The Greens must remain faithful to their European commitment by continuing to promote a European alternative to the austerity policy of the ‘Merkozy’ duo. But passing on an unsustainable debt to the future generation is just as ecologically unsound as leaving a planet in ruins. Whatever their differences, the Greens must present their alternative to the neoliberal’s prioritising of market forces and the “statism” of the old left. This alternative must begin with a recovery package funded by a tax on financial transactions.
Green European Journal: It is the day after the first round of the French presidential elections. Does the campaign of Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (the French Greens) show the difficulty of defending a common European point of view, particularly on budgetary issues?
Daniel Cohn-Bendit: During the French campaign, the Greens have really taken a blow because the party tried to fit into a left and extreme left-wing context by forgetting to affirm their distinctive characteristic like their pro-European posture as an answer to the crisis. Their opposition to the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) has perfectly illustrated this. There was a real difficulty ‘talking about this discussion’. Europe is out of breath. Everyone is talking about austerity and not seeing that things are heading in the opposite direction in the European institutions. However, the ESM is a solidarity mechanism that offers opportunities to move away from austerity policies but the French political climate is such that a rational debate was not possible.
How do you explain that?
Today, public opinion is mostly Eurosceptic. However, this is for a variety of reasons. The German public doesn’t see why they should pay for Greece when it is incapable of operating a state normally. Public opinion in Greece, Spain and France is that the worsening of the crisis is the result of budgetary stability policy and the austerity policy that follows from this. They see Europe as a source of their problems, rather than the solution. As a result, the European Greens are finding it difficult to promote a nuanced position which is that we need both a budgetary stability policy and sustainable economic growth. The old theory of the left according to which growth and inflation will eliminate deficits no longer holds water. As Greens, we must as much refuse to leave future generations with a debt that will hinder their future policies as leave them a destroyed planet. A society in which more is better without mastery of growth is a monstrosity for humanity. The European Greens must therefore discuss the issue of the debt amongst themselves. However there are also countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland and so on who want to impose their prescription of balanced budgets as an exit from the crisis. This policy being imposed on Greece and Spain is crippling their economies. For me, what we should debate today is how we can implement a policy to balance the budgets by reducing spending along with a policy of recovery and support for the economy.
Keynes in Brussels
More particularly, what should be the basis of this policy?
Given the current level of public debts in Member States, the only solution is via European recovery and growth. My theory is Keynes in Brussels! I believe it necessary to simultaneously create a European debt fund and initiate a European investment plan. The common debt fund would place all debt over 60% in a shared fund, which the States would have to repay over a period of 25 to 30 years. This would allow us to fund this debt at a rate of 2.5%, which would take the pressure off Italy, Spain and other countries.
A society in which more is better without mastery of growth is a monstrosity for humanity. The European Greens must therefore discuss the issue of the debt amongst themselves.
Isn’t this the logic of low interest rates for the debt that is implemented in the USA and in Japan?
The investment plan would be funded by the European Union’s own income. A tax on financial transactions would allow for €40 billion to be recovered, even without the participation of the United Kingdom. By adding a tax of 0.1% on phone roaming in Europe and a 1% hike in VAT, it would be possible to raise €50 billion. Half could be used to reduce the contribution of States to the European budget. The remaining €25 billion would enable us to raise a total of €250 billion via the European Investment bank which would be dedicated to a multi-year plan of growth and ecological transformation that has become vital for our continent.
Would such a plan ever see the light of day with all the differences in opinion with regard to the causes of the crisis?
The unilateral diagnosis according to which the reduction of the deficit is enough is now losing ground. Today, 25th April, Mario Draghi, the chairman of the European Central Bank, said that he was in favour of a growth plan for Europe. It is obvious that with the French election, a mere phase of rebalancing the budget without economic growth cannot work. However, you are right, there are different political traditions when it comes to the need for budgetary stability.
A new regulation model?
Has the time not come to invent a new economic regulation model which is neither the Fordist compromise of the ‘Trente glorieuses’, nor the ‘liberal productivism’ that continues to dominate European policy?
Yes, we must invent a new model because we are nearing the end of a historical process that was parallel to the end of the communist regime and the acceleration of the unification of the European dynamic. The Eurozone is an economic force that must be equipped with a political framework that is no longer dominated by national conceptions. Good economic governance is not the sum of what good governance is in all of the Member States. The latest treaty recommends that the 17 national good governances in the Eurozone apply the same criteria, this is not enough. Good economic governance is not only budgetary stability. We must also shore up the European economy with a European fiscal policy (and particularly converge corporation tax) and a growth policy. For this we need political governance. That is what the Parliament and the Commission as well as national governments are now discovering.
