Left turning against EU, and Portugal may be the hinge



As Europeans will be quick to tell you, that can mean a variety of things. It’s not because of the EU that some member states maintain quasi-aristocratic or monarchical political elements and others do not.

But European democracy is parliamentary at heart, and it’s there, right at the heart, that the EU system has begun to show its biggest weakness. Cracks have been evident for years, of course – especially in Greece, where the duly elected government bent beneath massive international pressure and embraced a bailout agreement shaped contrary to the wishes of the voting majority.

Greece, however, wound up with less than the democratic ideal because the belief prevailed that the whole European Union could collapse if the agreement did not go through. An exceptional crisis demanded an exceptional solution.

Well, crisis and solution came and went, and now, at the EU’s geographic opposite end, in Portugal, fresh chaos has threatened to break out – for very stale reasons. Long story short: The Portuguese president gave the right-of-center party the privilege of forming a government, even though the three left-of-center parties, one radical and one communist, combined for the most votes.

For the right-leaning British eurosceptics who pounced on the story first, the move amounted to a coup, proof that democracy and the EU had become incompatible. After all, some of those left-wing parties are enemies of the austerity programs that have kept the EU limping along. Some are even enemies of the EU itself.

Yet it’s not that simple. For Portugal, the flow of events has not violated any laws or conventions. In fact, in a few weeks’ time, if the privileged party fails to entice any others to throw in on forming a government, either the leftists get a crack at it or Portugal rides out a caretaker regime.

On the other hand, the fissures on the European Left are now so pronounced that anywhere they break into open conflict – such as in Portugal – could touch off a perilous chain reaction. The fundamentals of the Portuguese situation are dire, indeed, for they point to the darkest challenge bubbling up from the depths of the EU project.

Fear of the Right

Simply put, the Left is turning against the Union, and Portugal appears to be the hinge. To understand the importance of this development, a tour through history is in order. Europe has always been more afraid of far-right extremism than anything communistic.

At the height of the Cold War, it was the U.S. and Britain that struggled to stop the far Left from creeping across the Iron Curtain to spread across the Continent. In France, Germany and elsewhere, the elites and the masses eventually agreed that socialism was an adequately radical alternative to the Soviet hammer and sickle – one that could organize politics around collectivist projects without breaking the back of civil society and ushering in another military catastrophe.

Weaving socialism into the fabric of the nation-state proved two more necessary facts to Europe’s rulers and its ruled. First, it demonstrated that nationalism and transnationalism were neither contradictory nor so wracked with tension that political progress toward greater peace and unity was impossible. Second, it showed that politics beyond the legitimate frontier of the Anglo-American tradition was actually commensurate with liberalism.

Rather than just a workable compromise that could stave off the old cycle of revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) violence, socialism afforded a distinctly Continental form of liberal politics – one that made and kept human rights and social justice guarantees that its evil twin on the opposite side of the political spectrum could not and never would.

The reality of those guarantees was essential. Europeans had reason to fear that the postwar world would become so spiritually and humanely exhausted that public life would decay into the terminal bourgeois disenchantment predicted by the great German and French sociologists of the long 19th century, figures including Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim. Contrary to Oscar Wilde’s jibe that socialism was lovely but required too much time on Friday evenings, the far-Left agenda in Europe gave people not only something to do but something to trust, something that could be relied on to keep the fabric of reality together, come what may.

What came was the European Union – on its face and in its bones, a decidedly left-of-center project. Cognizant that no person and no country in Europe could found a new political regime, yet painfully aware that Europe could not function without some new architecture of togetherness, the EU was built on the back of its member states’ intertwined economic fates, which were, at the time, the more concrete and undeniable basis for crafting a path toward ever-greater unity.

Europe’s regulatory superstate would use its members’ economic interdependence to weaken the divisions of identity that Europeans had never been able to peacefully adjudicate. Conquest and chauvinism, the tools of the far right, would be taken away before anyone could get their hands on them again.

New era economies

So far, so good. But nobody planned on the 21st century.

Over the past 15 years, a new kind of economy emerged in Europe – one not only driven by a highly technological kind of international finance, but dependent upon it. In part, this is because the entire global economy has become dependent upon the near-instantaneous flow of trillions of transactions in basically imaginary products with no natural price. In larger part, however, the root of Europe’s problem is Europe itself.

Once begun, the European project could not articulate a logical reason for when, where and why it should stop – not just in history, but in geographical space. The abstraction of the EU began to encounter the stubborn particularities of nation-states it wanted to absorb, and did.

This absorption process, as the world eventually witnessed in Greece, interacted with the transformation of international finance in a way that caused the balance of debts and credits among European nations to pose a threat to political and economic stability.

In practical terms, that meant something awful for the continental Left: the unraveling of the informal but central agreement that socialist national politics and capitalist transnational economics could co-exist in perpetuity. Parliamentary democracy always allowed the possibility of a showdown challenging that premise. Not until now have the stars aligned.

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