleaning it first. In this crisis, our movement is calling on the government to make its relief efforts and support universal. Migrants and asylum seekers contribute to Irish society in many ways. Many pay taxes yet cannot access public support and welfare. As energy companies make record profits, this crisis is hitting the most marginalised the hardest.

Women and Girls: Period Poverty on the Rise

Contribution by: Lauren Crosby Medlicott

As the cost of living continues to rise, millions of women around the world are struggling to afford the products they need to manage their periods. Even prior to the current economic crisis, women were forced to choose between buying food and period products. Charities working to eradicate period poverty speak of a worsening situation. It is a unique and dis- criminatory impact women face as the prices of petrol, energy, and food skyrocket.

“It’s inevitable that when there is a crisis that plunges people into poverty, the level of period poverty will also rise,” explains Ella Lambert, founder of the Pachamama Project. “In recent years we have been struck with crisis after crisis – a pandemic, a European war, and now a cost of living crisis. Period poverty will certainly rise.”

Although the data is fragmented, it is believed that 1 in 10 in Europe menstruators experience period poverty. In the Netherlands, a survey of young women between the ages of 12 and 25 years found almost 9 per cent cannot afford period products. Over half indicated they find period products too expensive. Four in 10 women in Spain cannot afford their preferred period products, while an estimated 20 per cent find it difficult to afford any products at all. One in 8 Britons predicted that they will struggle to afford period products over the next year.

Girls and women on low incomes in prosperous western Europe are forced to improvise with rags, toilet paper, baby nappies, or even old newspapers when they cannot afford pads or tampons. Even more at risk are homeless and undocumented women in precarious living conditions. In refugee camps, women not only struggle to access products, they also face stigma about their periods and lack adequate, safe facilities to handle them. Heading to the Global South, half of all women and girls are forced to use items such as rags, grass, and paper each month. Ten per cent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their periods.

If access to menstrual products, safe spaces to use them, and the ability to manage menstruation without shame are not available, the impact can be devastating for the physical health, mental well-being, and education of women. “We have to get better as a society at responding to period poverty,” urges Lambert.

In a trailblazing move, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all in August 2022. “As the cost of living crisis takes hold, the Period Products Act is a beacon of hope which shows what can be achieved when politicians come together for the good of the people we serve,” said Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Monica Lennon.

Germany reduced the tax rate on tampons and pads from 19 per cent to 7 per cent in 2020. This followed pressure from rights groups who banded together to create an online campaign that gathered more than 180,000 signatures calling for an end to the “luxury tax” on period products. Spain, France, Poland, and Austria have also lowered the sales tax on period products in the wake of protests.

Even though governments can and should work to eradicate period poverty, outside help is also needed. “There is more work required by non-profits to fill the gap as governments don’t always have the finances or the will,” explains Meelie Pemberton, founder of WingWoman Lebanon. “Reusable period pads distributed by NGOs provide a long-term solution to those without access to hygienic disposable products and reduce the stress of not knowing when they will next get products.”

Period poverty makes women feel helpless, and yet there is an easy fix, argues Lambert: “If we provide reusable sanitary products to those who have washing facilities to use them, we eradicate the problem,” she says. “Then we have to work to fill the gap for those who don’t have washing facilities through working with non-governmental organisations and the state, providing the funding to make sanitary products free and available to all.”

Old Age in Germany: All Resources Are Needed

Contribution by: Christa Möller-Metzger

Poverty among the elderly is on the rise in Germany, especially as the cost of living crisis bites. One in six people over 65 is at risk of poverty. Rising energy costs and the increased price of everyday items will make this winter particularly hard. Tafel, one of the largest volunteer-based organisations in Germany that feeds those in need, is helping more pensioners than ever before.

In Germany, the costs of accommodation and food in nursing homes – which are borne by the care recipient alone – are also on the rise. Many elderly people live alone, so they bear the full cost of heating their apartments. No one knows whether their pension will stretch to cover their heating bill by the end of winter. Many old people also live with disabilities and illness, so they need a warm home and can’t simply turn down the thermostat. The cost of living crisis is becoming a poverty crisis.

The government has pledged help. All pensioners in Germany will receive 300 euros in December to go towards additional energy costs, and pensioners are now eligible for housing benefits to help meet rising rental costs.

For many seniors, this support will not be enough financially or socially. Seniors battling poverty are also more likely to suffer from loneliness. In a time of crisis, they become more isolated. That is why governments must do what they can to ensure that elderly people are not cut off. Small, affordable steps such as installing benches can make a difference by encouraging communication and thus combatting loneliness. In Hamburg, the city is keeping public spaces such as libraries warm and comfortable through the winter. Additional spaces for social activities will also be available to allow people to spend time with one another without the pressure to consume.

In this crisis, all resources are needed and local governments must make use of their communities. Older people have skills to teach others in their community just as they have things that they can learn. Digital media skills are important for combatting loneliness and can be taught by community members. Volunteers in Hamburg are teaching elderly people how to use devices such as tablets and smartphones provided by the city. After that, the volunteers will offer their skills in meeting places for seniors.

 The pandemic exposed how care, ageing, and loneliness are fundamental questions for our ageing societies. The cost of living crisis shows how they are more urgent than ever.

Young People in Croatia: The Most Challenging Period for a Generation

Contribution by: Kaja Pavlinić

For several years, especially since the pandemic and now with inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, living costs have been skyrocketing globally. These patterns can also be observed in Croatia. For young people, it is becoming hard to get by as everything from housing and transport to food and utilities becomes unaffordable.

Young people have long faced financial constraints. According to 2022 data from the Croatian Bureau of Statistics, the net monthly salary for fully employed persons in 2022 is between 1000 and 1200 euros, while the legal gross minimum wage amounts to 700 euros. The average net hourly salary for university students in 2022 is 3.89 euros. During the pandemic, many young people lost their jobs or had to pause their studies.

To explore how the high cost of living is affecting young people and persons with disabilities, I spoke to political scientist and founder of Sustainable Development Forum Green Window Marko Popović, and Leonida Kifer, an employee at a social enterprise in Zagreb and an advocate for the rights of people living with disabilities.

When asked about the past 10 years, Popović immediately recognises how the cost of living has sharply risen. “During my studies and 7-year professional career, I have noticed a large increase in housing prices and food prices. Just 10 years ago, the average rent for a studio or a small apartment in Zagreb, shared with only one or two persons, was around 150-200 euros per person. Now, the minimum price is 300 euros. Food costs have also increased by at least 50 per cent. The price of transport remains the same, but due to the pressure of inflation, this is likely to increase at any moment.”

People with disabilities face the same issues, with the additional burden of high medical costs and fewer employment opportunities. From her personal experience, Kifer recounts: “The community already doesn’t accept us fully; this is our biggest battle. Public spaces are not fully adjusted and accessible – every time I use a tram or a bus, I never know if someone will stand up so I can sit (because I can’t stand for too long) or if someone will verbally attack me because I use a walking aid. Higher living costs mean it’s even harder for us to integrate into our communities. For persons with disabilities, it is already very challenging to find a job and live a decent life, even without increasing costs. Many of us struggle with frustration and various forms of depression.”

However, Popović is confident that green policies can bring relief: “Ever since Croatia became independent, there has been a lack of adequate policies to address housing issues for young people. Green policies should be oriented towards promoting public housing models based on examples of good practices from other European cities. I want to see more student dorms, more apartments with affordable rent, and better rail connections with smaller cities offering more affordable living. Alongside this, we need to work on better youth strategies with a particular focus on eradicating precarious employment and helping young people climb the property ladder. We need to make sure that their rent does not eat up more than a third of their salary,” explains Popović.

Kifer also sees plenty of room for improvement. “Currently, people with disabilities are being helped mostly by NGOs. I think there is a need for a systemic approach. Some places in Croatia have introduced local policies that ensure housing, education, and proper employment for people with disabilities. Croatia and other countries must reshape their approach to persons with disabilities and especially young people with disabilities. Instead of constraining us by emphasising everything we can’t do, they should encourage us and help us do everything we are capable of.”

Young people in Croatia are living through the most challenging period for a generation. However, there is room for hope. By influencing our communities to push for proper policies based on sustainable long-term solutions regarding all aspects of living, Croatia can emerge from this crisis in a way that ensures that the coming decades are fair and inclusive.

Runaway Inflation in Turkey: Simits Are Now a Luxury

Contribution by: Antonia Oschmann

When Miro moves to Istanbul in the summer of 2021, he is 18 years old. He comes from Van, a city in eastern Turkey where mostly Kurds live. To escape the lack of prospects and the pressure of his parents, he moves in with his uncle and works at his café whilst preparing for his studies in the city. At this point, 10 lira is worth about one euro. He works six days a week as a waiter for his uncle, first for a minimum wage of 3000 lira, then in December for 4250. In July 2022, he finally earns 5500 lira a month.

The wage increase Miro is experiencing is the Turkish government’s response to the runaway inflation of the lira. To curb currency depreciation, economic experts recommend raising the interest rate. But President Erdoğan sees high interest rates as cheating, so he fights to keep it down. For example, he has fired four central bank governors in less than three years. The value of the lira continues to fall while the president expects the central bank to deliver a miracle.

In September 2022, year-on-year inflation in Turkey is almost 80 per cent. Eighteen lira is worth just one euro. The population feels this intimately with rising food and energy prices. New soup kitchens in Istanbul are opening their doors to many people, including from the middle class. A simit (the cheap sesame bread sold on every street corner) has doubled in price since 2021, going from 2.50 to 5 lira. “Simits are now almost a luxury,” says Aleyna. She sells the bread on the Asian quarter of Istanbul, at the Kadikoy ferry port. “More and more people are asking me if I could give them something to eat. I do what I can, but I also have to make ends meet. Everything has become so expensive.”

In addition to Erdoğan’s economic policy, Russia’s war against Ukraine has been damaging for Turkey. Ankara maintains close economic ties with both countries. Turkey meets 70 per cent of its wheat and most of its fossil fuel needs with Russian imports. It also cooperates with Ukraine in the economic and military sphere and has supplied it with combat drones. As well as being dependent on both states, Turkey is a member of NATO and is trying to mediate the current conflict. Economically, the country could not cope without the West or Russia. Sanctions from either side would make the already precarious economic situation even worse, which could be costly for a Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is already struggling in the polls ahead of the June 2023 elections.

Although the governing party felt empowered to pursue Islamic-conservative clientele politics for years and effectively run an autocratic state due to popular support for its mega projects, its popularity is waning as the cost of living bites. As long as Erdoğan sticks to his unorthodox economic policy, the economic situation will not change for many like Miro and Aleyna.

