Since the European election of 2014, there has been a split across Europe’s political landscape. While in the EU’s southern countries – especially in Greece, Spain and Portugal – the growing protest against the predominant line of European policy has been articulated largely in a leftist context, a front of dissatisfaction to the right of the conservatives has been emerging in those core countries of the EU which have been less affected by the crisis. The result is a surprising polarisation of the electoral results between the centre and the peripheries of the EU, between and within the political camps, and, to some extent, within the EU member countries.
The results of the European elections describe a continuing shift to the right, with a new quality: nationalist, right-wing populist parties and parties of the extreme right have attracted more than eleven million voters, especially from the conservative camp, so that the electoral share of parties to the right of the conservatives Europe-wide now stands at 22 per cent. These parties have emerged as the real winners of this election.
The result in coming years will be a modification of the hitherto existing lines of confrontation: no longer will they run only between the political camps, along the classic socio-economic lines of conflict, that is, market radicalism vs. the welfare state, or the socio-cultural lines of conflict, that is, an open, liberal society vs. authoritarian, ethnically based shut-off societies within the EU. Now, the lines will also run perpendicular to these, and at the same time perpendicular to the line between the ‘EU-integration camp’ and the ‘strengthening of national political approaches’ camp. Here, we would like to discuss these conflicts, and also the results of the party families which competed in the election, on the basis of the following initial comprehensive theses:
- The decisions taken by the European Union, particularly those involving the budgetary policies of EU countries, directly affect the lives of its citizens. The elections for the European Parliament – and particularly the electoral participation rate in those elections – reflect the extent to which the EU enjoys societal legitimacy. From 22 - 25 May 2014, 160 million citizens in the 28 countries of the European Union (approximately 43 per cent of the electorate) went to the polls to elect the members of the European Parliament. The results should cause us to stop and think. On the one hand, it was not possible to mobilise the majority of the citizens for these elections; electoral participation reached a historic low in Slovakia with thirteen per cent, and was below twenty per cent in the Czech Republic. In Croatia and Slovenia, only one voter in four went to the polls. Only in two formerly state-socialist countries did electoral participation exceed 35 per cent; moreover, only 35.6 per cent of British and only 37.3 per cent of Dutch voters went to the polls. The European demos (Habermas) is weak. Moreover, the results reflect a shift to the right, with the message that nationalist, rightwing populist parties and parties of the extreme right have gained, and they are the real winners of these elections. As a result, the following lines of confrontation are to be expected in the coming years:
- The course pursued to date by the ruling elites enjoys no support from a considerable portion of the citizenry; rather, it is increasingly being fundamentally rejected, so that ‘business as usual’ is becoming more difficult. Superimposed on what hitherto has been intra-national lines of conflict is the conflict between EU integration based on the existing foundations – the Lisbon Treaty and the crisis-policy measures – on the one hand and the reinforcement of national policy approaches to defend existing social standards, on the other. Firstly, the conflict line between market radicalism on the one hand and the welfare state on the other, which, with the implementation of European austerity policies by the EU, is no longer a purely national matter; and, secondly, that between authoritarian/ethnic isolation vs. libertarian opening, which is visibly and dramatically expressed in the controversy over asylum and refugee policies.
- In the context of these modified conflict situations, new right-wing groupings are forming; in two major EU countries, France and Britain, but also in Denmark, they are in the range of a potential majority. As a result, an intra-elite dispute with broad support in the population based on widespread nationalist and fundamental value-conservative societal tendencies has emerged. For significant portions of the citizenry, nationalist, right-wing populist parties and the parties of the extreme right have assumed the function of the critics of EU policy.
- This critique has two dimensions: First, it is directed against the market integration being pushed by the existing major conservative and social democratic parties, and against European institutions. The goal, however, is not so much to remove these institutions as to re-legitimise them in national terms: The social question is linked to national and even nationalist goals, i.e., social policy must be secured nationally, both against the EU Europeans and against asylum-seekers and immigrants from elsewhere. What is at issue is no longer the character of socially, culturally and pluralistically open societies, within the EU and definitely not outside of it. With the linking of social and national issues in such a way as to target not only the nation-state dimension, but equally, too, the immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees within countries, a new revival of value conservatism is arising.
