Srećko Horvat: ‘Without real democracy, everyone will want to leave the EU’

We no longer form a union with the United Kingdom and a second radical left-wing party may come to power in Europe: the Spanish Podemos. What is happening to the European Union? MO* spoke with Croat philosopher Srećko Horvat, the driving force behind the new radical left movement of Yanis Varoufakis. ‘DiEM25 is the coalition we needed during the ‘30s in order not to slide into xenophobia and nationalism.’

  • © Petar Marković (CC BY-SA 3.0) Srećko Horvat © Petar Marković (CC BY-SA 3.0)
  • © Pieter Stockmans Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis in Bozar in Brussel © Pieter Stockmans
  • (copyright Robert Crc​) Srećko Horvat and Alexis Tsipras at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb (copyright Robert Crc​)
  • © Oliver Abraham Srećko Horvat © Oliver Abraham
  • © Nikos Pilos​ Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis launch DiEM25 in Berlin © Nikos Pilos​
  • © Nikos Pilos​ Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis launch DiEM25 in Berlin © Nikos Pilos​

‘The European Union will democratise, or it will disintegrate.’ That is the new slogan of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), the new radical left movement of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. After Brexit, we have to take this warning seriously. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen were the first to demand a Nexit and a Frexit.

In February 2016, when DiEM25 was introduced to the public in Berlin, a young man was sitting next to Varoufakis: the Croat philosopher Srećko Horvat (1983). Horvat is the driving force behind the movement that wants to turn the European left into a powerful political bloc. For ten years, he followed protests, citizen’s movements and left-wing parties all over Europe.

DiEM25 wants to be pan-European and this is expressed in Srećko Horvat’s character: he has no home address; he is constantly travelling and feeling at home in Europe. As a real European, his battle is not limited to his own country. This is no surprise in an era where power is exercised globally.

Horvat hastily runs into his Brussels hotel. The punk-look from his youth gives him the image of a rebellious intellectual. He organized an event for the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the WikiLeaks-founder Julian Assange’s custody in the Ecuadorian embassy. This event is organized in seven European cities at the same time.

‘Naïve optimism is harmful to our struggle, because Europe faces a gigantic problem. More than ever, we need hope without optimism.’ Loud applause rises in the Henry Le Boeuf hall of Brussels’ Bozar theatre, where 2000 seats are all occupied.

© Pieter Stockmans

Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis in Bozar in Brussel

You were touching a nerve there.

Horvat: Many people feel hope when they see the combative radical truth talking of the American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. DiEM25 is the European version. We are not a new left-wing movement, but the umbrella of existing initiatives. We form a powerful counterforce from below.

We already came far: protest movements against budget cuts and neoliberal policies in Bosnia, Greece and Spain, Blockupy in Germany, Nuit Debout in France, whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange, rebellious cities like Barcelona, parties like Podemos and Syriza. We pave the way for political left-wing power in several European countries at the same time.

What is your ultimate goal?

Horvat: Writing a constitution for a federal, democratic EU. But first, we have to bring transparency and stability. We can only build a constitution if the wealth in Europe is fairly distributed. That has to be the base. In our global economy, national governments will never again regain all the power. That is why we are internationalists. 

Many idealistic social democrats started with the same dream, but integrated in the system. Why would that not happen to you?

Horvat: Because we will guard the connections between political parties and citizens movements at all times. Sanders would never have become presidential nominee without the Occupy-movement. That continuous dialogue with the base is something parties have to organize within their structures. I do not expect much of the social democrats. They implemented capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Only the German SPD was present at DiEM25’s launch.

Economic crisis

The Flemish Minister of Work is a Christian Democrat. In order to defend austerity measures, he said a lot of Flemish people lived above their standards.

Horvat: Five years ago, the non-elected Italian ex-prime minister Mario Monti said that young people should get used to the fact that they will no longer have stable jobs. Flexicurity, as it is called. The Danes were the first to implement it during the ‘90s: a combination of flexibility for employers and social protection for employees. Today, we see mainly the first and not much of the latter. I would like to ask the minister: how did you enjoy education and health insurance? Did you pay much for it?

