In a fracturing EU, we need class struggle and movement politics to fight for working people throughout Europe, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
There seems to be an easy refrain in the western media about the countries of eastern Europe. The region is being swept by a tidal wave of right wing, anti-establishment parties hostile to the European Union, the story goes.
The coverage of the outcome of the elections on Sunday 23 October in the Czech Republic is no exception. The right wing party of billionaire Andrej Babiš won – with close to 30% of the vote – and his rise represents the victory of the Czech Trump. His anti-Euro message is an echo of Brexit. His triumph may mean he joins an anti-EU coalition with Poland and Hungary. And so on.
All this is in spite of the fact that the Czech economy has been growing comfortably – which the western media trumpets at every opportunity. Why an anti-establishment figure should be popular in such circumstances is not easily explained, however. But the fact serves a rhetorical purpose, convenient both for pro-EU liberals and nationalist eurosceptics.
The EU is dysfunctional
The bottom line is that everyone now realises that the EU is dysfunctional. But the trouble is that the EU fundamentally serves the purpose of the ruling classes of its members quite well – and the inconvenient truth is that it does not serve the populations of these countries. Quite how to deal with this remains difficult.
So liberals and eurosceptics alike appear to be reaching a new consensus. They see that the old politics of the ‘extreme centre’ appear to be imploding everywhere. In the Czech election, the mainstream parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, won just 7% and 6% respectively. Meanwhile, an anti–EU and anti-immigrant party, the SPD, won 10.8% and the vaguely anti-political and technocratic Pirate Party won 10.6%.
Thus, the trick appears to be to recompose a new centre left and a new centre right on a new basis. Only, the new centre left should look as much as possible as a centre right, with an imperialist and anti-immigrant agenda. The outgoing Czech government played to that tune, increasing the military budget and not allowing many refugees in to the country.
The centre right, to succeed, moves even further right. Frequently, it needs new figures to position itself as outsiders in order to have credibility, given the hatred mainstream politicians generate. Babiš is a good example. He presented himself as a businessman who could rationalise government, reduce red tape and reduce corruption. He was anti-Euro and anti-immigrant.
Never mind that he is mired in corruption charges – for taking EU subsidies, no less! – and that he is the second richest man in the country, owning some of the most important media outlets, leading to his nickname “Babiškoni” after former Italian PM and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. He was relatively new and, in view of the lack of real opposition, an apparent maverick.
The extent of his lack of desire to truly rock the boat became immediately obvious after the vote, when he instantly explained he did not want to form coalitions with the far left or the far right. Everyone else – the establishment parties – would do. It remains to be seen exactly whether a ruling coalition will be cobbled together.
The Extreme Centre
But Babiš has significant business interests in Germany and will highly likely be seen in Berlin as someone Germany can do business with. After all, he will likely follow the new ‘extreme centre’ consensus emerging across the EU. He will demand a reformed EU in which business is reinforced further and the rights of workers, like the right of free movement, are further eroded.
It is not for nothing that his ANO party sits with Vince Cable’s Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament. The European Union is a fundamentally imperialist and racist institution. It is entirely possible to be against petty nationalism and yet see it can be useful in some countries and not in others in order to bolster the EU. This explains the unity of such disparate forces as the ANO and the Lib Dems at the level of the European Parliament.
The trouble for the ‘extreme centre’ is that the ground under its feet is shifting. Europe is ever more marginal to the global economy. The EU’s foreign policy alliance with the US in places like the Middle East has been proven to be a total disaster. Fanning the fires of racism has often backfired with votes not going the right way. The radical right parties are beginning to dictate national politics in some countries – not just in eastern Europe in Hungary and Poland but also in places like Austria.
Moreover, the economic situation is not a good one. True, the European economies are growing. As noted, the Czech economy is growing. So why are people revolting? Is it simply irrational hatred of ‘the Other’? Rather, it seems workers are seeing through the statistics. As a European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) study – “Why Central and Eastern Europe needs a pay rise” - published in May states:
“From the mid-1990s up until the crisis in 2008 […] wage convergence [between east and west Europe] was spectacular… In the wake of the crisis, however, wage convergence either experienced a sudden halt or slowed down substantially.”
Seeing the economy growing, and with unemployment down given emigration, workers in eastern Europe want a share of the wealth. This year alone has seen strikes among bus drivers, car manufacturers, tyre producers and the state-run postal company in the Czech Republic. Metalworkers were also threatening strikes. Similarly, across eastern Europe, strikes have been on the rise: in Slovakia and Serbia, workers in the auto industry went on strike.
This has led to many western businesses which had relocated to the eastern European countries to threaten moving production further down the chain of pay. Pay in Romania was roughly half that of the Czech Republic in 2015, where pay was less than one third of what it was in Germany. Moscow-based investment banking group Renaissance Capital predicts that the next investment expansion would go to Turkey and the southern Mediterranean.
We need class struggle
There is a fundamental truth to what is going on in Europe. The core countries squeeze their workers telling them they will relocate elsewhere. In reality, they try to outsource production of lower-margin components for global chains and to keep the production of finished goods that deliver higher margins and profits at home. According to the OECD, an hour of work in Germany produces 52.7 euros of German economic output, but just 19.4 euros in the Czech Republic.
Businesses in the core countries divide their own workforces by keeping a portion unemployed or in low wage employment, and they impose austerity in the public sector, bringing down the social wage. But they divide workers in other countries by threatening them with outsourcing to cheaper places or with no new investment in their countries unless they accept the race to the bottom. Workers have been responding with anger.
And wherever the radical left has stood up to this logic, and fought austerity and neoliberalism, it has stood to gain. Nowhere has sticking to the “extreme centre” – and its institutions like the local state or the wider European Union – worked for the left. Syriza is now the warning tale for those who still have that illusion. Much better to refuse to defend the institutions of the powers that be and turn to the class which has an interest and the power to break it: the working class.
Where the left has built on the back of extra-parliamentary movements and challenged neoliberalism, it has thrived. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn is a good example. The task for revolutionaries everywhere is to seek to unite such struggles and take them beyond national borders. Organising anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles is part and parcel of this task, but it will increasingly involve also building in the unions for the industrial disputes that are now on the horizon across the developed world.