DiEM25’s vision of Europe for the Post-Pandemic Era: Some personal thoughts

by Yanis Varoufakis

DiEM25 was created in February 2016 because Europe was disintegrating as a result of a pseudo-technocratic takeover of the EU that was imposing austerity everywhere in response to the financial crisis caused by the EU pseudo-technocracy’s controllers. Today, now that a mindless virus has placed European capitalism in suspended animation, it is time to re-assess our analysis and to re-purpose our policies.
Our 2016 Manifesto offered a pertinent analysis of why Europe was disintegrating, why the xenophobic Nationalist International was rising, how the nationalists and the EU technocracy were, essentially, the opposite sides of the same coin. A year or so later, to give policy substance to the Manifesto, DiEM25 put together, with the help of countless Europeans, our Green New Deal for Europe. In the May 2019 European Parliament election, along with political allies, we run in several countries promoting this Green New Deal policy agenda.Bankers and fascists never let a ‘good’ crisis go to waste. They unite across borders and pursue their putrid agenda transnationally.
This time round progressive Europeanists must not waste the opportunity to come together under a common analysis and policy agenda reflecting the new facts on the ground. The last thing we should want is a return to normality. If DiEM25 was right, there was nothing ‘normal’ about what was happening in Europe, and indeed the world, prior to COVID-19. Just like the great wars, so too the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, all epidemics force humanity an opportunity to re-think its ways. The powers-that-be will do their utmost to force us back to business-as-usual. We must ensure they do not get their way. For two reasons: Business cannot go back to its usual ways, even if we all wanted it to. Secondly, those ‘usual ways’ were inefficient and detrimental to the interests of humanity.
Last year, in May 2019, a week or so before the European Parliament elections, DiEM25 published a delightful edited book entitled A Vision of Europe (edited beautifully by David Adler and Rosemary Blecher). A second volume is now ready since the past twelve months demanded of us to re-think our Vision of Europe, even though it was fresh of the printers. Last week I had to write the introduction to A Vision of Europe Vol.2. It quickly turned into an exercise in re-thinking DiEM25’s manifesto and policy agenda for the post-pandemic era.
Over the next few months, DiEM25 will have to revisit its foundational texts and main policy papers. Already from last November, at our Prague get-together, we set a course toward a more radical agenda. The following thoughts are, in this context, intended to warm up this discussion both within DiEM25 and also with progressives out there interested in a dialogue on what must be done in Europe and beyond now.
“Europe will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!”, was our prognosis in 2016. Well, Europe did not democratise its EU institutions and is now disintegrating. What should we now say and do?

The European paradox at the heart of the EU’s disintegration

A year is a long time in politics but would, ordinarily, be too short a time to make a difference to our vision of the future. Alas, last year was no ordinary year. By ensuring that the future no longer is what it used to be, the last twelve months made necessary a revised Vision of Europe. You are now, dear reader, holding the result.
In the May 2019 European Parliament elections, our Green New Deal for Europe, the Manifesto based on our Vision of Europe, was comprehensively trounced. Even though DiEM25 and our European Spring allies managed to gather one and a half million votes, we failed to elect a single MEP. Judging by that sorry result, some might plausibly say that our Vision of Europe sank like a lead balloon, at least electorally.
One explanation of our electoral failure is, indeed, this: Our analysis and policies were poor or at odds with Europe’s electorates. However, there is a second explanation: Even though many Europeans are ready to adopt DiEM25’s analysis and to support our policy agenda, Europe’s politics reproduces the dominance of unpopular institutions and the power of its functionaries. Judging by the evolution of conventional wisdom, especially among younger Europeans, this second explanation seems quite plausible. Indeed, since our electoral defeat in Germany, France etc., both the analysis in the Vision of Europe and the policies in DiEM25’s Green New Deal for Europe have gained incredible traction.
This paradox lies at the heart of Europe’s disintegration; a process that began in 2010 with the euro crisis, accelerated in 2015 with the crushing of the Greek Spring, gathered pace with Brexit’s triumphs in 2016 and 2019 and was turbocharged in 2020 by COVID-19 and the European Union’s pathetic response to the pandemic. The structure of the paradox is easy to dissect.
On the one hand, there is the widespread consensus that the European Union’s monetary and economic union is not merely flawed but the source of unnecessary recessions, environmental degradation, and avoidable pain for a majority of Europeans. On the other hand, Europe’s politics guarantee that this consensus is paid lip service by the dominant political forces while being kept brutally and ruthlessly away from Europe’s decision-making centres.
DiEM25’s Manifesto, our Green New Deal for Europe and, yes, the first volume of A Vision of Europe acknowledged this paradox as well as its capacity to undermine the European Union and progressive, radical Europeanism more broadly. However, I believe now that our language, our texts and the way we phrased our campaign speeches were far too timid. It was simply not enough to say “Europe will either be democratised or it will disintegrate.” Though correct as a prediction, our political campaign needed something more powerful than a prediction: It needed a more radical statement of what was happening and what we should be about.