- Second, this critique formulated by the right wing is raising the issue of real deficits of democracy in both European and national institutions. It involves a declaration of war against their representatives, the national and/or European elites; existing deficient democratic procedures and regulations, including democracy as the fundamental value to be striven for in the shaping of society, are being called into question. In view of these developments, an even more strongly disputed development of the EU, and, as a result, a reconfiguration of the forces of the European and national elites is in the offing.
- For the first time, European parliamentary elections resulted in the greatest growth for those parties which call for withdrawal from the European Union. Especially the electoral results in France and Great Britain are an expression of political crisis in which, for the first time, the European Constitution is being directly called into question. The cause of these developments include the neoliberal policies pushed through 2005 under the Lisbon Strategy, which have the goal of making the EU the most competitive region in the world, at the cost of undermining its democratic procedures and institutions, and radically dismantling its social standards. For the citizens, the EU is thus no longer palpable as a ‘community of democratic values’, and its social ‘use value’ is losing support in the societies of the EU countries.
- The criticism of the orientation of the EU is also being formulated from the left. The family of left parties were able to score their greatest gains at the European level. The number of their seats rose from 35 to 52. However, they have so far been able to formulate political projects only in a few countries, such as Greece, Spain or Portugal, where they have been able to articulate and represent such projects from the left in a position also within the range of potential majority. However, if Syriza in Greece, the strongest party to emerge from the European elections, with a result of over 26 per cent, were to be faced with the question of forming a left-wing government determined to oppose the dictates of the Troika, the resulting overlap of national and European crises would lead to a confrontation at the European level with constitutional repercussions.
- The political elites of the conservative and social democratic parties would confront such pressure with a ‘grand coalition’ at the European level. In this way, the social democratic parties, which are weaker on a pan-European level – they emerged as the strongest political force in only six EU countries – can be integrated and, in this way, stabilised. This will prove necessary particularly because these elections have revealed political crises in some hitherto presumably stable countries of the EU, which have in some cases so far been concealed. This grand coalition is, however, politically under siege, particularly from the right. The political elites, too, are becoming aware of the fact that simple ‘businessas-usual’ cannot succeed; for this reason, the coalition is internally differentiated, possibly even split. Two options are currently possible: The first is a reduction of the EU’s function to that of the confederation with a common market, a solution currently being put forward by Great Britain and Hungary, which is supported by the parliamentary groups of the moderate political right: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), and the members of the European Alliance for Freedom (EAF), which has so far failed to establish itself as a parliamentary group. The second would be an attempt to strengthen the integration of the Europe countries, and ‘pay’ for this with possible loosening up of the austerity policies, in order to achieve rapid economic and social success.
- It should be realised that the differences between the party families, particularly the two larger ones, the conservatives and the social democrats, is becoming increasingly blurred. For instance, the Italian PD has long since stopped being a classical social democratic party; nonetheless, at the European political level, it supports the social democratic party group (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – S&D). The French Socialists and the Spanish PSOE, too, have undergone a political change of direction toward the position of their conservative predecessors in government. Among the conservatives, on the other hand, Hungary’s FIDESZ belongs to the EPP group at the European level, although its European policy position is considerably closer to that of the two party groups to the right of the EPP.
- The European Union is in its deepest crisis ever. This crisis has impact not only on particular countries in the southern part of the EU and the periphery, nor only on smaller countries in general; rather, countries which have hitherto been considered part of the economic and political ‘core’, the countries that have been the mainstay of the EU economically, are also affected. The crisis of the economic regime has become a crisis of the social and cultural dimensions as well. It is now threatening to develop into a systemic political crisis of the EU. The three hitherto strongest party families in the EU Parliament, the conservatives, the social democrats and the liberals, lost over ten per cent of their strength in this election compared to 2009, when 72.4 per cent of the electorate voted for these groups. The conservatives suffered the greatest losses, the liberals much less.
