The left remains in the doldrums across Europe.
There is the odd spark of light, as in Portugal, and the occasional flicker of hope, with the temporary rebuff to Matteo Salvini in Italy or the electoral gains last time out for the PSOE in Spain. But overall the European left remains on the back foot.
Moreover, it is confronted by an unprecedented challenge from racist and far-right nationalist parties, of a kind unknown since the 1930s. The far right is not in the ascendant but the wind is in its sails, encouraged and promoted by the nationalist in the White House. In response, centre-right parties and on occasion social-democratic ones, as in Denmark, are trimming to accommodate to the far-right agenda, as did the new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, with her ill-considered notion of a commissioner ‘protecting the European way of life’.
If it is to respond, the left needs to address today’s world and offer solutions to it. Yet too many remain stuck in the past—or are desperate to return to it.
Take Arnaud Montebourg. Once a pin-up boy of the French left, the former economy minister in the Hollande government resigned because of its neoliberal direction.
In a long recent interview in Le Monde, Montebourg presented politics as a binary choice: unrestrained globalisation or a return to national sovereignty. He polemicised against the evils of globalisation and the ills it had wrought on the world over the past three decades, asserting that the only possible brake on its ‘religious fundamentalism’ was action by nation-states. They would assert their economic sovereignty and the return of protectionism would ‘shrink the world’.
Montebourg is currently engaged with ecological issues and the climate crisis looms large in his assessment. He recognises the ecological and the economic need to go hand in hand: ‘It’s necessary to reconstruct a balanced capitalism, that renews an alliance between labour and capital.’
But for him there is no recognition of the green slogan combining ‘the local and the global’. He refutes any suggestion that different models of globalisation are possible. In his wish to ‘take back control’ he harks back more than 200 years to ‘the return of the question of sovereignty’, saying: ‘It is not a big word: it’s a conquest of the French revolution.’
Leaping the boundaries
The Le Monde journalists did not question any of Montebourg’s assertions. But how do you apply the concept of sovereignty when the modern economy has leapt the boundaries of the nation state?
A day after reading the interview I drove along the motorway on the French Mediterranean coast, from Perpignan to Beziers. The A9 is the main arterial route from Spain up into the wider Europe. It was a Thursday morning with relatively little traffic. Here was a chance to test the grand generalisations of national sovereignty against current economic reality.
In the course of one hour’s steady driving, I overtook some lorries from France but the majority came from elsewhere across Europe: from Portugal to Poland, Ireland to Italy, Belgium to Belarus. In total, I passed lorries from 20 European countries! When I headed up through the Massif Central there were far fewer, and fewer from beyond France, but I still overtook lorries from Denmark, Lithuania, Romania and Finland. By the time I’d reached Calais I’d overtaken lorries from 30 European countries, including every EU member state from central and eastern Europe.
Here was the hard evidence on the ground of the integrated, cross-border nature of economic activity in today’s Europe. Of course, more of these goods should be transported by rail, but unless you are a very ‘deep green’—accepting only the local economically—this is at the core of the way we live now.
Policy-makers know that for all European nations the optimal economic area is continental in scale. That’s the reality Montebourg refuses to face.
In Europe, all the main production processes rely on integrated supply-chains, operating across borders. With the emergence of the transnational corporation, modern information and communication technologies, mass transport and the opening up of the old Communist blocs, there has been a huge surge in cross-border commercial activity. Up to 10,000 freight vehicles a day pass through Dover; around 4.4 million lorry journeys are made between the rest of the EU and the UK each year.
Part of the left still hankers for an alternative strategy based on national boundaries—hence Wolfgang Streeck’s support for ‘Brexit’. But its time has long gone. The failure of the left-wing Mitterrand government in France in 1980 was a signal that, in an increasingly integrated world, progressive change has to be pursued on a cross-national basis. Today, when the interconnections and interdependencies of economic life are vastly greater, attempts to resurrect a stand-alone economic strategy within one country would be suicidal.
Progressive movements have to respond to contemporary challenges. The Brexit imbroglio has exposed the current Labour leadership’s inability to shed the nationalist limitations of the 1970s left-wing figure Tony Benn, mentor of Jeremy Corbyn. With an influential cohort around the leadership believing that Brexit is a positive asset for the UK—in contrast to the vast majority of party members and voters—Labour has been unable to articulate a coherent and clear strategy.
For the left and progressives generally, the alternative to hyperglobalisation cannot be a retreat to nationalist boltholes—an error Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise is also making. Rather it has to develop a trans-European strategy which corresponds to the realities of the 21st-century economy and the profound challenges thrown up by the environmental crisis. It has to articulate alternative models of globalisation and show how countries can collaborate across borders.
A European Green Deal would finance an electricity grid stretching from Norway to Portugal to facilitate wind-power transmissions and from north Africa across the Mediterranean for solar. It would establish European Investment Bank bonds for wholesale retrofit programmes and new charging infrastructure for electric or hydrogen vehicles. And it would organise cross-European practitioner-education programmes to spread the best ideas and practices more quickly.
The possibilities are there but first the left has to break out of its narrow nationalist straitjacket.
First published by Social Europe