Making the difference: Perspectives for the European Left going into the 2024 European elections


First published at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Each election campaign I have been involved in at the European level had its own specific character. In 2014, resistance to the austerity policies imposed on Southern Europe gave momentum to left-wing parties, which translated into an increase in votes and seats. However, critics noted that the growth was largely concentrated in the three parties fighting the Troika: Syriza (Greece), Podemos (Spain), and the Left Bloc (Portugal), while left-wing parties in the other EU countries stagnated.

After the Troika brought Syriza to its knees, it became clear that the agenda of resisting austerity policies did not have enough support to shift the political balance of power in Europe to the left. This resulted in disillusionment and more pronounced divisions over European policy within the left. In the 2019 elections, they won only 39 seats (-13) and have since become the smallest group in the European Parliament.

The return of class politics

For many EU citizens, the social and economic situation has worsened in recent years due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Nearly half report difficulties in making ends meet with their monthly income. Surveys indicate that the 2024 elections will be chiefly characterized by uncertainty and pessimism. The concerns of citizens revolve around the rising cost of living (93 percent), the threat of slipping into poverty and social exclusion (82 percent), climate change (81 percent), and the risk of an expansion of the war in Ukraine (81 percent).

In the first half of 2023, Europe saw widespread social protests: in Belgium against the rising cost of living, in the United Kingdom and Spain for better healthcare, in Greece due to the dismal state of the railways, in Portugal and Romania for education reforms, in the Czech Republic because of inflation, and, most notably, in France with the months-long wave of protests against the degradation of the pension system pushed through — ultimately without a parliamentary majority — by Emmanuel Macron.

These battles over social issues are also being reflected in the political arena. Nine out of ten EU citizens support taxation of major transnational corporations in Big Tech and Big Data as well as the introduction of national minimum wages. Eight out of ten support fair trade with environmental and social minimum standards, and are in favour of women receiving equal pay for equal work.

For the Party of the European Left (EL) and its member parties, there is an opportunity to present themselves as the political representative of today’s working class. This entails mobilizing the people who are dependent on the sale of their labour, irrespective of age, ethnicity, or religion, and regardless of whether they work in industry, the service sector, or the public sector, or in regular or precarious employment. It involves fair wages, protection against inflation, reduction of working hours, gender equality, equal rights and conditions for migrant workers, labour protection for platform workers, social security, affordable housing, basic energy security, and free access to education, healthcare, means of communication, and public transport.

Renewing Europe

Opinion polls show a decline in Euroscepticism in the wake of the pandemic and the war. Six out of ten citizens have a positive view of EU membership, and 72 percent believe that their country benefits from it.

This also reflects how raised expectations have come up against the neoliberal architecture of the EU. Nevertheless, the EU has reacted to the crises of recent years by changing its policies. In March 2020, for example, the European Commission suspended the Stability and Growth Pact, thereby increasing the financial leeway of member states in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Substantial funds for the digitalization and greening of economies were mobilized through the NextGenerationEU recovery plan and partly financed through joint borrowing.

It would be premature, however, to announce the death of neoliberalism. The release of funds for the member states remains tied to the procedures of the European Semester, designed to enforce the financial discipline of the Stability and Growth Pact, which, if hardliners have their way, is soon to be reactivated.  The question is: what can left-wing European politics achieve beyond providing support for the struggles waged at the national level?

The Directive on Adequate Minimum Wages — which ought to be expanded to incorporate a “living wage” — or the Wage Transparency Directive, which stipulates that men and women receive equal pay for work of equal value, are two current examples of what can be achieved through a combination of extra-parliamentary pressure and political initiatives by the Left in the European Parliament. In many cases, however, such measures are yet to be legally implemented in the individual member states, requiring renewed trade union mobilization.

The EL supports the demands of the European Trade Union Confederation for a definitive end to the austerity regime and a binding Social Progress Protocol, giving priority to social and labour rights over internal market freedoms. We also support Yolanda Díaz’s proposal that, within the framework of the European Semester, social indicators receive equal footing with macroeconomic imbalances.

Reforms to the existing treaty shift the balance of power in EU institutions and member states to be more in favour of wage earners. That is what we are fighting for. However, these reforms do not cancel out the fundamental flaw in the Treaty of Lisbon, in which the internal market was declared to be the bedrock upon which the EU stands, thus establishing the group’s fundamental neoliberal thrust. In order to change course, new EU treaties are needed in which full employment, social security, gender justice, and environmental protection are established as the fundamental goals of the European Union.

