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Welfare and Social Issues

“Solidarity and Strength”: for an open debate on the cause of the crisis

In times of crisis, taking the time to reflect can be a matter of urgency. Often, what can seem to be a surreal luxury is in reality an absolute necessity. Opening up perspectives in the distant future enables us to find more creative and more stimulating solutions. This reasoning applies itself well to the work that the Heinrich Boell Foundation began in 2010 on the future of Europe, by mobilising a committee of approximately fifty experts from the academic and political world. The report ‘Solidarity and Strength’ is not a message in a bottle but an invitation to a Europe wide debate and it is in this capacity that it is to be understood and responded to. The strengthening of a public European space is not only something to which the Green European Journal intends to contribute, it is also the explicit expectation expressed by the committee of experts that wrote the report for the Boell. We can no longer be satisfied with talking about the national consequences of European decisions: the time has come to hold debates on the same political subjects simultaneously in different countries and to discuss the issue of the future of Europe directly between the Green national foundations.

A ‘political’ and ‘pragmatic’ proposal

My reaction as a Belgian Green, who is located at the crossroad between several green political sensitivities, is both in terms of the form and the methodology to be implemented to move forward with plans of a new European ‘narrative’, that is to say a new overall ‘account’, giving meaning to isolated actions and mobilising collective energy for the 21st century.

The report “Solidarity and Strength” summarises this new narrative in two words, the choice of which has not been left up to chance. Their complementary meanings clearly indicate the entirely political objective of the project: it isn’t a question of building a more or less moral and radical protest with regard to the evolution of Europe and the world, but rather to propose a renewed, normative framework along with specific proposals to implement practically whilst taking into consideration the real institutional and political conditions that exist within the European Union. The expert committee therefore seems to have paraphrased the French philosopher Blaise Pascal according to whom ‘justice without force is powerless: force without justice is tyrannical[1]’.

The committee intends to apply this maxim both at the intra-European level and the global level, in the sense that solidarity must be effectively applied throughout by a force of cooperation that finds no legitimacy outside of the demand for solidarity. This interdependence also seems to justify the demand for pragmatism, which underlines the report and leads to the proposal of a series of stimulating projects that Boell believes will be able to develop a cooperative dynamic with the European Union. I will not venture into a philosophical exegesis about the tensions between justice and force as Blaise Pascal and the Heinrich Boell Foundation each understand it, at this stage I will merely put forward a certain number of questions and points of view about the diagnosis and proposals made.

Disagreement on the causes and responsibilities of the crisis

My first question relates to identifying the causes of the current crisis in the Euro-zone and then what is needed to resolve it. In substance, the Committee of experts believes that the crisis is mainly the consequence of a lack of real economic governance and consequently a lack of European democracy. This new economic governance and the strengthening of its democratic bases form the necessary but insufficient condition of recovery from the crisis. This condition must also go via a sustainable mechanism to control the debt of States as well as the implementation of Eurobonds for the proportion of public debts below 60% of GDP. This budgetary solidarity  and the ecological  modernisation[2] of the economies of these countries must enable a radical upturn in growth in the most indebted countries The  social pillar of a Green New Deal, which must ‘renew the social balance’ within the European Union is not neglected. It intends, however, to take current limitations of the legal and institutional framework of the EU into account, regardless of whether this is done by developing minimal social standards or laying the foundations for a European unemployment insurance that will have a stabilising effect in case of a crisis.

This text, which was designed before the dramatic turn of the crisis in the second half of 2011, calls for an even more urgent debate on what approach should be adopted towards national plans with regard to the European treaty’s position on budgetary discipline. The positions adopted in this framework will vary depending on national contexts (the possible presence in coalitions, economic situation, and internal power struggles…) and analyses of the causes of the crisis. In this respect it is striking to observe that the Committee of experts  is concentrating all of its attention on the causes that result from European failures – whether these failures are institutional or result from the ‘bad management’ of certain governments. It nearly does not mention the responsibility of economic discourse and dominant economic policies in Europe and more widely in industrial countries since the 1970s. However, the excessive indebtedness of many States is not only the result of a failure on governments’ part and the incremental nature of the construction of Europe. It is also the direct consequence of neo-liberal policies of deregulation, which for thirty years has fuelled the growth of private and public debt and which have allowed States and people hit by inequalities to maintain a completely unsustainable level of consumption[3].

In the countries of the Euro-zone, some have more or less been able to benefit from this deregulation by using their capacity to adapt to economic competition, both intra-European and international. In this prospect, the attitude of the EU towards globalization should be clearly assessed.  The opening of markets has probably weakened the nation-states in a way that was not sufficiently balanced by a reinforcement of the strength of the European Union.

Once more, we have to consider that the crisis has many causes. Inside the Eurozone it results of a combination of the bad governance on national level, the lack of global European economic governance and the policy of the European Central Bank that has dramatically reinforced the macro-economic imbalances inside the Eurozone. This monetary policy is also the consequence of the historic compromise that was concluded between France and Germany in the frame of the German reunification and of the creation of a single currency[4]. This should be kept in mind if we want an open debate between Europeans on new economic governance beyond the national schemes.

Plans for collective mobilisation?