He would answer that times have changed and that we have to stay competitive in a globalized economy.

Horvat: Austerity measures and privatization makes us even less competitive. Since April 8, 2016, the Chinese state company COSCO Pacific owns 67% of Piraeus, the port of Athens. The company paid 368 million euros to a Greek state development fund. Greece was obliged to privatize the port – or should I say to sell it to the Chinese state? – in order to receive the IMF financial assistance package of 86 billion euros. (copyright Robert Crc​)

Srećko Horvat and Alexis Tsipras at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras promised not to privatize public infrastructure.

Horvat: Do you really believe Greece is still a democracy? Tsipras is powerless.

Xu Lirong, the CEO of COSCO, said: ‘China’s increasing power on the global market will benefit Greece. Chinese companies see a lot of opportunities in Greece. We will turn Piraeus into the most competitive port of the Mediterranean.’

Horvat: Three days ago I visited the port. Nobody was at work in the Greek part. The employees were on strike. To know their future, they have only to look at the Chinese part of the port. Workers have no right to collective negotiation and unions are forbidden. This is the other side of opportunity and competitiveness.

‘China is not just bringing investment, but also crumbling rights for our workers.’

When Yanis Varoufakis was Minister of Finance, he made the following proposal for the sale of the port: 51% would be sold to the Chinese company under a temporary concession, the rights of the employees would stay intact. Under pressure from the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF), this proposal was rejected. Last year the Greek government also sold fourteen airports to the German company that manages Frankfurt Airport.

European social democrats and liberals defended and implemented these measures. What does this say about the political centre?

Horvat: Centre parties will only survive if they make the rich contribute. Otherwise, they will not be able to appeal to the growing feeling of discontent among many citizens. The damaging consequences of their austerity measures and privatization will also strike Western Europe. That, coupled with fear, translates into protest voices. Nuit Debout in France, for example. But Brexit is also a protest against this unfair “globalization”. It is unfortunate that the greatest victim is the EU as a project.

China seeks unlimited access to the global market. Europe might not be able to stop the import of, for example, heap Chinese steal. Do we have reason to worry?

Horvat: Of course. China has an overproduction in many sectors. At the end of this year, that country might receive the status of a market economy, which means they could dump their overproduction at artificially low prices in Europe. That is the reason why the Chinese are building a new Silk Route via the new railways in Eastern China, through Central Asia and Eastern Europe all the way to Rotterdam. The European debt crisis, austerity measures and privatization will make it even easier for China to penetrate the EU.

The United States are aware that European markets are drawn to the East. To stop the Eurasian integration, they offered Europe the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Horvat: That does not make the Americans the good guys. European elites choose between and the plague and cholera. Europe imports lower American food standards or lower Chinese labour- or environmental standards. Trade agreements give companies the right to sue states if the state passes laws that counter the agreement. Imagine for example a Spanish government with Podemos that would resist these lower standards. Spain would be sued. Opaque trade agreements are side-lining democracy.

‘Leaving the EU or the Eurozone does not mean leaving the global capitalism. Penetrating the system is the only way to change it.’

You wrote that the left program of universal emancipation got a blow after the fall of communism. Now, nationalists are gaining in popularity among common citizens. Could a coalition of left and right wing nationalists return control over the economy to the citizens?

Horvat: Nationalists use a belligerent rhetoric. When German politicians humiliate Greeks, it does not mean that Germany is the enemy of the Greek nation. But nationalists believe it is. Economic nationalism leads us into the abyss. DiEM25 can never become a collaboration between left-wing radicals and anti-liberal nationalists, although we have to take the complaints of their voters serious.

I mistrust any discourse that divides workers. German politicians have convinced German workers that lazy Greeks receive money from the German taxpayer. However, statistics show that Greek employees work the most hours. Karl Marx wrote that capitalism pits one working class against the other. The problem is not the fictitious struggle between workers, but the real struggle between the European workers and European banks.

DiEM25 is waging an international struggle and opposes the return to the nation-state?

Horvat: Yes, and we oppose all exits from the European Union.

Srećko Horvat 

Why, if the EU is a neoliberal project?