What we are really up against

Re-reading A Vision of Europe recently, I realised that it was missing something crucial: A class analysis of the true reasons Europe’s establishment are turning down sensible, moderate policies and institutional changes that would be mutually advantageous across Europe.
If I am right that DiEM25’s Green New Deal for Europe, including its smart public debt and investment financing technical proposals, would lift all boats at once (German and Italian, Dutch and Greek) why were the German and Dutch governments so hostile to the idea?
A Vision of Europe did not answer the question, leaving it to the reader mistakenly to think that either we are wrong or that the political agents of the northern establishment are inane. Neither is true. Our analysis is correct and the northern establishment is pursuing its self-interest smartly. Can it be so? How?
The events of 2020 settled this question. For example, it is clear that even the most hard-nosed fiscal conservative living in Northern Europe can see that, in the face of a gigantic recession caused by the pandemic, leaving each member-state to fend for itself will lead, sooner or later, to the euro’s disintegration. They are certainly smart enough to recognise that, given Italy’s state of affairs, forcing Rome to borrow billions at a time of collapsing national incomes will lead to default and exit from the eurozone with a very high probability. Or, that it will, alternatively, cause such a depression that a neofascist government will rise up to do what the recession failed: Bring on a fatal clash between Rome and Brussels.
But, if I am right, why has the EU establishment killed off the only alternative to crippling increases in national debt; i.e. Eurobonds? Why have they ignored DiEM25’s technically astute proposal for a European Central Bank bond issue, an ECB-bond, of thirty-years maturity by which to raise €1 trillion in order to absorb the catastrophic rise in national debt that will, inevitably, cause Italy’s default, then Spain’s, eventually France’s etc.?
Given that the establishment running the EU knows full well that Italy and the rest of Europe’s South are great contributors to the surpluses of the North (e.g. by keeping down their exchange rate and the interest rates of their Treasuries below zero), why are they taking great risks with the euro’s disintegration? Why are they not using the pandemic as an opportunity to solidify the North’s advantages from Europe’s monetary union by embracing DiEM25’s proposals both for an ECB-bond and a large pan-European investment drive financed by an alliance of the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the ECB? Who would benefit more from such an investment program than, say, Siemens and Volkswagen?
The answer that A Vision of Europe Vol. 1 lacked begins with a realisation: Yes, the politicians representing the oligarchy-without-frontiers recognise all of the above as well as you and I, dear reader. But they also see something that most progressives don’t: That the architecture of the eurozone is unique in the history of capitalism in the way it has empowered the oligarchy that those politicians represent.
Having created a gargantuan central bank without a state to control or to support it, nineteen states (those using the euro) have been left without a central bank to support them directly. Once bereft of the power to control money and interest rates, soon these states hit the limits of their spending. Once on the fiscal ropes, no government, independently of its political and ideological colours, can do much in the sphere of income and wealth re-distribution.
Having removed control of money and interest rates from the states, the designers of the eurozone did something that had never been accomplished before: They robbed every democratically elected Prime Minister or President of the instruments by which to transfer significant amounts of wealth from the rich to the poor who constitute the majority – or, in Aristotle’s definition, the Demos. In short, they surreptitiously took the Demos out of European Democracy. Whether they did this intentionally or not is neither here nor there.
The only fact that matters is that, with the creation of the euro, democratically elected governments could no longer shift large quantities of value from the oligarchy to the majority. Future economic historians will surely mark this as a momentous development.
Compare and contrast the German Chancellor with the Prime Minister of the UK. Even though Germany is far richer, its trade surplus is enormous, and the country is better run than the UK, the German Chancellor, even if she wanted to, could not shift large amounts of income and wealth from rich to poor Germans. Why? Because she is constrained not to run large deficits and has no control of the central bank. In contrast, the UK’s Prime Minister, backed by the Bank of England, can run large deficits in pursuit of public investment or even simply to transfer large amounts of wealth to poorer residents, e.g., in Northern England.
We are now ready to see what we are up against. Yes, the EU oligarchy can see that the implementation of our Green New Deal for Europe would do wonders to end the euro crisis that began in 2009 and which turned ballistic, courtesy of COVID-19, in 2020. They can see as well as you and I, dear reader, that their profits would rise, not fall, as a result. However, they also realise that DiEM25’s policy proposals usher in new instruments, like ECB-bonds and a Green Investment Fund empowered by an EIB-ECB alliance.
These new instruments will, surreptitiously, re-enable elected politicians in Germany, in France, in Italy etc. to re-distribute large chunks of income and wealth from the European oligarchy to poorer people living both in Europe’s North and South. Is it not understandable that this is not something the oligarchy will consent to lightly?
In summary, A Vision of Europe erred in not explaining to the reader two key points: First, that our proposed policies for transforming Europe are policies that even the oligarchs see as mutually beneficial for Europeans in Central, Northern, Southern and Eastern Europe. Secondly, they don’t care. Understandably!
Indeed, the oligarchy-without-borders fears European disintegration far less than they fear the instruments of public finance that we propose because of their potential to re-distribute some of their ill-gotten wealth. They are, thus, prepared to push Europe to the brink rather than allow these instruments to be forged.

