Former Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis launched his Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) on February 9th in the Volksbühne theatre in the centre of Angela Merkel’s Berlin. Promising a message of hope to “people who don’t believe in politics”, he spoke of a broad transnational movement aimed at democratising Europe before it disintegrates. “If we do nothing”, he said “we’ll return to the 1930s”.
Accompanying Varoufakis on the podium were political leaders and intellectuals from the broad left, from German LINKE leader Katja Kipping and Podemos MEP Miguel Crespo Urban to Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat and British artist-musician-activist Brian Eno. Joining by video link were the mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, US economist James K Galbraith, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Zizek.
Varoufakis stressed his belief in a genuinely broad movement: “I am proudly Left but DiEM25 is more than that. Neoliberalism has made social democracy impossible. I ask all democrats, social democrats, liberal democrats: can you live with this`? We are radical in a way that liberal democrats must be if they are to survive.”
Place was also allowed for dissenters from Varoufakis’s project. Veteran German SDP MP Gesine Schwan was introduced as the only member of the German government who had offered any support to Varoufakis when he was in office. Schwan said: “I won’t be part of the movement, but I don’t want to calm the enthusiasm”. She agreed that the financial crisis was the start of destroying democracy in Europe, and offered to cooperate on future projects.
DiEM25 has launched an initial manifesto on www.diem25.org with four main principles:
- No European people can be free as long as another’s democracy is violated.
- No European people can live in dignity as long as another is denied it.
- No European people can hope for prosperity if another is pushed into permanent insolvency and depression.
- No European people can grow without basic goods for its weakest citizens, human development, ecological balance and a determination to become fossil-fuel free in a world that changes its ways – not the planet’s climate
The Website also calls on “our fellow Europeans to join us forthwith to create the European movement which we call DiEM25”. It is, at the moment, still somewhat vague about what this movement is to do. This was noted in the brief round of questions at the end of the launch meeting. A number of speakers from the floor asked “where do we come in?” and “how do we get from A to B?”
Before turning to these practicalities, it is first worth saying what DiEM25 stands for. From the wide range of different speeches in the Volksbühne, there appears to be consensus on two main things – the need to address the current deficit of democracy in Europe, and the need to reform the EU.
Regarding democracy, Varoufakis compared the European Union to the Soviet Union, where initial hopes of liberation were replaced by a faceless bureaucracy. According to Srecko Horvat “the dream of the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over. We saw that last year with SYRIZA”.
Horvat argued that when we try to understand how we have reached the democracy deficit, we should not just blame the failures of SYRIZA. The European left as a whole also failed to build effective solidarity. A single election victory in one country was never going to be sufficient – even the occupation of every square in Europe would not be enough. What is needed is a common transnational movement that challenges power in every country.
At the moment, DiEM25 seems to be prioritising the struggle for democracy over more radical campaigns against neo-liberalism. Varoufakis says that he has friends and close collaborators who could be called Thatcherites or neo-liberals, and that even they would sign up to his appeal for more democracy. This may work for the short term, but some time down the line, DiEM25 must confront the question as to whether neo-liberalism is the cause or effect of the democracy deficit.
Criticism of the current EU
All speakers criticised the current EU, with British Green MP Caroline Lucas making the point that the discussion about the EU carried out by DiEM25 was quite different to the debate in Britain. The British debate is generally polarised between David Cameron’s vision of a Europe based on division not solidarity and the little Englandism of UKIP. As a former MEP who served 10 years in Brussels, Lucas said that she had no illusions in the EU, but that the solution is reform.
Varoufakis noted the “pivotal year” of 2015, when the EU “quite substantially” failed with an economic policy that condemned large parts of Europe’s periphery to permanent poverty. After the Greek government was forced to capitulate, it had to spend massive amounts of money bailing out banks. In contrast, European governments are squabbling about a fraction of this amount being used to help refugees.
Podemos MEP Miguel Crespo Urban called for an end to the corporate power in Europe and Brussels, saying that EU secret agreements like TTIP show that the EU is in the control of corporate power. Cynical EU institutions are building higher walls against refugees while using debt as a weapon to blackmail the people of the South. Events last year in Greece showed how banks, not tanks, can be used to stage a coup d’état.
Ada Colau expressed her shame that refugees are suffering from the effects of a Brussels coup d’état in Greece. She called for a fight for a democratic Europe counting on people from the bottom up. She said that Europe can be Europe again if it’s put in the hands of its people. Colau said that we won’t resign and prepared us for a long fight.
Other speakers seemed to have greater illusions that the EU can be quickly reformed. According to former Portuguese MEP Rui Tavares, only the change of 2 or 3 laws would have the EU working democratically. Yet if the other speakers are correct (and I think, generally speaking, they are), it is difficult to see how this power imbalance can be overturned with 2 or 3 laws.
Tavares noted that at the moment half of the centre-left is sitting in neo-liberal governments, while the other half is “helping the far right to leave Europe”. This idea that saying that the EU is irreformable plays into the hands of the racists was reiterated by several speakers, including Slavoj Zizek who warned against “the return to strong nation states”.
Yet the demand that we choose between EU reform and strong states is, for me, a straw man argument which is predicated on the idea that the EU ever operated in the interest of its citizens rather than European big business. As Julian Assange put it “After World War Two there was a dream for what Europe could be, and this dream has been lost”. There remains the question as to whether this dream was ever realised in the EU.
