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Running Out of Time: Why Democratising Europe Cannot Wait

By Benedek Jávor , Marta Tycner

Between Brexit, the rise of illiberal democracies and increasingly sharp divisions – the pressure to reorient the European project has never been more intense. Marta Tycner and Benedek Jávor shared their views with GEJ at “The Future of Europe – The Europe of the Future?” International Conference that was jointly hosted by the Progressive Hungary Foundation, the European Greens and DiEM25.

Green European Journal: What was the most thought-provoking idea to come out of the conference? How can we use that in our fight for a more democratic Europe?

Benedek Javor: The most important conclusion of today’s discussion is that we need to be clear about the immense time constraint of our endeavour to save Europe. Yanis Varoufakis has made it quite clear that it is not enough to dream about a better Europe or discuss the shape of an improved European project, but it’s about time to start thinking of the when and how. There is a ticking time bomb under the European construction that can explode at any moment, and we need to draw up a plan for a more democratic, more accountable, more sustainable, and more just Europe. We have to act very quickly, and we have to turn our ideas into practice, as soon as possible.

The Greens have been talking about the necessity of reforming Europe for many decades now. In the 90s they already criticised the economic regime of the EU, and they have also been emphasising for quite some time that the EU needs more democracy. What is different now is that the severity of the many simultaneous crises – among others the financial crisis, the environmental crisis, the democratic crisis, but also the transparency crisis, as illustrated by the current Volkswagen scandal – is speeding up the disintegration. This is now crystal clear even for those who didn’t believe that there was a crisis of Europe. No one can deny it, and we can see that even Jean-Claude Juncker voices the same fear as the progressives about the crisis. Juncker, of course, has a completely different understanding of the problem, and believes that some bureaucratic improvements alone could save the EU – which is of course far from enough – but at least we can see that those politicians who, for years, have denied that something would go wrong in the EU have realised that there is a serious problem.

Now we need to work hard on putting forward a solution. And I believe that the peripheries of the EU can play an important role in this project, as many of the EU’s problems are not yet visible in the centre – in countries such as Germany, Denmark, or even France – but are quite obvious by now in the Mediterranean and in the Eastern member states.

Marta Tycner: I would also add that today’s meeting was the very first time I have seen Europe as a framework for doing politics. Up until now it was only an intellectual concept for me and many others. Today we have witnessed a huge room full of people who were all eager to move real politics to the European level, who were willing to think in European terms, so that decisions in the EU are not made by technocratic “cabinet-politics” anymore.

We are living in a globalised world, and therefore Europe’s problems are much greater than what could be addressed on the national level alone, and Europe is a level that allows us to finally do something, and to react to global processes.

BJ: With DiEM25 experts and activists from all over the region had the chance to come together and discuss problems. I think this is quite important, as I truly believe in a form of Visegrad cooperation that is completely different from its current form dominated by illiberal and/or self-centred politicians, such as Viktor Orbán. The countries of the region have many common interests, common values, and also common problems – and they should be addressed together in order to have an acceptable solution. But today, instead of tackling common challenges, these countries are trying to show how good they are at hijacking European decision-making, and undermining even the small developments we had on issues such as the refugee crisis.

MT: I wouldn’t say that they have common values, instead I would say that they have common experiences: experiences with the communist past, experiences with emigration, experiences with being new to the EU; they also see the relationship with and the influence of Russia similarly, and so on. But instead of coming together, and fighting together, our countries compete against each other by lowering taxes and standards in order to be better than their neighbours at attracting investors with cheap labour. This is destroying the basis of solidarity in our region.

Other than that I completely agree. And we could even have a wider cooperation, not just the Visegrad countries, but many neighbouring countries could join as well, because most of the new member countries are in a similar position.

Why do you think it is interesting to have a dialogue between the Greens, other progressive parties, and DiEM25? Is it possible to find common ground between these movements?

MT: I think it is important for progressive parties to realise that many of the things they fight for can’t be solved on the local level. They need to find allies and like-minded people in other parts of Europe –or even the world – in order to push through their agenda. Something like DiEM25 is a real blessing for a new party like Razem, because we are relatively young and inexperienced in politics, and don’t have established connections with parties and people in other countries. DiEM25 makes it possible for us to join forces.

BJ: We see that there are serious structural problems in the framework we live in, therefore we have to come up with proposals. Once this has been achieved, we have to look around if there is someone who thinks similarly, and we need to examine whether it is possible to cooperate in order to find a shared solution. In my opinion it is not the task of a political party, group or movement to create a rigid political identity, and then defend it against every impulse or influence that could come from the outside. For me politics means the ability to change legislation, to have an impact on decision-making, democracy, our societies, and economic systems.

Before coming to politics, I was working in the NGO sector and teaching at a university. I was saying beautiful things, shared my good ideas with my students and people around me, just like other academics and civil society workers do, but I didn’t feel like that was enough. I know that we need pragmatic politics to make real change happen, and for that we need to cooperate with likeminded movements like DiEM25.

Who else can we include in the fight for a more democratic Europe? Can we even count on the Social Democrats? Or do you see an inevitable trend of pasokification (the collapsing of support for social democratic parties, as happened with the Greek PASOK party), which would make it seem it counterproductive to join forces with them?

