Plan B, plan b, DiEM25 – which Plan for Europe?

Three conferences debating ways of implementing left-wing alternatives in Europe were held in Paris, Berlin and Madrid in January and February 2016, since both the election successes of left-wing parties and alliances in EU Member States and conflicts between Greece and the institutions of the European Union have raised a number of questions concerning possible alternative political approaches and the relationship between the left and the EU.

Plan B, Paris

In summer 2015, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Stefano Fassina, Zoe Konstantopoulou, Oskar Lafontaine and Yanis Varoufakis released a joint call titled “A plan B in Europe”, signed by MEPs and Members of Parliament of EU Member States.

The signatories call for “a complete renegotiation of the European Treaties” in light especially of the “financial coup” in Greece and forced closure of Greek banks by the ECB. According to the call, the “Plan A for a democratic Europe” should, taking into account the possible formation of further left-wing governments in Europe, be backed by a “Plan B”. The signatories note that many ideas, such as monetary policy measures, are already on the table. Emphasis is also given to the “internationalist” approach of the initiative and the necessity of “taking into account the different characteristics of each country”.

On 12 September 2015, the initiators publicly presented the call in the marquee of the Parti de Gauche at the Fête de l’Humanité and announced a conference in the same year. That conference was originally to have taken place in November 2015, but was postponed owing to the attacks in Paris. The “Internationalist Summit for a Plan B in Europe” finally took place on 23–24 January 2016 at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris. The event was divided into three thematic blocks, which opened and closed with talks by the initiators, except for Yanis Varoufakis, who cancelled his attendance at short notice.

The three thematic blocks involved three workshops on questions of currency (“Master the Currency”), public debts (“Master Public Debts”) and international trade/economic policy (“Master International Trade”) respectively. According to the organiser, the conference was attended by around 300 people. The speakers were chiefly MPs, academics and representatives of NGOs. Trade unions were not represented.

In his opening speech, Oskar Lafontaine referred to contradictions between the concentration of assets and democracy in the European Union. Lafontaine said that is also reflected in internal European migration and immigration from non-European countries, which he believes is, among other factors, a result of neoliberal European home affairs and foreign policy. That requires the EU to have a new economic policy approach, which cannot, however, be implemented within the framework of the existing treaties, he noted. As an example of an alternative, he mentioned enhancement of the role of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in the financing of government tasks, noting that the EIB could in future be refinanced directly by a reformed ECB or by the national banks. Lafontaine called on all left-wing parties in Europe to engage in implementing a “pragmatic plan B”.

Zoe Konstantopoulou reported on the work of the „Truth Committee on Public Debt“ and took stock of her time as an MP and speaker of the Hellenic Parliament in Greece.

Stefano Fassina emphasised protection of the interests of (national) working classes, which he described as a “pro-labour plan B”. He also stressed the need to repel the attack on the Schengen system that is currently being planned. Fassina called for checks on capital flows, rather than migration flows. He then addressed plans for the neoliberal deepening of EU integration and proposed a “European People’s Report” as an alternative to the “Five Presidents’ Report”.

In his closing speech, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, citing Jean Jaurès, emphasised the role of national sovereignty as a key driver of change in Europe, unlike the EU institutions. He also spoke of the various plan B models that the respective national economies require and, with reference to the elections coming up in France and Germany and plans for neoliberal deepening of EU integration, emphasised that 2017 will be a key year in the coming debate about what shape the EU should take.

The need for the development of alternatives to the EU in its current form was combined with the call to bring together a range of initiatives. Reference was made, for example, to the “Plan B for Europe” event in Madrid in February. The “DiEM25” event at the Volksbühne in Berlin in February, however, was not mentioned. No final declaration has been published yet.

DiEM25, Berlin

Back in autumn 2015, Yanis Varoufakis likewise announced the intention of founding a “pan-European movement”. At the end of January, the “DiEM25 – Democracy in Europe Movement” published a “Manifesto for Democratising Europe”. The aim is for the democratisation of Europe, as called for in the manifesto, to be completed by 2015 according to a detailed roadmap and with the involvement of a broad social front. The “DiEM25” initiative was presented on 9 February 2016 at the Volksbühne in Berlin.

Varoufakis’ initiative attracted a great deal of media attention. The press conference on the morning of 9 February in the Red Room was packed. The workshops, which were held throughout the day in the Red Room, were also very well attended. Over 50 speakers, who mainly came from the political, academic and cultural spheres, made brief statements in three thematic blocks (“Our fragmenting Europe & DiEM’s response”, “DiEM’s economic analysis & policy framework” and “What should we (DIEM) do?”). In keeping with the large number of (3-minute) presentations, the positions that were put forward were extremely wide-ranging.

Yanis Varoufakis opened the four-hour, sold-out evening function at the Volksbühne in Berlin with a speech emphasising the necessity for “DiEM25” in view of the threat of a resurgence of fascism (referring to the “post-modern 1930s”). Unlike the United States and China, Europe has not yet recovered from the crisis owing to the interaction of authoritarian policy and recession, he said, noting that more investment is needed in order for Europe to get over the crisis. That, however, first requires the restoration of national and regional sovereignty until the economy stabilises, he said. He also pointed to the need for a constituent assembly in Europe.

Katja Kipping pointed out that the refugee situation requires transnational answers, and therefore argued for more rather than less Europe. Referring to the need for a “plan C”, she called for “social union citizenship” and a European basic income. She also proposed a “wildcat referendum between austerity and genuine democracy”.