A radical environmental agenda

The environmental crisis is a reality that all political actors, including those on the Left, must address. The scientific evidence on the limits of ecosystem resilience calls for increasing the scale and speed of ecological transformation.

The political Right has chosen climate policy as one of the battlegrounds in its culture war. Whether it wins or loses this battle remains to be seen. Therefore, ecological transformation cannot be left up to a select few, but must instead be embraced by the majority of society. In this context, the social categories of gender and class play crucial roles because, on the one hand, women, as well as those in the bottom two income brackets, are the main victims of environmental destruction, and on the other hand, because an analysis of polluters shows that the wealthiest ten percent of the world’s population are responsible for half of the overall emissions.

One cannot argue away the fact that respecting planetary boundaries has consequences for the lifestyles and consumption patterns of each and every individual. However, imposing consumption restrictions on middle- and low-income households while remaining silent about the profits of capital and the arms industry is not a sustainable programme for ecological transformation.

Green capitalism is an oxymoron. Green capitalism is when the major industrial polluters reap speculative profits of tens of billions of euros through the European Union Emissions Trading System, while the burdens of ecological transformation are shifted onto the general population through inflation and consumption taxes.  For a socially just transition to an ecological, digital economy, the necessary conditions include green jobs, industrial transformation, social security, social housing, the expansion of public services, and basic energy security for households. Ecological transformation is a challenge that involves society as a whole. Experts have shown that the funds required for this far exceed the EU budget, even after its expansion through the NextGenerationEU recovery plan.

Furthermore, the environmental crisis calls for global solutions and worldwide social justice. The participants of the Amazon Summit in Belém rightly reminded the rich industrialized nations of their obligation to provide 100 billion US dollars annually to the Global South for climate mitigation measures.

It takes more than just Keynesian instruments to mobilize funds for climate protection: it requires structural interventions and a fundamental redistribution of social resources from military spending to environmental protection — from the Global North to the South, and from private capital to society.

Ecological transformation requires macroeconomic planning. This involves deciding which interests take precedence, which in turn leads to social conflict. It is therefore crucial to strengthen democracy, and with it create a stronger, more democratic economy. For companies that operate on a national and European level, economic democracy entails addressing the question of ownership in its various forms. Enterprises in sectors that serve the general interest, such as the pharmaceutical industry, water companies, energy companies, public transport, and social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) must be transformed into the common goods of each society.

Ecological transformation requires for there to be a dialogue among all parties, conducted in a spirit of good will, and on a level playing field. The Left promotes an ecological programme which, unlike the European Commission’s Green Deal and most green parties, does not promise the reconciliation of capitalism and ecology, but rather aims to overcome capitalism. This means replacing the capitalist growth paradigm with an economy centred around caring for people and building a society based on the common good, to be achieved via the defeat of capitalism and the patriarchy.

'Peace is our victory'

The war in Ukraine is casting doubt on the received wisdom that, for the Left, peace is the foremost concern.

From day one, the EL has condemned the aggression of the Russian Federation and called for a political solution to the underlying conflict. This has been a controversial topic. One of the issues which was debated, concerning the legitimacy of supplying “defensive weapons”, is now irrelevant: uranium munitions, cluster bombs, F-16s, and cruise missiles are clearly not just defensive weapons.

By supplying these arms, the US and NATO have shown themselves to be participants in the war with their own agenda. This poses a fundamental question to the Russian Left regarding how it approaches the imperialist goals of the Russian regime, but the same could also be said of left-wing groups in the West, for whom the possibility of participating in government in the main EU nations can no longer be measured by the same yardstick as before.

The West is under the delusion that one can wage war and at the same time advance social and ecological transformation. But the cost of the war alone, 150 billion euro so far, of which EU taxpayers are paying almost half, is evidence to the contrary. Moreover, the war has caused CO2 emissions of 120 million tonnes in one year, which equates to the annual emissions of a medium-sized industrialized country like Belgium. A rapid end to the war is thus also necessary in terms of climate policy.

While the warring parties seek to decide matters on the battlefield, the EU should support the peace initiatives put forward by the Pope, the People’s Republic of China, the Brazilian president, and the six African heads of state. The fact that the West’s political wisdom is limited to supplying more and more weapons is a tragedy both for the Ukrainian people and for Europe. Continuing the war can only lead Europe into a lose-lose situation: if Russia wins, its leadership will be emboldened in its ruthless, revanchist imperialism to pursue further expansion; if the US and NATO win, they will have achieved one of their strategic goals in their geopolitical confrontation with China.