Rebuilding European solidarity commensurate to the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century involves acknowledging the impact of these historic political choices, at least if the Greens want to be able to give a non-demagogic answer to the irrepressible mounting social resentment. Regardless of the inherent difficulties and impossibilities to the diversity of national social policies, finding an alternative to the largely unfulfilled promise of a “social Europe” will in fact become increasingly urgent. Whilst this “social Europe” was not necessarily promised as such, it was nevertheless implicit in the entire implementation phase of the Maastricht treaty. Keeping this project as a kind of regulative ideal is indispensable if the construction of Europe wishes to conserve the support that the European trade union movement provided in the past in exchange for the establishing competition between national social systems.

The excessive indebtedness of many States is not only the result of a failure on governments’ part and the incremental nature of the construction of Europe. It is also the direct consequence of neo-liberal policies of deregulation, which for thirty years has fuelled the growth of private and public debt and which have allowed States and people hit by inequalities to maintain a completely unsustainable level of consumption.

On the other hand we should try to avoid arousing the wrong hope of a return to the post-war time when national States still had macro-economic tools enabling them to protect their welfare states from competition. Ecological modernisation will of course enable the European economy to conserve an important place in the world economy and to ensure that European force and solidarity are possible. However all of the Greens in Europe must remember: the ecological economy is more efficient and competitive where the social movements driven by the prospect of a better life and for example  of another ‘way of life’ are or have been the strongest[5].

Rethinking the balance between State, the market and the ‘commons’

In addition, the attention that must rightly be given to the issue of the strength  of the European Union, whose economy is now only equal to 20 % of global GDP, must not encourage us to look for growth at any price, although this  temptation is enormous  in countries threatened by bankruptcy. Whilst the report of the Boell foundation does not intend to forget about the discussion on the content of growth, the issue of absolute decoupling between the increase of GDP and the increase of all kinds of pollution (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions) should not be put aside in the discussion on the future of the European economy. It is not merely a technical debate to be had between engineers and economists about the possibility of technical progress advancing quicker than demographic and economic growth, it is also a political and social debate to be had on the type of social organisation and the balance to find between the market, the State and the ‘commons’ in the European (and global) economy of the 21st century.

This debate, which is currently speeding up[6], must be had at the European level, between the Greens and all potentially interested parties, and beyond that, with social movements, whether they are traditional (trade unions) or a new form (transition movement…). The objective of this debate must be to define what the social model of the first half of the 21st century should look like and who will be the equivalent of what was the Fordist compromise of the Trente glorieuses and the liberal-productivism of the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the numerous challenges of this project will be not stopping at the borders of the Euro-zone and also involving all post-socialist states. They could be mostly interested by seeking an alternative approach to the dualistic confrontation between State and market.

The symbolic side of solidarity

My last comment will be about the notion of solidarity. It is anchored in my Belgian experience of the debate on financial transfers between Flanders and Wallonia. The lesson that I take from it is that we must not underestimate or overestimate the importance of the symbolic aspect of these transfers such as since Marcel Mauss the anthropology of the “Gift” has taught us how to understand it. In this instance we must correctly measure the resentments that unreturned donation may generate, as much for those who give without the hope of receiving something in return as for those who receive without any hope of being able to one day return… In Belgium, we are now paid to know that we never become aware of the devastating effects of these resentments early enough when they are aggravated by denying recognition of collective identities. We must therefore double-up creativity in order to develop original ways of reproducing ‘positive mutual indebtedness’[7] between all Europeans. The major projects proposed by the Boell foundation (a European Green New Deal, a European community of renewable energies, an ecological overhaul of the common agricultural policy, a reform of the foreign policy and proximity…) also offer the possibility. Those projects could give to the current benefiters of the solidarity a real prospect of “returning”. They could also free them from the impression of being the victims of a condescending paternalism.

The ecological economy is more efficient and competitive where the social movements driven by the prospect of a better life and for example  of another ‘way of life’ are or have been the strongest.

Is Europe really a domestic policy issue?

Solidarity also comes via empathy: in the current situation, the risk of defending Eurobonds in Germany must be acknowledged as much as the call for rigorous budgetary policy in countries where the social consensus is more fragile, because inequalities there are stronger. More than ever, there is still urgency to amplifying the debate in order to transform the interdependence between Europeans into positive solidarity experienced by peoples.

For the Greens, it is undoubtedly necessary to think about increasing the possibilities of transnational meetings outside of the usual contexts where people involved at a European level meet. Belgians hardly have lessons to give on the matter. They live at the geographical heart of Europe. More than anywhere in the world, due to its structural importance, the European policy reveals domestic policy. However, huge efforts still need to be made to fall in with more Europeans, starting with our immediate neighbours who live on the other side of our still national borders.


[1] Blaise Pascal, ‘ Pensées’.
[2]  That is to say an economic policy that aims to strengthen efficiency in the use of resources, by implementing technical tools (renewable energies, energy saving…) and market tools (ecotax…).
[3] See the analyses carried on this plan by LIPIETZ et JACKSON.
[4] van Middelaar L. De passage naar Europa, Geschiedenis van een begin (The passage to Europe. History of a Beginning)., 2009.
[5] DRYZECK J. 2006
[6] See the success of the conference organised on 9th March in Brussels by GEF, Etopia and Oikos
[7] CAILLE A, « Pour un manifeste du convivialisme », 2011.


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