Democracy…what Democracy?

A New Plan for Greece And Europe: A Defining Moment For European Social Democracy

Jakub Patočka

Every crisis has its benefits. The benefit of the Greek crisis is the clarity it has brought. We know now that the institutional imbalances and democracy deficit of the current European Union are not theoretical concerns but empirical facts.

Some time has passed. After the Greek spring and summer the migration crisis has escalated. We had the terror attacks in Paris; and recently, again in Paris, the international community was up to its utmost challenge: how to save the climate. But all those events have not buried the eurocrisis and they have not made the way Greece was dealt with by the EU any more acceptable. Europe has to move on from crisis management to political reconstruction.

The Social Democratic Response

Thomas Wallgren

In the first phase, even up to last summer, the social democratic responses seen across Europe in the acute period have been largely weak and disappointing. The main line has been to acquiesce, with some marginal adjustments, to austerity policies defined through the customary mix of market fundamentalism and national interest that emerges from the Frankfurt-Brussels-Berlin corridors.

This choice of most prominent social democrat leaders is partly due to the sheer force of the opponents. But it also has deeper roots. One aspect is that there is as yet no democratic mandate for common fiscal policies and economic solidarity in the eurozone. The second factor is an idealistic commitment to the “European project”.

Many social democrats have seen the gradual deepening of EU integration as an opportunity to realise the bold Enlightenment vision of post-national cosmopolitan politics that was formulated by Immanuel Kant and others more than 200 years ago. We fully support this vision.

In recent months social democrats have feared that a #Grexit would let the djinns of European disintegration out of the bottle. With a possible #Brexit in view the European unification project could soon begin to unfold. The consequence could be a poisonous mix of brutal anti-social market integration and xenophobic nationalism. The dominant social democratic response is therefore understandable in the short term even if the costs in terms of social misery and undermining of democratic legitimacy are high. It is also utterly insufficient.

After the demise of PASOK and reduced support in several other countries it is obvious that if better responses are not developed #Socdexit — the end of social democracy as a hegemonic political force in Europe — is imminent. It would also be well deserved. Our concern is not about parties and organisations or about social democracy as a brand. Our concern is with the fundamental values of social justice, solidarity, non-violence, reformism and democracy. Our commitment is to them, regardless of the names under which we work together.

In this context it is essential to see that Syriza too is, historically speaking and in the sense just defined, largely a social democratic formation. It rose to power on the pledge to replace thoughtless market fundamentalism with socially sensitive reformism. Now Syriza lies shattered with one side folding in to the Troika’s dictatorship and the other clinging to the unrealistic and, in the short term at least, undemocratic (lacking a mandate) dream of eurozone political and financial solidarity as an alternative to #Grexit.

The question looms: what has become of European social democracy, of us, if in this time of crisis we are incapable of forming a winning coalition with Greens, Lefts, Social Liberals and – wherever possible – Christian Democrats, to take Europe out of its degradation? A social democracy that chooses, as too many have done so far, collaboration with the democratically and socially unacceptable policies imposed by the now dominant forces of the so called neoliberal right is a movement that has lost its soul. It destroys, first, our natural political allies in Greece and then it destroys itself.

This is not the time for quick fixes but for serious reflection and mobilisation for both the short and the longer term. We submit the following considerations for our debate:

Unmask The Elites: Debunk The “Common Crisis” Narrative

One dominant narrative is that Europeans are experiencing a common crisis. This is a dangerous myth that we must reject. The crisis is real only for those who are committed to social justice and democracy. For those who welcome ever more extreme amassing of money and concentration of power in the hands of the few, the past years have been a fantastic time.

The winners know this all too well. Their very success in creating a dominant narrative of a shared, unsustainable debt burden is the formidable tool they use to dupe the electorate. It allows them to fatally depoliticise public debate and thereby pave the way for endless austerity; the very policy that allows the perpetuation of the dominance and excessive profits of the current elites (the ’1%’).

The myth of a common crisis works perfectly for the elites now but, when it bursts, the floodgates of violence may open. The record influx of migrants and asylum seekers during recent months only makes our mission clearer. If we want to avoid a further strengthening of the extreme right we must break out of the narrative that sustains majority support for the false doctrine of unavoidable austerity.

Populism thrives on the refusal to face the realities of what the Greek situation means for Europe. The truth is that Greek debt is not repayable unless very extreme disparities are accepted as a new European normality. The  pressure on us to take the lead in formulating socially and economically sustainable ways forward for Greece and for Europe is enormous and our response has to be crystal clear: Social democracy can only survive if we are adamant in resisting the temptation to engage in the race to the bottom in terms of both ideals and rationality that follows if we continue short-term electoral competition with the populists.

