Good Cop, Bad Cop: A Political Strategy for a Better Europe

by Benjamin Studebaker

The European left is in disarray when it comes to Europe, with a protectionist, euroskeptic left arrayed against an internationalist, integrationist left. The family feud between these two factions has fractured the left and made it impossible for it to compete. In France, the left is split between Jean-Luc Melenchon’s protectionist faction and Benoit Hamon’s internationalist faction, and because of this both candidates are likely to fail to make the top two in the first round, resulting in a two-way contest between the French establishment (embodied by either Macron or Fillon) and the right nationalists (Le Pen). In Britain, internationalist Labour supporters (including many young activists) feel betrayed by Jeremy Corbyn’s willingness to accommodate Labour to Brexit. In Greece, SYRIZA has gone along with austerity measures rather than risk the fallout of leaving the Euro, disappointing many of its supporters who elected it to stop the pain. We’re killing ourselves and our movement over this and we need a new strategy–if we don’t get one, the left is not going to offer coherent alternative to the right and it’s not going to win.

The Problem

It’s clear that the EU, as constructed, is not working for the countries in the periphery–places like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. In the 2000’s, these countries became export dumps for the core countries, particularly Germany. German companies used the periphery export markets to get rich, and German banks lent money to the periphery economies to enable them to pay for German goods. This produced a sick feedback loop in which Germany lent money to the periphery so that the periphery could continue to buy German goods so that German companies could continue to generate profit which they then put into the German banks and which the German banks then loaned to the periphery so that it could buy more goods so that German companies could make more profit and so on and so forth:

This caused everyone in the periphery to rapidly accumulate debts which could not be repaid. Once this became clear, the German government began acting as a collection agency for the German banks, browbeating debt governments into austerity policies so that the German banks could be paid off by the Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian peoples. It would have been better for the people living in the periphery if Germany had allowed it banks to fail or cancelled the debt and bailed them out itself, but the Merkel government has consistently opposed that kind of policy. So instead, Merkel has threatened the periphery with the prospect of default if the periphery does not continue to make budget cuts and make payments on the loans.

This is horrible, and the poor and working people of the periphery are getting the worst of it–they’re the chief victims of the cuts. Many like to blame Germany or Merkel for this, but the problem is institutional–there simply are no strong, independent, federal institutions to compel Germany to behave differently for the good of Europe as a whole, and in the absence of those institutions an elected German government will not want to alienate German voters by making them pay the cost. The German reaction is predictable given the weak structure of the EU.

The left wants to stop this, as well it should. But if the left simply helps the right nationalists destroy the European Union, all it will have achieved is the elimination of any collective institutions which might level the playing field among rich and poor European states. Without European institutions, there can be no collective European policy preventing some European states from choosing to become tax havens, to race to the bottom on wages, union rights, and environmental and financial regulations. There certainly cannot be any redistribution from the north to the south or from the west to the east. If Europe returns to a Europe of nations, it will return to a Europe of interstate competition, and in an age of increasingly mobile capital that means a Europe in which governments fawn all over transnational corporations to get them to locate to territory so that they get the jobs and the tax revenue (however small and pitiful the sums might be).

The Solution

So what do we need? We need stronger European institutions that can step in and prevent any European state from exploiting any other, regardless of the economic or military power differential between the two states. This means we need a United States of Europe–a federal Europe with a strong, sovereign parliament and a military capability that far exceeds that of any of the member states. Federal institutions can wipe out the debt of the periphery and create new European regulations to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Protectionists fear that any effort to further integrate Europe will just result in stronger neoliberal institutions which will continue to impose austerity on the periphery for the benefit of the core banks. For new European institutions to work, they need to protect the poorest and weakest European peoples more and the German banks less. How do we get European institutions that will do this?

The Strategy

The way forward is for left wing movements in the core–in places like Britain, France, and Germany–to promote federalism and oppose disintegration, while left wing movements in the periphery–in places like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy–promote exit for their own states. The European Union in its current form is much better for the core countries than for the periphery. It’s especially good for Germany, and it’s especially good for rich Germans. They need the periphery to be in the EU so that it can continue to serve as Germany’s export market. But this is not sustainable–it imposes too much suffering on the poor and working people of the periphery. These people are right to reject this exploitation, and by rejecting it they will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Germany and on the rest of the core to find a political and institutional solution which alleviates their grievances.

At the same time, by supporting federalism and integration, the left in the core can help develop and prepare the ground for the kind of solutions which can genuinely help the periphery. If the left in the core aids and abets the right, then the response to exits and exit demands from the periphery will simply be disintegration. The left must keep the core countries firmly committed to the European project so that they will not just accept the exit of the periphery and it must build support in the core for the Europe of the future. If the right in the core chooses to support exit and the left chooses to support institutional improvements, the center will have to ally with the left to prevent disintegration. The center must be forced to choose between an end to the euro and the common market and the creation of a new European economic compact in which the center makes concessions to workers and the poor in exchange for continued openness within Europe.

This will only work if the exit threat in the periphery is genuine. Germany called SYRIZA’s bluff–SYRIZA wasn’t really willing to ditch the Euro and leave the union. It wasn’t willing to reintroduce the drachma and expose rich Greeks to the inflation that would come along with that. The political movements in the periphery must do more than talk about exit, they must be willing to carry it out if necessary.

In this way we can partner the integrationist and protectionist lefts together–by pairing a genuine threat of exit in the periphery with a strong push for federalism in the core, we can split the neoliberals off from the right nationalists in the core countries and force them into making concessions. What the left needs is a good cop, bad cop routine, where the British, French, Dutch, and German leftists are the good cops and the Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese leftists are the bad cops.

The first step is to reject left wing movements in the core which promote or accommodate exit and reject movements in the periphery which refuse to seriously consider it–Corbyn and Melenchon must flip on the issue or go, SYRIZA must flip on the issue or go. Within the individual European member states, the left must be united on Europe, even though this will mean taking a different position in the core from the one taken in the periphery. We should promote integration when discussing the core European countries while promoting exit when discussing the periphery countries. We can respect the different immediate interests of people in the core and in the periphery while at the same time using those differences to mutually aid both parties, creating a better Europe for all.