Why not just accept that this EU must end?

We are faced by an EU oligarchy willing and able to push the EU to the brink rather than acquiesce to financial instruments that democratically elected governments can use against them and in the interests of a majority of Europeans in every EU member-state. A Vision of Europe failed sufficiently to stress this reality, letting readers surrender to the mistaken belief that our task was one of persuasion. How can you persuade all-powerful people already convinced by, but wholly uninterested in, your argument?
No, our task was never to persuade the powers-that-be. It was to confront them. No, our task was never to reform the EU by winning arguments in the Eurogroup or the European Council. It was to transform the EU through fierce confrontation taking the form of, what at DiEM25 we refer to as, Constructive Disobedience: Constructive proposals like our Green New Deal for Europe coupled with a readiness to say NO, to disobey, until the cows come home.
Lexiteer friends, leftists who have given up on the EU long ago and campaigned in favour of existing the EU, have been admonishing us for the ‘constructive’ part of our Constructive Disobedience and our refusal to campaign for exiting the EU. “Why make pie-in-the-sky proposals that the EU establishment will never consider?”, they ask us. “Why maintain the false hope that this EU can be transformed?”, they continue. “Why not do the honest thing and campaign to bring our countries out of this toxic EU?”, they conclude.
Our answers were, and remain, solid for at least three reasons:

    1. Any campaign to exit the EU, even if it is meant for good progressive reasons, will alienate middle-of-the-road, relatively apolitical, Europeans that progressives must attract. They will ask: “Won’t the dissolution of the EU, however terrible the EU might be, come at a huge cost for common people?” “Won’t the end of the EU boost nationalism thus jeopardising peaceful coexistence on our Continent?” The only honest answers to both questions are affirmative.
    2. Any campaign to exit the EU will devastate activists in Germany and other surplus countries where the conservative establishment is unassailable. I recall happily the excited faces of audiences of young activists in Hanover or Hamburg every time I recite DiEM25’s call to unity across the continent, not as Germans or as Greeks, but as progressive Europeans forming a transnational movement aiming at a transnational European Demos that will eventually construct a genuine European Democracy. Do you know, dear reader, what these same young Germans would feel if the message was “To hell with the EU, let’s all go back to our nation-states and collaborate via our governments”? Let me tell you how they would feel: Devastated! They would immediately think to themselves: “We are alone. Us and the ironclad German oligarchy!” No, this is not something I would ever do. The call for a transnational movement to build a transnational European Democracy was right and, given the existence of this EU, uniquely consistent with progressive politics.
    3. Any campaign to exit the EU, even if motivated by a left-wing agenda, will only be appended by the Nationalist International which will lose no time weaponising the tumult caused by the EU’s rupture to build tall walls, to demonise foreigners, to turn European peoples and communities against one another, and to reinforce the alliance between an increasingly authoritarian state and an unfettered oligarchic corporate cartel.

DiEM25 was, for the three reasons above, right to reject the Lexiteers’ strategy of calling for a campaign to disintegrate the EU via Brexit, Grexit, Italexit, Fraxit etc.
Moreover, DiEM25 was not at all naïve to put forward a Vision of Europe that begins with specific policy recommendations for the short and medium term – our Green New Deal for Europe which provides a sensible, moderate blueprint that could, tomorrow morning, and under the current EU rules, cure all sorts of ills: the public and private debt crisis, how to fund the Green Transition, a job’s guarantee scheme to end precarity, a universal basic dividend to deal with inequality and automation etc.
No, DiEM25 did not naïvely think that the EU establishment would be so impressed by our Green New Deal for Europe that they would begin to implement it under the pressure of its logic. We knew full well that they would rather blow up the Continent than allow its implementation. So why promote it as an EU-healer when we knew that those in control of the EU would prefer the EU’s disintegration to our policies’ implementation? The answer is: Because it is the only way to win the hearts and minds of a majority of Europeans.
Let’s be clear on this: There are two types of Europeans. A large minority ready do become convinced that this EU must end, people we are bound to lose to the Matteo Salvinis and Boris Johnsons of Europe. And a majority comprising people who know that there is something rotten in the EU but who, also, roll their eyes when hearing progressives repeat empty slogans such as ‘Another Europe is Possible’, especially when we tell them that this ‘Other Europe’ will come only if we end the existing EU. If we tell them “this EU must end” all we achieve is to make them feel oddly sympathetic to the EU functionaries. To abandon their apathy and to withdraw their tacit consent to the EU establishment’s ways, they need first to experience rational rage against the EU establishment.
How do we instil rational rage in the majority’s souls and minds against the EU establishment? First, we need to answer their legitimate question: “Precisely how could things be done differently within the existing institutional framework?” If we do not provide them with a definitive, convincing answer, we shall lose them either to the racist Nationalist International or to the illiberal establishment. In particular, telling them that nothing good can happen within this EU is the death knell of every progressive political force. Euro-TINA (the doctrine that there is no alternative within this EU) is a right-wing, reactionary mantra that DiEM25 sensible rejected from Day 1; that is, on the 9th of February 2016 when we founded our transnational movement, the first ever, in Berlin.
DiEM25’s analysis was right: The only way to generate rational rage amongst Europeans is to demonstrate to them how easy it is to end every single crisis destroying the life prospects of most Europeans. To show them how much good could be done to so many even within the awful rules and Treaties of the EU. Once they see that, they will automatically ask the pertinent question: “If all that good could be done today, why are those in power not doing it?” Since the only answer is that the authorities are in the pockets of an oligarchy ready and willing to destroy not only their lives but the EU as well, helping them ask this question is the first step to making possible generalised civil disobedience to the EU’s rulers. That’s the essence of DiEM25’s Constructive Disobedience: Demonstrate what could be done and let even the politically apathetic feel rational rage that it is not being done.
In conclusion, DiEM25 rejected, and continues to reject, Lexit because there is no point in campaigning for the end of the EU. Progressives, we believe, must take a leaf out of the EU oligarchy’s manual. Look at the oligarchy’s political agents: They wrap themselves up in the EU flag pretending to be Europeanists so as to exploit the gut feeling of most Europeans that the EU’s disintegration will cost common folk dearly and, also, help hatch the serpent’s egg in every country. But, at the same time, they are ready and willing to destroy the EU to serve their interests. We should do something very similar on behalf of the suffering many.
What should we do? Like the oligarchy, we must remain tuned to the prescient gut feeling of most Europeans that ending the EU will inflict most costs upon the weakest while, at the same time, strengthening only the neofascists. This rules out a Lexit campaign. However, like the oligarchy, we must be prepared to take the EU to the brink in pursuit of the minimum policies that are necessary to serve the interests of the many against those of the oligarchy. To put it bluntly, just like the Dutch and German finance ministers, we must be prepared to blow up the EU in order to protect the interests of our people; i.e. the vast majority of Europeans.
Re-reading A Vision of Europe, my self-criticism is that we put too much emphasis on the ‘constructive’ part of Constructive Disobedience and not enough on the ‘disobedient’ part – and the necessity of contemplating, and even planning for, the EU’s ending.

