Murray Smith: Euro elections take place against background of crisis and social insecurity
For more coverage of the 2014 European elections, click HERE.
By Murray Smith
[Stop Press, June 14: Radical Irish independent MEP Luke "Ming" Flanagan has joined the radical left group of MEPs in the European parliament, the European United Left (GUE.)]
June 6, 2014 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The 2014 European elections were the first to have been held since the full extent of the financial and economic crisis and its consequences became apparent.
Looking back to the preceding elections in May 2009, they were just a few months after the fall of Lehmann Brothers in September 2008. It was not yet apparent how deep the crisis was. Nor was it yet clear what the reaction of the European ruling classes would be. Since then many things have been clarified.
First of all, it became apparent that the reaction of the ruling classes was not to waste a good crisis – to go on the offensive with policies of austerity and structural reforms. Second, the crisis sharply revealed the inbuilt faults in the common currency, which had been camouflaged by the credit-fuelled boom of the early 2000s. Third, a series of countries were impacted especially severely by the crisis – Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus. In every case except Spain, the result was bail outs imposed – and let us not forget that they were imposed on often unwilling governments – by the soon-to-be infamous Troïka (European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund).
In the case of the one country that resisted such a bail out, Spain, the Mariano Rajoy government carried out its own policies of austerity and counter-reforms. The aim was double: in the first place to ensure that the countries concerned remained able to repay their debts; and second, to make the “aid” conditional on drastic policies of austerity and neoliberal reforms. Less dramatically, but steadily, the same policies of austerity and counter-reforms were being enacted in the other EU countries. Lastly, the crisis provided the occasion for further attacks on national and popular sovereignty, by a series of measures submitting national budgets to control by the EU, the most emblematic of them being the fiscal pact.
It was the cumulative effect of all the above that provided the terrain on which the elections took place. First, the effect of prolonged austerity policies was to have a regressive effect on the economy, in particular leading to sharply increased levels of unemployment, over 25 per cent in the cases of Greece and Spain, with youth unemployment more than double that. Second, the implementation of structural reforms led to massive attacks on health, education and workers’ rights. Particularly in the countries where property bubbles had burst, the issue of homelessness emerged. Third, the policies adopted led to increased divisions in Europe.
The process of enlargement from 2004-2007 had brought into the EU a series of countries of the former Soviet bloc that were being reintegrated into the capitalist world market in a relationship of dependence on Western capital, both financial and industrial. The memorandums imposed by the Troïka and the crisis of the eurozone led to new differentiations and a gulf between the global North and South. This affected not only the countries of southern Europe already mentioned but also, less acutely – for the moment – Italy and France. In fact the one great beneficiary of the crisis and the euro has been Germany, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands, Austria and Finland, which all, however, have their own problems.
Finally, the imposition of increased control by Brussels and the fact that this was seen as Germany imposing its policies on the other members has brought to the forefront the question of national sovereignty, specifically the rights of national parliaments. It should, of course, be pointed out that each of these national parliaments voted for its own neutering by agreeing to these measures
At previous European elections there was among European federalists and the chattering classes much lamenting over the level of abstention and the fact that in most if not all countries the elections were dominated by national rather than European politics. The recurrent theme being that the ignorant masses had failed to understand how important Europe was, and how good it was for them. This time the level of abstention bottomed out at 57 per cent – and participation actually increased in some countries – and Europe was an issue in many countries. But not in the way that the so-called federalists (actually partisans of a more centralised EU) would have liked. Europe and European politics became an issue in reaction against the kind of Europe they have been building. Be careful what you wish for…
In fact, the questions of austerity, unemployment, attacks on the European social model, of the euro, of the role of Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt were on the electoral agenda. As was the question of immigration, both in its traditional (non-European immigration) and new forms (migration from the east of Europe to the West, facilitated by the free movement of persons within the EU). But the way in which these questions found expression was mediated by the acuity with which the crisis and austerity had hit different countries and also by the relationships of political and social forces within them. Furthermore, all 28 elections were both national and European, the mixture varying; but certainly national issues often prevailed. We cannot explain the catastrophic results for the Liberal Democrats in Britain or of the social-democratic parties in France, Spain, Ireland and the Netherlands simply by invoking general European considerations.
