Socialist Worker

New book shows how the European Union ‘hollowed out democracy’

Costas Lapavitsas is a Marxist economist and author of a new book, The Left Case Against the EU. He urges a break with the neoliberal European Union

Issue No. 2634

MEps voting in the European Parliament—but democracy in the European Union is limited

MEPs voting in the European Parliament—but democracy in the European Union is limited (Pic: European Parliament/Flickr)

The European Union (EU) ­cannot be described as ­anything other than a neoliberal citadel.

And it’s a neoliberal citadel not because of who is in power in Spain, who is in power in Italy or who is in power in France.

It’s because of logic of the thing in and of itself—and that’s the most crucial point.

Neoliberalism dictates the terms, it rules the roost today. And the reason why can be summed up very plainly—it’s the single market and single currency.

It’s true that these two things didn’t have to go together, but they do in the EU and together they make for neoliberal domination.  

So those in Britain who wish to remain in the single market should know what they are wishing for. They want this country to be permanently in an arrangement that will give the upper hand to neoliberal policies and measures.

Why did this arise?

The Maastricht Treaty of 1991, the path that led to it, and everything that flowed from it ushered in a period of dramatic transformation of the EU.

The logic that allowed that to happen is the four freedoms that are so heavily touted—the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. 

If you look at these freedoms in the abstract, they can be a reasonable framework for interstate relations.

The point is that in the EU they are interpreted as individual rights within the Maastricht Treaty framework. Everything is an individual right, over collective rights and policies. The European Court of Justice decides which way the law will come down.


So the single market, the single currency and four freedoms are a solid, rigid framework for neoliberalism. 

That is supported by a whole range of other institutions—very powerful institutions, typically unaccountable institutions that work in bizarre ways.

And to top it off, there is a dominant ideology of neoliberalism throughout.

Because of what the EU has become, there is a vast democratic deficit. Economic policy has become depoliticised. So the Italians elect a very right wing government with Matteo Salvini and they have a certain policy.

Before that the Greeks elected Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza outfit and they had a policy. They are very different policies. But what’s the bottom line?

Both of them have to pursue the same policies.

And now Tsipras gives advice to Salvini about how to face up to the EU and tells him that he has to compromise. 

What’s the point of elections then? Why vote in one country or another country?

Economic policy is the realm of experts who populate universities and think tanks, not something for ordinary people.

They call it “realism”—I call it a hollowing out of democracy and the loss of popular sovereignty. 

This article is based on a speech made by Costas Lapavitsas in London last week to launch his new book, The Left Case Against the EU

Reform is a utopian dream

Reforming the European Union (EU) is a long-standing dream of the left.  

I remember well in the 1970s, the Eurocommunist left emerged and was very adamant and hopeful that the EU be the agent to transform Europe.

They said that it would be the field of struggle of working people and how socialism would come about. 

Forty years on they are still trying. 

Yet in the meantime the EU has become much worse in terms of neoliberalism.

The EU is “reforming” itself all of the time—in the wrong direction. The remain and reform position comes from a good place, but it is a utopian dream.

For me the left must recapture its radicalism—it must put across the argument for rupture and break.

The European left became a force by challenging the institutions of European capital.

The left should now challenge those intuitions, offer a break with those institutions and offer another future for working people and the poor of the EU.

Contradictions in the union

The European Union (EU) is full of contradictions and is in a political, economic and social crisis.

It is presented as a project where there will be convergence between richer and poorer states.

In reality there is increasing divergence across Europe.

The EU has got a core and within it there is one hegemonic power—Germany. Or, to be more specific, German industrial exporting capital.

Alongside the core you have many peripheries. There is the periphery of the south—Greece, Spain, Portugal which are not able to compete.

There is the periphery of central Europe, which is still attached to the German industrial structure. 

The Baltic states are different again. Germany is the winner. But it’s not true that the German people have won. 

The winners of the process, German industrial exporting capital, began with the Maastricht Treaty. There are now some very rich people in Germany. But how did they bring it about? 

It wasn’t through investment and technology. They kept kept wages down and created poor conditions for the majority of people. They were able to do that because of the single market and single currency.

The EU - a hostile place for migrants

The European Union (EU) is a place that is hostile to outsiders.

If you think that the EU is the place to go for solutions to racism and welcoming migrants, you haven’t thought about it carefully enough.

If you’ve got the “wrong” skin colour and you’re a refugee or a migrant coming into the EU, then you’ve got problems.

Camps have been created across the periphery of the EU. This isn’t the right wing Hungarian government doing it—this is the policy of the EU.

The EU has also militarised the problem of the refugees.

Just look at what’s happened in the Mediterranean or Aegean in the last couple of years as the wave of refugees emerged from Syria.

The problem was presented as a threat. Navies were mobilised, military forces were mobilised.

And the outcome was that the Mediterranean Sea was turned into a grave for thousands of people.

Read more

  • The Left Case Against the EU by Costas Lapavitsas. £14.99. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to or phone 020 7637 1848
  • The EU stands for the few, not the many
  • Damning report exposes depth of racism in EU

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