• The European Left – Its Current State and Prospects

  • Por Heinz Bierbaum | 19 Apr 19
  • Europe is still in a deep crisis, economically, socially and politically. Its economic growth is rather moderate and there are wide differences between its countries. This is true in particular ofEurope’s South, especially Greece and Italy. One of the most worrying problems is the macroeconomic imbalance between Germany and most of the other countries, an imbalance that creates major economic difficulties and also endangers the common currency, the euro. It is true that there are elements of economic recovery in the EU, but we are still far from the sustainable development we need. And a recovery indicated by some economic figures does not necessarily mean an improvement in the working and living conditions of people. Unemployment is still very high in the EU, in particular among youth, with dramatic percentages in some southern countries; there are large precarious labour sectors, even in a rich country like Germany. This is the consequence of neoliberal austerity policy, which is economically counterproductive and a social disaster. It is a policy that does not produce sustainable economic growth and has continued to exacerbate already deteriorated working and living conditions. In many countries, workers’ and trade-union rights have been dismantled. The net result is widespread discontent with European policies, which is particularly clear in the outcome of last March’s Italian elections with the victory of the far-right Lega and the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle.
       It is not only in Italy that the political situation is rapidly changing. A real political upheaval is occurring whose most significant elements are the rise of the far right and the deep crisis of the social democratic parties. This is very apparent in the case of France where the entire political system is changing. The Socialist Party lies in ruins, but the conservative parties have also been affected. There are new movements, with ‘Macronism’ on the one hand and France Insoumise on the other. The entire system of traditional parties is up for grabs, as can be seen in the political developments in Germany where the political landscape has changed drastically. The CDU and SPD are losing large vote percentages, while the extreme right-wing AfD has shown spectacular growth and is now challenging the SPD’s position as the second party, facing as it is a profound crisis, which has forced it to reflect on its political strategy. But this is not only the case for Germany. Throughout Europe the social democratic parties are forced to contemplate the reasons for their defeats. The decline of some social democratic parties like those of Greece, the Netherlands, or France is dramatic. It is interesting that the exceptions are the Labour Party in the UK and the Socialist Party in Portugal where there has been a shift to a more left-wing politics. In particular, the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn has a clear left political programme, which differs considerably from the other socialist/social democratic parties. But in the main it has not been the left but the far right that has profited from the fall of these parties.
       The rise of the far right in most European countries is the most alarming and challenging problem we are facing. We have to acknowledge that the discontent with and the protest against austerity policy in Europe and its resultant huge social contradictions and economic counterproductiveness redounds first and foremost to the benefit of the right. An additional element is the influx of refugees and immigrants, which the far right exploits, using them as scapegoats. The right is transforming the social question into a national question and the social conflict into a conflict between the poor and immigrants.