Europe would therefore benefit from a ceasefire, negotiated on a political level, and it could even be the first step towards a new European security framework that replaces the one destroyed by NATO expansion and Russian revanchism. The path to achieving this seems long and arduous. Incremental steps towards military de-escalation, such as a return to the 1987 treaty between the Soviet Union and the USA on the withdrawal of medium-range nuclear weapons from Europe, are still possible. However, the threat of a nuclear arms race between the major powers on European soil is a clear reminder that the EU states are not autonomous when it comes to their own security.

In 2016, the European Council called for Europe to become strategically autonomous, while simultaneously undermining this by tying European security policy to NATO. With the EU’s subordination to the high-risk geopolitical agenda of the Biden administration, the idea of autonomously defining and pursuing European interests has been shelved for the time being. But just as the people of Europe have no interest in the continuation of the war in Ukraine, they also have no interest in being drawn into a confrontation between the US and China. On the contrary: if Europeans want to determine their own security policy, they must decouple it from NATO.

The Left cannot simply adopt the slogan of European strategic autonomy — for it to make sense, it would need to be linked to an EU peace and disarmament agenda. One sign of taking this strategic autonomy seriously would be for the EU to accede to the UN’s legally binding 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe would then be the logical next step on a path towards the denuclearization of Europe.

Fascism’s new clothes

The pessimism generated by the crisis is not a climate in which the Left can thrive — instead, it fosters conformism among those who have come to expect security and protection under the existing institutional framework. This was evident in the elections of the last few years, which — with some exceptions (Belgium, Ireland, France, and Austria) — did not have positive outcomes for the Left.

Many of the people who have lost trust in the existing institutions are seeking protection and security in nationalist and neo-fascist right-wing parties. If the predictions are correct, the radical right will continue to expand its influence, supported by their positions in government and an increased number of MPs in the European Parliament.

Right-wing nationalist parties were long considered relics of the past, or something peculiar to Eastern Europe. As recently as 2000, when the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) formed a coalition government in Austria, they were even subjected to EU sanctions. This cordon sanitaire is no longer in place. Conservative parties are now unapologetically adopting far-right slogans and forming governments with far-right parties. Even liberal media now find Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni quite likeable and credit her with being pragmatic and a quick learner.

The radical Right would not be on the verge of government power if it did not enjoy financial and media support from influential groups within the capitalist establishment. The fact that conservative parties have incorporated them into the political status quo reveals that it is not just some cultural revolution of the New Right, but rather turning to authoritarian forms of governance to cope with social crises.

Otto Bauer, the Austrian Marxist and politician, wrote in 1936 that “reformist socialism” was also a contributing factor to the triumph of fascism because, to the masses, it appeared “as a ‘system party’, as a participant and beneficiary of that bourgeois democracy that is unable to protect them from the impoverishment caused by the economic crisis”. That warning is still worth heeding today.

The Left should not allow itself to be identified with the prevailing order. It is true that, within parliaments and sometimes also within governments, it fights for liberal values and for the expansion of democracy, protection of minorities, women’s rights, human rights, and for international solidarity. More and more, this is happening in confrontation with the increasingly authoritarian parties of the liberal establishment. However, political democracy is yet to become social democracy, nor economic democracy.

Unlike the liberals, the Left does not limit the struggle against the radical Right to the field of political culture and values. The radical Right can be defeated in grassroots campaigning and activism, as well as in the fight for peace, where solidarity can be fostered on the basis of material interests. It is an established truth that many liberals (also those from Green movements) and the Left are in conflict — by the same token, it is necessary for them to form alliances against the radical Right.

The Left is not yet fully prepared for this challenge. In several countries, it is facing internal political divisions. In the short term, the underlying strategic differences cannot be overcome — what can be overcome, however, is this being a barrier to joint action being taken.

The EL has a special advantage in this regard. As the European party of the radical left, it can organize a European election campaign and propose a candidate for the presidency of the EU Commission. At its General Assembly in June, the EL decided to share these opportunities with other left-wing groups. In a “call for unity”, it made a proposal that the leftist parties should engage in a dialogue regarding a common campaign and the most suitable person to lead it. The EL will use its own election manifesto as the basis for this discussion.

It is true that the Left thrives on discourse and debate. But in the face of war and the threat posed by the radical Right, division and hostility are a luxury we cannot afford. If we join forces, together we can make a difference.

Walter Baier is President of the Party of the European Left. Translated by Diego Otero and Rowan Coupland for Gegensatz Translation Collective.