The obvious case-study: Brexit

COVID-19 hit hardest people living in countries, like Italy and Spain, with the least capacity to spend the monies necessary to save lives and jobs. Faced with the EU’s determination to insist on lending the victims money, with interest, instead of accepting the logic of fiscal union as a prerequisite for a stable and civilised monetary union, I wrote in The Guardian the following:

“The message today to Italians, Spaniards, Greeks etc. is: Your government can borrow large amounts from Europe’s bailout fund. No conditions. You will also receive help to pay for unemployment benefits from countries where employment holds up better. But, within a year or two, as your economies are recovering, huge new austerity will be demanded to bring your government’s finances back into line, including the repayment of the monies spent on your unemployment benefits. This is equivalent to helping the fallen get up but striking them over the head as they begin to rise.”

On 25th March 2020, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported in The Telegraph on a conversation we had thus:

“The Greek socialist said he had always tried to keep the European faith – even in his worst clashes with Brussels – but has finally given up. “I don’t think the EU is capable of doing anything to us other than harm. I opposed Brexit but I have now reached the conclusion that the British did the right thing, even if they did it for the wrong reason,” he said.”

Those were, I can confirm, my words. Interestingly, they impressed immensely many Brexiteers who welcomed my ‘conversion’. Some Lexiteers went further by mixing approval of my ‘new’ stance with scorn that it took me too long, that when I was finance minister I had not enacted Grexit, that DiEM25 had wasted energy by sticking to a Remain-and-Reform agenda.
Did I have a Road-to-Damascus moment after the EU’s COVID-19 moment? No, I did not. For decades I have admonished the EU with strong arguments exposing its vicious misanthropy. Since the euro crisis began, I spoke of its ‘fiscal waterboarding’ practices (that were recently referred to as ‘torture devices’ even by Heiko Mass, the current German Foreign Minister). I even referred to Brussels as a democracy-free zone. So, telling Evans-Pritchard that the EU is only capable of dishing out pain to our people was nothing new.
What was new was my assessment that, in the end, by opting for Brexit Britons made the right choice for the wrong reasons. This is a statement that requires some unpacking if only because it has an important bearing on, at least, my vision of Europe.
First, let me explain why I said that Britons were, in the end, right to get out of the EU. The eurozone is often described as a union within a union, or a club within a club. While this description is formally correct, it fails to capture the centrifugal forces that the euro’s creation unleashed. Once the single currency was created, in the designed absence of common debt instruments and a common banking system, the EU train was put on a track leading inexorably to a junction. There, it could turn sharply toward unification or continue on the same route until, running out of track, it disintegrated. That junction was reached with the euro crisis but the EU establishment, for reasons explained earlier, are resisting unification – thus forcing the EU off its rails. Under these circumstances, it is not wrong for the people of Britain to bail out of this slow-motion train wreck.
Secondly, why did I say, seemingly condescendingly, that the British got out for the wrong reasons? That should be obvious to progressives: The lies about the billions of pounds that would be saved and re-channelled to the National Health Service; the demonisation of EU migrants as having been the cause of stressed social services (when it was all down to Tory austerity); the jingoistic projections of a liberated free-market Britain sailing the oceans of enterprise and re-constituting its Empire; the role of dark networks of disinformation targeting those vulnerable to hate speech.
Thirdly, and most importantly: Have I regretted that DiEM25, and me personally, campaigned against Brexit? No, I have not. Anyone who witnessed our 2016 campaign will realise that it was two-pronged: Against Brexiteers who were blowing, willingly or unwillingly, fresh wind into the sails of nationalism. And, with equal ferocity, against Remainers who were portraying the EU as the best thing since sliced bread.
As for the charge of my British Lexiteer friends that, when I was Greece’s finance minister, I was not prepared to pull the trigger and exit the eurozone, this is simply a lie. I was prepared and I would have done it, if my own government had not buckled. Indeed, the reason I was so hated by the EU establishment was that I was not a Lexiteer but that would not (and the troika knew this well) stop me from pulling the trigger and issuing a new drachma. Had I been a Lexiteer, they would have not minded me, since the majority of Greeks would not have followed me. What made 2015 a moment when the EU establishment feared for its dominance, even only for a few short months, was that they were facing a Europeanist foe ready and willing to do as they did: To take matters to the brink by being ready even to blow up the euro, the EU itself, rather than betray the interests of his people (i.e. the majority of Europeans, not just of Greeks).