MT: I would really like to achieve our goals without the help of the social democrats, because I think that the representatives of the old Left are not really our allies. In many questions they have completely different opinions, they are too close to the centre, and very often they are protecting the status quo rather than wanting to change the system. It is really hard to think of a coalition like this. The ideal way to achieve what we want would be by teaming up with New Left movements all over Europe.

BJ: In that sense I am more pragmatic, I think we need to be in an alliance in order to achieve our goals. In the case of the social democrats, I would say, it’s up to them whether they want to join us in our endeavour, or not. We won’t make concessions to them, but we are happy to include them.

Of course they need to change in order to become partners. The crisis of social democracy has a lot to do with their betrayal of their original voters and with them having abandoned their programme of solidarity and representation of those who are left behind. I would dare to say that social democrats in the 90s has become more conservative than the conservatives themselves, they have accepted the neoliberal Washington consensus, while it’s the conservatives who are offering some change – even if not in the right direction –, along with the extreme right.

MT: It’s not just about the betrayal of their voters, it’s also the authoritarian roots of the Central and Eastern European social democrats that makes voters suspicious towards them: in this region many of the Social Democrat parties are remnants of former communist parties, which means that their members cannot be seen as trustworthy actors of change.

The UK has voted to leave the EU. Why didn’t we believe that Brexit could really happen? Was the Left (or were the Greens) too optimistic? Do you think that after this summer we are able to see things clearer and have a better assessment of Europe’s problems?

MT: I wasn’t optimistic about it at all, I saw Brexit coming, and the outcome didn’t come as a surprise. The diagnosis is also very simple: the Left has been abandoning people, who are now turning to the populist Right to express their anger.

BJ: The problems of Brexit started well before the Brexit referendum happened. An important development was David Cameron’s deal with the European Commission that has allowed him to betray basic European values. I would say that excluding millions of people from the welfare state is clearly against European values.

MT: From our Central and Eastern European perspective this is a very crucial moment, because Brexit has revealed how problematic the migration processes are in Europe. And by this I don’t mean the populist messages of UKIP that migrants are taking away our jobs and the likes, but the problems that come with the vulnerability of these migrant workers: many of those Eastern and Central Europeans who work in the Western member states have no voting rights in the places they live in – their fate is decided upon by others. In some countries they are also excluded from the minimum wage policies, or are denied social benefits. That’s a systematic problem in Europe now.

BJ: David Cameron made a historical gamble with this referendum. And let me note here that this is not the first time that leading politicians of Europe have played a hazardous gamble with the future of their people. Winston Churchill once said that the First World War broke out because there were politicians all over Europe who were playing some dirty political games against each other, for internal, self-serving purposes – and at a certain point they lost control over their games.

What is our responsibility in this situation?

MT: We have to take these vulnerable people seriously. The most obvious decision would be to give people in the European Union voting rights on the basis of their residence, that would make them immune from such a situation in which they are not allowed to participate in decisions that clearly influence their lives. Maybe this sounds as a revolutionary idea now, but when people can change their locality so easily, and when people work abroad in such high numbers, I would say that this is the sensible solution.

BJ: It is not just about policies in the host countries, but also about their home countries: in Hungary for example the government made it impossible for Hungarians working abroad to vote by mail – if they live in a city with no embassy or consulate they need to travel for many hours to cast their vote, and obviously many of them can’t afford that. I think this issue makes it very obvious how Orbán gives up the representation of his country’s citizens when it is not in his political interest – as he knew that those working abroad are more likely to vote against him than those who stayed in Hungary or ethnic minorities in the neighbouring countries. That’s why he creates uneven access to the right to vote. So guest workers are not only discriminated against in their host countries, but also at home. That’s something we need to pay attention to when formulating our responses.

MT: To overcome the problems we need to build solidarity between workers, and other affected people across borders. Just let me give you an example why: These days Germany is planning to set up so called ‘one euro jobs’ for refugees. This is horrible, and must be opposed. And standing up against it is especially important for workers, because the next group that will be hit is the one just above them – the Europeans working abroad –, and after them come the workers. We need to realise that this fight for solidarity is a fight for shared goals, while the lack of solidarity damages the whole labour market.

What can be done in order to stop the illiberal tendencies in Hungary, Poland, and other Central European countries? What should be done on the European level, what can Greens and Diem25 do?

BJ: What we see today in Hungary or Poland is not the root of the crisis, just a painful symptom. It is also the crisis of the European Union that has led to the illiberal tendencies: the EU is not able to impose its own democratic values that were written down in a number of treaties; it is simply not acting when it comes to politically sensitive issues.

Even though in Greece the EU institutions and the finance ministers of the Eurozone countries were able to stop a left-wing government from doing what it has promised its citizens, the same European Union has done painfully little against the illiberal politics of Viktor Orbán. I think the progressive movements, Greens, DiEM25, the New Left, and others need to point this out and put it on the European agenda. The crises of Europe are not isolated from each other, and cannot be solved in a bureaucratic manner. We need to be more effective in representing European citizens, otherwise we cannot bring back trust in European institutions, and restart European integration.

MT: I agree, and I also think that if such a process succeeds, and if we manage to create a democratic Europe, a social project rather than a bureaucratised business-oriented structure, it might turn out to be the best remedy for right-wing populism.

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Running Out of Time: Why Democratising Europe Cannot Wait

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