Horvat: I know that many left-wing people want to leave the EU, but progressives have no other choice than to reform the system from the inside. There are two reasons for that. First: leaving the EU or the Eurozone does not mean leaving global capitalism. It is not possible to return to full national sovereignty. Politicians who promise an independent utopia are selling their citizens dangerous illusions and lies. Trade agreements such as TTIP would come to the United Kingdom faster without the EU.

Second: progressives will always lose if they step out of an integrated market. Under the socialism of Tito, my homeland Yugoslavia was not integrated into the capitalist West or into the communist Soviet-Union. It had one of the strongest armies and diplomacies in the world. Even that country could not survive outside a global market. We have to penetrate the system and that is the only way we can change it.

Yugoslavia was even supported by the Non-Aligned Movement. A new kind of resistance is growing in Europe: Spain could make history if Podemos would become the second radical left party ascending to power in the EU.

Horvat: And if Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would rise to power in the United Kingdom, the radical left would be less alone than when Syriza made a stand against the EU in 2015. There are also the rebellious cities all over Europe. Our friend Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona, is one of our activists. She made common citizens politically aware and translated their indignation into political power.

Under Podemos’ rule, Ada Colau would get a national support. DiEM25 as a pan-European movement would then be the international support of Colau and Podemos. DiEM25 is the promising, international soil in which local initiatives can bloom. Without mutual reinforcement between the local, the national and the international, the radical left will fail.

Not only the Rebellious City, but also the Strongman is on the rise.

Horvat: Victor Orban, the authoritarian Hungarian prime minister, fulminates against the EU but at the same time he demands more capitalism. He dreams of the power authoritarians like Erdogan or Xi Jinping have in order to plan twenty years ahead. In a recent speech he said that Hungarians “are semi-Asians and therefore would do better under dictatorship”.

The American philosopher Francis Fukuyama is right when he says: a return to the nation state following the Chinese model of capitalism without democracy would weaken us globally. Moreover, the Strongman today uses the Deep State in order to deepen his power.

‘WikiLeaks is the life blood of our movement. No mobilization without the indignation caused by whistle-blowers’ information leaks.’

The Deep State?

Horvat: We see a growing connection between intelligence services and Silicon Valley, the collective term for the world’s largest tech companies with headquarters in California. Google has more lobbyists in Washington than the arms industry. WikiLeaks revealed connections between Hillary Clinton and Google. Google-CEO Erik Schmidt was appointed head of a Pentagon-committee that was tasked with integrating Silicon Valley into the intelligence services. The combined power is so big that nobody could ever exit the integrated system.

Technology of Google, Facebook and Apple is making citizens transparent to governments and companies, while making authority invisible. Orwell’s 1984 is becoming reality. But we can fight Big Brother with his own weapons.

That is what WikiLeaks is doing: using technology to make power transparent.

Horvat: Correct. To commemorate Julian Assange’s fourth anniversary of house arrest, I organized the event First They Came for Assange in seven cities. WikiLeaks is the lifeblood of DiEM25. The whistle-blowers cause indignation, which is needed for mobilization. Assange’s freedom is the price of our right to transparency, so we have a duty to use his information.

Thanks to WikiLeaks Yanis Varoufakis was able to leave the system without losing access to inside information. Thanks to WikiLeaks we know that the European Operation Sophia against human smuggling off the Libyan coast will actually be a disguised military intervention in Libya.

War and refugees

The EU-Turkey deal stops refugees off the coast of Greece and Turkey, and sends them back. The Greek radical left party Syriza has to implement this deal, whether or not it opposes xenophobia.

Horvat: Greece has to deal with several humanitarian crises at the same time. Instead of giving financial aid to Greece to manage the refugee crisis together with European partners, the EU chose to give 6 billion euros to an authoritarian country such as Turkey. They have a dictator that is fighting our Kurdish allies.

In order to receive the 86 billion euros of the IMF financial assistance package, the Greek government had to withdraw several measures it took to help immigrants and poor Greeks: the law that provided citizenship to children of immigrants and the vouchers for the poor. The closure of the Balkan route and Greek cooperation on stopping refugees were also conditions. When European ministers made decisions about this matter, one minister was not invited: the Greek one. That is a colonial attitude.

