Emmanuel Macron has given the left an opening to roll back neoliberalism in Europe

For the first time, the French president has conceded that fundamental economic reform is required. 

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The sounds of panic are rising thick and fast from within global liberalism. President Macron’s midnight press release, in every European language, was blunt: Europe is in danger, if we don’t deliver security and prosperity then “nationalists” will do it for us, destroying the project.

Brad DeLong, one of the architects of financial deregulation under Bill Clinton, put it more simply in a plaintive Twitter thread this week: “those of us who have pushed for lightly and cleverly regulating markets to achieve the social democratic ends of strong and equitable growth need to: 1. wake up, 2. recognize that the world is not as we thought it was, 3. adjust.”

For the left, which has been saying this for ten years, there is no point in schadenfreude. Because, even though the avatars of the free market have wreaked destruction on living standards and the public good, they are no longer our main enemies.

Our main enemy is the authoritarian nationalism which, using racism, misogyny and xenophobia, is stoking up granular intolerance within Western democracies, and acting as the willing tool of those who want to break up the multilateral system.

As in the 1930s, when mainstream economic policymaking discovered Keynesian management techniques, under the impact of depression and fascism, the panic of the political centre creates the potential for an alliance with it, or, at the very least, a dialogue.

To understand why, let’s look in detail at Macron’s plan. His first call is for a “European Agency for the Protection of Democracies” which, if created, would have to protect – say – Hungarian democracy from the corrupt racist currently in control. That’s called a superstate and is not going to happen unless the EU is prepared to expel countries where democracy is weakened.

However, Macron’s practical proposals in this area are good: ban foreign money for EU political parties and “banish all incitements to hate and violence from the internet”. To make the latter real would necessitate primary legislation requiring Facebook to remove closed and secret groups, Twitter to remove all anonymous accounts, and Google to take responsibility for the far-right and misogynist videos that drive its traffic. Since their entire business models are rooted in being platforms for hate, you would have to be prepared to break the tech giants up or close them down. Excellent, Msr Macron: let’s begin.

His second set of proposals would turn Europe, or at least its core, into a quasi-state: with a common border, migration, refugee dispersal and security policy. This is a response to the collapse of the Dublin Regulation on asylum seekers, and to the erection of border controls within Schengen. Given the absence of any sympathy, value statement or policy towards the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and given the brutal treatment Macron’s administration reserves for refugees clustered around Calais and Dunkirk, we have to assume the intention is to create a Fortress Europe.

The left should reject this. In any case, since it’s not going to happen without ejecting half the countries of eastern Europe, together with Austria and Hungary, the outcome is unlikely. But the other side of Macron’s superstate design is worth considering. He calls for “penalties or a ban in Europe on businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values such as environmental standards, data protection and fair payment of taxes; and the adoption of European preference in strategic industries and our public procurement”.

If enacted, this would address the most fundamental weakness of the EU project. While every other major power in the world is practising currency manipulation, state aid to strategic industries, de facto protectionism and job creation, the EU is designed to prevent itself from acting in this way.

Let’s explore what Macron’s words might mean if implemented from below as well as above, and in alliance with left parties. It would mean forcibly moving onshore the turnover of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest. It would mean pursuing exactly what China and the US do: technological sovereignty. It would mean creating a European defence consortium to rival the heavily state-backed US defence corporations.

This would fundamentally upset the way neoliberal globalisation works. Instead of being a playground for other great power interests, Europe would fall into line with Russia, China and the US and begin remaking itself as an economic great power. It would create an opening – but only an opening – for the left and the trade unions to rebuild Europe around the project of growth, prosperity and redistribution.

For here is where Macron’s proposal is weak. His entire third pillar – “progress’ – amounts to a proposal to create a Europe-wide social safety net and minimum wage. From the man currently destroying the safety net built by French workers, who has vowed to smash the unions, you would not expect much. The same neoliberal thinking that underpinned Blairism underpins the proposal: modernise capital, offer its victims a better survival kit.

But the most important opening for the left lies in the way Macron frames the change process. Here, for the first time, one of the avatars of neoliberalism is saying we should consider reform of the basic treaties – Lisbon and Maastricht – which have enshrined neoliberal economic doctrine into Europe’s constitutional law.

Macron calls for a top-down reform process: a Conference of Europe, where states and the institutions (the EU Commission etc) sit down, having consulted “citizens’ panels ... academics, business and labour representatives, and religious and spiritual leaders”.

The left should fight for a different method: directly-elected governments agreeing to scrap the Lisbon Treaty and start again. The resulting treaty – which should enshrine social rights, enforce measures to combat climate change, and permit massive state aid, state investment, borrowing, the monetisation of government debt, nationalisation and technological sovereignty measures – would not need to be a constitution in the way Lisbon was. It would be more like a Marshall Plan. Countries whose electorates want to live the dream of bigotry, tinpot autocracy and the small state, should be left to rot outside the new entity.

Speaking of which, Macron’s gambit has major implications for the UK and Brexit. Though there is no chance of it being enacted, as the European elections in May will swing the Brussels parliament towards the nationalist right, it is at least a flag planted in the ground.

It says, were Europe to ever succeed as a project, it would do so as a superstate preferring its own industries, maintaining high welfare standards and exerting strong regulatory power on everything in its orbit. In the short term, for the Tory right, this means they have to do everything to sabotage Macron’s project. In the longer term, it poses for Britain a point blank choice.

Either Europe is going to degenerate into competing, authoritarian states – with the current trial of Catalonia’s elected leaders and the anti-Semitic posturings of Viktor Orbán as a foretaste. Or it is going to succeed as a progressive superstate.

Both outcomes would be bad for a UK that has cast itself adrift from the European project. We might comfort ourselves as eastern Europe turns into a rerun of the Grand Budapest Hotel, while the French, Germans, Italians and Austrians erect razor wire at each other’s borders. But it would leave NATO decisively weakened and the point of having 800 troops and four fighter jets stationed in Estonia not exactly clear.

And if Macron’s vision for Europe were to succeed, a Britain that had refused participation in its markets would become either, as the Tory right fear, its vassal state or (as the Tory right secretly desires) the vassal state of the US.

The French left have rightly scorned the multilingual midnight press release from the Elysée. If Macron were serious he would take the riot cops off the street, regularise the refugees without papers, and stop destroying the pension system and privatising public services.

But the sentiments behind Macron’s gesture represent a rare moment of clarity: neoliberalism is going to destroy the multilateral system, consent for democracy and the planet in that order. And the people who’ve supported it need to, as DeLong puts it, “wake up and adjust”.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.