- The social democrats were unable to profit from these developments; on the contrary, they have lost the support of major parts of their core voter clientele in those areas where they supported the austerity policies of governments, or continued those of predecessor governments. In the past twenty years, they have not been able to link the social question to economic policy in a positive manner. Instead, they have to a considerable degree helped achieve an EU integration that blocks precisely that linkage. In Spain and France, they suffered heavy losses, and virtually imploded in Greece. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, or Finland, their results were on a level with those of middle sized or smaller parties.
- The crises have been caused by both national and European factors, and the countries of the EU have been affected by them in very different ways. The 2014 electoral campaigns expressed this dual nature of the situation more strongly than has been the case in previous elections. In view of the threatening low voter participation rate, most governing parties depended on electoral strategies that were consciously oriented toward national issues in order to mobilise their core base of support. One reason for this was to cover up the ‘business-as-usual’ political and economic concepts – or the lack of any concepts at all – applied to solving urgent problems, which has determined their policies at both the European and the national levels. That was true of the majority of social democratic parties, many of which suffered heavy losses, but it was also true of the left parties in countries that were less strongly affected by the crisis. Die LINKE in Germany, too, primarily presented itself as a national party, even though it is fundamentally in favour of a change in European policy. On the other hand, those parties which made the connection between national and European policies the point of departure for their electoral strategies were successful. For the rightwing populist parties, that meant, for example, protection of the ‘national element’ both against the institutions of the EU and against the corrupt political class. Nationalistic parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the Danish People’s Party positioned themselves successfully along this line of conflict, as did France’s Front National (FN). To an extent this is also true of Syriza, which made the betrayal in the social sphere the central issue. A vote for Syriza at the same time appeared to be a contribution to the solution of the Greek crisis, and to a change in European policy.
- The electoral results of the new right express more than just a critique of the constitution of the European Union; rather, the entire range of political institutions, both national and European, is being called into question. The UKIP, FN and the Danish People’s Party, together with other right-wing populist parties, describe themselves as parties outside the political system, the democratic values of which they are increasingly questioning. The view that sees nationalistic and right-wing populist ‘flukes’ in these European elections, meant to ‘send a message’ to the respective national governments, distorts the perspective of a change in the basic mood of society which, after these elections, will no longer be able to be democratically ‘reined in’, as has been the case with national elections in the past. UKIP, for instance, operating in an apparently unchangeable political party system in Great Britain, has been systematically underestimated. In national elections, it first appeared as a relevant force in 2010, winning 13.1 per cent of the vote. At the European level, on the other hand, its rise had already been considerable before that. In 1999, at its first try, it won 16.52 per cent, then increased that to 15.64 per cent in 2004, to 16.51 per cent in 2009 and to 27.5 per cent in 2014. For years, the results of the European elections as indicators of a shifting Zeitgeist, and as a seismograph for changing societal moods and even political reorientations, have been underestimated. Now however, the electoral results at the European and national levels have tended to converge (see Thesis 1). The design of the European Union has become a domestic policy issue within countries, so that domestic policy has become direct European policy.
- The Greens’ electoral share, 6.66 per cent, represented a slight drop from the 7.47 per cent they had won in 2009. Although they were the fourth-strongest force in the Parliament between 1999 and 2009, they have now dropped behind the moderate right-wing conservative group, the ECR and behind the left group European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). Nonetheless, the Greens could point to a firm voter base Europe-wide, although they are currently not in a position to expand upon it. The development of a European Green New Deal got stuck at the conceptual level, and in view of the serious social and economic problems at hand, it proved virtually impossible to present it effectively Europe-wide.
- For the radical left, these elections are an expression of Europe-wide weakness and at the same time a relative success. The left parliamentary group GUE/NGL obtained 52 seats, compared with 35 in 2009. These gains are primarily due to the results achieved by the left in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and also by Sinn Féin in Ireland. The left was successful where it was authentic and concretely in solidarity with those most acutely affected by the crisis, and where it succeeded in forging broad coalitions in open political alliances. For example, the Spanish Podemos (‘we can’) list emerged directly from the ‘indignant’ movement 15-M, which was formed out of the social protest against the austerity policies of the Troika, and was supported by the United Left (IU). Together with the likewise strengthened left in Portugal – the CDU and the Bloco Esquerda together got over 18 per cent – and the Greeks, there is a possibility for a southern European transnational cooperative effort which can now once again since 2008, at least in the EP, count on the support of the Italian left as well. In Italy, the success of the ‘Tsipras List’ was based on an appeal by intellectuals close to the newspaper Il Manifesto, which called for the formation of an electoral list of prominent personalities in support of the candidacy of Greece’s Alexis Tsipras as the lead candidate of the entire European left. The new left electoral alliance ‘A Different Europe’ (Europa anders) in Austria won fewer votes than the Eurosceptic EuroStop list; nonetheless, these developments are promising.