In addition, a number of green MPs (Cécile Duflot, Caroline Lucas, Nessa Childers, Rui Tavares) and Spanish MPs and regional politicians (Miguel Urbán, Ada Colau by video link, Xulio Ferreiro, Jordi Ayala) spoke. While the green representatives chiefly emphasised the need for green policies (“green new deal”, “low growth economic models”), the Spaniards focused on the link between local and European policies (“international brigades to defend rebel cities”).

Intellectuals and celebrities also spoke (James Galbraith, Slavoj Žižek, Julian Assange by video link and Brian Eno), as did Gesine Schwan, who, however, distanced herself from the initiative shortly afterwards (“Where my position differs from that of Varoufakis is that the EU institutions as such are not the problem ...”). Hans-Jürgen Urban advocated a more precise definition of the concept of democracy (“economic democracy”).

Varoufakis announced a series of follow-up events in 2016, in the scope of which position papers are to be developed and presented on the (slightly modified) “DiEM25” core topics referred to above, namely:

1.    A green new deal for Europe (debts, banks, investment policy, green technologies and forms of energy, poverty)
2.    Financial policy (economic and monetary integration, parallel payment and currency systems, global monetary issues)
3.    International trade and investment treaties and institutions (WTO, IMF etc.)
4.    Flight and migration
5.    “Decentralised Europeanisation” and a “constituent assembly”

Plan B, Madrid

Likewise in autumn 2015, Olivier Besancenot (New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), France), Antonis Davanellos (Popular Unity (LAE), Greece) and Miguel Urbán (Podemos, Spain) published a call titled “Austerexit”, calling for a radical departure from austerity policy within or outside the framework of the euro and announcing a major conference. In January 2016, a manifesto backed by numerous figures from the political, civil-society, academic and cultural spheres was published and the announcement was made that a conference would be held on 19–21 February.

The conference opened with a large panel discussion, at which Zoe Konstantopoulou called for the performance of debt audits ahead of debt servicing, and criticised the line of the Greek government. Oskar Lafontaine cancelled his participation at short notice. The text of his speech was published the following day in Junge Welt. In this he welcomes the “DiEM25” initiative, and presents the “flexible” EMS European currency system as an alternative to the “rigid” euro system, arguing that it would enable “democratic decisions against European austerity policy to be taken”. In Lafontaine’s place, Sophie Rauszer, a colleague of Mélenchon, announced that a conference is to be held in Rome in 2017, on the anniversary of the Rome Treaties. Eric Toussaint put forward the view that nationalisation of banks and the introduction of both capital controls and a parallel currency are necessary measures within a plan B. Marina Albiol noted that the example of Greece shows that plan A has failed and called for disobedience of EU regulations. Corinna Genschel spoke of plans to mobilise the Blockupy alliance at the start of 2017.

On the second day of the conference several workshops were held on the subjects of “debt”, “social rights and employee rights”, “currency and democracy, “refugee and migration policy”, “trade policy”, “climate policy” and “feminism”. Many of the international speakers had already spoken at the events in Paris and Berlin. A declaration “for a democratic rebellion in Europe” was published following the conference. The declaration does not explicitly mention a “plan B”, and instead refers to a plan to defend against the use of euro and monetary policy as a means of coercion. In addition, it was announced that a European day of action against austerity policy will be held on 28 May 2016.

Conclusions

The “Internationalist Summit for a Plan B” in Paris was heavily influenced by the organiser, the Parti de Gauche, whose chairman, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, announced shortly afterwards that he would stand in the 2017 presidential elections. The conference addressed monetary issues, with a broad range of positions being represented, from a plan B (with a capital B) pressing for an active exit policy of the peripheral countries to a plan b (with a lowercase b) committed to the development of a strategy for the event of forced expulsion from the EU. The possibility of reform of the EU was largely viewed with pessimism. European migration policy and initiatives for neoliberal deepening of the EU were also addressed in some of the speeches.

The “DiEM25” initiative undoubtedly attracted the greatest attention of the three events owing to the popularity of Yanis Varoufakis, who is making a foray onto the European stage with DiEM25. He is walking a tightrope by offering “a very simple, but radical idea: democratise Europe!”, whilst also announcing a specific roadmap for that process. In Berlin he reached a predominantly urban, intellectual and internet-savvy audience. While economic issues were debated in less depth during the workshops, there was a lot of talk about the possibilities and risks of modern communications. It remains to be seen whether the broad range of sympathisers – Varoufakis is appealing to all “left-wing, green, social democratic and liberal democrats in Europe” – can be kept on board in the long term. It is also still unclear whether Varoufakis can use his charisma to further and lend visibility to the debate about the future direction of Europe in conjunction and in parallel with the other initiatives. The announcement of a “DiEM25” event in Spain indicates that a joint process has been set in motion.

The “Plan B for Europe” conference in Madrid emphasised the strong involvement of civil-society movements. According to the organisers, some 1,500 people registered for the conference. The conference itself was organised according to an inclusive approach, with great emphasis placed on a balanced ratio of genders on the panels and on ensuring that the event had disabled access. On the Sunday a final rally was held on an open-air stage. The conference in Madrid, which was co-organised by Podemos and Izquierda Unida, was influenced by the political situation in Spain. That was evident, for example, from the strong emphasis on the debt issue, which is a key challenge when it comes to implementing alternative political approaches in Spain given the great need for refinancing. A “plan B” was no longer mentioned in the final declaration of the Madrid conference, and it remains to be seen to what extent the various players will join forces.

There are undoubtedly major tensions in the EU that require serious alternatives to be developed, for which there are starting points throughout Europe. The “plan B” debate can contribute to the development of such alternatives.

By Florian Horn, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office (Project-Manager)

austerity, democracy, left alternatives