Populist movements thrive on blaming the Greeks for the failures of their corrupt elites and international market forces just as they thrive on blaming the refugees for the chaos and the violence they are fleeing from. We must distance ourselves from all forms of racism and xenophobia and put pressure on the market-orientated liberal right to do the same. But, for a serious political movement, reacting to symptoms is not enough. We must make clear to all that excessive market liberalism is a major reason for the social fragmentation and economic polarisation that gives the populist movements their base.

Revisit The Question Of How To Build International Policies

It is time for us to ask ourselves, also self-critically, what we must learn in order to win back the future. Maybe the hardest lesson we must face up to is: For too long many social democrats have shared and indeed insisted on a belief that there is a simple solution to the current crisis. The Europe and the global political system we want will be real if we can build robust, post-national political institutions that give us the tools to tame globalised capitalism.

There is some truth in this, but the task has proved to be complex. From the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, to the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, social democrats have played a leading role in propelling both the geographical enlargement and the political deepening of the EU.

It is time to wake up to the following reality: The more we have succeeded in consolidating the current version of the European project the more Europe has become a continent of social despair, xenophobia and populism. The inevitable consequence is that social democracy is on the decline in most countries. It is telling that Portugal has become a rare exception to this process: the Socialists there took a firm anti-austerity position and were able to form a government of the left.

What should be our response? One possibility is more cooperation with the market liberal right for more of this Europe. This political strategy finds its perfect expression in the report “Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union” (June 22 2015), signed by two leading European social democrats (Dijsselbloem and Schulz) together with three leaders of the market liberal right. This so called “Five Presidents’ Report” insists, on every page, on deepening EMU and on completing the single market in order to pave the way for an “economic”, “financial”, “fiscal” and “political” union. Employment, financial stability and democracy are mentioned but not seriously addressed. Climate, migration and ecology are barely even issues.

We all know well why social democrats sign reports like this one. There are three key ideas. The first is that we must succeed in the EU’s further integration. The second is that the only way to succeed now is to cooperate as a minority partner with the market liberal right on terms they set. The third is that later we will rise up and reform the integrated Europe according to our ideals. We suggest that for all its proud past this kind of thinking is leading European social democracy to its ruin.

The goal is not in question. Our commitment to international eco-solidarity and democracy in our new post-national framework must be retained. But we need to re-imagine our tools and sharpen our vision. The most urgent need is to consider the fundamental sources of our weakness. Four key words are time, democracy, free trade and ecology.

Time And Politics

There is today a gap in politics between our core values and what is possible and the only pragmatic and responsible strategy is to work towards bridging it. The rise of social democracy in Western Europe was nourished above all by the fearless commitment to universal suffrage, the eight-hour working day, labour rights and other (”unrealistic”) goals.

Similarly, thirty years ago a group of Czechoslovak intellectuals around Charter 77, building upon the so-called Helsinki process, addressed the Peace Congress in Amsterdam with ideas that seemed utterly idealistic then. In their Prague appeal of 1985 they talked about a united Europe of peace, based on uncompromising recognition of human rights, mutual respect and cooperation. In complete defiance of the geopolitical orthodoxy of that time they even called for the re-unification of Germany.

Obviously, no appeal to such past wisdom can guarantee the soundness of any present proposal. But they may help us understand that without the courage to set bold goals and define gripping visions social democrats will not be able to rise to the leading political role they have played in the past.


The deepest mistake in our response to the European crises has been to postpone democracy. With our support there has been, since the Treaty of Rome, a series of revisions of the EU’s juridical core. The end result so far, the Lisbon Treaty, is seriously deficient in democratic terms.

We therefore witness in the EU today a wide and growing gap between national control over budgets that people have voted for and the post-national governance imposed on them. The gap is already destabilising Greece and the risks are high across Europe. The EU needs comprehensive reform.

Muddling though is no longer a viable alternative. The current bypassing of public opinion is taking Europe down a slippery road towards authoritarian capitalism that may lead to chaotic disintegration, democratic collapse and extremist political development.

From now on European social democratic politics must put democracy first. In particular, it should never again be assumed that in future the democratic quality of the EU will automatically catch up if we first agree to economic integration on technocratic terms defined by the market liberal right.

A democratic process for treaty revision is required and should involve referenda whose results must be respected and better heeded than they were, say, in 2005 when Dutch and French voters clearly wanted more democracy and a stronger social element. The task is momentous and it might be hard to win but the European project is meaningful only if it is based on the will and participation of its peoples. So any treaty revision must rest upon an inclusive, pan-European process of deliberation engaging as many ordinary citizens as possible in giving content and direction to rebooting the European project. This will, obviously, take several years but this will be time well spent if its takes Europe out of its current gloom and doom and ushers in a new era of determined optimism.

We have to redesign the European project in such a way that it attracts the support of clear majorities of Europeans. Such a redesign would require stringent control of the power of corporations, and robust, ecologically sound job creation and redistribution schemes that would create equitable societies in an equitable Europe. If social democrats take the lead in the overall process our movement will rise again to a historic leadership role.