Time to Revive the Power of Europe’s Unions

The cost of living crisis hits at a time when organised labour in Europe is historically weak. Revitalising the trade union movement and institutions of collective bargaining is the only way to protect living standards in the face of soaring inflation. Amid growing political uncertainty, trade union solidarity can also be a bulwark against a resurgent far right.

Real wages fell by as much as 19 per cent for Europe’s lowest paid in 2022, while the 4.8 per cent average drop in real minimum wages is the most significant decline this century. Meanwhile, the news is full of predictions about a contracting economy and potential job losses. The International Monetary Fund now warns that the global recession will hit Europe, while globally the World Bank has announced that the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is now out of reach.

So far, the far right has capitalised most on the current crises. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy have taken power. The promise to fight the rising cost of living was key to their victory. In Sweden, a bastion of social democracy, the Sweden Democrats – a party with roots in neo-Nazism – have joined the new right-wing government. Romania has seen far-right rallies in its capital Bucharest, and Czechia has witnessed major anti-EU and anti-NATO demonstrations. Cross-border surveys have found that many people are increasingly worried about the risk of civil unrest driven by the spiralling cost of living. In Britain, 53 per cent of respondents reported such concerns, while in Poland, the figure rose to 75 per cent.

Amid inflation and a widespread sense of abandonment, the European institutions are rushing to take steps to prevent people from falling into the arms of extremist political parties. The European Commission has pushed for a cap on energy prices and encouraged member states to introduce windfall taxes on company profits. Yet though the European apparatus is developing solutions, these are being overshadowed by the voices of right-wing radicals seeking to exploit people’s fears and prejudices.

The outlook appears grim. Despite the successes of movements such as Don’t Pay UK, which encouraged citizens not to pay energy bills and pushed Britain’s beleaguered Conservative government to offer major financial support to households hard hit by the energy crisis, people’s faith in positive change is clearly being undermined.

The legacy of past crises

The wave of austerity imposed following the 2008 financial crisis left a lasting mark that undermined many countries’ readiness to face the current crises by stripping back public services, including healthcare. In Romania, the neoliberal government closed down 67 hospitals and clinics in 2011. In Greece, the health budget was cut in half from 2009 to 2015.

Social dialogue, the process through which labour unions, employers, and governments collaborate, was another casualty. In 2011, the Romanian government restricted collective bargaining and the right to strike, disbanded the nationally enacted collective bargaining contract, and declared unions to be an obstacle to a flexible workforce. In Romania and Spain, governments implemented wage cuts at the same time as introducing legislation making workers easier to dismiss and replace. These policies followed in the footsteps of Germany, whose unions, which still retain major decision-making power, saw their influence curbed by the introduction of flexible labour laws in the early 2000s.

Since 2010, union membership rates have decreased by roughly 15 per cent across EU countries. In extreme cases such as Romania, they have fallen by more than 37 per cent. While collective bargaining coverage throughout Europe has decreased by roughly 10 per cent on average, in Romania and Greece it has declined by 60 and 55 per cent respectively. A decline in collective bargaining leads to stagnating wages, fewer labour protections, and a widening salary gap. One of the most significant results is that more people end up working minimum-wage jobs. In Romania, the number of workers on minimum wage contracts rose from 350,000 in 2011 to 1.7 million in 2020. The numbers speak for themselves in a cost of living crisis: we need collective bargaining contracts to improve living standards.

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Ștefan Guga, director of the research group Syndex Romania, confirms: “Collective bargaining should have a central role, but in Romania this is no longer the case. The main debate is around the minimum wage, yet that can only get you so far. Since there is no clear mechanism to increase non-minimum-wage salaries, you end up with more people on minimum wage than ever.” Guga also warns that collective bargaining without active militancy and workers’ councils in the workplace might not lead to improvements. For example, every Romanian company that employs more than 21 workers is legally required to participate in collective bargaining, but there is no requirement for an agreement to be reached.

Dan Năstase, president of the Romanian Federation of Textile Workers, explains that it is often just legal box-ticking. “They bring one of the workers into the meeting room and pretend that they are negotiating. So they ‘engage in negotiations’, without any tangible solutions.” Guga adds how these sham collective bargaining processes are sometimes just another means to keep wages down: “When you have a collective labour agreement, you’ve got rid of the problem of someone asking for another contract.” But while there are limitations to what collective bargaining can achieve without real organising behind it, both Guga and Năstase believe that dialogue between unions and employers is the only way to achieve better working conditions and pay.

In Romania, efforts are still needed to build bridges between trade unions and the environmental movement.

The return of industrial action?

Across Europe, trade union activity markedly increased in 2022. Unions have mobilised to call for higher wages and a greater role for collective bargaining. Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all seen major strikes affecting sectors including transport

and energy. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) – the umbrella organisation for European unions – has organised multiple demonstrations and called on national governments and international institutions to strengthen unions’ voices. In their statements, they warn against further waves of austerity and attribute the deterioration in working conditions and real wages to weak collective bargaining.

With the far right on the rise, the political benefits of re-empowering unions not just as guarantors of pay increases but also as social actors should not be ignored. In the United Kingdom, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has organised campaigns targeting the far right’s political project and safeguarding against infiltration within the movement. Upon witnessing the catastrophic election results in Italy, ETUC president Laurent Berger declared, “European and international trade unionism was built on solidarity and progressivism. The far right is the antithesis of these values.”

Throughout history, trade unions have stood up to the ascent of the far right, ranging from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fighting racists in the United States in the 1910s to the opposition of left-leaning Italian unions to fascism in the 1920s. In both cases, the unions were ultimately crushed by the power of the state. In the United States, more than one hundred IWW leaders were imprisoned under the Espionage Act of 1917, and General Secretary-Treasurer Bill Haywood fled to the Soviet Union. In Italy, Benito Mussolini used state violence and repression to break the back of trade union organising. While trade union opposition to these regimes may not have survived state repression, their stand was nevertheless a sign that a different world is possible.

This history should be a lesson for Europe as it heads into a dark period marked by economic hardship and the war in Ukraine – and made darker still by the rising far right. In such times, European governments can turn to trade unions not only as representatives of workers struggling for better living conditions but also as actors able to fight misinformation and take a stand against right-wing extremists. If, as during the last economic crisis, European governments collude with big capital once again, there may be no coming back from the current rightward drift. Giorgia Meloni’s victory, 100 years after Mussolini marched on Rome, is further reminder. Her platform managed to offer workers ambiguous promises and words of encouragement while failing to set out any tangible benefits.

Governments and political parties need to turn to unions, listen to their demands, and heed their proposals.

Much-needed alliances

What would the empowerment of trade unions mean for climate and environmental policies in Europe? Trade unions have been playing an increasingly active role in discussions over a just transition. European umbrella organisations such as ETUC, the European Public Service Union, and IndustriALL support emissions reductions and recognise the implications for heavily polluting industries. However, discussions in Brussels remain distant from the realities around Europe.

In Romania, for example, efforts are still needed to build bridges between trade unions and the environmental movement. The Romanian coal mining industry was abruptly shut down in the late 1990s. The legacy of that transition is joblessness and communities wrecked by gambling and alcoholism. Across society, interest in climate change

and renewable energy is not comparable to that in western European countries. However, trade unionist Năstase believes that collective bargaining could play an important role in this process: “Collective bargaining contracts could include clauses about green transition, offering workers a just transition.”

While this proposal may seem utopian given Romania’s falling unionisation rate and the collapse of collective bargaining, it is much needed. In the absence of trade unions negotiating over potential job losses, training, and the obligation of employers to reintegrate workers, it would be every person for themselves in the transition ahead. For the environmental movement, the stakes of winning trade union support for the transition on the ground could not be greater considering the far right’s frequent rejection of climate science.

European states may be developing plans to get through this winter and the next, but the far right’s clear, aggressive politics of anger continues to gain ground. History shows that, when in power, the far right targets collective bargaining, unions, and workers’ power generally, posing a threat to living standards as well as to rights and freedoms.

Given the current political and economic turmoil, there is a risk that societies will fall into a trap of pessimism in which imagining a better future becomes impossible. Without hope for change, opportunities for trade unions and progressive political movements to make progress could be frozen entirely. To counter that direction, we need a vision of the future that offers more than slight improvements and minimum-wage increases. A few more crumbs added to the workers’ share of the pie will not be enough.

In the current crisis, governments and political parties need to turn to unions, listen to their demands, and heed their proposals on the way forward. Trade unions themselves need to return to militancy and class solidarity.

For Green parties specifically, building lasting ties with unions in the present moment is key to the long-term success of the green agenda. A just transition will not emerge from the offices of bureaucrats. It must be built from the ground up by people advocating for dignified living conditions and a better future.

A Climate of Disruption

The upheaval that was forecast as the inevitable consequence of our regime of accumulation is well and truly upon us. Today, it is not only our politics and institutions that seem to be unravelling but every aspect of our daily lives. How can we exist in an age of multiple escalating forms of disruption? Can we envisage ways to work with and through that disruption, advancing freedom just as it seems most under threat?

How does life feel right now? Disruption, defined as “a rending asunder, a bursting apart, forcible separation into parts”, seems a theme. Taking the broad brush to an era in this way allows us to sweep up all manner of movement and emotions, capturing them into what Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams called a structure of feeling: “the culture of a period … the particular living result”. These structures have the power to accent historical development, quietly define how it is understood and, to some extent, direct it.

Writing back in 1983, Williams described “a much less confident and much more unexpected world”, one scarred by the turbulence of the 1970s and the existential threat social movements posed to the capitalist order of Fordism. As the “age of uncertainty”, this generalised unease would prove fertile ground for market fundamentalists to shock national economies into a new, globalised order.

Third Way neoliberalism, in contrast, emerges as the cock of the walk – slick, dynamic, loose, and liquid. Its proponents ascended to face the turn of the millennium with the compromise of the century and a promise to eschew ideological friction in favour of technocratic maturity. Evolving from its original combative form to the sheeny aesthetic of the 1990s, it marked, in political economist Will Davies’ phrase, “the disenchantment of politics by economics”.

From the financial crisis through to Brexit, Trump, and the upending of established political parties across Europe, institutional earthquakes defined the 2010s, etching out the slow degradation of neoliberalism into … something else. But disruption perceived is not the same as disruption experienced. Post- pandemic inflation has brought more intimate enclosures – the household and the quotidian – to the fore of public debate. Protest, policy rupture, and climate impacts all now converge, impacting deeply personal prerogatives – the weekly shop, the commute, paying the bills.

