At a November meeting in Vermont, hosted by the Sanders Foundation, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis announced the formation of the Progressive International. Their objective is to create a “grassroots movement for global justice” to counter the efforts of extreme right-wing movements in the United States and Europe. Exactly what political actions this entails remains vague.
Sanders and Varoufakis are both democratic socialists, but they are an odd political couple. Sanders has spent most of his life as a professional politician, starting at the municipal level and slowly achieving the national stature that brought him eleven million votes in the last Democratic presidential primary season. Students, seniors, environmentalists, and populists of the left and right have responded positively to his cordial personality as he proposes radical changes in the American economy.
Yanis Varoufakis, on the other hand, is a stern intellectual whose professional life has been centered in universities. His brief political career with SYRIZA focused on efforts to ease the EU’s austerity agenda for Greece. Varoufakis threatened Grexit with the belief the EU would consider that a destabilizing risk not worth taking. When the EU called that bluff, SYRIZA ended up accepting terms even worse than the ones it had labeled unacceptable. Varoufakis resigned his post.
Since his resignation, Varoufakis has published widely in the international press. He ardently champions the ideals of the EU, but argues power must be shifted from unelected bureaucrats (often bankers) to the EU’s parliament. To that end he has created the European Spring Movement (DiEM25), a formation designed to be a unifying force for diverse left-wing movements in the EU. The alliance with Sanders is an adjunct to that coalition.
The main thrust of European Spring is to take on the disintegration of the European ideal by xenophobic, authoritarian, and racist right-wing parties. It seeks to inspire leftists to have more backbone and to act boldly. One tactic being employed to advance the idea of pan-Europeanism is to have citizens of one country run as candidates in another country for seats in the upcoming EU parliamentary elections. Varoufakis, for example, is running to represent a German district. A dozen other individuals are making similar trans-national runs.
European Spring and the Sanders movement are united by their opposition to the increasing efforts of extremist groups to forge goals to be simultaneously advanced in all nations. A strong advocate of this perspective is America’s Steve Bannon, formerly a powerful political advisor to President Trump. Bannon has recently spoken to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and more extremist neo-fascist groups in Italy, Hungary, and Germany about creating international goals and strategies. Sanders is concerned that at a time when he is seeking to move right-wing populists to the left, Bannon is seeking to move left-wing populists to the right.
Sanders also is aware that many of the individuals he has inspired to become political activists lack foreign policy experience. Progressive International will allow them to have personal contacts with Europeans counterparts and to get a more sophisticated understanding of how critical issues are being addressed in other nations. Sanders states that since trans-national corporations dominate the world’s economies, a transnational response is required to stem their excesses. Among those endorsing his efforts are Noam Chomsky, Cornell West, James K. Galbraith, Danny Glover, and Jeffrey Sachs.
Many traditional and insurgent parties of the European left are wary of Varoufakis’s efforts. They consider him an intellectual prima donna who doesn’t understand how much on-the-ground organization is needed to achieve lofty goals. They wonder if the effect of the European Spring may be as divisive as that of the once-celebrated Arab Spring. They note that fringe parties in DiEM25 collectively won only 3% of the vote in the last EU parliamentary election.
Among those dubious of European Spring are the Labor Party (UK), Podemos (Spain), and Die Linke (Germany). They believe Varoufakis’s approach harms rather than advances their electoral chances. They are particularly wary of the European Spring’s lack of clarity regarding immigration reform, a major “hot button” issue in Europe. European Spring is opposed to “forced integration” of Europe but supports the freedom of movement as a principle. What that means regarding the refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and Africa that want to enter the EU remains unclear.
Whatever doubts some have of Varoufakis staying power, he is constantly presenting his views throughout Europe and the United States. After his appearance in Vermont, for example, Varoufakis spoke at major institutions such as New York’s prestigious New School, had a meeting with The Nation which led to a major feature story, and still had the energy to meet with a community group in Brooklyn.
The long-term ambitions of Progressive International have been aptly summarized by one of its members, Nikhil Goyal, author of Schools on Trial, “We need to have opportunities to mull over, debate, analyze, and thrust out the details of the agenda we are pursuing for the United States and the rest of the world.” What actual impact that perspective may have will begin to be visible in the European parliamentary elections of May 2019 and the debates already emerging about the American presidential election of 2020.