What do the Greens have to say about this new governance model?
We have to turn our back on two beliefs: the first is the neoliberal belief that the invisible hand is the supreme intelligence of the economy, from which all prosperity will come. The second is this state partisan ideology of the 60s and 70s; this belief that the solution can be found by strengthening the state, therefore a policy of nationalisation. The Greens must say that we have to invent economic regulations that support the markets, orientates them but allows them their dynamics and creativity.
Europe is absent from the French campaign
Is this enough to respond to the rising social anger in a certain number of European countries? Hasn’t the situation changed radically between 2009 and 2012?
Today, Europe has become an adversary because of a wrong diagnosis. Nobody dares to say, against the public opinion, that one can only respond to the social crisis through a reinforcement of European policies. What is dramatic is that in order to get out of the “polycrisis”, as Edgar Morin calls it, we cannot rely on the national level. The nations are not anymore capable of safeguarding stability and security. Their survival and the future of the European people can only be safeguarded by a reformed European Union in the sense of a substantial integration. This is our challenge!
But everyone agrees with that!
That’s not true. Melenchon does not say that. He says the opposite. The extreme right, too. Furthermore, in this French presidential campaign, no one is really taking on this issue, as illustrated by the French left’s vote on the EMS.
Wasn’t the problem with the French campaign that this argument was almost inaudible?
We should have led a much more European campaign, saying that the three-fold economic, ecological and social crisis could only be resolved at the level of Europe. However, the entire campaign was oriented against Sarkozy. Francois Bayrou, Eva Joly and myself made the mistake of not attempting to say that there was another way out of the crisis. Today, it is clear that the ecological transformation that the French Greens (EELV) are talking about will not happen in just one country. It is unbelievable bullshit, as unbelievable as economic planning in a single country.
Around me in Belgium, I know many people who would have voted yes for the European Constitutional Treaty in 2006, but who would have voted for Melenchon on the first round of the French presidential elctions.
Melenchon was able to embody this radicality, the impression that we must ‘”knock over the table”. He accused me of stabbing him in the back but he refused to answer me on the details. When he explains in his book that France’s natural ally is not the USA but China because they have the same State design, that is what we should be debating. He says ‘I want to change the tide from Sarkozy power and capitalism and my guide is China, Chavez and Cuba’. His success can be explained by the lyricism of his references (Victor Hugo and Paul Eluard…) and the nostalgia in France for the 70s, as shown in the success of the film about Claude François. Also, Melenchon did not get 14% of the vote but 11%. That simply means that he managed to gather the votes from the parties to the left of the Socialist party (Laguiller, Besancenot and the Communist Party). He was clever enough to gather those based on his personality. Moreover, however, if he had won 14% and Eva Joly 7%, Hollande would have won 21%; not that much difference from Marine Le Pen. In reality, a large proportion of voters wanted to beat Sarkozy and for that Hollande had to come in first. It wasn’t a concerted effort.
The Eurozone is an economic force that must be equipped with a political framework that is no longer dominated by national conceptions. Good economic governance is not the sum of what good governance is in all of the Member States.
Melenchon, the Pirates and participation
Is there a parallel to be made between Melenchon’s good result and the rise of the Pirates in Germany?
These are two completely different ways to say that “we need to ‘knock over the table’”. The Pirates are ultra-individualistic libertarians. They are against the State and for online democracy, via the internet and the extension of the scope of the individual, the opposite of Melenchon. It isn’t their desire to change the system that bothers me, it’s their solutions.
Mustn’t the Greens insist on their desire to reform the political system?
The Pirates are asking the European Greens the question of their internal democracy Last Sunday; I was with my wife in the onboard restaurant of a train taking us from Berlin. We were talking about a poll according to which 30% of Germans could vote for the Pirates. I asked my wife if she saw herself voting for the Pirates. A man seated next to us answered ‘yes, I back the Pirates’. He told us that he had taken part in an online debate about the privatisation of religion. None of his proposals had been taken up. But the fact that he was able to take part was enough for him. The Pirates don’t ask the real question of whether we are capable of modernising our parties to strengthen participation whilst maintaining efficiency in decision making.