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The age of shocks

Three disparate fronts of contemporary disruption can be identified. First, and most obvious, is the havoc caused by the rising cost of living and the energy crisis. EU inflation currently exceeds 10 per cent, and European governments have earmarked 500 billion euros in an attempt to cushion the blow of trebling energy bills. It is easy to forget that these trends pre-date Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their supposed temporary nature – a refrain of struggling incumbent politicians above all – is belied by a number of factors. To the extent that inflation has been driven by post-pandemic demand, this itself is a product of the expansion of markets into novel territories (so-called “zoonotic spillover”) and the predictable result of “blowback from our unbalanced relationship to nature”. Economists have made similar arguments tracing inflation back to a series of environmental shocks – from the summer drought in Europe to heatwaves, flooding, frost, and even locust plagues – all contributing to supply chain disruption and cumulatively rising prices in dispersed and unpredictable ways. Only one thing is guaranteed: as climate impacts worsen, macroeconomic instability becomes more likely, and with it the full array of micro-consequences.

Climate policies have always been quite powerfully framed as an attempt to stave off exactly these environmental shocks, and all the economic consequences that follow. But smooth pathways of transition and building resilience were rejected long ago. More radical state interventions to leave behind fossil fuels and incentivise behaviour change are now, by necessity, a second form of disruption themselves. The recent efforts of German Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck to wean the country off Russian gas imports – including encouraging citizens to cut their domestic consumption – have contributed to a revival of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its long-standing critique of the energy transition as the ideological project of nosy environmentalism. Accusations of a “climate dictatorship” proliferate, and the AfD is whipping up concern about the prospect of a Wutwinter (winter of rage). Pandemic restrictions are an important precursor here, as in Spain, where far-right counterparts Vox rail against the centre-left “progressive dictatorship” and “all the freedom-killing laws”.

The threat portended by the French gilets jaunes in 2018 to 2019, therefore, remains considerable. In a context of inequality and prolonged inflationary pressures, and in the absence of a major programme of redistribution and reform, climate policies are liable to encounter a vociferous response. Even interventions more attuned than tax rises to systemic injustice are vulnerable to deeply charged hostility. The reallocation of road space to encourage walking and cycling, for example, has accelerated recently in major European cities – from Anne Hidalgo’s dream of a 15-minute Paris to Barcelona’s superilles (recaptured intersections) and Berlin’s Kiezblocks. Their social dividend makes them broadly popular, but the disruption to customary patterns of consumption drags them into a familiar, culturally infused dispute. In the United Kingdom, no amount of positive framing – “low-traffic neighbourhoods”, “people-friendly streets” – has managed to prevent a wave of apoplectic offence among a minority of opponents. Objections are characterised by a misapprehension of their number – the initiatives are, according to most polls, unbothersome to a majority – but also the transmutation of a policy of tweaked travel incentives into an authoritarian denial of rights. That is, the right to drive an internal combustion engine unhindered through a dense, congested city.

Political historian Annelien De Dijn has contrasted this conception of freedom – “being able to do what you want without state interference” – with its democratic predecessor, the “liberty of the ancients”, at the core of which are self-government and the extension of collective empowerment. While no invocations of freedom carry quite the same motherlode of political entitlement on this side of the Atlantic, the devotion to such a private mode of freedom, with property rights at its core, does limit the capacity of the “big green state” to act. Behavioural change is estimated to play a role in two-thirds of required emissions reductions to net zero. That leaves governments with no desire to interfere with customary patterns of consumption – our “imperial mode of living” – facing an impossible contradiction.

Protest, policy rupture, and climate impacts all now converge, impacting deeply personal prerogatives.

A third and final form of disruption is the most calculated: the deliberate interruption of livelihoods pursued by social groups for political and economic ends. Climate activists are the most obvious actors, with growing numbers rejecting the civility of the last decade and springing forward with increasingly creative intrusions. Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline must take some credit, launching a trenchant case for sabotage into a movement with an almost spiritual fidelity to strategic non-violence. From throwing mashed potato at a Monet in Potsdam, cementing golf course holes during a Toulouse drought, and blocking traffic in Bern, to “extinguishing” SUV tyres in Turin, ratcheting desperation characterises the current wave of activism. Others continue with legal but increasingly antagonistic activity, such as Green New Deal Rising’s haranguing of politicians in public fora, deploying “youth authenticity” in pure form, and forcing their targets, on shaky video, to “pick a side”. There is strength in this tactic’s disassociation of target from audience: most of us can identify with motorists, even fine art, but not politicians. The less popular the individual, the more comfortable the audience.

These acts remain disparate and disjointed, at least in how they are collectively perceived: as a mishmash of misguided instigators. The public reaction is often emotional ranging, from anger at the moral implications of road-blockers (that you, driver, are guilty) and deep offence to cultural and liberal sensibilities of the (practically harmless) attacks on art to the trite assertion that disruption ultimately “hinders the cause” (often a poor imitation of empathy). Online reactions show the extremes. Threats of unhinged violence sit alongside nihilistic promises to burn extra fuel tomorrow out of spite: “masochists masquerading as sadists”, to use writer and activist Richard Seymour’s phrase. Others, particularly bystanders, have been more supine, even oddly curious; an uneasy political consciousness playing out in real time. To the extent that the message of climate disruptors is cohering, it seems to be on the powerful injunction and resolutely populist rallying cry proposed by Davies: “Stop, you’re killing us!”

Finally, ramping up in parallel are workers’ strikes across Europe, directly responding to the cost of living crisis but willing to broaden their claims beyond sectoral industrial disputes and parliamentary politics and expand campaigning infrastructure to match. The “Enough is Enough” campaign launched by UK trade unions, for example, has a set of demands that go beyond wages to encompass food security, public housing, and wealth taxes. The movement signed up half a million supporters in its first month – a taste of the challenge it could offer, in tandem with climate activists, to a Labour Party adopting increasingly conservative positions. The turn towards industrial disputes with a political character reveals a wider strategic pivot among parts of the Left, away from Green-New-Deal populism and towards a renewed focus on antagonism and leverage. The secretary general of the British rail workers’ union, Mick Lynch, stormed a spate of late-summer media appearances with no-nonsense refrains such as “Workers shouldn’t have to beg.” This is disruption as last-ditch democracy when all other forms of exercising political or economic agency have been constrained or exhausted. But unions also find strength in their rhetorical technique: eschewing moralism, they deal in interests. While climate activists do not have the same direct instrumentality, they might learn from this all the same.

Power of consumption – a hollow consolation

To draw attention to these recent commotions and their personal effects is not to overlook the very significant civic dislocation of the previous decade. It should not undermine the widespread and material devastation caused by the financial crisis and the orthodoxy of European austerity that followed, from the degradation of public services to the stagnation of wages, nor the very personal consequences of the pandemic. What is more novel is the imposition of current socio-economic disruption – at a society-wide level – on the very arch-entitlements that neoliberal capitalism was supposed to afford.

To understand this, we must acknowledge that as much as political analysis concerns itself with the experiences and movement of “voters”, the true primary subjectivity in contemporary society is that of the consumer. In Hegemony Now, political theorists Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams argue that the political alliance that buttressed neoliberalism was held together by a deal for “consumer consent”: in exchange for the loss of community, workplace democracy, and visions of long-term social progress, citizens were compensated by new forms of agency over leisure and lifestyle choices.

One clear demonstration of this today comes in the form of popular efforts to translate major, ostensibly public, economic moments – government budgets, financial shake-ups, entire manifesto launches – into private, consumption-based questions. This is a discourse not just individualised but reduced to a matter of pure purchasing power (in French pouvoir d’achat, used as a stand-in for cost of living), paving the way for repeated political commitments to keep “your money in your pocket”. All other matters of power and wealth and distribution can be dismissed as ethereal, reserved to a distant public sphere. Similarly, the world of work is posited not as the site of the relation to systems of production, nor as the organisation of workers within it, but as the facilitator of that banal and brutal flattening of human experience: “to get on in life”.

More radical state interventions to leave behind fossil fuels are now forms of disruption themselves.

“Public consent to the hegemonic neoliberal programme”, Gilbert and Williams conclude, “depended on the ability of that programme to deliver a continuous expansion of the capacity of the citizenry to consume”. It also rendered individuals complicit by default, able to benefit from their relatively high status and consumption but more or less unable to escape the omnipotence of acquisitive culture as expressed in advertising, TV (now social media), and political communication. The Salvage Collective have argued the “tragedy of the worker is that, as long as she works for capitalism, she must be her own gravedigger”. The double tragedy is that we are implicated in this accumulative telos; the “Anthropocene” implies that this was all for all of us.

That capacity to consume comfortably and freely, one remnant of citizen privilege under neoliberalism, is now under serious threat from the disruptive forces of climate impacts, policy rupture, and social discord. Far-right authoritarians in Spain, Sweden, and Italy (the only EU country where wages have shrunk since the 1990s, meaning they know neoliberal rot better than most), all made hay with the theme of order in recent elections, promising variously to stop immigration, defeat the “enemies of civilisation”, increase police funding, and prevent the general corruption of “ordinary people” and traditional values. But European economies are likely to continue to discover exactly how capitalism actually works in so-called emerging markets, despite best efforts to insulate the European “garden” from the jungle that diplomats imagine surrounds it.[1]

A catalyst for change

What matters, therefore, is not whether disruption occurs, as it is certain to continue. “In the 21st century, all politics are climate politics,” wrote the leading American Green New Dealers in 2019. The unfortunate corollary is now clear, just a few years later: all politics must also become disaster politics. In salvaging what we can, the crucial questions are now how this disruption is felt, for what purpose is it instigated, and whose interests are protected.

For Greens and the Left, working through this disorder means refusing to shirk this antagonism and this more divisive ecology. Established parties – both in power and opposition – can give considerable institutional cover to disruptive forces through both qualification and justification of their actions, attesting to the clear-eyed assessment of the desperate environmental and economic chaos they face, the inadequacy of alternative, more respectable tactics, and the ultimate reasonableness of their demands. If we had acted when people said we should act, if the system had changed when people said it should, we would not be where we are. Particular activities and targets can be condemned in the same breath; indeed, selectivity itself legitimises the principle of some kinds of deliberate disruption. As research cited by Malm and others has found, even a backlash against the protesters does not necessarily harm the cause; a radical flank recruits activists, “seeds” the agenda and makes other actors appear more reasonable. Those pitched carefully (targeting upstream infrastructure and luxury emissions, factoring in class and racial analysis, and making clear allowances for vulnerable groups) can, like some surprisingly popular labour strikes, cleave public opinion in politically productive ways.

