Event Report » 17 October 2013 in Barcelona, Spain

Voices of Europe: towards a social and democratic model

On Friday 18 October, a selection of European representatives and interested citizens gathered at the home of the Catalan foundation Nous Horitzons for the second event in the Green European Foundation’s Voices of Europe series. Following on from the ‘Future Congress’ hosted in Vienna in June, the discussion focused on how Europe can move towards adopting a more social and democratic model, and how Europe's Green family can guide it there.

An article by Aoife O'Grady

These multi-faceted questions provoked a mixing pot of themes for the evening discussion. From immigration and education to euroscepticism and European identity, participants from Catalonia, Austria, Greece, Belgium and Hungary explored a range of topics, sharing different regional and party focuses and concerns. Chair of the discussion Laia Ortiz, member of the Spanish Parliament for the Catalan Greens, called on participants to make use of the evening’s unique common space which offered “a chance to design the Europe we want – a Europe that is not based on the troika or the markets.”

"The Greens have to be offensive with their agenda"

GEF Co-President Pierre Jonckheer opened the discussion with two rallying cries to the Greens: adopt an offensive approach and be concrete. “The Greens have to be offensive with their agenda ... and defend our own ideas about what are the European policies needed. And we have to be concrete about what we are asking for."

A broken model

A desperately failed model has brought Europe to this point of crisis. Echoing the sentiments of participants in Vienna in June, speakers all agreed that the problem created at European level must be solved there. Scapegoating individual countries is merely a cynical distraction ploy. Dimitrios Birmpas, local Syriza councillor in Greece, summed up the general thinking.  “The crisis is not the debt crisis of the European South, it is a European crisis, a crisis of the neoliberal model and the structural failure of the European Union and euro.”

Oriol Costa, Lecturer in International Relations at Barcelona University, expanded on this, tracing the problem back to the neoliberal model which emerged as dominant in the 90s. He noted that Europe is in a situation where it is "trying to tie its shoelaces with one hand": the EU is in the business of ‘market making’, while national states try and fail to implement policies that will tame the markets, and their capacity of national authorities to react to crises is hugely diminished.

Mr Birmpas spelt out the frightening effects of this broken model in Greece today. "The social and labour rights in Greece today are the same as those that prevailed in the country 50 years ago. We have a 25% reduction in GDP and 30% unemployment rate – with an astonishing 60% youth unemployment rate. 25% of the population lives below poverty line. We see the termination of welfare programmes, the closure of hospitals and schools, the impoverishment of the middle classes, the collapse of production and the rise of neo-nazism."

A tragic failure of national immigration policies

The need for an umbrella immigration policy for the EU was touched on in Vienna. Since then effects of failed immigration policies were once again highlighted on television screens across Europe with the tragic drownings at Lampedusa. Speakers reflected on this and Ms Lunacek repeated the call she made in Vienna for a strong asylum policy at EU level which could help avert tragedies. She noted, “We need transparent and open processes – at the moment, people can only ask for asylum in the first European country they come to. We need a common mechanism and a common asylum policy at an EU level. ”

Ways out of the crisis

To emerge from the crisis, the entire model has to shift. According to Mr Costa, one key solution is for fiscal policy to be created at European level which could be done, at the beginning certainly, without changing the treaties. He noted, "There are many steps that can be taken in this direction, from the establishment of a real Banking Union to unemployment benefits being paid from a European budget by all members of the monetary union". Essentially, he added, we need to have tax mechanisms to transfer resources within the euro zone, instead of mechanisms based on debt which give all the power to one side.

Mr Birmpas, meanwhile, laid out some specifics from his party's vision for helping the EU to crawl its way out of crisis. He continued the discussion began in Vienna over the role of the Central European Bank, advocating for a more supportive Central Bank which would give loans to countries as if they were real banks and would generally mirror the Federal Reserve in the USA. He also sought public control of the European banking system in order to prevent bubbles and a “haircut” of the debt of all southern European countries. Finally, Mr Birmpas  called for the issuing of Eurobonds. 

Euroscepticism and the rise of the right 

Another knock-on effect of the failed model, according to participants, is euroscepticism and the rise of the right. Since the last event in Vienna, Austrian elections had taken place with the right-wing Freedom Party, winning over 20% of the vote. Ulrike Lunacek, Austrian Green MEP, warned of the subtle danger inherent in such a result. “Right wing parties don't want to lose their electorate so they go more and more to the right. The party in Austria is not violent like those we have seen in countries such as Greece. However, this is, in the long term, more dangerous for democracy. This creeping right-wing element in a democratic context could change the whole system that we fought so hard to establish.”

While this is still a fear in Austria and other European countries, some believe that it has already become a reality in Hungary. Zoltan Zarandy of the Hungarian Greens spoke of the democratic and social crisis the country is experiencing as a result of the policies of the right wing government led by Victor Orban. “There are no controls over the government in many respects - the constitutional court was suspended, there is limited media freedom, and there is an almost Weimar or totalitarian feeling in the country. We have masses of homeless people all of the major cities, and being homeless is now a criminal offence. Totally unorthodox social and economic policies are being adopted. But Orban's number one goal, above all else, is to take money away from education.” The result, according to Mr. Zarandy, is that the country is in a state of fear and insecurity and is experiencing a mass exodus of its most talented students and workers.  

A European identity?

Could a coherent European identity be the basis for answering these waves of euroscepticism? Zoltan Zarandy of the Hungarian Greens noted the Greens must "sell" the European identity as something which can co-exist with national identities. "The European integration project is unique on this planet Earth - we want to enjoy common benefits within this melting pot and yet maintain own values. The number one issue is to sell the idea of becoming a European citizen. It is like a ’Matryoshka’ nesting doll where many forms fit within one."

Ms Ortiz, the Chair, pointed to the importance of joining efforts, not only within the Green Party but also reaching out to the Left in general and to civil society movements. Mr Birmpas, the only 'non-Green' on the panel, fervently agreed. "We all have to fight for this agenda, social movements and parties alike. We could now create a common, public, democratic and social alliance at European level, to cooperate and fight against neoliberal policies."

The final words of the evening were then left to GEF Co-President Pierre Jonckheer who urged the party to have conviction but struck a note of caution. He called for representatives to focus on distilling their ideas into agreed key messages ahead of the elections: "We will not convince people with abstract speech. We need clear key messages and agreement on these key messages in 28 countries."

Voices of Europe - the project

As part of the 'Voices of Europe: In Search of a Common Perspective’, two similar events were organised in Vienna (June 2013; access event report) and Budapest (October 2013; report available soon). The project is organised by the Green European Foundation with support of Green national foundations in in Spain (Fundacio Nous Horitzons), Hungary (Ecopolis foundation) and Austria (Gruene Bildungswerkstatt).

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