It is nevertheless possible to identify broad tendencies.
Prior to the elections the European parliament was dominated by two big blocs, the right-wing European Peoples Party (EPP) with 265 seats and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Demcrats (S&D, socialist democrats) with 183. They were followed by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) with 84, the Greens with 55 and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR, conservative Eurosceptics) with 54. We may consider these parties, with some reservations concerning the ECR, as within the pale, as defenders of a Europe that is neoliberal and anti-democratic. Outside of that there were forces ranging from Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD, right-wing nationalists) with 32, and a series of independents who were mostly of the far right; and there was the left, represented by the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), with 35.
After the 2014 elections the tableau was: EPP 214; S&D 189; ALDE 65; Greens 52; GUE 45; ECR 46; EFD 38. In addition, there are 41 re-elected members who were independent and 61 new members whose affiliation is not yet clear. So the figures for the groups may change. For example, the GUE should increase somewhat. However, many and indeed most of the new members and the existing independents will be situated on the far right.
The loss of seats by the EPP and ALDE can reasonably be attributed to the gains by parties situated to their right. In spite of winning a few more seats, the S&D group did not have such a good result. Only in four countries did they come first – Italy, where the Matteo Renzi effect took the Partito Democratico(Democratic Party) to over 40 per cent – Sweden, Portugal and Romania. The results were bad to catastrophic in France, Spain and the Netherlands, better in Denmark, Germany and elsewhere.
Both of the “extremes”, as the centre like to present them, made gains in these elections. But not unfortunately in equal measure. The dominant news of the elections was the breakthrough in a number of countries by forces to the right of the traditional right. They came top of the poll in France (National Front, 25 per cent), Denmark (Danish People’s Party 26.5 per cent) and Britain (UK Independence Party, 26.8 per cent). They also did well in Sweden, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Greece.
In Bulgaria, the vote for the far-right party Ataka collapsed, but a new nationalist/far-right coalition “Bulgaria Without Censorship” got 10.66 per cent and the total far-right vote was nearly 17 per cent. In Flanders the far-right Vlaams Belang lost more than half of its votes, but this was to the advantage of the right-nationalist New Flemish Alliance (NVA) which won 27 per cent.
One of the big surprises of the elections was the poor showing of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, which went down from 17 to just over 14 per cent. One explanation may be that Wilders had neglected his usual anti-immigrant and Islamophobic discourse in favour of a fierce attack on the EU, which at one point he described as a ”Nazi state” – which was a bit much for even the rather Eurosceptic Dutch.
The term “to the right of the traditional right” seems best adapted to describe the arc of forces concerned. In fact they range from right-wing conservative nationalists (UKIP, Alternativ für Deutschland, “Right and Justice” in Poland) to outright neo-Nazis (Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the National Democratic Party in Germany), via formations like the National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ). It is not exact to describe these latter parties simply as fascist, but they are more than simply right-wing nationalists. The National Front has always had and still has fascist tendencies within it, not only around the edges but deep inside and in some cases not so far from Marine Le Pen. So what is there in common between the UKIP’s Nigel Farage, with his pint of beer and his suit and tie, and the aspiring storm troopers of Jobbik and Golden Dawn? Clearly those who voted for all these parties share some of the preoccupations of many other voters, including on the left: unemployment and job insecurity, falling standards of living, distrust of the EU. But also themes that are proper to this electorate: law and order, immigration. The parties concerned provide answers that are fundamentally national-centric, racist, xenophobic and exclusionist. We will come back to that.
The other important news was the overall progress, more in some countries than in others, of the left – the real left, the one that fights against austerity and the dismantling of the social state, for a Europe of solidarity and cooperation. This will result in the GUE-NGL going from 34 MEPs to around 50.
Most of them will be from member parties or sympathising parties of the European Left Party. Also, in this campaign some parties outside the Party of the European Left (ELP), but in the GUE, rallied to the candidacy of Alexis Tsipras for President of the European Commission, among others the Left Party in Sweden and the Dutch Socialist Party. Tsipras himself displayed astonishing energy, criss-crossing Europe to support the campaigns in different countries. Most important was probably his leadership of the united left campaign in Italy. Although the overall results of the left in general and the ELP in particular fell slightly short of hopes and expectations, the GUE-NGL will be the fifth-biggest group, just behind the Greens and not far behind ALDE.