Another avenue is to emphasise the “alternative hedonism” of more utopian iterations of the Green New Deal. New modes of living to counter and adapt to disruption do not require declinism; instead we might call it reclinism. More public luxury, better leisure, and of course less work: these can be the compensatory tenets of material degrowth. Given the role of consumption-as-agency in neoliberal culture, environmental policies that also liberate and democratise carry a potent appeal. Greens need neither hegemony nor a “historic bloc” to begin to make this case; local initiatives like Barcelona’s superilles restore intersections not as pretty enclaves but as genuinely social and public spaces. Our crisis follows the hollowing out of democratic institutions: it follows that distributed agency and empowerment are important corollaries of economic justice, something state-centred visions of the Green New Deals held as a weakness.

Finally, Greens should not overlook the role of civic voluntarism as a less intrusive path to behavioural change, without softening any critique of elites. As the pandemic illustrated, the sense of collective endeavour – while it could be maintained – allowed governments to rely on public adherence to constraints far beyond dominant libertarian expectations. Again, as Habeck is discovering in Germany, asking nicely is not without its political risks. But some expression of “limitarianism” will be critical to any eco-socialist programme, and under the right conditions it can privilege solidarity over enforcement.

“End of the world, end of the month” – two battles, once in opposition, are now converging. Powerful stories are yet to be told about what got us here, why we feel as we do, and how we find our way through the wreckage.

Footnotes

[1] Remarks made by the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in a speech delivered on 13 October 2022 to the European Diplomatic Academy in Bruges, Belgium.

United in Diversity? Confronting Europe’s Energy Divides

While energy is the common foundation of Europe’s economy, EU member states have strikingly different energy policies. In the context of compounding security, economic, and environmental crises, calls to surmount the tensions surrounding energy are increasing. We spoke to economist Helen Thompson about the fault lines exposed by the energy crisis, government responses to our present disorder, and prospects for greater European unity.

Green European Journal: In late summer 2022, French president Emmanuel Macron warned that we had reached “the end of abundance”. What do you make of this idea, specifically in relation to energy?

Helen Thompson: In some sense, Macron was engaging in truth-telling. We’re entering an age – or maybe we’ve been in one for a while – of relative energy scarcity, though I stress relative because this is not a straightforward issue. Economic conditions have got significantly more difficult and are unlikely to get much better in the foreseeable future. However, the phrase is also problematic because many people in Western countries haven’t been living in an age of abundance for some time. The underlying economic crisis around energy issues and the relationship between energy and financial and monetary issues that ultimately constrain growth have been experienced many people in Europe for years. That is why it is politically off-putting. Talking about an age of abundance totally neglects distributional issues.

Many believe that the energy crisis is solely a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But to what extent was an energy crunch already on the way?

The energy crisis pre-existed the war. Even if you see it as a short-term energy crisis as opposed to the longer-term story that I think it is, there were two watershed moments before the war. The first was the fall in oil production in 2019, the year before pandemic, leading to a not insignificant gap between global consumption and production. As soon as the post-pandemic economic recovery began in 2021, oil prices began to rise again quite sharply, and the Biden administration and European governments began to worry.

The second turning point came with the dramatic increase in China’s demand for gas imports during 2021. This was coupled with Gazprom’s apparent reluctance to make gas available in the spot markets for much of that year, preferring to limit itself to servicing long-term contracts with European countries. This led to structural competition over liquefied natural gas (LNG) between Asian and European countries, which paid much higher prices than the United States [a major LNG producer with only limited export capacity]. The effects of these developments in Europe were only dampened by the Omicron variant in late 2021. So we can see that the supply-side constraints at the heart of the energy crisis were on display well before the war broke out.

Energy costs are driving up the cost of living. Is this the first time European households and businesses have felt the impact of global competition for goods they could previously access relatively affordably?

In terms of the cost of living crisis, there is evidence of energy costs putting pressure on households from autumn 2021; it was only Omicron that eased the market. It also diverted attention elsewhere. Businesses grew more concerned about gas prices throughout the 2010s, particularly in energy-intensive industrial economies such as Germany. The stark divergence between European and American prices made German companies realise that they were carrying costs that the Americans were not.

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The energy crisis has prompted some retrograde steps for the green transition, including a return to coal. Some even argue the transition is partially responsible for the rising cost of living. How accurate is this?

That’s a complicated question. It’s not clear that there’s any strong, direct link between the use of solar and wind in generating electricity and the cost of living issue, beyond cases where, as in Germany, some of the costs of the energy transition are structurally put into energy bills. However, there is an interaction between the problems posed by wind intermittency in particular and the gas problem. Several European countries have had relatively poor wind levels for a while now. This creates demand for gas that is then very expensive, sometimes prohibitively so – particularly in northern European countries that rely more heavily on wind than solar. So the fallback position becomes coal. In that sense, the limitations of the energy transition, particularly around intermittency, have at least partly contributed to the struggles with gas and the return to coal. Despite the fact that we’re supposed to be in a transition away from coal, we’ve got historically high coal prices.

How is the current crisis exposing energy divides both between and within European countries?

There is substantial variety in the energy mixes of different European countries. This is having a major impact on how the current energy crisis is playing out. What has also come to the fore is the difference between the countries with nuclear power and those without. Nuclear was a source of tension within the EU during the discussions over the green taxonomy and is a clear dividing line between France and Germany.

The return to coal will make it more difficult to put pressure on Poland for its high coal use by European standards. What European countries, not least Germany, have shown since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine is that coal is the energy source of last resort. The divisions are structural in that they arise from the fact that, for a long time, there has not been a great deal of unity in the way in which EU members have pursued their energy policies.

In terms of within countries, there are differences in the willingness of some people to accept the consequences of the part of the energy crisis linked to the war. It is in Italy where these differences can be seen most clearly. Mario Draghi’s government collapsed because of a lack of support from the Five Star Movement, which criticised Draghi for prioritising the war over the cost of living crisis. Although the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia – now Italy’s largest party – is a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian war effort, this problem is not going to go away. We’re seeing similar tensions over the cost of living in the Czech Republic, where there have recently been major anti-government demonstrations. This fault line between the cost of living and the war is unfortunate because it’s not true that the energy crisis emerged because of the war. The war was just a tipping point for the energy crisis, not its cause. It has made it worse, certainly. But it was not the primary cause.

The questions of how the energy crisis is framed, what fiscal support is offered both to households and to businesses, how long that support should last, and what happens to it if the war ends but the energy crisis doesn’t are quite divisive. Energy is essentially a distributional issue. The richer you are, the more you consume, and the poorer you are, the less you consume. If we need to cut energy consumption, the question of who this falls to becomes a sharply political question.

The war was just a tipping point for the energy crisis, not its cause.

Many commentators have drawn comparisons between today’s energy crisis and that of the 1970s. To what extent was neoliberalism a fix for the West’s last major energy shock?

It’s not possible to understand the response to the problems of the 1970s – which goes under the name neoliberalism – without seeing it primarily as a response to the energy crisis. To the extent that it’s coherent to talk about neoliberalism, i.e. the elevation of market principles over state intervention, it’s primarily a narrative about the United States and Britain. During the 1970s, the US energy crisis was addressed by an incredibly interventionist federal state that was involved in deciding which states were going to get which energy sources and for what purpose. It also deployed price controls. The Reagan presidency dismantled that federal energy state. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Thatcher’s first government let North Sea oil production operate according to international market forces.

As to how the inflationary problems of the 1970s came to an end, this requires an energy answer as much as what might be described as a neoliberal monetary answer. In the early 1980s, the US Federal Reserve’s monetary policy created recessionary conditions – not just in the United States but across the world – that reset oil demand lower to allow time for new, more expensive production from the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico to come into play. When oil prices came down with new supply, so did inflation.

The 1980s was also a period of deindustrialisation in Europe. Can we tell a similar energy story about the rise of neoliberalism in today’s European Union?

The first thing to say is that West Germany stood back from this thing that gets called neoliberalism, and certain features of the West German economy remained different. Germany, unlike the United States and Britain, is not an oil or gas producer and has never been in the position to let international markets take care of the energy issue. Germany’s dependence on foreign oil and gas has been a major vulnerability, also in macroeconomic terms, since the age of oil began. This is why so much importance has been attached to its trade surplus since 1945. If you are a significant energy importer, you need to be able to pay for it. It also explains why Germany was faster than other European countries and the United States down the energy transition road. It wasn’t just the climate; it reflected Germany’s long-term energy predicament around reliance on oil and gas.

At the same time, it was the monetary problems the European Community countries faced in the aftermath of the breakdown of Bretton Woods and the energy shocks of the 1970s that led the European Community, minus Britain, to monetary union. Through the shocks of the 1970s, the West German currency was much stronger and had much more anti-inflationary credibility than any other European currency. This was the context that ultimately gave birth to the Eurozone. There’s almost always a story about the relationship between the energy side of things and the monetary side of things at any given time.

The Spanish and Portuguese governments moved to cap prices, while other countries have nationalised energy firms and infrastructure. Will the state need to take on a more active role in guaranteeing energy security in the years to come?

In countries with high foreign energy dependency, the state has never moved away from a deep concern with energy security. The steps that we took to resolve the energy crisis of the 1970s or even that of the mid-2000s cannot be repeated. You cannot let market forces bring on new supply. Offshore oil in the North Sea has already been extracted, and geopolitical developments have turned reliance on Russia into a dead end. Furthermore, the monetary environment after 2008 – with quantitative easing that made it possible for lots of capital to be poured into unprofitable investments in the US shale sector – is no longer there. Indeed, we’re trying to undo that monetary environment because of the inflation problem.

In this context, the only way left to deal with this problem is a state that will have to be much more interventionist, whether through taking direct control over the industry or through huge fiscal support. The question is: can you have a huge fiscal outlay when bond markets are getting jittery, central banks are tightening policy, and the dollar is strengthened against most currencies in the world? There is a serious question for European countries as to whether the scale of the borrowing required to support the energy side will precipitate a currency crisis.

While EU policies such as the Green Deal, the sanctions on Russia, and the single market all impact energy policy, there is no European energy policy as such. Do you think the EU will gain greater competence over this area?

There is no doubt that common energy problems incentivise European cooperation. Energy was central to the EU’s predecessors – the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. Generally, European countries have common energy problems. The era of divisions between energy importers and energy exporters such as the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom is not quite over, but it’s getting there – with the possible exception of Cyprus. The commonality of the energy problem as well as of climate change incentivises cooperation and integration.

