Can “remain and reform” ever be radical?

Proposals for EU reform will amount to little unless coupled with a political movement that listens to the struggles of those who capitalism has failed.

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The one conclusion on which many seemed to agree after the European elections was that “it’s complicated”. Though the far right increased its vote share, it wasn’t to the extent that many had feared. Broadly speaking, the left lost ground and the centre appeared to hold.  

That the scale of the defeat was not quite as spectacular as expected offers little cause for optimism. It reveals how much we have normalised the discourse of the right – with repeated exhortations from politicians that borders should be closed, and migrants should be left to drown.

Likewise, the advances of pro-European parties like the Greens in Germany or anti-austerity socialists of Portugal and Spain may be too ephemeral to give us reason for cheer. In the United Kingdom, the Labour party finds itself at a crossroads. Progressives have urged it to embrace the cause of “remain and reform”, or risk irrelevance for years to come.

This is a crucial moment for the development of an alternative vision for Europe. In the European parliament, the old coalitions are broken. Unless the progressive left presents a genuinely transformative agenda, that vision will be shaped by the far right.

Europe’s future depends on what we say and do about it now. Remain and reform may be too vague to persuade those who voted for Brexit in 2016, and again for the Brexit party in 2019. The reasons for this aren’t reducible to a political cleavage that pits cosmopolitan “citizens of nowhere” to communitarian “citizens of somewhere”.

Nor are they about a battle between class and culture. The composition of the working class has changed in recent years, but to say that the working classes only reside in places like Wigan just shows you never took the bus to Harlesden. It is also to maintain, implicitly, that the poor can only be ignorant and racist, or that cosmopolitanism makes you outward looking and altruistic. Both claims are plainly false.

Remain versus Leave is not a political cleavage that the progressive left can do anything with. This may explain the dilemma of the current Labour party. But what Brexit offers, and what galvanises the nativist right all across Europe, is the promise of political agency, and of being empowered after decades of political and economic disenfranchisement.

One can only be empowered if one knows where power lies. In a world of nation-states, power is coupled with the idea of popular sovereignty. Taking back control entails a return to the site of popular sovereignty where power struggles can be fought and, with sufficiently strong political movements, won. What makes Brexit and the nativist idea of Europe attractive from a left-wing perspective is the promise of restoring sovereignty to the nation-state, thereby also turning it into a place over which even vulnerable people can exercise democratic control by voting out the establishment.

There are shortcomings to these propositions. One is that we still have not been told what to do about capitalism. But the trouble with the pro-European left is that it abounds in diagnosis and lacks in prescription. A credible progressive movement for remain and reform needs to articulate what “reform” would look like, starting with the obstacles that the EU’s current structure poses. It would also need to draw a feasible path for how to get from here to there.

This is where it gets tricky. “Remain and reform” or the manifesto for Social Europe have been the rallying call of European social-democrats for years.  There are structural reasons why they have failed, not all of which are reducible to the centre left embrace of capitalism with a human face.

In the nation-state, popular sovereignty may be an ideal, but at least we know – roughly – where power lies. The combination of executive, judicial and administrative structures gives us a target and a structure for a fight. In the case of the European Union we have no clue what popular sovereignty consists of.

Plato says in the Republic that democracy is like a constitutional bazaar. People have so much freedom that they can choose any form of rule as the foundation of the state: rule by the people (democracy), rule by the rich (oligarchy), rule by the best (aristocracy) and, when democracy deteriorates, rule by tyrants.

The European Union is hardly a beacon of democracy. Its “democratic deficit” concerned eurocrats long before it began to irk the public. Yet the EU comes close to Plato’s definition of a democracy when one looks at its institutional configuration. If you focus on the European parliament, you have something akin to rule by the people. If you focus on the powers of the European Central Bank, you have something resembling rule by the rich. If you focus on the powers of the Commission and of the European Court of Justice, you get rule by the best (or in this case, the “experts”). And if you focus on the powers of the Council, you have a cocktail of these three elements.

This combination of elements makes the progressive agenda for reforming the EU a particularly challenging one. In the case of the nation-state, the fact there is sovereignty (at least nominally) makes it possible to locate the site of political power and challenge any particular balance of power relations through the usual democratic channels of political will-formation (elections, the authorisation of representatives, referenda, protests, boycotts, strikes).

In the case of the EU, by the very nature of its institutions, none of this is sufficiently entrenched. The only credible way forward is to elaborate progressive policies: a green new deal for Europe, a common European migration policy, a progressive taxation scheme, and so on. But policies, even when they are progressive, focus only on outcomes, often at the expense of political processes. Politics is still absent. Agency is still marginalised in favour of structure. Democracy in theory is still likely to lead to tyranny in practice.

This is why the left needs policies and politics. It is not enough to possess the former while lacking a movement that fights for its ideas. Proposals for reform will amount to little unless there is a European movement that shapes the quotidian struggles of those who capitalism has failed, and that articulates the conflicts they experience within a transformative and progressive vision of Europe.

The fight for Europe can’t just be a fight against how certain things are done. It must also be a fight for something else: not just for policies taming capitalism, but for a politics conducive to socialism. Europe is up for grabs. But given the shape of its institutions, what begins as a mission to “remain and reform” may well end up as “remain and revolution”. This is a heroic task. No wonder the left is not ready.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship