The “neoliberal juggernaut” of the EU relentlessly demands austerity measures and erodes the rights of labour, while it nourishes the myth that its supranational structures promote unity and shared prosperity among European citizens. Indicative of the vacuousness of such claims of EU benevolence is the fact that even Germany, indisputably the hegemon of Europe, achieved the ascendancy of its industrial export capital by supressing the wages of its labour force. The four freedoms of movement of capital, goods, people and services across national borders, that the EU has been at pains to project as rights of individual citizens, facilitate the interests of capital and have resulted in the formation of peripheries subservient to the demands of the European core. The common currency proved to be an iron trap, as shown most poignantly by the Greek crisis. The answer to the deteriorating situation in Europe has to be “domestic programmes that directly challenge the power of capital”. These are the most important tenets of Lapavitsas’ book which argues that internationalism starts at home, dispelling the myth that cross-border alliances of capital can result in improved prosperity for the citizens of Europe.
The concluding chapter of the book focuses on the issues of democracy and sovereignty in the EU and the question “What is the Left to do?” There are many, even on the Left, who argue that an EU member-state, especially a small one, would be at a very disadvantageous position if it left the Union: they would be well advised to ponder if what already happens inside the Union offers much solace. As pointed out in the book, nearly 80% of all EU legislation is decided in the Council of the EU firstly by a majority of 55% of the member states and secondly by member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population. The notion that any proposals for democratic reform could ever command such majorities does not bear contemplation, as Lapavitsas rightly notes. He argues that if the Left intends to implement radical anti-capitalist policies, it must be prepared for a rupture. He suggests that “an answer for Britain – and a pointer for the rest of Europe – could be provided by the Labour Party”. In relation to this, it should be noted that many of Labour’s current policies, such as the renationalisation of major public utilities – applauded by many, if not most, ‘Remain’ supporters within the Party – would not be permissible under EU rules.
It is emphasised in the book that exiting the EU does not necessarily constitute a nationalistic step, as it “could signal the emergence of a radical internationalism that would … reject the dysfunctional and hegemonic structures of the EU”. An apt example of the latter is the treatment of the refugees: “if any of the highfalutin notions about the EU were actually true, the refugees ought to have been treated in accordance to EU law … Reality proved vastly different”.
The publication of Lapavitsas’ book is very timely, not least because the Brexit debate currently dominates politics in Britain and across Europe. The book has already attracted considerable attention. During the launch of the book on 4 December 2018 in SOAS, University of London, the audience could not fit in the jam-packed amphitheatre and spill-over space was provided where the discussion was shown on a TV screen. The book is currently undergoing a fourth reprint, only a few weeks after its initial publication.
The discussion panel during the book launch included Larry Elliott, the economics editor of the Guardian and by his own admission “something of a lone voice” in the paper. Elliott emphasised that “neoliberalism is hard-wired into the EU treaties with Germany as the hegemon” and that “the Left has seriously screwed up since the financial crisis”, being “bereft of ideas and ideology both on the crisis and on Brexit” and questioned why the Left cannot do better than what has been happening during the last 5 years. A partial answer to this question is provided in the book, where it is argued that the Left can never win as long as it constrained by the terms set by the EU.
Another panellist, Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University, observed that there are some “timeless bits” in Lapavitsas’ analysis, but argued that some of the categories of class conflict mentioned in the book do not match what is going on today. In relation to Brexit, he acknowledged that a “Tory Brexit” is hard to swallow for many on the Left, whilst the Remain [in the EU] campaign pushes all hard questions to the future.
During his contribution to the discussion, Costas Lapavitsas outlined his motivation for writing the book: to contribute to the debate about what the EU is, to help formulate a case for the Left in Europe, and to share experiences from participating in the SYRIZA experiment of 2015, especially regarding the question “can the EU be reformed?”. He argued that against the evidence, those in SYRIZA who failed to change Europe, still believe they can change it. Pointing out that at the core of the EU lies German exporting capital and that EU is a place hostile to outsiders, he characterised “Remain and Reform” as a utopian dream that “comes from a good place”, but he stressed that the EU is reforming itself in the opposite direction.
A very important contribution of Lapavitsas’ book, unlike most other treatises on the same or related subjects, is that it is succinct, comprehensible and does not assume prior knowledge of economics or political economy. The book is essential reading, especially for those imbued with what Wolfgang Streeck has termed “sentimental symbolism”, the unwavering perception of the EU by many Europeans as a vehicle for the promotion of transnational cooperation for the benefit of all its citizens.
Lapavitsas, C. (2019). The Left Case Against the EU. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN: 978-1-5095-3106-6.