    The left – a short overview

    These far-reaching political changes not only presage risks but also offer opportunities. For now it is obvious that they favour the far right. But there are also opportunities for another politics which is neither neoliberal nor nationalistic and racist. These opportunities have to be seized by the left, which ought to profile itself as an alternative to the neoliberal policies pursued by conservative as well as social democratic governments and at the same time to the nationalism and racism of the right. The failure of neoliberal policies offers the left a chance to promote alternative, democratic, social, ecological, and peaceful policies breaking with neoliberalism. But in contrast to the far right the left and progressive forces are not only rather weak; they are at the same time, unfortunately divided.
       In recent years the landscape of the left has changed considerably. The communist parties are losing ground. New political formations such as Podemos in Spain or France Insoumise have been created. The strongest left forces are in certain Southern, Nordic, and Central European countries. We have a strong left in Portugal, although the Left Bloc and the Communist Party are competitors, making cooperation difficult. Also, in Spain there is a strong left with Podemos and Izquierda Unida and different national groups in the Basque region, Catalonia, and Galicia. Syriza in Greece is still very strong despite the fact that some groups and important representatives have left the party in protest against government policy. However, the politics of the Syriza-led government has created problems not only for the left in Greece but also for the European left, a problem which I will address below. On the other hand, in Italy the left has nearly disappeared, a disaster that has been ongoing for years now. In France there are contradictory developments with the end of the Front de Gauche and an emerging new movement called France Insoumise, the declining Communist Party and new attempts like Générations.s arising out of the ruins of the Parti Socialiste. The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) is increasingly gaining ground and becoming a very significant party. Despite some setbacks the Socialist Party of the Netherlands is still an important and relevant force of the left. In Scandinavia, the left plays an important role. In Sweden, the Left Party has grown considerably. In Finland, the Left Alliance is strong while the Communist Party is losing ground. In Denmark, there are several left-wing groups, of which the Red Green Alliance is the most important. In Norway, the Socialist Left Party is the first left-wing party, followed by the Red Party.In Germany Die LINKE has become a stable factor in German politics, with a solid parliamentary group. In Eastern Europe left-wing forces are very weak. There are few exceptions such as the traditionalist Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Czech Republic) and the new party The Left (‘Levica’) in Slovenia, which proved remarkably successful in the last elections. There are other interesting left groups such as Razem in Poland.
       In the European Parliament the left parties, with the exception of the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, have formed their own group, the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). It is a confederal group which comprises 51 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) from 18 parties along with some independent representatives. The group is politically quite heterogeneous, but united in its strong criticism of the European treaties, and thus of the European Union’s structure, and in its perspective of rejecting the dominant neoliberal austerity policy and building another Europe – a democratic, social, ecological, and peaceful Europe. Members of GUE/NGL, MEPs from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), as well as Greens - European Free-Alliance (Greens-EFA) are cooperating as a Progressive Caucus. It is a platform for dialogue and debate aimed at building bridges between progressive allies in the European Parliament and at strengthening the progressive presence by bringing the groups together despite their differences. The Caucus’s basic programme is a Green New Deal. In a critical response to the White Paper of the European Commission, it has underlined the need for social justice and solidarity, for democratising the EU, for an economy of recovery and solidarity, for creating sustainable societies, for the political regulation of globalisation, and for peace-building policies.
       Some of the parties belonging to the GUE/NGL group created the Party of the European Left (EL) in 2004. The EL is today the biggest and most significant group of left-wing parties in Europe. But not all parties in the GUE/NGL are members of EL and some EL members have no representatives in the European Parliament because they are too small or have had no electoral successes. Beyond the EL there is also another group of left parties at the European level: the European Communist Initiative, which contains 29 communist and workers’ parties. It was founded on the initiative of the KKE, which is by far the largest party of the group, with two representatives in the European Parliament. The group does not play a major role in left politics in Europe. Finally, there are the annual meetings of the so- called Modern Left Parties to which the left parties of Scandinavia, Cyprus, Netherlands, and Germany belong. And recently there are new movements in the ambit of YanisVaroufakis’ s DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe 2025) and Maintenant le Peuple, an alliance between France Insoumise, Podemos, and Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc).

    The Party of the European Left (EL)

    The EL currently contains more than thirty member and observer parties. The most significant are Syriza, Izquierda Unida, Bloco de Esquerda, Die LINKE, the Finish Left Alliance, the Danish Red-Green-Alliance, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Communist Party of France. Due to political developments in Europe and different European countries, the EL has undergone significant changes since its founding. For example, Italy’s Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, one of the founding parties, has suffered divisions and lost importance. Recently, France’s Parti de Gauche left the EL in reaction to Syriza, which was accused of carrying out neoliberal policies as the leading party of Greece’s government, and because the EL refused to expel Syriza. Even if significant left-wing parties such as the Communist Party of Portugal, Spain’s Podemos, the Belgian PTB, the Dutch Socialist Party, the Swedish Left Party, and Ireland’s Sinn Fein are not members, the EL is still an important left grouping in Europe.
       The EL is not a genuine party; its function is one of coordination. It has several working groups and networks important for its functioning. The EL’s Trade-Unionist Network cooperates with another Trade Union Network, called Trade Union Network Europe (TUNE). TUNE, which has existed for over twenty years now, is the only Europe-wide network of left-wing trade unionists. Twice a year it organises a conference on current issues of trade unionism with the support of GUE/NGL and provides a platform for the exchange of experiences with social conflicts. Particularly important is the working group on Latin America, as there is a very close cooperation between EL and the left in Latin America, especially regarding the Foro de São Paulo, the most significant coordinating group of the Latin American left. In addition, the North American working group maintains relations with socialist forces in North America. After its successful foundation and ensuing consolidation phase the EL is now facing the challenge of sharpening its political profile and cooperating with other progressive forces. At the last congress in Berlin, in December 2016, a political document was adopted, which concludes with the following statement:

    The EL itself was built by bringing together forces that come from several traditions. It has been able to move forward thanks to a consensus that has respected its diversity. At the same time, it has become more consistent. There are new discussions in our ranks on the challenges of the new phase underway. We must always work better with the many forces that will not join EL. Taking the actual state of relationships of forces in Europe as a starting point, our party has decided to take the initiatives necessary for entering a new stage in our ambition for the convergence and solidarity of progressive forces. The central issue is one of continuous construction of cooperation with all Europe’s progressive forces […]
       To achieve this target and be, ourselves, at the service of this ambition, the Party of the European Left propose[s] to all the available forces, in Europe, to build an annual political forum, open to all the political, democratic and progressive forces.[1]

    New developments

    The EL is not the exclusive representative of the forces of the European Left. As mentioned, there are important left-wing parties that do not belong to the EL. But there are also new developments partly connected to EL member parties. First of all, there is DiEM25, founded in 2016 by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Minister of Finance. Emerging from Greece’s disastrous experiences with the Troika this movement was organised in order to democratise the European Union. DiEM25 cooperates with other left groups like Razem in Poland, some Italian, Danish, and Portuguese left groups, and in particular with Générations in France. Alongside EL and DiEM25, a third initiative with the intention of acting Europe-wide is that of Jean-Luc Mélenchon who launched a new European strategy based on cooperation between France Insoumise, Podemos, and Bloco in Portugal. They approved a joint declaration in April in Lisbon with an appeal to break the chains of the European treaties and democratise Europe. ‘We urge peoples from Europe to unite around the task of building an international, popular, and democratic political movement as a means of organising ourselves to defend our rights and people’s sovereignty.’ Mélenchon has dubbed it Révolution Citoyenne. It was also joined by Scandinavian left- wing parties such as Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, Sweden’s Left Party and Finland’s Left Alliance with the common slogan ‘Maintenant le Peuple’. In a common statement on 27 June in Brussels they declared that we are facing ten years of an unsuccessful austerity policy and that it is therefore necessary to build another Europe breaking with the treaties and introducing new rules for a democratic and social Europe. The key elements are the struggle against social dumping and for social rights, the demand for tax justice, the struggle against climate change and for sustainable ecological development, the defence of equal rights for women, the struggle for a democratic international trade policy, for the right of asylum, and for a clear opposition to the militarisation of Europe. In Germany, a new movement, called Aufstehen, feeling a kinship with France Insoumise,was initiated by Oskar Lafontaine and Sahra Wagenknecht. Its aim is to give voice to people who are disappointed by, and unhappy with, the dominant neoliberal policies and their devastating social consequences. Its intention is not to create a new party but to change the social and political climate in the direction of a more social society characterised by solidarity, thus offering an alternative to the rise of the far right.

    Towards the European elections

    The European Parliament elections are of course important junctures. In the last elections in 2014 the EL presented Alexis Tsipras as a collectively nominated candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. This was very helpful for the entire European left, especially in Italy where a joint list called L’altra Europa con Tsipras was presented, which made it possible to pass the four-per-cent electoral threshold. The political context of the upcoming elections is different from that of 2014. The EL’s majority favours the idea of a lead candidate, but there are also important sections that are against it. The differing strategies among left forces in Europe make it difficult to agree on a common candidate. Finally, the Executive Borad of the EL decided to present Violeta Tomic from Slovenia and the trade unionist Nico Cuéfrom Belgium as its lead candidates. The EL is presenting a common political platform called ‘Build a Different Europe’. Its point of departure is the deep crisis of the EU caused by neoliberal austerity policies and the need to overcome it by implementing a political alternative based on democracy and solidarity. ‘Future European cooperation should be under the democratic control of the people and not at the service of the financial markets and big corporations.’ A new model of economic, social, and ecological development is called for as well as a Europe of rights and in particular a Europe of Peace. The European Treaties are rejectedsince they lay the basis for the fatal neoliberal policies.
       In contrast to the last elections, the EL is not the point of reference for all European left-wing parties even if they are members of the EL. There also other initiatives presenting themselves as Europe-wide left groups. DiEM25 is cooperating with other groups under the name ‘European Spring’ in order to be present in the European elections. European Spring is a coordination of DiEM 25, Générations.s, Razem, Germany’s Demokratie in Bewegung, Italy’s Democrazia Autonoma, Livre in Portugal, and Alternativet in Denmark. At the core of their programme is the project ‘A New Deal for Europe’ oriented to labour, sustainable investments, international solidarity, and democratising Europe. And then there is Maintenant le Peuple with its own strategy based on rejection of the European treaties.
       Thus we have to take account of at least three different strategies involving not only the coming European elections but also bearing on European left politics as a whole: DiEM25 with its aim to cooperate with different left parties and groups and to create a Europe-wide party named European Spring, Mélenchon with Maintenant le Peuple and its appeal to disobey the European treaties, promoting the ‘Révolution Citoyenne’, and the EL, which intends to provide a common platform for the entire European left.