The two most striking successes were in the two countries, Greece and Spain, where the level of struggle and resistance against austerity and the attacks on the social state has been highest. These were also the countries where there has been the greatest degree of self-organisation and the appearance of social movements taking up from a campaigning and also practical point of view, issues like health, education, housing, defence of migrants.
In Greece Syriza has confirmed that its electoral results in May and June 2012 were no flash in the pan, no simple protest vote. Not only that, but on this occasion it has drawn ahead of the conservative New Democracy party, and by a significant margin (Syriza 26.6 per cent, ND 22.73 per cent) giving credibility to its demand for early national elections.
Just as important was its performance in the regional and municipal elections that were held at the same time. These are, by definition, more difficult for a party that has grown so rapidly. Parties like ND and the social-democratic Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) have deep roots, clientelist networks and well-established local figures – even though the latter often chose in these elections to run as independents to distance themselves from the discredit attached to their parties. This degree of local implantation also goes for the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which got 6.9 per cent and won, for example, the country’s third city, Patras – with support from Syriza that was not always reciprocated elsewhere by the KKE.
Syriza won two regions, including the biggest one, Attica, which has 30 per cent of the country’s population. It came close to winning Athens, and did win many municipalities in working-class areas. Such conquests are both a reflection of the popular support that Syriza has already won and the means of more solidly anchoring and structuring that support.
In Spain too the left scored a major success. At 10 per cent, Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) tripled its percentage of 2009 and won six seats. This success had been widely anticipated and reflected in the opinion polls, which in fact, some months ago were giving IU up to 14-15 per cent.
But the surprise of the election was the breakthrough of a new formation, Podemos, which won nearly 8 per cent and five seats, actually outpolling IU in some places, including Madrid. Podemos seems to have won its support from the 15M movement and from new social movements like the Mareas, campaigning on health, education and housing. It would seem to be imperative for IU and Podemos to work together to form some kind of alliance. Together they won nearly 18 per cent of the vote, as against 23 per cent for the social democrats of the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE), whose score dropped by nearly 16 per cent compared to 2009.
In Spain, there is not only the battle against austerity and in defence of the social state, there is also the question of the minority nations, part of the unfinished business of the post-Franco transition, as is the monarchy whose crisis was underlined by the abdication of Juan Carlos on June 2.
The key issue over the last period has been the question of the right of Catalonia to self-determination and eventually independence, concretised around the referendum in November whose legitimacy Madrid refuses to recognise. In these elections the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) emerged for the first time as the biggest party with nearly 24 per cent. The Catalan equivalent of IU, the Catalonia Greens and United and Alternative Left(ICV-EUiA), which supports the right to self-determination, also made progress, at 10.3 per cent. The Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) vote collapsed to 14.3 per cent. The PSC lost support not only in a reaction against bipartisan austerity but due to the Spanish centralist policies imposed by the PSOE leadership in Madrid, which could lead to the Catalan party splintering over the next few months over the perspective towards the referendum and the 2015 municipal, regional and national elections.
In the Basque Country, the left nationalist EH Bildu overtook the traditional right-nationalist “party of government”, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Thus, in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, the right-nationalist forces—traditional supporters (in exchange for a few local crumbs) of the social and economic policies of the conservative Peoples Party and PSOE—have lost to their left.
In Catalonia and the Basque Country—and also in Scotland where the Scottish National Party (SNP) held onto its two seats—the struggle for self-determination goes with a broad leftward shift in popular mood, forcing the traditional nationalist parties to “talk social” about their vision for independence.
In Catalonia in particular, this message has very low credibility coming from a party, Convergence and Union (CiU), that just two years ago wanted the ruling PP to adopt even more draconian anti-union and anti-worker laws.
Perhaps the most remarkable gain came from Slovenia where the United Left, an alliance between the Initiative for Democratic Socialism and two other parties won 5.9 per cent of the votes, enough if it were repeated in national elections later this year to enter parliament. We are also seeing the emergence of new left forces in other countries of the former Yugoslavia, something which is not unrelated to the experience of Yugoslav socialism, far from perfect but arguably qualitatively different from the rest of Eastern Europe.
