Interview. We spoke with the French philosopher Etienne Balibar about the European crisis: ‘Faced with the fact that there are no benefits for anyone in leaving the EU, we are moving toward an inner decomposition and a mutual neutralization. I'm sorry, but I'm a radical pessimist.’

Balibar: ‘The Mediterranean problem is taking the dimensions of genocide’

Only Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was willing to save the honor of social democracy and welcome the Aquarius, an ocean liner filled with refugees rejected by European ports. The new Italian government and the many nationalist movements across the continent are sewing chaos. The left is torn between proponents of openness and closedness, with the risk of a schism between liberalism and xenophobia, as highlighted recently by the clash within Die Linke, while the Social Democrat pro-European space is narrowing and might become irrelevant.

We discussed the currents of the new European crisis with the philosopher Etienne Balibar, together with Vadim Kamenka of Humanité Dimanche.

The Italian government is putting the EU in a tough spot—indeed, blackmailing it. What is Brussels doing, if it is doing anything, in response?

One thing has struck me: the statement by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, a few days back, which said that they should not make the same mistake with Italy that they made with Greece. In the background, there was the recognition that a mistake had been made with Greece. But what was this error, according to the Commission? A fundamental error of substance, i.e. imposing a policy of austerity and the destruction of the national economy as a means of solving the debt problem? Or just an error of form, as in the interpretation of the Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Pierre Moscovici?

The idea here seems to be to not enter into a hard conflict with Italy, as was done with Greece. The EU does not have the clout for it. But it should be noted that in Greece there was (and is) a left-wing government, while in Italy there is a populist government oriented toward the extreme right. Without endorsing any conspiracy theories, we can remark that the European technocracy, although it is not instrumentalizing populisms, has a preference for them rather than for left-wing democratic forces, and sees them as a lesser evil in the face of growing popular resentment, even though this policy of the lesser evil is a bad choice that is aggravating the ungovernability spreading to country after country.

Little by little, unease targeted at the current governance of the states and of Europe is growing, and the idea is taking root—with Greece, Brexit or pseudo-Brexit and now Italy—that, faced with the fact that there are no benefits for anyone in leaving the EU, we are moving toward an inner decomposition and a mutual neutralization. I’m sorry, but I’m a radical pessimist.

At the European Council in late June, there will be a Franco-German plan for the Eurozone on the table.

But what kind of plan are we talking about? It is a cultural construction, which in itself is not insignificant, but what is it meant to promote? At the heart of the problem is the financial structure and the budget, i.e. how far solidarity actually goes. But the northern countries are fearing the looming specter of financial transfers to the south, and the proposal of a common budget, which post-Keynesian economists have been saying for years is indispensable with a common currency. Macron never mentions numbers, and Angela Merkel is emphasizing the smallest common denominator: we are going back to the question of the difference in development levels, of the division of Europe between zones assigned to different economic roles, including centers of attraction for capital and areas for rent, holiday areas for the petty bourgeoisie, etc. What is necessary is to expose the hypocrisy of the propaganda that says that some are makers and others are takers, a type of discourse that has succeeded so far in the north, first and foremost in Germany, but not only.

Should the inequalities between states and between citizens be made the central issue in order to find a way out of the crisis?

The inequality in development, the question of ingovernability that is coming up everywhere—it’s unbelievable that this crisis is not being discussed in the European Parliament. But as I said, I am very pessimistic: a debate of this kind could become a shouting match, with the growing populist forces that use fascist-like arguments. The crisis of Europe is also a crisis of its democratic essence, and the more it takes hold, the more intra-European debate is being avoided. It would be necessary for all the forces trying to rebuild a Europe-wide leftist perspective to force this debate out into the open. But there is no longer any coherent Left: and if the Left is to rebuild itself, it must think of itself from the start as the European left, in order to open a political debate across borders.

This is an unintended consequence of the growth in power of the Brussels technocracy, together with the monopoly on politics held by nation-states: the citizens are turning inward, and every country is discussing only its own problems, to the point that what is most shared between them at the moment is a conception of nationalism, understood as national interests to be defended.

Is the dramatic story of the Aquarius the latest incarnation of this conflict?

France, the UK, Italy and all the others are adopting hypocritical and repulsive policies, all the while hiding behind their criticisms of the Visegrad group. France is blocking migrants at the border with Italy, there is ongoing violence from Calais to Ventimiglia, and in Britain new light has been shed on the objectives of rejecting as many migrants as possible, creating a “hostile environment” for them. How can one find a balance between the two aspects of this problem?

On the one hand, there is the rational aspect: if we calculate the number of migrants, even in the worst case scenario, the problem is not insoluble, as there is enough capacity to receive them in Europe. It is not an “invasion,” but a number of arrivals roughly equal to around 0.2 percent of the EU population. Hospitality means integration, and here we return to the territorial issue and to that of differences in development.

Secondly, there is the moral aspect: right now, the problem in the Mediterranean is taking on the dimensions of a genocide. What else could we call what is happening, a process in which we all become accomplices to the setting up of a violent system of physical elimination based on race. A genocide that takes place on our borders. We have traditions to which we can appeal to fight this moral collapse, from Christianity to internationalism. Some jurists are proposing to include the reception of migrants under the purview of international law. Furthermore, the things that must also be fought are the neo-colonial economic logic that we are still using, the exploitation, the wars in which we also play a part, which are all pushing them into exile.

Where should one start?

Three questions must be put at the center of the debate: 1) the role of the EU in globalization, making the most of the weight carried by Europe in order to check local exploitation and move against social and fiscal dumping; 2) neoliberal policies, which must give way to a social-oriented Europe; 3) the democracy of the European institutions. The question of representative democracy is not a marginal one, and it has not been dealt with in any definitive way. Every country today is characterized by disorders of political representation—the so-called “post-democracy,” featuring the gap between the real and visible powers. One should not forget the social movements, although today, unfortunately, they are at best playing defense.

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