On the other hand, there remain significant differences between EU countries. Europe’s geography complicates matters even further in terms of supply routes; it makes much more sense for France and Spain to look to Algeria than for the Baltics or Germany. And high-level energy consumption is no longer just a Western affair. To put it bluntly, Germany has filled up its gas tanks for the winter by making it extraordinarily difficult for Pakistan to buy any liquefied natural gas for most of the summer. The bottom line is that they simply couldn’t afford to pay the rates European countries were willing to pay. This has an impact on the potential for European unity because the relationships individual European countries have with the rest of Eurasia and Africa are not the same. Problems in northern Africa and the Middle East affect southern Europe differently than northern Europe. The incentives for unity are strong, but the actual specifics of finding common ground are considerably more difficult.

Common energy problems incentivise European cooperation.

You’ve argued that, even with accelerated renewables deployment and stopgap fossil fuels, we need to use less energy. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter was voted out of office for asking Americans to moderate their energy use. Why is calling for demand reduction so politically difficult in the West?

Carter is the politician who tried this the most systematically and dramatically – certainly in terms of the language he used in his [July 1979] “malaise” speech – and he was punished for it. If you look back to 1970s Europe, however, you see that people were prepared to accept reduced speed limits and car-free Sundays to reduce energy consumption.

Something changed in Europe between the 1970s and now. It is striking that, until the war came along, no politician was willing to make those kinds of arguments for climate change reasons, or to respond to the cost of living situation. War has changed the situation by increasing the risk of supplies simply being cut off, and it’s easier for people to understand that consumption is an issue.

What defies explanation is why, in the 1980s and 1990s, it became so much tougher for European and US politicians to talk honestly about the energy constraints we face. Perhaps European democracies had become unused to thinking about energy or sacrifice by this point. In the 1970s, in contrast, perhaps there was still enough of a memory of austerity and food rationing that the idea of energy rationing didn’t seem like such a shock. In Britain, for example, food rationing went on until well into the 1950s, and the energy crisis began in 1973. That’s only 20 years.

The war in Ukraine has pushed the energy transition to the fore. Should we attempt to marry our responses to the climate crisis and Europe’s security concerns?

Yes, there is a story that can be told in those terms. You can frame it around the need to change how we consume energy, both because it makes us dependent on countries like Russia and because we’re already living through a climate crisis. In this sense, there is pain to be endured to reach a future where the climate is less threatening and leaders like Putin are unable to use their countries’ energy superpower status to wield geopolitical influence. The hope is then that you can produce a lot of energy domestically under a low-carbon energy scenario.

The downside to this narrative is that it misses out on an important part of the picture around fossil fuel resource constraints. The kind of framing used by Emmanuel Macron and [former] UK prime minister Liz Truss – “we just need to endure this for the sake of Ukraine” – presumes that, if and when the war comes to an end, the energy crisis will go away. It won’t.

Moreover, a low-carbon future won’t change European countries’ foreign resource dependency become dependent on foreign. Europe will be dependent on metals from the rest of the world. The geopolitics of extraction and the relationship between the standards of living in the parts of the world that benefit the most from high energy consumption and the parts of the world where the resources are and will be extracted from is a significant political problem coming our way consumer and extraction countries.

Your latest book is entitled Disorder. Will this be the norm for the decades ahead? Or can the energy transition and the wider push for resilience in Europe genuinely deliver more security and stability in future?

Historically, disorder tends to be the norm; periods of relative order are usually just interludes. Parts of the 20th and early 21st centuries took us away from that reality. The energy transition itself – which if successful is much better described as an energy “revolution” – implies enormous upheaval. It effectively involves rebuilding the energy foundations of our material civilisation. There is no economic activity without the deployment of some kind of energy. You might say economic activity is the application of energy. We’re committed to doing something that is extraordinarily trans- formative, and so it is difficult to foresee any real stability for many decades to come.

I’m not somebody who believes that we’re on a path to a utopia where all the problems associated with fossil fuel energy are going to be eliminated definitively by another energy basis. Nor do I think it is all destined to end in utter catastrophe. Is there a path to something sufficiently transformative that also offers a more stable future – however distant? I think there could be. If you think historically, even very long periods of disorder come to an end eventually.

Bringing Europe Together Amid Crises

Against a background of heightening geopolitical instability and economic uncertainty, the path ahead for Europe looks far from smooth. Green MEP Ernest Urtasun and co-leader of Latvia’s Progresīvie Antoņina Ņenaševa discuss how Europe will need to make decisive choices. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a stark illustration of what is at stake. To ensure we choose the road that leads to a better quality of life, stronger democracy, and solidarity across borders, Green and progressive forces will have to provide both immediate solutions and a vision for a sustainable and just future.

Green European Journal: The world finds itself in a state of multiple crises from the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis to the economic downturn and the environmental disasters occurring around the world. In this “polycrisis”, it sometimes feels as if we are reduced to spectators rather than actors who can shape events. How can we seize this moment to achieve social and political change?

Ernest Urtasun: We are indeed in a moment of huge change that creates many uncertainties. It is important to be able to convince citizens that we can shape this moment and move towards a progressive agenda. This task can only be achieved at the European level. There are two areas in particular where Europe needs to show leadership and deliver. First, the world is entering a very dangerous era, in which the rules-based order created at the end of the Second World War is at stake. The United Nations is extremely weakened and the long-term consequence of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be to challenge that rules-based order even further. At the same time, authoritarian regimes everywhere are growing stronger – this is seen most clearly in a strong China and an extremely aggressive Russia. The rules-based order needs to be protected more than ever. The second area where we need to deliver is climate action. Climate change is a source of massive uncertainty for many citizens and Europe needs to respond quickly, coherently, and efficiently.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: Focusing on multiple problems simultaneously is not easy. We are human beings and multitasking is not our most natural condition. We are much more comfortable pinpointing one problem and dealing with it. Over the past 20 years, the increased flow of information has also contributed to a sense of global interdependency. So we now feel that a crisis somewhere else in the world is also our crisis. That is why there is this feeling of uncertainty that affects politics as well as everyone as individuals. What can we do in this situation? I think that we need a clear agenda for the short-term centred on responding to the needs of citizens through income support and global coordination to avoid a generalised crisis. Whereas in the long term, governments need to come up with viable strategies that can tackle our interconnected problems. The Greens are well positioned here because the movement has always connected the fight for the climate to social justice and the struggle for human rights worldwide.

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The rising cost of living is forcing many people into poverty and squeezing the household budgets of much of the middle class. What political risks are coming down the line from declining living standards?

Antoņina Ņenaševa: Inflation is now above 20 per cent in Latvia. For some products, prices have risen by 50 per cent or more. It is a huge increase and it’s very visible: you see and feel it every day in the grocery store. People are feeling the effects and the crisis is very worrying, even if energy prices have not stayed as high as they were and the alarmist political forces who said that Europe was not going to survive the winter appear to be mistaken.

To address the cost of living crisis, global and European coordination is essential. First, countries need to provide relief to low- and medium-income households because for many this crisis is a question of survival. In the long term, Latvia like all European countries needs to be investing in renewables and renovation. The poor condition of our building stock is a huge problem for us as a post-Communist country with many badly insulated apartments and harsh weather conditions. Without renovation, all our energy is essentially spent on heating the streets. The same goes for our public transport system; this crisis is showing why an environmentally sustainable public transit system is both a short-term and a long-term priority. But to maintain the public investment that we need while avoiding currency difficulties, we need that global cooperation.

Ernest Urtasun: Inflation is a phenomenon that throughout history leads to the defeat of governments. It could yet have a terrible impact on our political systems. If you look at the elections since inflation became a problem in Europe, every time a country goes to the polls, the sitting government loses. That is why we need the European Union to develop what I would call a “social shield” that can protect the most vulnerable in society.

In general, we are in the middle of an economic shift. This crisis, along with the two previous ones – in 2008 and the pandemic – have made it clear that leaving everything in the hands of the free market was a bad idea. After years of failed neoliberal policies, the only way to keep our welfare systems functioning and protect our democracies is by massively reinforcing public services and social protections while making sure that the costs of inflation are fairly distributed. The Greens in the European Parliament are calling for windfall taxes on the corporations that have profited in the past year, banning evictions to protect those most in need, and guaranteeing that basic goods on shelves remain affordable. The European Union has taken some positive steps, the windfall tax on energy firms for example, but the progress is very slow on reforming the electricity market, which is the root of Europe’s current problems, as some European governments are dragging their feet.

Our environmental programme is a solution for many of our great societal ills.

Antoņina Ņenaševa

Antoņina Ņenaševa: I agree with what has been said about the political implications of inflation. In the Latvian elections in October, the consequences were clear: two-thirds of the seats went to MPs who had never been elected before and four out of the seven parties in Parliament are new. While part of this development is positive, as the progressive green vision is now finally represented in Parliament, we have also seen the comeback of oligarchs and their shady businesses, as well as wins for other radicals

In Latvia, it feels as if the 1990s are back – which is no good thing. Of course, Latvia gained its independence and built its democracy in the ’90s, but they were also years with many dark sides: a growing shadow economy and powerful players bending the rules. I would like to say that Green and social democratic parties can make progress at the current moment but the political reality is that it is radical and populist forces who benefit most. For the rule of law, it is a major concern.

How can Greens become the political force to whom struggling citizens turn in a moment of crisis?

Ernest Urtasun: I think that we can be the force that provides certainty and optimism to the people if we continue to offer a social and political project for the majority. If we look at recent elections in Italy and Sweden, the main problem was that progressive forces were not capable of offering an attractive societal project. This failure creates space for the far right to step with their societal project. The far right wins by looking to the past and exploiting a sense of nostalgia that can contrast with the uncertainties of the future. This explains Brexit. It explains Trump. And I think it explains Meloni as well. For the Greens, this challenge means looking to the future with optimism, continuing to be ambitious in terms of fighting climate change while strengthening the narrative on social justice.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: The most basic step is talking about the problems and not pretending everything is fine. Many citizens still believe that Green parties are about waste management and nature conservation, so we still have to work on the right narrative that can connect these dots. A crucial and challenging task is also to explain that green solutions are not expensive solutions; that the environmental approach is way cheaper in the long run and will benefit people much more than the status quo.

With the war in Ukraine and the increased focus on our dependence on Russian gas, it should be possible to explain why independence from fossil fuels is crucial for many reasons: to foster social justice, to fight climate change, and to protect human rights. We also need to highlight the need for real energy independence – switching from one dependence to another should not be an option. Not even if it means switching from Russian dependence to American. In the longer term, we need public ownership over strategic sectors such as energy.

Some politicians are reluctant to turn to European solutions because there remains a perceived distance between European countries. The war in Ukraine might feel distant to some; others might think that economic troubles in a different country are not their concern. How can Greens build solidarity across European borders?