- The EP elections in effect reflected a north-south divide for the left parties. While they were successful in southern countries, which have been particularly affected by the crisis, left parties stagnated in the socalled core countries of the EU such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany. They were especially successful where they were able to forge the broadest possible alliances in which those affected by the structural change of the modes of production and reproduction could be united with those who have now been additionally affected by the crisiscaused upheavals. The ability to address various sectors of society and to incorporate them into alliances is an essential reason for this success. Evidently, the left in the core countries of the EU has not yet been able to forge alliances of various sectors, including the traditional working class, to the extent that this has been possible in the southern countries most affected by the crisis. For example, in France, workers and the unemployed to a large extent voted for the FN. The left in Germany, the Netherlands, and France stagnated.
- Moreover, even 25 years after the collapse of state socialism, the radical left has, in most post-socialist countries, not succeeded in establishing relevant left parties. Only in the Czech Republic does the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) constitute a relevant political force. The Slovenian United Left electoral alliance, which emerged from the Democratic Labour Party (DSD), Party for Sustainable Development of Slovenia (TRS), and the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS), achieved 5.47 per cent of the vote, not enough for a seat, but entered the national parliament two months later with six per cent.
Point of departure and a look back to 2009-2014
Since the last European elections in 2009, the European Union has changed – as has the political situation in Europe as a whole, certainly since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine. The transition period after the end of the Cold War ended with the Russian occupation of Crimea, in violation of international law. That changed the role of the EU, which increasingly sees itself as a global actor in a global contest. Consequently, the very divergent social standards in the countries of the EU are being dismantled in favour of a global orientation towards competition, a policy that is being legitimised as the way out of the crisis of public debt into which the EU was manoeuvred by its political elites in 2008/2009 in order to save the banks. Since then, especially in the southern countries of the EU, this has developed into a social crisis with the danger of political instability and social catastrophe. The privatisation of public utilities and the dismantling of public services has been pushed forward under pressure from the EU-oriented institutions the ECB, the EU Commission, and the IMF, which together constitute the so-called Troika. The result has been a growth of social, political, and economic imbalances within the EU, both within and between the countries and regions, and hence dissatisfaction with the dominant policy of its institutions.
The results have first of all been political crises within the countries of the EU, which were expressed by a series of snap elections: between 2010 and 2012 alone, twelve of the fifteen parliamentary elections – nine of them in eurozone countries – were called early; in addition, there were two changes of government without elections. In all these cases, with the exception of Belgium, the degree of severity of the austerity measures taken to solve the crisis – a crisis of the banks – as well as the manner of their concrete implementation, provided the impetus for these new elections. In the case of Greece, this was accompanied by a polarisation of the electorate; in the case of Italy, it caused yet another restructuring of the party system. Since 2010, a number of new ‘anti-parties’ have been formed, such as the Palikott Party in Poland, Beppo Grillo’s ‘Five-Star Movement’ in Italy, the Pirates and the AfD in Germany, and the Potami Party in Greece. At the same time, changes of government have not resulted in changes in policy. For this reason, the participation of the social democrats in the governments of sixteen EU countries – up from seven in 2009 – cannot be described as a shift to the left. The mass protests against Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy are now being turned against his Socialist successor François Hollande who is continuing the same policies. But what did all that mean for the elections to the European Parliament in 2014?
Focus on the radical left party family
A review of the results of elections for the European Parliament from 1979 through 2014 would seem to indicate that not much has changed during that period. The moderate conservatives and the social democrats, the two largest party families in the EP, together won over sixty per cent of the votes in all elections through 2009, when they still scored a combined 61.3 per cent; in 2014 however, their combined share dropped to 54 per cent.