Our Vision of Europe demands new radicalism, new alliances, new ruptures

Our constantly evolving Green New Deal for Europe is crucial. But it is not enough. COVID-19 has created new facts on the ground. The sums our Green New Deal proposed for funding the Green Transition (€500 billion annually) were ridiculed in 2019 but, today, appear utterly understated.
Capitalism has been, temporarily, suspended. Our Vision of Europe can no longer rely only on the constructive proposals that are the ‘constructive’ part of our Constructive Disobedience strategy.
This is the time to envision a Post-capitalist Europe. In this context, the Green New Deal must be recognised as the first stepping stone to a vastly different future. We must now inspire people with a vision of what follows both capitalism and our Green New Deal.
What should that Vision be? Here are some ideas: An economic democracy where companies are ran on a one-person-one-non-tradeable-share-one-vote principle; where there are no private banks but, instead, the central bank provides free digital accounts to every citizen; a society that grants a trust fund to every baby born.
Turning to alliances, the original A Vision of Europe got it right when warning xenophobes and crypto-fascists that we shall fight them everywhere. But it was remiss when it failed to warn the remnants of what was once social democracy that we shall treat them too as toxic agents of a recalcitrant establishment. Let’s be clear on this: The social democratic establishment forces have done the most damage to the progressive cause in Europe.
Who gave the EU’s oligarchy the greatest effective support and legitimacy over the past decade? No, it was not the conservative parties. It was the German and Austrian SPDs, the Socialists in France, the Democratic Party in Italy, Greece’s PASOK and SYRIZA parties that signed up to every piece of troika nastiness, the new socialist Eurogroup President from Portugal etc. etc. While many progressive people are still entangled in the poisonous web of those parties, and need to be rescued, our Vision of Europe will only stand a chance if DiEM25 has nothing to do with their leadership.
In contrast, the rift between us, DiEM25, and Lexiteers must now end. We must agree to disagree on whether the right tactic is to demand an exit from the EU or, as DiEM25 believes, to continue to envision a democratic union. But we must move beyond this disagreement and plan ahead for an internationalist, post-capitalist Europe. DiEM25 is about bringing European progressives together independently of the EU. Europe, we must scream from the rooftops, is NOT the EU. Like bankers and fascists unite across EU and non-EU borders, so should we.
Finally, to make our Vision of Europe consistent with our internationalism, we need to embed it within the Vision for the World – exactly as DiEM25 is currently struggling to do by building the Progressive International together with wonderful progressives from all over the planet.
There is no doubt that to make any of this remotely feasible there is a lot of work to be done. Work that is physically exhausting, mentally gruelling, emotionally destructive. But work that, nevertheless, we can’t even imagine giving up on. The best way to carry on is to take breaks during which to develop further our Vision of Europe, our Vision of the World.

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