‘The collection of individuals helping refugees, are the new society. They prove Thatcher was wrong.’

The Balkan route took refugees from the edge to the centre of Europe. No surprise that it was not going to be last long. During the 90’s, when many refugees from the Balkans came to Belgium, Belgium built reception capacity instead of walls. What stops the Balkan countries from doing the same today?

Horvat: Because Western Europe is not setting an example today. The goal is not building up asylum systems but breaking them down. What do you expect from Europe’s periphery if countries such as Denmark confiscate the property of refugees, if several member states call the Schengen Area into question, if Hungary builds walls and fences and thwarts a common European refugee policy with referenda? There is not a single incentive to build an asylum system.

However, one could observe waves of solidarity among the locals from Greece to Croatia.

Horvat: Being a Croat, this has filled me with hope. The problem is that this solidarity is merely based on the goodwill of individuals. They fulfil the role of the society. That is the vision of Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This attitude is now applied to refugee policy. Aid is being individualized.

And these well-intentioned individuals prove Thatcher’s point.

Horvat: No, they do not. They prove Thatcher was wrong, because these individuals form the new society. They use their precious time to repair social bonds destroyed by neoliberals such as Thatcher.

That social destruction has silently wrecked whole communities. Brexit was a revolt. DiEM25 will defend these “angry citizens” with great conviction. We owe the EU an alternative; otherwise we push these citizens towards racists and nationalists who only want to break down the EU. Our alternative is also anti-establishment, but radically left and radically pro-EU.

© Nikos Pilos​

Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis launch DiEM25 in Berlin

A social construct resting only on a foundation of a collection of individuals cannot exist for long. Non-institutionalized societies collapse.

Horvat: You are completely right. DiEM25 is reinforcing groups of individuals that rebuild social bonds, to translate this into political parties and power. But about asylum systems: even if we would build these up, it would not be effective as long as our diplomats and armies are destabilizing North Africa and the Middle East. Our politicians and media portray the refugee crisis as a natural disaster coming out of the blue, a sudden wave of immigrants to the hearth of Europe.

You wrote that this representation of the crisis was precisely the purpose.

Horvat: Ideologies portray historical and political developments as “natural” phenomena, so our responsibility remains invisible. But the refugee crisis is no natural disaster. The combination of our foreign and refugee policies is the real disaster. First we export wars to Iraq, Libya and Syria. Next we import refugees. Then we export refugees back to Turkey, and import the Turkish authoritarianism to Europe.

What do you mean?

Horvat: Because we so desperately want to keep the refugees in Turkey, the Turkish president Erdogan asked a lot in return. He could even silence a German comedian. How did we get to this point? We impose austerity and weaken Greece, giving Turkey the power to reinforce its negotiation position and China to privatize ports. Europe is weakening itself.

‘If you are not indebted to a financial institution, you are a problem. If you have natural resources, you are an opportunity. Syria is both.’

At which point did we export a war to Syria? In the case of Iraq and Libya it was clear, but less so in Syria.

Horvat: Do you think armed groups can get weapons just like that? In a British terrorism court case the Swede Bherlin Gildo was accused of being part of a Syrian rebel group. The case was cancelled, as it could shine a light on the secret activities of the British intelligence services, which supported that same rebel group as Gildo. It was a popular uprising in Syria, but the West seized the opportunity to further destabilize president Bashar Assad. The US was planning that since 2006. We know this also thanks to WikiLeaks.

During a lecture in Georgia you said Syria was “more or less” democratic. Europe has to be the perfect democracy?

Horvat: I do not mean to say that Assad, Saddam or Khadafi were democratic leaders. And I would still rather live in Europe than in China or any Arab country. Despite everything, the EU has the best democratic standards in the world. But I do say that Iraq, Libya and Syria are worse off after our interventions. The reason behind these interventions is certainly not to bring democracy, but to open these countries to our economic and political influence. Syria did not own a cent to the IMF and the World Bank. It has large water and gas supplies and could exist independently. But if you are not indebted to a financial institution, you are a problem. And if you have natural resources, you are an investment opportunity.