This is not the place to carry on this discussion any further save to say that one of the biggest problems confronting DiEM25 will be developing an analysis of exactly how it’s central aim of reforming the EU can be won, and what a reformed EU would look like.
Movement, not a party
Varoufakis stressed his belief that “the model of national parties is obsolete. DiEM25 should have no hierarchies, we are horizontal. This is indeed a noble aim. It is though somewhat unclear how this will work in practise. In advance, some people had criticised the ticket price of €12. Speaking at the anti-capitalist Blockupy conference, Varoufakis defended this decision saying that raising money for subsidised tickets would involve employing a treasurer which was a bureaucratic layer that he wanted to avoid.
Yet every effective movement requires people who take organisational responsibility. Often the attempt to avoid hierarchies has led de facto power being in the hands of a few individuals – a charge often made against Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos.
Associated with the issue of movements and parties is the one of what DiEM25 should actually do. Independent Irish MEP Nessa Childers raised the question of whether we need power and, if so, what kind of power? She asked if DiEM25 should stand candidates in future elections, acknowledging that although these questions do not need to be answered immediately, DiEM25 must address them if it is to have a permanent future.
Similarly it is unclear how the movement will remain broad and radical. The presence on the podium of many Greens was a sign of the proposed diversity. Yet where the Greens have entered office in Europe their record has been generally quite rotten. This was acknowledged by Cecile Duflot, president of the French Greens and a former minister in Francois Hollande’s neo-liberal red-green government.
Duflot eventually left this government, but other Greens throughout Europe remain in office at national or local level. Gesine Schwan also noted her disappointment that Germany’s Social Democratic Party is in a coalition government with Merkel, and is supporting and implementing austerity politics. When DiEM25 comes into conflict with these governments, will its centre be able to hold?
Getting from A to B
DiEM25 has drawn up a timetable of immediately demanding full transparency is decision making, and using existing institutions and EU treaties to address the ongoing economic crisis within the next twelve months. It demands that a European Constitutional Assembly be set up within 2 years, whose decisions should be enacted by 2025 (hence the name DiEM25).
The first demands of the movement are live streaming of all EU meetings and the publishing of all their minutes. In the middle term, DiEM25 will organise a series of discussions to develop policy proposals to stabilise debt.
Alongside these general demands, DiEM25 members will also be involved in specific campaigns. Caroline Lucas made a list of demands including a European Green New Deal, energy efficiency, a minimum wage in each country, a European basic income, and a challenge to the idea that all problems are solved by economic growth.
Gerardo Pisarello, the deputy mayor of Barcelona spoke of the real gains that have already been made by the left-wing municipal governments in Spanish “rebel cities”. Although these governments only took office 8 months ago, they have already won moderate victories by uniting with movements for refugees and against evictions. Pisarello called for better cooperation of rebel cities throughout Europe.
Podemos MEP Miguel Crespo Urban also emphasized the importance of grassroots movements. He recently visited an initiative welcoming refugees in Moabit, a working-class area of Berlin. He said that despite media reports, it was such initiatives which were really helping refugees, not the Merkel government. He went on “we are coming from the social movements, from the people in the streets and the squares. We can never forget that.”
A number of other speakers also mentioned refugees and the responsibility of Western warmongering for the refugee “crisis”. At a press conference in the morning, Varoufakis explained “when someone knocks on our door in the middle of the night and they’re wet and hungry you don’t do a cost-benefit analysis.” Caroline Lucas made it clear that the resources are there to provide help: “never ever believe them when they say there’ no money for what we want them to do. They can always find money for wars and nuclear weapons”
Anna Siedle from the German anti-capitalist “Blockupy” movement talked of planned mobilisations in Berlin in Autumn and international demonstrations before next year’s German national elections protesting against Germany’s domination of Europe. Hans-Jürgen Urban, Executive member of the IG Metall union, also emphasized the special responsibility of the German left and unions in fighting Merkel’s austerity government.
Varoufakis seems to be convinced that the simple demand of live streaming EU meetings and publishing minutes could be enough to break down the whole façade. He was supported here by Zizek, who said “demand something relatively modest, no-one can be opposed to it. But if you take this demand to the end everything falls apart. We just need the iron will to follow this demand to the end.”
Backing up these demands, DiEM25 is making a timetable for the next 1-2 years. Varoufakis promises policy initiatives every 2 months, backed up by town hall meetings and meetings in theatres like the Volksbühne, leading much bigger events. Quoting Dylan Thomas, he said: “DiEM25 is about not going gently in the good night. To rage, rage against the dying of the light”
It is still unclear whether this simple message will reach a necessary momentum, or how DiEM25 will cooperate with existing initiatives, such as the Plan B proposed by leading left figures in Europe around Oskar Lafontaine. Of course this does not mean that the attempt is not worth it. Srecko Horvat quoted Samuel Beckett saying “try again. Fail again. Fail better”. According to Horvat, our greatest enemy is not failure but passivity.
Addressing the idea that not all of DiEM25’s demands are fully-formed, Brian Eno said that this is a necessary component of making a step into the unknown: “We have strong feelings and need to make a bold step forwards. Start cooking – recipe to follow.” The full demands of what we want can only be developed in the process of the struggle.
One thing is sure – DiEM25 is not lacking in ambition. Varoufakis concluded his speech by warning that “the real danger is not aiming too high and missing but training our eyes on the floor. Tonight we’ll celebrate but tomorrow morning let’s shake Europe”. That tomorrow has now dawned and Europe is waiting.