    Divergences and convergences

    The differences in strategy are the consequence of a different analysis and evaluation of European politics and different visions of European left politics. The divergences involve first and foremost the development of the EU and the question of whether progressive policy is possible within the framework of the EU. The EL’s political document adopted at the last congress in Berlin 2016 states: ‘Although we fight on every occasion to roll back the rationale on the basis of the existing treaties behind national and European political decisions, we are not seeking to adapt the existing framework but to re- found Europe, because it is clear that it is not possible to introduce a policy of social change without breaking away from the treaties that are based on the dogma of free, unfettered competition and on calling into question the right of peoples and nations to govern themselves in a democratic fashion.’All left forces share the conviction that the treaties – from Maastricht to Lisbon – are the basis for the neoliberal austerity policy pursued by the European institutions and the governments of the different European countries. Consequently, all favour a fundamental revision and re-structuring of the treaties. The difference concerns whether the Treaties should be discarded wholesale or not. Since changing them is very difficult there are attempts at interpreting them differently and advancing proposals for progressive policy on the basis of the existing treaties – or, on the other hand, there are proposals to simply disobey them. To present concrete proposals for another European economic and social policy helps create a political climate in favour of changing the treaties.
       One of the most discussed issues is the common currency, the euro, and the ‘Plan B’ proposed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon some years ago. His proposal was followed by several conferences on the concept, and Plan B has become an important hypothesis in the debate over European policy. Plan B makes reference to a so-called Plan A aimed at radically reforming the European Union. The idea is that in the event that such a radical reform is not possible a Plan B would be needed allowing for the possibility of a country leaving the Eurozone and the EU. Plan B is thus seen as a strategy of last resort. Exit was in particular proposed for Greece as an alternative to the neoliberal Memorandum imposed by the Troika. In the end, Greece’s Syriza-led government rejected the exit option as too risky. Exit does indeed involve very high risks.
       It is true that devaluing one’s own currency creates possibilities of recovering competitiveness. However, to do so one needs a well-functioning production system and export goods. The advantages of such a strategy are often overestimated, while the disadvantages (increase in the price for imports and speculation of the financial markets against the national currency) are commonly underestimated.
       On the other hand, there are a good many positions on which there is agreement. All left forces agree that neoliberal austerity policy has to be ended and that we need a programme of public investments in sectors important for the future development of the society, that is, investments in renewable energies, in a new system of mobility, in healthcare, housing, education, culture, etc. Such an investment offensive is certainly incompatible with the Fiscal Compact, which needs to be abolished. A social-ecological transformation of industry is necessary. And there is also agreement that the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) must be revised to make it assume more responsibility for economic development and employment. All forces of the left agree that the financial markets should be democratically controlled, that financial speculation has to be forbidden, and tax havens abolished – and, of course, that the social dimension of European policy should be reinforced, in line with the slogan ‘social first’, as put forward by the trade unions. The pillar of social rights recently adopted by the European Commission is far from adequate, but it is a first step; it acknowledges that something has to be done. A demand could be the transformation of the social pillar into a binding social protocol. A further very important area of agreement is resistance to the militarisation of the EU. The EL opposes the further militarisation of EU foreign policy and the involvement of the European countries’ military forces in external operations as well as NATO’s aggressive presence in Europe.