This setback was mirrored by the strengthening of the smaller party families, especially the right-wing conservative, right-wing populist, and extreme right-wing parties and groups in the European Parliament, whose combined share now totals approximately twenty per cent. This figure increases by another three per cent if the seats of those right-wing parties which are still not part of any party group, and of the Hungarian FIDESZ party are added; the latter is in the moderate conservative party group, but is open for cooperation with the extreme right.
The social democratic, Green and left party families together won less than forty per cent (approximately 38 per cent). However, this is only a mathematical quantum; it does not stand for any common project. The radical left is currently the only one of the three party families of the left which was able to increase its number of seats, from 35 to 52, although in percentage terms, it fell short of the 7.5 per cent, achieved in 1999 – its highest result to date. More important is the question as to whether it will be able to transform this arithmetical gain into greater political clout. Finally, the liberals have since 1989 been the third-strongest force in the European Parliament, and were able to hold that position in 2014, in spite of losses of three per cent.
Voter share 2004
Voter share 2009
Voter share 2014
United European Left/ Nordic Green Left
Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats
The Greens/ European Free Alliance
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)
European Conservatives and Reformists
Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (right-wing-populist)
The parties of the radical left have been able to hold on to or even expand their positions, at least in those countries in which they have been relatively strong. In the EP 2014 elections, the GUE/NGL parties were able to achieve good or very good results in eight countries – between approximately ten per cent and almost 27 per cent. Leading the way were the left parties in Greece, with 26.6 per cent, Spain (Pluralist Left and Podemos) with over eighteen per cent, Portugal with over 17 per cent, and Cyprus with over 26 per cent. The left improved its results considerably in Finland, reaching almost ten per cent, and held its ground at a high level in the Czech Republic. Moreover, it was able to make gains in Luxembourg (5.76 per cent), Slovenia (5.47 per cent), Italy (4.03 per cent), and Austria (2.14 per cent).
This confirmed a trend that had already been apparent in national parliamentary elections between 2010 and 2014. Syriza in Greece won 26.9 per cent in the elections of June 2012, while the French left of the Left Front won a respectable 6.91 per cent in parliamentary elections that same year. The Swedish Left Party had scored 5.6 per cent in 2010, thus largely maintaining its position (-0.3 per cent), while in Denmark, the Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten - EL) was able to increase its vote from the 2.17 per cent it had won in 2007 to 6.68 per cent in the elections of 2011; by contrast, support for the Green-leaning Socialist People’s Party (Socialistisk Folkeparti - SF) dropped from 13.4 to 9.2 per cent. Currently, the Social Democratic-SF minority government is being supported by the EL. In Finland, too, the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto - VAS) stabilised itself at 8.1 per cent in 2011 (-0.7 per cent from 2007). Since no change in policy had taken place in Finland, the VAS withdrew from the six party centre-left coalition that had existed since 2011 two months before the election. The Spanish United Left (Izquierda Unida - IU) increased from 3.77 per cent in 2008 to 6.92 per cent in 2011. By contrast, the left in Portugal plunged from 9.81 in 2009 to 5.17 per cent in 2011. In the presidential elections in Cyprus in 2013, the AKEL candidate fell far behind his conservative rival. The Left Party in Luxembourg increased its representation in the Chamber to two seats in the 2013 election.
The left in Europe will need more than merely symbolic solidarity in its own ranks – and that not only in the event of a leftist takeover of power in Greece. The solidarity will have to be palpable as a European phenomenon, and have practical value for people in Greece and other countries of the EU. If a left Greek government places the question of the constitution of the EU on the agenda, the left will have to put forward concrete paths for a new beginning for the EU, and will have to underpin its demands for social, peaceful, and democratic Europe concretely. It will have to take up the experience of the struggle of the ‘indignants’ just as much as the experience of work in municipalities, and it will have to interlink the experiences and struggles in political institutions instead of juxtaposing them to one another. The European left has the dual task of defending the institutions of democracy in Europe, and at the same time making a contribution to the economic, social, and ecological reconstitution of the foundations of the EU. This is a strategy of fierce confrontation with the new right, of open conflict with the ruling elites, and of a very open search for allies.
translated by Phil Hill