Ernest Urtasun: I think it requires a political and cultural change, in the sense that we Europeans need to understand that youth unemployment in Greece is as much a Baltic problem as the threats to the Baltic borders are a Spanish problem. This is the culture that we need to build. And we have progressed on that front: I truly believe that the security concerns that the Baltic countries express are everyone’s concerns at the EU level.

The best way of building a common sense of what one could call the European interest is to constantly try to bring European solutions to different sets of problems. The good news here is that, compared to the Eurozone crisis, the geographical divisions today are much less significant. Previously, some member states were massively affected by the sovereign debt crisis, while others were not. Today, all of Europe faces the problems of a badly designed electricity market, energy shocks, and an unfair tax system. Nevertheless, even though this is not an asymmetric shock, there is still the risk of member states thinking they can play it solo.

Today, there is a major risk of a backlash against the European Green Deal.

Ernest Urtasun

Antoņina Ņenaševa: The war is a huge event that is relevant for all of Europe. For me, this issue is of course very emotional. The war is very close geographically speaking. I have refugees from Ukraine in my home. I have friends and family members who are affected. At the same time, we need to be clear that it is not a unique phenomenon. Europe is facing different kinds of global crises each year, so we will need greater cooperation, strong interdependence with joint policies, and shared responsibilities.

Latvia and the Baltic states have taken on a strong leadership role when it comes to supporting Ukraine. We have emerged as strong geopolitical players that are confronting the vulnerabilities highlighted by Russia’s aggression. What the Baltics have achieved on a regional level is also possible on a pan-European level. After all, preventing war on the European continent and minimising Europe’s vulnerability in the face of global interdependencies are the reasons why the European Union exists.

Many economists are worried that a European and possibly a global recession could be on the way. The European Central Bank and central banks around the world have raised interest rates. Have we learnt the lessons of the previous crisis or do we risk a return to austerity?

Ernest Urtasun: I do not see that risk in the short term. There is a cultural change in economic thought that is weakening the influence of neoliberal ideas in Brussels, the member states, and generally on the international level. The European Union has learned its lesson about austerity. After almost blowing up our common currency, I do not see an immediate return to that idea. But the political battle over the reform of the EU’s fiscal rules has begun and it will have extremely important consequences for the economic policy mix that the members can develop. If the current rules were to be reapplied in 2024, we would indeed enter a new round of austerity everywhere in Europe. However, I do not expect that to happen and I think there will continue to be public support for our economy. At the same time, the decisions of central banks to raise interest rates will make life very difficult for many households and families.

After 2008, the Greens put forward the narrative of the Green New Deal. Ten years on, we can see the influence of that vision. It shaped both the European Green Deal and the Biden agenda even if its social aspects were much diluted. Is there a similarly transformative vision that can answer our current crisis?

Ernest Urtasun: Our Green Deal remains a valid narrative for the coming years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Green Deal always had two legs: the ecological transition of our economy and decarbonisation and a strong social reform of our economy and our welfare systems. After all, there will not be any transition if we do not manage to secure social cohesion. Today, there is a major risk of a backlash against the European Green Deal. At the European level, the European People’s Party is doing its best to water down legislation linked to the Green Deal. Our role as Greens is to argue for both of these aspects, decarbonisation and the construction of a fair society. The Greens will be there to push the European institutions to keep their ambition.

Antoņina Ņenaševa: I agree, we have to reform and strengthen social protection and act as leaders on questions of inequality, combining this with our climate policies and the central place of human rights in our political narrative. This point leads me back to the notion of connecting our key topics, as the problems we face are increasingly interconnected. Climate change is creating ever greater inequalities. Fossil fuel extraction drives many human rights violations. Ukraine’s loss would be a loss for all of Europe. In these ways, our environmental programme is a solution for many of our great societal ills. We need to make this clear to the people with a vision both locally and at the European level. The Russian invasion is so vivid that we have to keep emphasising it in our narratives and explain what a non-democratic, fossil-driven system of governance and society leads to.

La nouvelle réalité de l’Europe : Les dépenses de défense après l’invasion

Alors que la Russie tente de redessiner les frontières de l’Ukraine par la force, les dépenses de défense augmentent en Europe. Pendant des décennies, les gouvernements européens ont été heureux de profiter des “dividendes de la paix” et de prétendre que les conflits appartenaient, en Europe du moins, au passé. Quelle est l’économie politique des nouvelles dépenses militaires de l’Europe ? Où ira l’argent ? Qu’est-ce que cela signifie pour la coopération européenne en matière de défense ?

Green European Journal : Dans les jours qui ont suivi l’invasion russe, l’Allemagne a annoncé une augmentation de 100 milliards d’euros des nouvelles dépenses de défense. On en a parlé comme d’un tournant. Quelle est l’importance de ce changement ?

Alexandra Marksteiner : C’est un changement assez important. S’il est vrai que les dépenses militaires de l’Allemagne ont augmenté progressivement pendant un certain temps depuis l’annexion de la Crimée en 2014, une augmentation de cette ampleur aurait été inimaginable avant l’invasion russe en Ukraine. Cette décision a pris beaucoup d’entre nous par surprise et montre à quel point la politique étrangère et de sécurité de l’Allemagne connaît actuellement un changement sismique, même si cela ne semble pas toujours être le cas vu de l’extérieur.

L’opinion publique s’est massivement prononcée en faveur des exportations d’armes vers les zones de guerre et soutient l’augmentation massive des dépenses militaires. Ce fonds spécial a été pensé, créé, proposé et maintenant adopté par la législature en seulement trois mois. C’est incroyablement rapide pour l’élaboration d’une politique allemande. Alors qu’une grande partie de l’Europe est encore quelque peu frustrée par l’ambition et la rapidité de la politique étrangère et de sécurité allemande, c’est un changement énorme.

Avons-nous vu des décisions similaires dans d’autres pays européens en réaction à la guerre ?

Absolument. Entre février et mars, il y a eu une avalanche d’annonces de chefs d’État européens promettant d’augmenter les dépenses de défense. La Suède veut allouer 2 % de son PIB à la défense dans les années à venir. La Pologne va plus loin et veut dépenser 3 % de son PIB à partir de 2023. Les Pays-Bas prévoient un budget supplémentaire de 5 milliards d’euros pour atteindre l’objectif de 2 % du PIB fixé par l’OTAN. Des annonces similaires ont été faites en Autriche, en Belgique, au Danemark, en Estonie, en Norvège, en Roumanie et en Espagne. Cela concerne l’ensemble du continent européen et c’est un signe des temps. La perception européenne de la menace a considérablement augmenté.

Comment l’argent sera-t-il dépensé ? Y a-t-il des tendances entre les pays ?

C’est difficile à dire car la plupart des pays n’ont pas encore concrétisé leurs plans. Parmi les pays qui ont donné un aperçu, l’accent semble être mis sur les achats plutôt que sur les dépenses de personnel et de maintenance. De nombreux pays se concentrent sur les lacunes en matière de cybernétique, de défense aérienne et d’avions de combat. L’Estonie, par exemple, souhaite désormais acheter 40 systèmes de défense aérienne à moyenne portée et l’Allemagne a annoncé qu’elle voulait acheter des avions de combat F-35. Une grande partie est concentrée sur le domaine aérien. Les autres lacunes qui ont été identifiées sont les stocks de munitions. Le ministère allemand de la défense a réalisé que le coût du simple réapprovisionnement des stocks de munitions s’élèverait à 20 milliards d’euros.

Quelles industries et entreprises bénéficieront le plus de ces dépenses et qui sont les principaux acteurs ?

L’industrie européenne de la défense était en pleine croissance avant l’invasion russe en Ukraine. Reste à savoir si elle sera le principal bénéficiaire de ces augmentations de dépenses militaires. Cela dépend des plans d’achat exacts et des entreprises qui obtiendront des contrats. Cela apparaîtra plus clairement dans les mois et les années à venir.

Jusqu’à présent, les investisseurs boursiers ont parié sur les entreprises de défense traditionnelles telles que Rheinmetall en Allemagne, BAE Systems au Royaume-Uni, Lockheed-Martin et Raytheon aux États-Unis, et Leonardo en Italie. Ce sont des entreprises qui se concentrent spécifiquement sur les armes. Les entreprises dont le portefeuille est plus diversifié, comme Boeing et Airbus, n’ont pas profité de cette hausse des cours des actions.

Ces deux dernières années, nous avons également assisté dans le secteur de l’armement à la montée en puissance des entreprises de logiciels et de technologies de l’information qui fournissent des solutions numériques à de nombreux ministères de la défense. Ce secteur va continuer à se développer parallèlement aux entreprises de défense traditionnelles.

Existe-t-il une relation entre les dépenses de défense et les exportations d’armes ? Les grandes puissances militaires européennes, comme la France et le Royaume-Uni, vendent également beaucoup d’armes dans le monde. Existe-t-il une dépendance entre les deux ?

C’est compliqué. Dans la plupart des pays, la demande intérieure d’équipements militaires n’est pas suffisamment importante pour soutenir une industrie nationale de l’armement financièrement viable. Les exceptions évidentes sont les États-Unis et la Chine, les deux plus grands dépensiers militaires du monde. Lorsque c’est le cas, les entreprises se tournent vers les exportations pour réaliser des économies d’échelle et récupérer leurs coûts de développement et de fabrication. C’est également la raison pour laquelle le gouvernement américain a un tel intérêt à vendre l’avion F-35 à l’étranger.

L’industrie russe de l’armement a également reçu l’ordre du Kremlin de diversifier ses portefeuilles d’actions, ce qui signifie qu’elle devrait donner la priorité aux ventes civiles au cours des deux prochaines années. La Russie a investi massivement dans le renforcement de ses capacités militaires dans les années 2010 et le Kremlin, conscient qu’une autre campagne de modernisation pourrait être nécessaire dans les deux prochaines décennies, cherche à maintenir l’industrie de l’armement russe en vie jusque-là.

Chaque euro dépensé pour la défense est un euro qui n’est pas dépensé pour d’autres programmes gouvernementaux.

Quelle est la relation entre les dépenses de défense et les autres domaines de dépenses publiques ? Est-il légitime de craindre que si les pays européens investissent davantage dans les systèmes d’armes, il y aura moins d’argent pour les hôpitaux, les logements sociaux et les énergies renouvelables ?

