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Chantal Mouffe on Brexit and the Spanish elections


In conversation with Mediapart and translated by Verso, Chantal Mouffe speaks about the Brexit and the upcoming Spanish elections. The Belgian philosopher talks about the role of emotion and nationalism in the Brexit vote, as well as how Labour politicians struggled to unite the Remain campaign under a largely neoliberal Europe. Read Mouffe in partial below, or the full version via Verso.

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

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.

*Image of Mouffe via