What will it remain of this Europe? Interview to Andrew Spannaus

«The populist revolt is justified and also inevitable in a democratic society». One of very few to have predicted Trump's rise, American journalist-analyst Andrew Spannaus explores in his new book, La rivolta degli elettori. Il ritorno dello Stato e il futuro dell'Europa (Mimesis Edizioni), socio-economic reasons that led to formation of current populist movements.

Andrew Spannaus, are there lack of democracy in the construction of European Union and gradual imposition of neo-liberal model at the origin of populist formations?

The current form of the European Union is based on decisions made only at the institutional level, without support from the citizens of the Member States. When in the past countries have held referendums, they have often failed, forcing the pro-EU elite to change tactics. The result is that much of the institutional architecture today was constructed through hurried parliamentary votes or even only EU regulations, without having been the subject of true political debate.

The imposition of the neo-liberal model undoubtedly lacks the support of the majority of European peoples. Heavy austerity, bailouts to the financial sector and a prohibition on state intervention are policies in line with financial globalization, but imposed against the popular will.

Did European Union and euro originate from geopolitical necessity to limit a possible German supremacy?

European cooperation began early in the post-war period, but the transformation of the EU architecture through the Maastricht treaty and then the single currency marked the decision to gradually eliminate national sovereignity. One of the key geopolitical goals was to prevent a reunited Germany from leading the industrial reconstruction of Eastern Europe. In the end Germany is still the EU’s strongest economy, but all of Europe has been shifted towards a neo-liberal model that could only be implemented effectively through supranational pressure.

Do you share the negative connotation with which press usually brands populist parties?

For too many years governments have done the bidding of a small elite whose idea of growth and globalization has benefitted only those at the top. The appeal to base instincts such as racism is the ugly, and avoidable, result of the mistakes made by the governing class in recent years. Without the underlying disaffection with the system the more extreme elements could be easily marginalized.

Could we consider upcoming German election as a test about health status of populism in Europe? Do you think that populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) could be decisive?

The AfD's vote totals are far from those of the two largest parties, but its ascension to the top of the second tier in German politics is obviously significant. AfD is a typical example of the populist dilemma: it draws heavily on economic discontent, but also pushes right-wing social issues. Each country is different, but what is clear across Europe is that there are serious problems that no country can ignore. In Germany, for example, the depression of the East and the millions of poor perpetuated by the Hartz IV reforms are the breeding grounds for anti-system sentiment.

You wrote that Italy anticipated a trend then spread in the Western world. How does it seem to you Italy's socio-political situation today?

In 2013 Italy was shocked by the number of votes the 5-Star Movement got in the general elections, a reaction to both decades of perceived political corruption, and a few years of absurd, counterproductive austerity policies that crushed the internal market. There was an opportunity to force serious change, but a combination of political opportunism and the intractability of international institutions has meant that too little has been done to address Italy's social and economic problems (which are ultimately not very different than those in other countries). The 5-Star Movement may or may not win the coming elections, but just the fact that it is still in the running shows the failure of traditional parties to adjust their policies to reality.

Will we see with Trump's government a significant deterioration of US-EU relations?

Donald Trump prefers to work on a bilateral basis, in line with his vision of a world of sovereign nations not controlled by supranational institutions. Despite this, I don't think US-EU relations will be strongly damaged; Trump has been relatively ineffective so far in converting the US government to his views, in part because of his own inconsistency, and in part because of the concerted attempt by entrenched powers to make sure that the new Administration not be successful in abandoning the transatlantic consensus of globalization and neo-liberalism.

The Glass-Steagall Act, abolished in 1999 under President Clinton, has not been established. Do you that with Trump administration there is a further relaxation concerning controls policies in banking and finance?

Trump was elected due principally to his attack on the economic and financial elites who have ruined the US productive economy through speculative finance and globalization. An integral part of this appeal was his anti-Wall Street position, which by the end of the campaign included the restoration of Glass-Steagall. With the ouster of Steve Bannon in particular, the "economic nationalist" faction in the Administration has lost its leading proponent, and the most influential policy-makers are true Goldman Sachs men. Between a Republican-controlled Congress and Trump's anti-regulation ideology as a businessman, this is a recipe for disaster, i.e. looser controls in finance and other areas such as labor standards, rather than a return to effective governance.

What are, in your opinion, obstacles to construction of a common European defence?

European nations need to decide what their goal is. If it's merely a question of pooling resources, that is obviously feasible. If the idea is to create a new decision-making structure, many questions arise, such as the position with respect to NATO, and how decisions would be made. There are clear differences in strategic orientation and interests between large European countries, in terms of history/economics and geographic area. The risk in common defence is to concentrate on the form first, when there is no clarity about the content of the policies to be pursued.

What's about the vicious cycle activated by aid from European governments to countries in difficulty?

The policies of the Troika have been a disaster for every country affected. When aid means funds to pay back debt, rather than tackle real economic problems, with conditionalities that cause human suffering, it becomes obvious why populist movements spring up rapidly to challenge the EU.

Could, in some cases, European Union be really counterproductive to economic development of individual states?

The geopolitical purpose of the current EU was precisely to limit the economic and political sovereignty of European nations. As long as Brussels and Frankfurt continue to act based on monetary parameters and neo-liberal assumptions there is no reason to think that Member States can effectively deal with their problems. Cooperation for economic growth has proven useful in the past; but cooperation based on the imposition of bad policies is simply masochistic.

What future for Europe?

Europeans need to start a serious conversation about the future, before giving up any more of their sovereignty to a system that is implementing failed policies. The nations of Europe have tremendous resources and capabilities; yet there is no guarantee they will survive if poor decisions are made. An honest appraisal of the past 25 years will show that the dominant financial and political elites have pursued their own presumed interests, while ignoring the difficulties of much of the population. How likely is it that change can be forced at the EU level? To date, I believe that national governments remain the best hope for an urgently needed course correction. This doesn't mean that European cooperation must stop, but that national sovereignty still has an essential role to play in the world.

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