Austria’s narrowly defeated right-wing presidential candidate Hofer announced, stopping TTIP would be one of his priorities. In France, the only major political party opposed to TTIP is Front National. Germany’s AfD is a vocal TTIP critic, too. In the US, Donald Trump vehemently opposes free trade agreements of all sorts. Globalization critics on the right wing, what does that mean?
Everywhere in Europe, in the US it has become very difficult to distinguish left and right, particularly when you don’t talk about values but about economic and financial policies. All over Europe, mainstream political parties in the last 20 years have subscribed to the belief that there is »no alternative« to neoliberal free-market globalization. No matter whether it’s Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Greens, Liberals – there is hardly any political sector where differences in practical government policymaking were smaller than in economic and financial policies. This is not only true for Germany, it is also true in the US and Britain, and many other countries.
The consequences are quite similar, too. These policies have benefitted mainly the top 10 percent, shareholders, top salaries – but the major part of employees had to live with stagnating or even decreasing wages. In Germany, about a third of the workforce is caught in a low-wage sector from which there is no escape, and which guarantees old-age poverty. The countries of North-West Europe are still far from the disastrous situation in Greece or Spain, but there is no permanent island of happiness in times of globalization. France is already on the way to a deep economic and social crisis.
More and more people are literally fed up about such circumstances. Mass demonstrations against TTIP all over Europe, particularly in the country of export champion Germany. The motherland of neoliberalism, Britain, is going to leave the EU and will probably lose Scotland. In the US, right-wing populist Donald Trump swept away the Republican establishment and Socialist Bernie Sanders put enormous pressure on the last remaining candidate of the Washington establishments. Central theme of the Trump and Sanders campaigns: Get rid of neoliberalism, get rid of »free trade«. At Austria’s presidential election, the old political parties collapsed. In all likelihood, the French elections early next year will take a similar path. The establishment in media and politics still seems to be paralyzed, shocked and simultaneously fascinated like in a horror movie. What is happening? Are the people getting crazy?
Well, you can also be surprised that it took so long. An ideology that so obviously results in many more losers than winners cannot really work in the long term, particularly not in democracies. Any halfway intelligent observer outside the ivory tower of the political and media establishments in the Western capitals immediately understands that. This establishment is now haunted by its own fallacy to believe for more than 20 years that there is »no alternative« to the economic policies of this conservative, social democratic and increasingly green mainstream. They all believe in Maggie Thatcher’s acronym TINA – There Is No Alternative. When this is what you believe, at some point you don’t know anymore how to think in alternatives or to discuss alternatives. However, in real life there are always alternatives, and this is what we need now more urgently than ever.
Mainstream politicians so far have not even understood that this is now on the agenda. Probably they are leaving their ivory towers in Berlin, London, Washington not often enough. Politicians and journalists – NGO functionaries too, by the way – are spending far too much of their precious lifetime to talk with their own kind in endless meetings rather than with ordinary people, with the rest of the world. When you travel the country for three years to discuss TTIP in hundreds of meetings, you get to understand the popular mood: farmers meetings, village pubs, trade union meetings, village mayors conferences, local political party chapters, self-organized university lectures, even church services. Village or big city, no matter where, no matter who invites, no matter who attends – the picture is the same: people are fed up. Much more profoundly that opinion polls or election results suggest. More than 60% of EU citizens don’t trust their politicians, according to EU Commission opinion polls.
You meet them again and again. The old gentleman, all his professional life in a leading position in a medium-sized enterprise, who quit his Christian Democratic Party membership last week because of TTIP and the parallel legal system for investors. The mayor whose village is losing inhabitants and yet is forced to give public contracts to some globalized corporations rather than to ailing local companies – he quit his party already long ago. The office secretary whose salary buys her less and less for many years already, but at least she is happy to be one of the few still having an unlimited work contract. The pensioner afraid of all these beggars and burglars these days, since when he was young there were no beggars and burglars – and not so many rich people. The student that is under such pressure to get a quick and good exam that she has no time for anything else, yet has already given up on the dream that one day she will be better off than her parents. The clueless Social Democratic local party chapter that is astonished to be reminded, they should not be passive spectators since they are a ruling party in this country. The angry farmer that would love to dump a big pile of bullshit in Berlin or Brussels, because he faces bankruptcy. You get to feel a diffuse »We are the people« mood, still searching for what to do, but with a clear tendency: everything goes into the wrong direction, and »the establishment« needs to be taught a lesson, a very big lesson. If you’re lucky, they don’t look at you as being part of that establishment. The open question is, how does this lesson for the establishment look like. There are several possibilities.
