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A salutary shock?: Chantal Mouffe on Brexit and the Spanish elections

Chantal Mouffe27 June 2016

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Joseph Confavreux's interview with Chantal Mouffe was first published in Mediapart. Translated by David Broder.

Chantal Mouffe is a philosopher of Belgian origin who lives and teaches in London. She is very close to Podemos, and indeed the inspirer of its political strategy. In this piece published on Saturday 25 June she offered Mediapart her reactions to Brexit and its possible consequences for the Spanish elections. 

Mediapart: what lessons would you draw from the Brexit vote?

Chantal Mouffe: I hope that this will be a salutary shock for Europe, because we cannot go on like this. If I could have voted I would perhaps have voted for "Remain." That’s because I am one of those so-called "left-wing Europeanists" who are not sovereigntists but instead demand a democratic refoundation of Europe. But I expected this result, because during the campaign you only sensed real passion among the "Brexiteers." And I think emotions play a decisive role in politics.

The impossibility of identifying with the existing, neoliberal EU explains why someone like Corbyn didn’t really campaign for it. He was in an untenable position: like Cameron he backed the "Remain" camp, but for opposite reasons. He called for a social Europe while Cameron wanted an ever more neoliberal one. So I’m not devastated by this.

On the one hand, if this vote can damage the City and neoliberal forces then we can be pleased with that. On the other hand, Europe would have faced problems with Britain even if Brexit hadn’t won, because Cameron had secured so many concessions in order to keep Britain in the EU that this would have posed insurmountable problems for Europe’s future. And it is also interesting to see what may now happen with Scotland. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end for Great Britain.

Why was it the far Right that monopolized the critique of neoliberal Europe during the British referendum campaign?

I was struck how little the Labour Party took an interest in Europe. Even among left-wing people, the biggest Europhiles are sometimes given to say "Perhaps it’s better that we leave Europe so it can go on ahead without us." Every time I turned on the radio I was struck by the discourse of hatred and xenophobia that was being unleashed.

This campaign has brought out the worst in the English. That’s why although I feel that Europe may be facing a salutary crisis, I also fear that a centrifugal moment that translates into other countries "exiting" the EU could lead to the worst passions being expressed. If the EU were dismantled today then it would be Right-populist forces who would benefit the most. That’s why I still dare to hope in the possibility of a European Left populism carried forward by several countries, including Spain.

Do you still think that an alternative policy is possible within the currently existing European institutions?

No, not such as they currently exist. But I think that if there were progressive governments in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal it would be possible to build power relations able to change the way in which these institutions function. In Spain the Socialists (PSOE) and Popular Party (PP) have whipped up the spectre of Greece to put people off voting Podemos. But the comparison does not hold together: Spain is a much bigger country and Greece was far more indebted.

I do not think that if a progressive government in Spain or France waged a struggle within the EU it would turn out like it did in the Greek case, where Tsipras truly found that he had a knife to his throat. So we can imagine that governments across Europe allying around a common Left populism could overturn the power balance and force a profound refoundation of the European project. That’s not an obvious choice, but I believe in that more than in leaving the EU, which would not provide any real tools to the governments unilaterally committing to such a process.

This is not a matter of socialist revolution. I think that today the right strategy for the European Left is that of a radical reformism proceeding through a war of position, forcing reforms as far forward as possible. Without doubt that would involve ruptures, but it would be gradual, because we can’t anticipate everything in advance and everything would also depend on the international conjunction. I think that’s what Iglesias is proposing with his project of a "fourth social democracy." That does not mean throwing the social-democratic project out with the bathwater, but instead demands a return to a truly radical social democracy.

Yet Podemos hardly seems to have any plan deeply to challenge the European institutions, beyond a slight reform of the ECB?

Certainly they are cautious, but their project is to challenge austerity measures. So it would be interesting to see the margins of manoeuvre that they are able to force open. Personally I prefer it that Podemos is not using leaving the EU as a threat. In 2014 I attended a meeting that Alexis Tsipras also took part in, before he came to power. He was very optimistic at that point, saying that he had the "atomic bomb of leaving the Euro" available to him. But faced with Schaüble, who also wanted Greece to leave the euro, he soon found himself all at sea.

Despite the violence inflicted on the Greek people, I do not think the example of that country invalidates the possibility of a true transformative Left in Europe. The Greek experience allowed us to understand that neoliberal Europe could not tolerate a real alternative succeeding in a single country. This politicised things, showing that Europe was not a neutral project. Today this would allow a progressive government to be less naïve than Tsipras was.

Could Brexit affect Sunday’s Spanish election results?

I don’t know, but I fear that may be the case. Insecurity often pushes people to vote for the Right, and we might ask if the Spanish are going to want to add to the uncertainty in the European situation by giving themselves a new government. So this could help Mariano Rajoy’s conservative PP. But I still hope that we might have an Iglesias government after Sunday’s elections, even if that would compel the PSOE to clarify its position. If it comes behind Podemos will it support a PP government or a Podemos one? I think that the current PSOE leader Sanchez would favour Podemos, but that’s not true of all the Socialist party bosses.

What do you think of the criticisms from the Left saying that even though Podemos has repositioned itself on the Left by hitching itself to Izquierda Unida, it remains too vertical and centralised?

I think these criticisms are unfair, particularly because they are often based on local experiences in Barcelona and Madrid, and you can’t just map the local terrain onto a national scale. Podemos has had to face four elections, and electoral campaigns don’t lend themselves to internal discussions. But they are very conscious that the "circles" must preserve their important role in the party’s functioning, and they are trying to reinvigorate them. That was notable during the recent campaign. And I am still struck by their extraordinary creativity. In presenting their programme in the form of an Ikea catalogue they not only achieved a media coup but managed to get the electorate who didn’t read party manifestos any more to pick them up again.


Filed under: brexit, podemos