In Ireland Sinn Fein, running on a clearly anti-austerity program scored 17 per cent, up six points from 2009, and won three seats, plus another in the North. Another particularly significant victory was in Italy where the list headed by Alexis Tsipras cleared the 4 per cent hurdle and elected three MEPs. It remains to be seen whether this can be the start of rebuilding the left as a serious force in Italy, but it is a big step forward.
In Finland the Left Alliance, with 9.3 per cent, won back the seat that it had lost in 2009. In the Netherlands the far-left Socialist Party, which with 10 per cent of the votes, for the first overtook the social democrats of the Labour Party (PvdA) in a national election.
And in Belgium, the Workers Party (PTB), having united a significant part of the Belgian left around itself, made a breakthrough. It did not win any seats in the European elections, but it did in the federal and regional elections in Belgium held on the same day. It won 5.48 per cent in Wallonia and took seats in the federal, Walloon and Brussels parliaments.
Less good news came from some countries. In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia dropped 3 per cent and lost one of its four MEPs. Perhaps not too many conclusions can be drawn from a historically low 18 per cent turnout. In Portugal, where the opposition Socialist Party progressed, the combined score of the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) dropped by 4 per cent compared to 2009. But the balance between the two parties shifted considerably, the PCP going up from 10.66 to 12.7 per cent and the Left Bloc going down from 10.73 to 4.6 per cent. The big surprise was the breakthrough of a green party, the Earth Party, with more than 7 per cent and two seats.
In Germany, Die Linke, at 7.4 per cent, dropped marginally in percentage from 2009 and lost one seat, but actually gained 200,000 votes on a higher turnout.
In France the expected happened: the Left Front (Front de Gauche), at 6.3 per cent, was barely above its result in the first elections it contested, the European elections of 2009, and a far cry from the 11 per cent of the 2012 presidential elections. There is an immediate explanation and a more profound interrogation.
The immediate explanation is the differences between the French Communist Party (PCF) and other components of the Left Front, particularly the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, over the municipal elections in March, where the PCF allied with the Socialist Party in many towns. These differences were sharpened by the tone of some of the attacks from the PdeG.
Beyond the immediate differences loom deeper problems: the sterile nature of the head-to-head between the PCF and the PdeG is accentuated by the cartel character of the Left Front. There is no individual membership, whereas the 2012 campaign was marked by the mobilisation of thousands of supporters who belonged to none of the component organisations. There are other political problems to be addressed: how to connect with people around clear, concrete and positive demands, rather than being the front of the “anti”; how to relate to the developing left currents among the Greens and in the Socialist Party. In a situation where the National Front gets 25 per cent and the ruling Socialist Party 14 per cent, the Left Front is more necessary than ever; but it can no longer avoid some fundamental debates and choices.
The far right
Let us come back to the aspect of the elections that has attracted the most attention, the advance of the nationalist right. Clearly some of the results are due to national political situations. This is obviously the case in France, where not only is the Socialist Party increasingly discredited, but also the traditional party of the right, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is mired in factional warfare and beset by one scandal after the other. But in fact the result also follows on from the success of Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential election. The National Front (NF) has been a fixture in French politics since 1984, with ups and downs, but it has been on an upward curve since Marine Le Pen took over from her father in 2011 and began to change the party‘s image.
We could explain the results of other parties by national situations. But there is a European dimension to their gains. Faced with the crisis of Europe and the crisis in general, all of the different formations have a nationalist reaction, whether it is a question of simply reaffirming the centrality of the nation, leaving the euro or leaving the EU itself. The point is: what is the national solution that is being proposed?
Rejection of the EU, at least as at present constituted, is only one aspect and for the voters no doubt not the most important, even in Britain. What matters to those who vote for these parties is immigration, unemployment, insecurity. The response of the radical right is a reaffirmation of the nation but in an exclusionist, ethnic version that excludes Muslims, Roma and non-Europeans in general. East Europeans may be acceptable in small doses but not if they do not take “our” jobs and if they integrate.