Cela dépend de la manière dont les augmentations des dépenses militaires sont financées. Les pays ont généralement trois options. Soit ils augmentent les impôts, soit ils contractent des emprunts, soit ils doivent réduire d’autres types de dépenses pour injecter des fonds dans la défense. La plupart des pays européens ont une bonne cote de crédit et peuvent lever des fonds assez facilement sur le marché. Ils ne seront donc pas contraints d’augmenter les impôts ou de réduire les fonds alloués à d’autres programmes publics tels que la santé, l’éducation et le logement.

Cela dit, chaque euro dépensé pour la défense est un euro qui n’est pas consacré à d’autres programmes publics. Même si les gouvernements contractent des emprunts pour contourner la nécessité de faire des coupes ailleurs, ces emprunts auraient également pu être utilisés pour d’autres programmes publics autres que la défense. L’argent doit bien venir de quelque part. Même si vous ne constatez pas d’effet d’éviction direct dans l’immédiat, l’augmentation des dépenses militaires peut entraîner des réductions dans d’autres domaines à long terme.

Nous entendons souvent parler de l’idée que les pays européens dépensent beaucoup d’argent pour la défense, mais qu’ils le dépensent de manière inefficace en le répartissant entre de nombreuses armées relativement petites. Quel est votre point de vue sur ce point ?

L’interopérabilité entre les armées sera toujours un problème au sein d’une alliance. L’OTAN compte 30 membres et leur capacité à fonctionner de manière cohérente détermine si les capacités globales de l’alliance sont inférieures, égales ou supérieures à la somme de ses parties. C’est ce que nous appelons le calcul du combat en coalition.

Ce que l’on oublie souvent, c’est le protectionnisme. Les gouvernements donnent la priorité à leur industrie nationale de l’armement au lieu de cultiver des champions européens, c’est-à-dire de plus grandes entreprises européennes qui pourraient être en mesure de fournir des systèmes plus efficaces à un coût moindre. Si l’Europe dispose d’un si grand nombre de types de chars, d’avions, de navires et de systèmes de défense antimissile différents, c’est parce que chacun achète des systèmes à sa propre entreprise et que les pays apportent des retouches différentes aux différents modèles. On se retrouve avec une pléthore de systèmes différents qui ne fonctionnent pas toujours bien ensemble.

Les décisions prises au niveau de l’UE, comme le Fonds européen de défense, peuvent permettre de produire des systèmes plus efficaces à un coût moindre. L’européanisation de l’industrie de l’armement est bien sûr extrêmement difficile, car les gouvernements ont intérêt à s’assurer que leur industrie nationale de l’armement est prise en charge et que les emplois restent dans leur pays et ne partent pas à l’étranger. Mais les initiatives de l’UE peuvent être bénéfiques pour le portefeuille européen, car elles minimisent les doublons et mutualisent les coûts des programmes de recherche et développement coûteux.

L’augmentation des dépenses militaires fait proliférer les armes dans le monde et elle comporte de nombreux risques.

Après la présidence de Trump et le retrait bâclé des troupes américaines d’Afghanistan, sans parler des tensions avec la Turquie, il semblait que l’OTAN était de moins en moins pertinente en Europe. Après l’invasion russe, l’OTAN est de retour et la Finlande et la Suède rejoignent l’alliance. Comment voyez-vous l’avenir de la défense européenne entre l’OTAN et l’Union européenne ?

Une raison essentielle pour laquelle les pays européens se tournent à nouveau vers l’OTAN est qu’il y a un transatlantiste passionné à la Maison Blanche. À mon avis, l’Europe a beaucoup de chance d’avoir Biden à la Maison Blanche en ce moment. L’Europe sait qu’avec l’administration Biden, elle peut compter sur le parapluie de défense américain. Mais cela peut changer. Vous ne savez pas qui sera élu à la Maison Blanche fin 2024.

L’OTAN a commencé comme une alliance de défense territoriale visant à empêcher l’Union soviétique d’entrer en Europe. Après l’effondrement de l’Union soviétique, l’OTAN a connu une crise existentielle. Sans son vieil adversaire sous la même forme, quel était le but de l’OTAN ? Nous avons commencé à voir des opérations hors zone : l’intervention en Yougoslavie, en Afghanistan, puis en Libye. L’OTAN essayait de se donner une raison d’être dans le monde. Avec l’annexion de la Crimée en 2014 et maintenant l’invasion à grande échelle de l’Ukraine, la Russie est à nouveau la principale préoccupation pour la sécurité européenne. L’OTAN a maintenant pu revenir à ses racines et la crise existentielle a été résolue.

Toutefois, la mesure dans laquelle l’UE elle-même s’est intensifiée depuis l’invasion nuance ce constat. Même pendant les années Trump, avec tous les discours sur l’autonomie stratégique et l’éloignement de l’OTAN, l’UE a toujours été un acteur réticent en matière de politique étrangère et de sécurité. Dans cette crise cependant, l’UE a été forcée de montrer sa force. Après trois mois et demi de guerre, l’UE s’engage à fournir une aide de 2 milliards d’euros à l’Ukraine. C’est la première fois que l’UE autorise elle-même la livraison d’armes à un tiers et elle est en pourparlers pour trouver d’autres moyens de compléter l’OTAN en matière de sécurité.

Peu de gens savaient que la clause de défense mutuelle existait dans le traité de Lisbonne. Aujourd’hui, les gens en parlent et le Danemark a renoncé à sa politique d’opt-out en matière de défense. Si l’OTAN a fait son retour et restera le principal acteur de la politique européenne de défense et de sécurité au cours des deux prochaines années, le cadre européen au sein de l’OTAN impliquera également l’UE dans une mesure plus importante que jamais.

Y a-t-il des tensions entre les deux ? Par exemple, une industrie de défense européenne va à l’encontre des intérêts de l’industrie de défense américaine.

Cela dépend de qui vous demandez dans la sphère politique américaine. Le gouvernement américain a intérêt à promouvoir ses entreprises d’armement à l’étranger. Parler d’une industrie européenne de l’armement déplaît donc à bon nombre de personnes à Washington. Mais de nombreuses voix américaines ont toujours appelé l’Europe à prendre ses responsabilités en matière de sécurité et de défense. Je pense qu’ils savent que l’européanisation de la défense et de la sécurité est la voie à suivre.

Nous avons beaucoup moins entendu parler d’autonomie stratégique depuis l’invasion et l’Europe est très reconnaissante que l’OTAN et les États-Unis soient toujours là. Il s’agit maintenant de maintenir de bonnes relations et de s’assurer que les citoyens Américains comprennent que l’OTAN est une bonne chose. L’Europe a intérêt à maintenir l’alliance, même si certains membres, comme la Hongrie et la Turquie, sont difficiles à gérer.

Au-delà de l’Europe, les dépenses de défense augmentent-elles aussi ailleurs dans le monde ? Existe-t-il des mécanismes mondiaux dans lesquels on peut investir pour endiguer le risque de voir la militarisation dégénérer en guerre et en conflit ?

Cette tendance est absolument mondiale. Les données du SIPRI sont claires : ces dernières années, les dépenses militaires à l’échelle mondiale ont augmenté. Les États-Unis, la Chine, la Russie et l’Inde sont en tête des gros dépensiers, et de nombreux pays de niveau intermédiaire augmentent également leurs budgets militaires. Cette tendance précède l’invasion de février et constitue une préoccupation majeure.

L’augmentation des dépenses militaires entraîne la prolifération des armes dans le monde et comporte de nombreux risques. Les systèmes d’armement et les armes tombent dans de mauvaises mains. La course aux armements risque de s’intensifier et de dégénérer. Le risque d’erreur de calcul et de conséquences involontaires est plus élevé. Si l’on en vient à la guerre, plus il y a d’armes, plus les dommages potentiels sont élevés.

Le revers de la médaille est la logique de la dissuasion, à laquelle de nombreux pays européens s’accrochent actuellement. L’idée est que plus il y a d’armes, moins l’adversaire sera enclin à attaquer. La dissuasion pose de nombreux problèmes, principalement parce qu’on ne peut jamais savoir ce que pense l’adversaire. Mais les capitales européennes font le pari qu’en s’assurant qu’elles peuvent repousser une attaque russe, c’est le meilleur moyen d’empêcher qu’elle ne se produise.

J’aimerais avoir une réponse sur les institutions et les mécanismes qui peuvent minimiser le risque de guerre et de conflit. La transparence est un élément essentiel des mesures militaires de renforcement de la confiance. Lorsque les pays sont ouverts sur leurs investissements et leurs plans de défense, le risque de malentendus et d’erreurs de calcul diminue. C’est ce que le SIPRI s’efforce de faire et les Nations unies et l’OCDE brillent également dans ce domaine. En dehors de cela, le dialogue n’est jamais mauvais, mais je ne suis pas sûr qu’il puisse toujours nous ramener du bord du précipice. D’une manière générale, les perspectives sont assez pessimistes en ce moment.

A History of Struggle: Environmental Protests in Poland

In The Chernobyl Effect (Berghahn Books, 2022) Kacper Szulecki explores the legacy of the nuclear disaster on the country’s politics and the trajectory of the environmental movement. He explains how this movement, whose ideas initially struggled to gain traction even among the political opposition and whose methods faced severe repression in the post-communist era, survived and developed to become an increasingly influential force in Polish society and politics.

Green European Journal: Can you describe the environmental movement in Poland in the 1980s?

Kacper Szulecki: In the 1980s, what we would later call the environmental movement in Poland consisted of three separate groupings. One was the expert group of ecologists, biologists, and botanists. These experts often had engineering masters or doctoral degrees and they were most aware of the increasingly poor state of the natural environment and the specific local or regional issues. The Solidarity trade union emerged in 1980-81 and its environmental offshoot was the Polish Ecological Club. Akin to what we would describe as an advocacy organisation today, these experts would write letters to the authorities and understood their role as raising awareness of local issues.

Second, there were the state-controlled and state-initiated environmental groups with longer histories. Contrary to the country’s reputation today as a coal advocate in the EU, Poland has a long environmental and conservation history. In the 1920s, for example, the League for the Protection of Nature was established, which remained in operation after the Second World War, along with a youth wing. These official organisations had millions of members and organised activities that sometimes blurred the lines between civil society and government structures.

In the 1980s, a third protest group that would take up the environmental cause emerged: non-state-sanctioned, independent dissent groups. There is an anecdote in my book that illustrates this new strand of environmentalism and the wider opposition. Two young activists, from what would later become the Freedom & Peace movement, approached Jacek Kuroń who was a major figure in the dissident movement since the 1960s. They told him they would like to deal with environmental issues only for him to respond: “What are you going to protect? Lab mice?” For the older dissidents, the thinking at the time saw high politics, communism, and freedom as the political priorities, not clean rivers, or anything like that.

