Yanis Varoufakis and the DiEM25 movement are making headlines with their call for a more democratic and just European Union. Varoufakis brings his experience dealing with the EU as the former finance minister of Greece to the table for the European Spring, a European Parliament electoral slate that includes an ambitious and audacious vision for Europe. Their recently-released manifesto can be found here. I spoke with DiEM25’s policy director, David Adler, over email.
Emma Steiner: Tell us a little more about the European Spring.
David Adler: The premise of European Spring is that Europe is ripe for a grassroots transnational movement. The financial crisis of 2008 not only revealed the interconnections between European economies — bound together by a Single Market and, in the case of the Eurozone, a single currency — but also between European democracies. These political dynamics were not pretty, pitting core against periphery, and most memorably, Germans against Greeks. But in the process, they illustrated the extent to which every European country is, for better or worse, bound to every other. In other words, this crisis had the effect of giving birth to a European demos: a single public that — despite differences in class or country — is beginning to understand the role that institutions at the European level play in shaping life at the local level.
All of this to say: our movement has grown out of Europe not because of some sense of European exceptionalism, but because the conditions for transnational politics were most favorable, and most urgent.
But the movement does not end at the borders of the European Union, nor at the borders of the European continent. On the contrary, while our manifesto proposes policy changes inside the European Union, many of these commitments are meaningless in the absence of more global coordination. One clear example is tax evasion: efforts to introduce a ‘common reporting standard’ have been stymied by the US, which refuses to disclose the identities behind its shell companies. Another, more looming example is climate change: Europe’s ecological transition must go hand in hand with a more global effort — or we are all march toward extinction regardless.
ES: How can the United States and non-European countries be a part of this process?
DA: Non-European countries have three key roles to play.
First, they can stand behind shared policy goals like the Green New Deal, which European Spring is championing here in Europe: €500 billion each year from the European Investment Bank to kickstart Europe’s green transition. Countries like the US tend to create a firewall between what it deems “foreign” policy and what it deems “domestic” policy. This must fall. US progressives must become more comfortable speaking out about policy issues beyond their borders and coordinating domestic demands with those issued abroad. After all, American soft power remains extremely — tragically — strong. US progressives can and should be leading the movement for a global Green New Deal.
Second, non-European countries can work with us to envision new institutions to deliver these shared policy goals. Here again, the climate case is instructive. The Paris Agreement is transnational in name only — it ‘binds’ countries to climate targets, but without building a more positive, political case for ecological transition, only encourages them to renege whenever it is convenient. Advocates of a Green New Deal in UK, US, Europe, and around the world should develop the blueprint for an institution that can roll out the investment necessary for a just transition, rather than simply demanding that countries roll back their emissions — a recipe for nationalist resentment.
Third, non-European countries can build from our efforts to democratize the EU to call for a broader democratization movement in existing international institutions. US progressives, in particular, should work with us to scale up the European Spring and demand that their government — the chief source of funding and legitimacy for international institutions like the World Bank and IMF — democratize them.
ES: How do you foresee the proposed Copenhagen Commission in addressing illiberal democracies in Europe that, so far, the EU has been unable or unwilling to reckon with?
DA: There is a temptation to view the rise of illiberal regimes in places like Italy and Hungary as the product of a democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. The EU, designed as cartel for the capitalist class in Europe’s core, was never meant to protect the lives and liberty of European residents. Its institutions are responsive to violations in EU competition law — cracking down on efforts to regulate Uber or Airbnb, for example — but they are perfectly willing to overlook violations of civil rights.
But this is only a partial truth. The EU has certainly been weaponized to protect capitalist interests. But illiberalism has risen in Europe precisely because of European democracy — not its deficit. Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz belongs to the center-right coalition of European parties known as the European People’s Party (EPP), which has dominated European politics for over a generation. As the coalition with the largest number of representatives in the European Parliament elections of 2014, the EPP were empowered to nominate their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, to the presidency of the European Commission. With Fidesz offering a healthy 11 Members of the European Parliament to the EPP group, there has been little political incentive to take action against its illiberal policies.
As R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers has argued, Hungary — in the absence of the EU — would likely have gone the way of Belarus: full-blown dictatorship. But the EU has certainly failed to stem the tide of illiberalism within the Union.
There is both good news and bad news in this analysis.
The bad news is that the EU treaties — the closest thing we’ve got to America’s Constitution, because, again, the EU was designed primarily as an economic cartel with a political infrastructure built on top of it — are basically dead letter. Just like politicians in the US referring to “We the people,” European officials drag on about solidarity, equality, and democracy. But wherever those principles become politically inconvenient, they are tossed aside.