How should the EU relate to the present Russia under Putin? Russia annexed a piece of the Ukrainian territory, finances the extreme right in Europe and tries to gain influence in the media and economy of the Balkans.

Horvat: The EU’s itself is to blame. DiEM25 tries to show the EU has become a geopolitical dwarf because of the failing foreign and financial policies. Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina form a hole in a EU-ring from Croatia to Greece. In this hole there already is Chinese and Russian influence. How can you explain this? I would not focus on Putin. It is a failure of the EU itself.

© Nikos Pilos​

Srećko Horvat and Yanis Varoufakis launch DiEM25 in Berlin

Expansion of the European Union

To counter that Russian influence, Slovakia, as presidency of the EU, wants to lead Serbia and Bosnia to EU membership. But the result of the Brexit-referendum again showed that it is the fear of expansion that is breaking up the EU. Is there a way out of this dilemma?

Horvat: Accession to the EU as a solution to a crisis that some member-states are trying to escape by leaving the EU: this must be a joke. Exactly three years ago the latest member state, Croatia, entered the EU. The referendum about accession marked the lowest attendance ever: 43%. In total only 27% of the population voted for accession. Euro-optimism, the belief that accession to the EU per definition means stability and prosperity, was still alive when Slovenia became a member in 2004, but today it belongs to the past.

Why are Serbia and Bosnia more open to the east than to the EU?

Horvat: Because Russia and the Arab Gulf States invest heavily in those countries. Only one month after Croatia acceded to the EU, the Serbian government and Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates brokered a deal in which Etihad acquired 49% of Air Serbia.

Nevertheless, many European integration processes are running. The visa liberalization process for Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Turkey. The economic association treaty between the EU and Ukraine. The EU perseveres, in spite of Euro scepticism.

Horvat: Integration of new countries into the EU starts to resemble colonization. In this regard, the EU looks like the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The central power in Vienna colonized the periphery, for example by cutting primeval forests in Romania and Croatia and transporting the materials to the centre of the empire. Today the same happens. Romania has the largest number of primeval forests older than mankind, and at the same time the largest amounts of cuts by Austrian companies. These contracts are worth millions of euros.

The integration of Romania into the EU made this possible. The integration of Croatia started with economic integration as well. That process was called Deutsche Telekom. No joke. Privatization of telecommunications was a condition for EU membership. Austrian, Italian and German banks now own more than 90% of Croat banks.

No expansion as long as new countries are integrating in a neoliberal Europe?

Horvat: In the Balkans, euro-compatible elites are imposing neoliberal reforms to prepare the economy for integration. Usually this entails many privatizations and few social measures. If a government is toppled, a rearrangement of the same political oligarchy follows. Social unrest in the Balkans can no longer be explained as the result of ethnic nationalism. The region today is the mirror image of Europe itself. The social unrest is the same as the unrest hitting the entire continent.

‘In 2017, Front National and Alternative für Deutschland rose to power. After the Brexit, many countries voted “out” in their own exit-referenda. In 2018, the EU had ceased to exist.’

Where do you see yourself and DiEM25 in 2025? In politics?

Horvat: Two weeks ago, together with Yanis Varoufakis, I visited an exhibition of the Belgian artist Thomas Bellinck: the House of European History in Exile, a museum from the future. You enter the former ministry of work in Athens, empty and abandoned as it was sold to pay off debts. A post-apocalyptic atmosphere. On the first floor you see the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. Every floor shows a chapter in the history of the EU.

After 2016 you enter a room full of flags of the extreme right parties in Europe, with neo-Nazi symbols. In 2017 the Front National and Alternative für Deutschland rose to power in the two most important countries of the EU. There was no solution for the refugee crisis and terror continued to strike in the heart of Europe. After the Brexit, many countries voted “out” in their own exit-referenda. In 2018, the EU had ceased to exist. I joked to Yanis: “And in the next room we see DiEM 25.”

As the movement that rescued the EU?

Horvat: No, as the movement that tried and failed. (Laughs)

Translation from Dutch to English: Stephanie Cousin.

On the 6th of Februari 2017 Srećko Horvat will speak in Kaaitheater, Brussels.

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