In your book, you describe the early Polish environmental movement as “grey ecology” because it was more concerned with environmental problems that impacted people, or what could also be described as environmental justice. What environmental issues sparked protests at the time?

The movement was preoccupied with things like water and air quality – things that affected people directly. I remember reading samizdat – the unofficial publications published outside of censorship [in the Soviet Union] – which noted that “environment” is a word that implies the presence of a human being within their surroundings. It’s very anthropocentric. There were groups that saw the intrinsic value of nature but that kind of deep ecology was marginal.

Heavy industry in the 1970s and ’90s had left the environment in central and eastern Europe in a dire state. Western and southern Poland, which bordered Czechoslovakia and eastern Germany, were pollution hotspots because of the way the winds converged there. From the 1970s, it became apparent that whole patches of forests were dying. If you visited the mountains as a tourist, you would see a dead forest. But protests only really began in the 1980s, after the acid rain from the pollution started causing visible damage to things like air quality, soil quality, and national monuments.

The Chernobyl effect is the politicisation of different causes and groups.

Do you think socialism and its particular relationship to nature played a role in the environmental degradation of that era?

For sure. Communism is a “high modernist ideology” in the words of James Scott and it treats nature as a resource for economic development. That was not something unusual – this is also how the capitalist West developed – but perhaps there was a corrective already in the 1970s through the environmental movement. Exactly the same processes took place in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary and also in Yugoslavia.

Your book is called The Chernobyl Effect. What effect did the Chernobyl disaster and the response to it have on the environmental movement in Poland?

It was not so much the radiation from Chernobyl that was the problem but how the authorities handled the plant, the catastrophe, and its aftermath. People felt that something was happening above their heads and they had no control. There was a slogan at the time: “They knew but never told us.” The natural reflex was to try to regain that control. It drove people to seek changes in the governance of how nuclear energy and environmental issues first, but then the entire country. In this sense, the Chernobyl effect is the politicisation of different causes and groups. The seemingly non-political issue of energy governance spreads to other areas and becomes a catalyst for very different protests and groups.

I wouldn’t say communism fell because of Chernobyl but the disaster created an environmental platform for protest. This platform united the opposition but also party elites, the authorities, and even the police under a seemingly apolitical banner, which had the advantage of shielding protestors from prosecution and backlash. We must also remember that was the time of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union. Glasnost is about transparency, so the Polish regime was also reacting to public distrust by opening up and being a little more receptive to grassroots organising.

If the wider opposition were quite dismissive of environmental issues initially, did Chernobyl make them more receptive? And did they use the disaster to rally against the regime?

To some extent, but the Solidarity movement was in decline in the late 1980s as it had operated underground for years after being outlawed, and people were generally exhausted by trade union issues. The environmental movement grew to fill the gap left by the Solidarity movement. There was a certain overlap with some activists operating in both structures and there was also a sense of unity within the opposition that came from having a common enemy in the Communist Party.

The environmental movement grew to fill the gap left by the Solidarity movement.

Soon after Chernobyl, there were plans for the construction of nuclear power plants in Poland for the first time. 

The idea of a nuclear power plant in Poland dates back to the 1950s but nothing really came of it, mostly because the large volume of domestic sources of coal made other sources of energy economically uncompetitive. However, there were experts within the Communist Party who lobbied to secure the construction of nuclear power plants.

The first permit was signed in 1982, soon after the backlash against Solidarity, but people didn’t care about it. However, after the Chernobyl meltdown, people realised that nuclear reactors built with Soviet technology in Poland could experience the same problem. The most advanced of those construction sites was Żarnowiec in the north, very close to Gdańsk, the birthplace of Solidarity. Two other plants were planned but never constructed. Żarnowiec was stopped only at the very last moment due to opposition. A few months later and a few steps further in the construction and it would have been too late to stop that project.

To what extent was the environmental movement in Poland part of a wider transnational dynamic?

The democratic opposition as they called themselves – those organisations in Poland that dissented against communist rule – were transnational from the start. Since the 1960s, they had looked for ways to communicate their grievances to international audiences because transnational allies were a source of empowerment. Initially they spoke the language of reforming communism and allied with the radical left in western Europe. When the opposition began to speak the language of human rights from the 1970s on, they found organisations like the Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International as natural allies.

From the 1980s, the new generation of activists, mainly born in the 1960s or late 1950s, formed the more radical dissident groups and spoke the same language as western European Greens. In the book, we give examples of the Swedish and Austrian Greens, Greenpeace, and all the different Western groups that found partners and points of connection in eastern Europe; people with whom they had a natural affinity.

Since this shift was happening across the region, the opposition also engaged in dialogue across the Eastern Bloc. There were examples of collaboration, especially between Poland and Czechoslovakia: there were joint and solidarity protest actions about the mountains in the south and against Temelín, a nuclear power plant in then-Czechoslovakia. There was also a Slovak-Hungarian alliance against a hydroelectric plant and dam. Overall, though, it was easier to maintain contacts with Western groups than with those in the Eastern Bloc.

You argue that the democratic transition in Poland was not inevitable. Poland in the very late years of communism was a military dictatorship. How much weight would you give environmental protests in the end of communism? Did it renew a tired opposition? Did it give communism a final push?

This is a really difficult question. The alternative scenario for Poland would be something resembling China – a regime that would remain authoritarian but probably introduce elements of capitalism which would later grow. That’s exactly what happened in Poland in 1988. A year before the negotiated transition, the government introduced a market reform package. In a sense, if the communists had been determined to hold onto power, they would probably have succeeded.

The environmental movement was as an element of a broader youth dissent that brought a more radical impulse to the opposition. They had no interest in reforming socialism. The Communist Party vilified them. From the perspective of the modernisers in the Communist Party, it was easier to talk to the older Solidarity dissidents, who were interested in negotiating some sort of solution, than with those strange, radical ecologists, punks, and peaceniks.

In truth, the environmental movement was not radical. Some voices were radical in the sense that they often emphasised participation and more direct forms of rule, but they were not anti-communist as such. However, this radical opposition contributed to a negotiated transition in pushing the established opposition and the Communist Party closer together. It is a dynamic that we can also observe elsewhere in the region, as well as in Spain and Portugal when they were going through democratisation.

Is there something about ecological issues that crystalised the non-democratic nature of communism?

Ecological issues are unique because they operate on different scales; from the very local to the regional, national, and global levels. This means that it’s very difficult to respond to them if you have a very rigid and hierarchical structure of governance like the Communist Party in Poland but also in China today. It’s all about the responsiveness of the regime and I think that environmental issues expose inflexibility very well. Environmental issues have prompted China to make many reforms to its local governance systems. It’s much easier now to petition the lower levels of the Communist Party of China to do something about particular issues, without getting arrested.

In the Polish case, environmental issues quickly exposed hypocrisy, inefficiency, and other deficiencies in governance.

In the Polish case, environmental issues quickly exposed hypocrisy, inefficiency, and other deficiencies in governance that would not be so visible otherwise. This is also a result of environmental issues being concrete and material. Talking about high ideals such as freedom and democracy is not always easy. But if you explain specific cases like: “this river is polluted because of this parkland, which is polluted because somebody paid somebody but then it was covered up and the media can’t discuss it because of censorship”, people understand. It can create a vicious circle for authoritarian governments, as it did for those of communist eastern European.

What has the environmental movement brought to the practice of democracy in Poland?

I think that in the second half of the 1980s the Polish environmental movement helped expand the portfolio of political actions and practices. During the transition, the liberal, post-Solidarity elite decided that all forms of protest were dangerous because there were so many people who had grievances that if you allowed anyone to openly protest this would derail the entire transition. So for a good part of the 1990s, street protests and all forms of open dissent were delegitimised. However, the environmental movement kept the tactics alive. They didn’t have much of a following but they remained in the background. And then in the 2000s, this smoldering environmental protest movement converged with the liberal mainstream when the right-populist government pushed for the construction of a highway cutting through the precious Rospuda river valley.

And then, protest and civil disobedience were suddenly virtuous again. By keeping the protest tradition going, the environmental movement inspired Polish people to defend the environment and their rights.

Today, people see demonstrations as something which is a civic duty that everyone should participate in. I take my kids to protests regularly when I’m in Poland because there are so many protests now. To the extent that – unlike the 1990s – nowadays you have to choose which demonstration you’re going to take part in.

What role do you see ecological movements playing in opposition to the current right-wing government in Poland?

With demonstrations on environmental, climate, and political issues, a new generation of activists are joining the movement. As in communist times, environmental issues are forming the basis of anti-governmental movement. Whereas at first issues such as smog and the logging of the Białowieża forest were the largest issues, the movement has also been successful at putting climate issues on the political agenda. In the last elections in 2019, all political parties were expected to have a strong opinion on climate and environmental problems. You see different takes on it from centre, left, and right but now there are even calls to create a right-wing green politics in Poland because it’s such an important issue.

Overall, the environmental movement has shaped a progressive force to be reckoned with.

Many parties, not just the Greens, are adopting green agendas. You have political parties that now have a stronger green portfolio which do not necessarily have a women’s rights agenda because of their conservative roots; it’s just so mixed. It’s very difficult to say but, on the whole, there is a progressive left-of-centre political unification programme which contains green, feminist, LGBT and general rule of law plus human rights issues. It’s a basic platform on which everyone can agree. Of course, there are differences and infighting but overall, the environmental movement has shaped a progressive force to be reckoned with.

Looking at the influence that social movements like civil rights movement in the US, women’s movements, and the labour movement had on democracies in the West, does the environmental movement also have a stake in the development and deepening of democracy?

Absolutely. The birth of green politics in Western Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s created a new political landscape. It broke the monopoly of older, established political parties and the very division we had between left and right. From having conservative parties, liberal centrist, and social democratic parties ruling the continent, suddenly Green parties made inroads, first in Germany and then elsewhere.

I believe Greens have changed how politics is practised in terms of bringing the emotional element of direct action and the very rational expert-driven side of politics together. In Polish politics right now, the environmental movement is making these two contributions. Direct protests and civil disobedience were not very popular in the past, but now other movements like pro-democracy activists are learning these tactics from the green movement. Its other influence in Poland is greater value for expertise and scientific knowledge. Climate debates today rely heavily on science. You’ll hear Greta Thunberg say: “listen to the scientists”. Though such discourse is imperfect, encouraging fact-checking and helping debates become more grounded in facts is important in a so-called post-truth era.

The emotional part is important because populism, which Poland is struggling with along with other European countries, is strongly based on emotional communication. In this regard, the environmental movement has something that liberal democracy has dismissed in political life: a connection to something deeper.

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