The good news, though, is that it is in our power to change this political calculus. If illiberalism is downstream from the EPP’s democratic success, then a mass movement of European citizens can challenge center-right parties across Europe, take their seats, and demand immediate action to address illiberal infractions of the EU treaties.
Our proposal for Copenhagen Commission is simple: create an independent watchdog to enforce Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which guarantees freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. In other words, our goal is to energize a movement that can, through its political force, enshrine a body that can then operate independently, bringing the dead letter of the EU treaties back to life.
This is, after all, the promise of international institutions: to protect our most fundamental rights from the vagaries of the electoral cycle. Sovereignty is a beautiful thing, but security in fundamental rights — regardless of the shifting will of the people — is beautiful, too.
ES: The universal citizen dividend is a classic Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) proposal. I would love to hear more about how this can help Europeans.
DA: There is a frustrating paradox in European political economy. On the one hand, European recognize how tightly bound their economies have become. Germans know, for example, how dependent their car industry is on exports to neighbors like Italy ($82 billion), Austria ($75 billion), and Poland ($75 billion). Yet Angela Merkel refuses to engage with the implications of such economic interconnectedness. The German government remains firmly opposed to making the Eurozone into a “transfer union,” and it has blocked all attempts to create a deposit guarantee plan in the EU that would promise to stabilize the European economy in the event of another financial crisis.
This is, of course, a self-defeating strategy: by actively crippling economic demand along Europe’s periphery, Germany threatens its own lucrative export industries.
But it illustrates how successful politicians have been at constructing a zero-sum equation between the interests of the core and the periphery, scaring German pensioners into believing that a budget deficit in Italy will inevitably shrink their savings, in turn. Paranoia about “risk sharing” abounds.
Our proposal for a European Citizen Wealth Fund bypasses this conflict and assuages these pensioners’ anxiety. Rather than leveling reams of new income taxes, we propose to build European social wealth by purchasing assets through the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing, taxing intellectual property of the rentier class, and collecting a percentage of stock from every initial public offering. As in most proposals for a SWF, the gains to this wealth fund will then be distributed to every European citizen in the form of a Universal Basic Dividend.
This will, of course, help Europeans directly, putting money into millions of pockets that currently lack access to stable employment. But it will also completely transform the European project, eliminating the myth of a zero-sum international dynamic and encouraging Europeans to push for positive-sum investments that can expand the scope of social wealth. The forces of fragmentation — premised on the conflict between European interests — would fade away.
ES: I am regularly astounded by the figures that Gabriel Zucman is able to produce regarding tax havens and hidden wealth. Can you expand on how the European Spring would seek to combat this?
DA: Most stories about tax evasion focus our attention at the fringes of the global economy — places like Panama or the Bahamas where financial crime is just one piece of a broader portrait of lawless thuggery.
The European Union tends not to be one of those places.
This is by design. The EU claims to take tax evasion very seriously, publishing its a blacklist of jurisdictions that undercut the global tax regime. But it notably does not mention the jurisdictions within its borders — Luxembourg and Ireland, chief among them — that commit some of the worst evasion fraud in the world. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU Commission, spent years of his political career in Luxembourg blocking Europe’s attempts to regulate its tax system, as billions poured into the tiny country from multinational corporations like Amazon and McDonalds.
The European Spring program aims to eliminate tax evasion within the EU, before moving beyond it. Our proposals are wide-ranging, but three stand out among them.
First, we will eliminate cash-for-citizenship schemes in Europe. Many countries in the EU today run ludicrous ‘Golden Passport’ schemes that trade foreign investment in industry or real estate in exchange for European citizenship. In other words, while the EU tolerates thousands of deaths on the Mediterranean in order to deter refugees from reaching its borders, it opens a backdoor for any criminal oligarch with $200,000 to spend on a beachside villa. We will end these schemes, Europe-wide.
Second, we will enforce a harmonized corporations tax, ending Apple’s long gravy train through the Irish sea. In order to address the underlying political cause of the problem, we support shifting from a consensus-based system at the EU Council to a qualified majority, in order to prevent Europe from being taken hostage by Luxembourg ever again.
Finally, we will introduce a mandatory beneficial ownership registry to strip away all anonymity from shell companies operating in the European Union. And we will support the introduction of a Tax Justice Authority that can investigate all these entities for tax fraud violations — a first step toward a more global system of tax justice.