Free Trade

Free trade is free only when its rules remain within effective democratic control. For social democrats it is essential that we engage on this basis in the EU’s revised participation in the global system.

The classic argument for free trade was that it enhances overall productivity and propels economic growth everywhere. But when capital moves freely and ecological justice is a new necessity this argument must no longer be allowed to trump all other considerations.

It is ironic that at the precise time that free trade even in its traditional form has become a problematic goal for economic policy the very term has become a banner for efforts to bring ever larger areas of democratic politics under the dictatorship of the market. The very words single market and free trade have become instruments to curtail the rights of public institutions to act on the basis of perfectly sound social and ecological considerations.

Thus, a new generation of so-called free trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, or the similar trade agreement between the EU and Canada, the CETA-agreement threatens vital aspects of a member state’s capacity to protect environmental standards, consumer and worker rights by exposing them to democratically unaccountable trade dispute settlement mechanisms and regulatory regimes

Self-determination is at the heart of the modern quest for freedom. Self-determination of any individual is only possible in a political democracy, that is, in a society of citizens who can all effectively participate on equal terms in a living democracy. The emerging global regime that is now propagated under the false banner of free trade needs to be thoroughly reconsidered from this perspective.

The TTIP and CETA agreements in their present form need to be rejected. It is essential to base any future trade negotiations on principles that put social, ecological, cultural priorities as well as the enhancement of democracy first. This would require measures to regulate operations of private transnational corporations, not deregulating them.


The deepest need for the self-examination facing social democrats today is due to the ecological challenge. During the golden age of the 20th century social democracy was, arguably, the driving force in taming capitalism and achieving, thereby, simultaneous progress in prosperity, democracy, social inclusion and justice.

Many of us have thought that the task of our movement in the 21st century is to repeat the 20th century success story of the European welfare state at the global level. It has dawned on us only gradually that, arguably, this innocent dream has become obsolete and irresponsible.

The search for a new balance between ecological responsibility and social justice is likely to require a creative reconsideration of wellbeing and hence, of the goals and criteria of success in politics. This work is well under way, in all continents. It is our duty to be part of it and to recreate European integration and cooperation as a vehicle for regional and global welfare and solidarity that has no need for walls along its borders and that fully respects ecological limits.

After the Paris UN conference on climate change it is clearer than ever that we need a fundamental shift in the way international politics are carried out. While leaders celebrated the historic success, the social movements and civil society groups remained largely critical of the non-binding, inadequate and profoundly unjust nature of the treaty. The old politics of muddling through to compromises is particularly exposed as hapless when confronted with the uncompromising nature of planetary physics…

The shift to social, economic and ecological sustainability is a civilisational challenge that needs creativity at all levels and dimensions of political life. After the climate summit we know that it is the moral duty of all regions and countries to do more than their formal commitments for climate justice globally and over an inter-generational time span. One critical political arena will be the struggle to keep fossile fuels in the ground. In many of these struggles mass movements of the South, such as Moviemento Sem Terra of Brazil, will play the leading role but European social democrats need to be partners in linking the struggles of the South to the concrete work for a shift towards post-consumerist practices and cultural innovation in the North.

We need political leadership that can bring a vision of the international community motivated by the commom good rather than by competion among particular interests of corporations or world superpowers. We need political leadearship that tranforms the way the United Nations operate. The historic role of European social democracy will be measured by its capacity to rise to this challenge.

Summary And Conclusion: The Discussion Is Overdue

We invite all European social democrats to reflect upon the role our movement has played in dealing with the Greek crisis. We believe it has brought European social democratic parties to the verge of ceasing to present a viable political alternative.

In response to the Greek crisis social democrats must say no to the imposition of reckless austerity and the undermining of democracy. We need to broaden our vision and deepen our debates in order to build bold and comprehensive responses without compromising on our core ideals. We must say yes to fair international cooperation, ecological responsibility and to socially just democratic reform and we must build large teams in close cooperation with people and movements from all corners of the globe sharing our ideals.

We propose that we start building a pan-European network of social democrats committed to global solidarity and ecological justice who wish to cooperate among themselves and with like-minded parties and movements. We see the need to work especially on two fronts right now:

  1. The demand for a new deal with Greece on three pillars:
  • Enhanced respect for the fiscal sovereignty of Greece;
  • A European green investment programme for jobs in Greece;
  • Democratic debt audit and relief based on that.
  1. Democratic reform of the basic institutions for European economic and political cooperation.

The tasks are daunting but we must welcome them. A change of course is necessary. We need a new political vision based on the core values of what social democratic politics actually means. The discussion is overdue. We are ready.


About Jakub Patočka and Thomas Wallgren

The authors are social democratic party activists with a long track record also in non-party social movements. Patočka is the editor of the Czech e-journal Denik Referendum. Wallgren is a member of the city council in Helsinki and teaches philosophy at the University of Helsinki.


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