Portugal’s ‘coup’ shows uncomfortable convergence of left-right EU narratives

It isn’t often that Owen Jones and Daniel Hannan agree on anything, but when it happens it’s almost certainly going to be on the EU. Portugal’s dangerous fumbling around its recent election where left parties have taken the majority of the vote has been disingenuously spun by the Telegraph as a Eurozone ‘coup.’ President Silva apparently “refused to appoint a left-wing coalition government even though it secured an absolute majority in Parliament and won a mandate to smash the austerity regime bequeathed by the EU-IMF troika.” Jones and Hannan have both naturally been taken in by this narrative. This misses some significant details that renders the coup narrative somewhat problematic, these being;

  • The President’s constitutional role is to appoint the next Prime Minister and allows them the opportunity to form the next Government.
  • The President has done so — Silva has appointed the party with the most seats. That party’s leader is also the incumbent Prime Minister.
  • Though the PCP and Left Bloc together comprise of 50% of the vote, neither party has more seats than the PSD
  • There is no evidence as of yet of any external pressure put upon Silva to make this decision. It appears to be entirely logical from Silva’s position to appoint the incumbent who currently has the most seats to form the next government. This then points not to a Eurozone coup but complex structural problems with the Portugese republic itself that Portugese leftists will have a better grasp of than any uninvolved Briton.

Why then are Jones and others taken in by what appears to be an act of atrocious spin? Portugal is clearly far more complex than an unconstitutional act turned to coup as driven by the Troika. As previously noted, Silva’s decision was entirely constitutional. The Morning Stars’ Joanna Ramiro rightly points out that the language of the coup was previously used by the Portuguese right to scare-monger about Communist governance. What then, is the problem with the British left’s eurosceptics?

The EU has become the quilting-point for leftist grievances and arguments against neoliberal hegemony across Europe. I don’t seek to dispute these grievances, indeed, I share them. But I’ve come to believe that the treatment of Portugal’s alleged coup has revealed many many problems with left-wing euro-scepticism as it currently manifests itself in the UK. In fact, the British lefts’ anti-EU narrative converges rather uncomfortably with a generalised right-wing alternative. Let us therefore briefly compare the generalised forms of these respective narratives.

Generalised Leftist summary: The EU is a superficially technocratic and increasingly unaccountable institution that disregards the will of its member states peoples — usually with an understandable reference to Greece. The EU is fundamentally a neoliberal project.

Generalised Right-wing summary: The EU is superficially technocratic and increasingly unaccountable institution that disregards the Sovereignty of member states. The EU is slowly creeping towards a new Nation-State that will erase the differences of its member-states, which is in fact the ideological aim.

The left too invokes the cumbersome and increasingly removed legislative system of the European Union as providing a barrier to re-nationalisation programmes. This begins to bear some resemblance to the Right’s claim that the EU is ebbing and draining its member states of National Sovereignty. Indeed, if a nation cannot re-nationalise its own utilities and services what else can’t it do? This piece-meal analysis alone indicates the disturbing convergence of left and right euroscepticism. The left appears to be trapped within the logic of the Right’s narrative — one of sovereignty. This isn’t to deny the different understandings of sovereignty the left and right have, merely that such differences cease to matter insofar as they lead to the same monstrous portmanteau; Brexit.

This narrative then usually culminates in a cry to abandon ship, as if somehow a UK exit would compensate for the Troika’s tyrannical treatment of Greece. If the UK does exit, what do left-eurosceptics propose will come next? Isolationism is antithetical to pretentious of internationalism. Likewise, do we cozy up once again to the USA? It goes without saying how unpalatable this would be for many of us. The same can be said for China. Leftists would almost certainly be averse to some “return to the commonwealth” which is usually a bid to relive fantasies of the dead Empire. Given the Left cannot guarantee establishing a new hegemony by the time an exit is likely,it then follows we should not in good conscience advocate for an exit anymore than we should advocate for the amorphous “reform” programme given that post-exit decisions will not be made by the left.

I would finally claim this mistaken affair demonstrates a rather impoverished account of the relationship between the Nation State and global capital, and indeed the EU’s role within that. Capital functions outside of the EU as well as through and in it, and the increasingly shriveled powers of the Nation state, within and without the EU will not be able to wrest it to its will.