ES: The commitment to freedom of movement in the manifesto is admirable. How do you propose the EU play a transitory role in eventual open borders?
DA: Europe is — and forgive the cliche — at a crossroads here.
Over the last half-century, the right to free movement has become a staple of European citizenship. Even if the free movement of people began as a tool for capitalists to shift labour toward devastated regions in the post-war era, it has evolved into something more bigger, much more profound, and much more radical: a true step beyond borders.
While the European Union established free movement within its borders, however, it also a constructed a ‘fortress’ along them. We are one of the most vocal movements in pointing out the disgrace of a migration regime that allows thousands of refugees to perish along the Mediterranean — even as its border authority, Frontex, patrols the seas — while caging thousands more in concentration camps along its periphery. Worse still, the EU has been aggressively externalizing its border control to countries like Turkey, Libya, and Sudan, where they are regularly detained, tortured, and killed. If Donald Trump is advocating a deterrence policy along the Mexican border, the EU has perfected it: migration to the EU is plummeting as its death count, and incarcerated population, rises.
This is the crossroads.
Down one road, the European Union commits to its Fortress Europe strategy. The luxury of a borderless Europe is granted to its residents — and to its neighboring oligarchs — while denied to the migrants fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. As the climate crisis escalates, the European Union could become a pioneer in a new, regional migration regime — an Elysium on Earth, where passport privilege is everything.
Down the other, EU free movement becomes a springboard for a more global regime of open borders. More and more countries are absorbed into the EU’s Schengen area, and — bit by bit — the borders of the world fall away.
We are leading a movement toward that latter future, and our program targets Fortress Europe wherever it takes shape. We are calling for an end to the externalization of EU borders, terminating shady deals across the Middle East and North Africa. We are calling to enshrine the right to safe passage and the right to family reunification after. We are calling for the introduction of a European Search and Rescue Operation that is committed to zero deaths at sea, and a humanitarian passport issued by EU consulates around the world.
It’s a painful irony that Europe’s far right chants “law and order” while breaking every international law and treaty to which it is bound. We believe that we can reclaim that mantle and demand that all migrants have the right to seek asylum in Europe.
ES: Looking the manifesto over, it seems that every realm of life is covered and there is a correspondent commitment to make it more free, fair, and just. Everything is covered from decolonization of art to demilitarization to search and rescue operations at sea. How did you decide what to include in the program, and who were some of the people and organizations consulted?
DA: European politics today is largely dominated by Frankenstein coalitions: lifeless parts stitched together, with very few shared values, ideas, or policy proposals for Europe’s future.
The reasons why there is so little vitality in European politics are twofold. First, because the European Parliament is a very weak institution, and Europeans know it: it lacks the power to initiate legislation, and is left only to weigh in on various policy matters, its recommendations non-binding. Its little surprise, then, that turnout for the European elections remains tragically low, hovering just above levels of US participation in the Congressional midterms.
Second, transnational manifestos are really hard to write! Politics has been organized at the national level for very long, and the result is not only divergent policy priorities, but a completely different political vocabulary. Whereas our British friends love to call each other comrade, our Polish friends…. do not! Programmatic talks were often stymied by such semantics: do we refer to workers, labour, or wage labour?
To develop the programme, we relied on a vertical-and-horizontal process: moving up and down the party hierarchy (from Council to sub-Council to party activists and back up), and moving horizontally across the membership. Most party manifestos are written behind closed doors by two chief advisers (and their consultants!) who claim to have a pulse on the electorate. We ditched this model completely. Our first step was to combine all the political programmes of the movements and parties that comprise the European Spring. And then we took that draft to the membership, consulting scores of our local Democratic Spontaneous Collectives (DSCs) and collecting hundreds of proposals, amendments, and additions to the program.
It was a long slog — 10 months of development in total — but the result is something powerful: a comprehensive vision for Europe’s future. The EU tries its very best to prevent citizens from such imaginative thinking, training their focus at the national level. Our hope is that the New Deal for Europe — as the only such pan-European manifesto – can set the agenda for the next European parliament, creating coalitions for our policy proposals that are much wider than our own movement.
ES: What’s something you’ve read lately that you recommend?
DA: My dear friend and DiEM25 co-founder Srecko Horvat is publishing a very beautiful book this year, Poetry from the Future (Penguin). It is a stirring call to global struggle, and a powerful reminder of the great joy of resistance. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Adler is the policy director of DiEM25. He lives in Athens, Greece.
Emma Steiner is a candidate in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service’s Master of Arts in Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies program.