Basically, these people do not want a revolution. They don’t want fascists in power, and they also don’t dream about communism or greenish post-growth visions. They simply want the good old European model of a social market economy back, not ever increasing global competition of everybody against everybody subordinating all parts of life. The feel laughed at by managers wrecking a whole company and get fat bonus payments for that – and pay almost no taxes, while you have trouble to survive and worry about your pension. You hear well-meaning words about the old Christian Democratic chancellor Helmut Kohl who unlike all his successors made sure there is some social justice between the elite and ordinary people – even by people who never voted for him. In their collective belief in the neoliberal ideology the political class has alienated itself from large parts of the electorate. For a long time, it was just a diffuse uneasy feeling.
Diffuse moods can spread for quite some time, but they become virulent when the diffuse uneasiness gets a name, a symbol, crystallizing all your frustrations. For many people, this name is now »refugees and Islam«. For others, this name is »TTIP and globalization«. And for quite a few, it is both. There is no clear delineation between the two. Which tendency will prevail, that is an open question. You can be somewhat more blunt: one is a hateful, destructive tendency – the other is a democratic, constructive response to a political class out of touch, a political class that can not or does not want to understand that it has to correct its policies fundamentally. Essentially, it’s like the choice between Trump and Sanders. Only a few months ago all these experienced political observers in their ivory towers believed, such outsiders have no chance. Trump, Podemos, Sanders, Syriza, Stop TTIP, Front National, Cinque Stelle, Brexit – in the ivory towers all that can be labeled as extremist, like any challenge for the mainstream. Whether the protest is right-wing or left-wing, democratic or authoritharian, separatist or anti-EU–apparently that is different from country to country. The clueless reactions of the old elites, however, are the same everywhere. Now it has become rather relative who actually is mainstream – in more and more countries in Europe the TTIP supporters are a shrinking minority, opposition to TTIP is mainstream outside the establishment. When the EU Council of trade ministers still unanimously votes for the old free trade agenda and issues its communiques reaffirming TTIP and CETA, it looks like a farce. It clearly does not represent the peoples of Europe.
This cannot go on for much longer. Austria‘s new Chancellor Kern stated with rare directness when he assumed office and said, this is the last chance of his Social Democratic Party and its Conservative coalition partner. »If we cannot turn the trend, these parties will disappear. And then they probably deserve it.« In Gorbachev’s words: Whoever comes too late will be punished by life.
When you still try in such a situation to force through unpopular trade agreements by »provisional application« against massive public opposition, you play with fire. Exactly this behaviour is what all those need who believe that the political class are completely corrupt, willing servants of multinational corporations, and that the entire undemocratic construction called EU cannot be reformed. Democracy now has to prove, it is not there just for the elite but for everybody. It must prove that it can offer perspectives for the losers of 20 years of neoliberal globalization. It must prove that TTIP will not come when the majority of the people don’t want it, unlike the political class. It must prove that it can reunite dissolving societies. If the political class refuses and blocks all this, the answer of the electorate will question this kind of democracy. The massive frustration with today’s politics can no longer be just ignored or neutralized.
Essentially, the political class should be thankful that there is a democratic, peaceful, pluralistic, constructive movement against TTIP. This acronym TTIP has become the symbol for neoliberalism and the radical free-market economic policies of the last 20 years. It is not the movement against TTIP that opens the doors for right-wing populists, but those that continue to force TTIP, CETA and their old economic policies upon an unwilling electorate. There is a way to prevent antidemocratic, nationalist, reactionary forces to capitalize on the massive crisis of confidence of the elites in Europe and the US – or even to get elected. You have to show that democratic alternatives are working. You have to show that you can use democratic ways to get another economic and financial policy, making the poor richer and the rich poorer, transforming a two-thirds society back into a society for everybody. You have to show, a return to a social market economy is the solution and not xenophobia and nationalism. That means: Large parts of the neoliberal project of the last 20 or 30 years have to be undone. We will see whether those parties that are responsible for this mess will be the ones to do such a U-turn, for their own survival – it is quite an open question.
* Jürgen Maier is Director of Forum on Environment & Development
Note: This article was originally published in German: “Wir sind das Volk? TTIP-Kritik von rechts – einige notwendige Anmerkungen.” In: Rundbrief Forum Umwelt & Entwicklung, 2016, Heft 2, S. 24-26.