Along with the nation, there is the reaffirmation of the authority of the state. Not only as the guarantor of law and order, but as an economic actor that will take back powers from Brussels and use them for the benefit of the citizens. Externally, we should not imagine that they are for national autarchy. In general, they are for a Europe of nations, based not on solidarity and cooperation but on competition, on relationships of force, on a hierarchy where the strong dominate.
Where is all this going? Realistically, none of these parties looks like taking power on its own. But they can still play a political role. There is plenty of evidence that on immigration and other questions they exert a rightward pressure on the centre-right. Superficially there is a contradiction between them and the orientations of European governments, including of the centre-right, which are committed to globalisation in general and Europe in particular.
But look more closely. For a whole period, say from the mid-1980s onwards, the period when Jacque Delors was President of the Commission, European institutions were dominated by the so-called federalists, true believers in that “ever closer union” evoked in the Treaty of Rome. But everyone has noticed the shift over recent years to the intergovernmental level, epitomised by the shift from the Commission to the Council, made up of heads of state and government. This has been strongly accentuated since the outbreak of the crisis.
This is actually for a fundamental reason. We could discuss whether there is such a thing as a European people or whether there will or should be. Much more importantly, there is not a European capitalist class, but 28 of them, each with its national state. And the horse trading comes from there. So when Britain envisages under certain circumstances leaving the EU, it is acting in a reasoned way. It is not part of the eurozone, it does not intend to be, it can be marginalised, decisions can be taken that affect it, in particular the role of London as a financial centre. The real ticking bomb is not in London, but within the eurozone. The euro benefits Germany to the detriment of other countries. That is a source of potential conflict and instability. Oddly enough, this is understood by Alternativ für Deutschland, which wants to defuse the bomb by getting Germany out of the eurozone. But that is not going to happen any time soon. What happens if France and/or Italy find that their national interests necessitate challenging the rules of the eurozone?
The distance between the far right and the rest of the right in particular is not so unbridgeable. Austerity may come and go, but the attack on the social state, on workers’ rights is here to stay, as is the drop in living standards and rising economic insecurity, and that will necessitate more authoritarian forms of government. That may take “technocratic” forms, but it is also quite possible to imagine democratically elected governments based on a bloc of the right and far right.
It is of course necessary to combat the rise of these forces, and for that general anti-fascist slogans are largely insufficient. We have to combat them concretely, with political arguments against theirs. And sometimes, faced with real fascist and neo-Nazi formations, we also have to combat them physically. But above all we have to provide a clear and credible alternative to the solutions they are proposing, an alternative that is anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist. In response to ethnic, xenophobic, exclusionist conceptions of the nation we should put forward a political, inclusive conception: all those who live in a country are citizens of it.
At the moment the left is making progress, but unevenly, and for every advance such as those in Greece and Spain, there are cases of relative stagnation and even setbacks. Some of this is due to objective factors, some to political mistakes, and these can only be addressed in concrete national situations. But there is a need to have a global vision, an alternative vision of Europe.
This does not mean that every time the far right puts forward nationalist solutions, we should reply by simply saying that the only solution is a European one. This is true on a certain level: the future of the peoples and nations of Europe lies in solidarity and cooperation on an economic and social level, not in competition among nations. The way to concretise that is to put forward proposals for economic development and reindustrialisation, and for the upward harmonisation of revenues and social rights. The precise political forms of articulation between national and European levels remain to be worked out.
It is a big step forward that the European Left Party now talks about refounding Europe, emphasising the break with the existing EU. To have remained on the level of simply saying that we want a Europe that is more social, democratic, ecological, etc. would be largely insufficient. Such declarations are ten a penny on the centre left and even sometimes the centre right.
Above all, we should avoid giving the impression that nothing is possible on a national level. In practical terms the road to refounding Europe will lie through changes on a national level: national states are the basic political entities, the framework within which politics takes place. Concretely it will mean the left coming to power on a national level and implementing policies that begin to break with neoliberal capitalism, but which can ultimately only be sustained if other countries follow suit. The only alternative is an extremely hypothetical change on an all-European level that runs up against the reality that the EU as a political entity is at present largely artificial and not recognised by most Europeans.