    There is thus no lack of common ground for an alternative progressive European policy in building a common platform or a minimal programme. Apart from differing opinions on the role of the common currency, the euro, the substantive political differences are not so great as to impede political unity among Europe’s left forces. The major problem is the organisational configurations of the different left forces in Europe and their different political strategies. We are confronted with contradictory developments. The cooperation between the different approaches, that is, European Spring, Maintenant le Peuple, and EL is very weak. Rather than unifying the different forces there is the danger of a divided left. When Varoufakis launched DiEM25 in 2016 there was broad positive response because all agreed on the goal of democratising the EU. With European Spring, however, steps have been taken towards building a transnational party to compete in the European elections next year. It is therefore doubtful that this initiative will strengthen left and progressive forces. Furthermore, the way in which Mélenchon has launched his initiative Maintenant le Peuple and is putting forward his political model is creating problems that could result in splitting progressive forces. This is seen in his demand that Syriza be expelled from the EL due to the policies pursued by Greece’s Syriza-led government. This is not the way one should act. Of course, there are differing stances on Syriza’s policies, but even if these politics are strongly criticised it should be done in a serious and solidary way, also taking account of the circumstances under which the Greek government has been compelled to act. It was certainly a political error not to have organised serious discussion of Syriza’s policies within the EL, and we must acknowledge that, in general, political debate has been insufficiently developed. That does not mean that there are not still many discussions and forums – in particular concerning Plan B – , but each initiative mainly has its own separate forum. Still, the reasons behind the different strategies have to be discussed within the forums. On the one hand there are strategies still linked to the traditional political parties; on the other hand there are new approaches inspired by left-wing populism and therefore focused on movements rather than parties, which is the case with Mélenchon. He is convinced that the system of traditional parties is in a deep crisis and new political initiatives are necessary, based on the confrontation between ‘the people’ and the oligarchies. The new German movement Aufstehen shares this perspective. Up to now there has been no serious debate on the underlying theoretical-political concepts. But this is urgently needed because these new movements, although aimed at strengthening left forces, carry the risk of yet another division within the left.
       Despite different political positions and political concepts and thus different strategies, it is necessary to make every effort to bring progressive forces together. It is the left’s responsibility to be the counterweight to the disastrous policy that reigns in Europe and to the nationalistic and racist shift to the right. Accomplishing this requires first and foremost the courage to work out compromises among each other; however, the left has an unfortunate tendency to divisiveness. In the face of the rise of extreme-right and also fascist forces it is absolutely necessary that the left overcomes its state of fragmentation. To do soit has to tackle its political differences and come together around a common political platform. This does not mean having a unique political position but rather reaching an agreement around some crucial political issues while at the same time recognising important differences. As already said, around the need to build another Europe and institute alternative policies the differences are not so deep. Instead of competing at the European elections it would be necessary to present the left as a force with a common political alternative despite the differences.
       The above-mentioned Progressive Caucus in the European Parliament, which comprises different progressive forces and has a common political goal and platform, is a good model. Another opportunity is offered by the European Forum of Progressive Forces launched by EL. In its 2017 Marseille Forum it brought together different leftist, ecological, and progressive forces, discussing divergences and convergences. It was a first positive step and the spirit felt during the meeting was encouraging. On the other hand, there were also deficits in terms of participation and political programme. Improvements were made last year with the second Forum in Bilbao. The participation was broader, also including representatives of trade unions. And there has been some progress in terms of political content as well. In the final declaration four basic axes were indicated as preparation for the third Forum. The first regards redistribution of the immense wealth produced in Europe for purposes of a new model of social and ecological development; one proposal was to establish new expenditures in Europe to favour a new social and ecological model. The second addresses gender quality with the proposal to develop a concept for gender equality in all spheres of life. The third axis concerns peace and collective security, with the specific proposal to promote a pan-European conference on this issue. The last axis regards democracy with the call for empowering popular sovereignity through the launching of a new charter of sovereign democracy in Europe. The Bilbao Forum was certainly a step forward in building a space seeking fundamental points of agreement between diverse European ecologist, left, and progressive forces to face the offensive of the right and extreme right.These forums can be an important platform for Europe’s left – on condition, however, that participation is enlarged to include even more political organisations as well as trade unions and organisations of civil society. But I need to stress that these forums should not turn into another social forum but instead be a political project. If accepted by all the progressive forces such a forum could be the platform not only for the necessary debate between the diverse progressive forces but also a sign that these forces are able to present themselves as a political alternative to neoliberal politics in Europe and the nationalist and racist far right as well.
       A broad alliance of progressive forces also has to include the trade unions. At present they play no major role in the debate over left European policy, either in the EL or in other initiatives like Maintenant le Peuple or DiEM 25. Of course, there are attempts to integrate the trade unions, as for example in the European Forums. There have been some meetings, but a real dialogue between the left and the trade unions on a European level is not taking place. Moreover, the European trade union organisations – European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and its federations – are not engaging actively in the debate on progressive European policy despite their having worked out and promoted concrete alternatives to European austerity policy, for example ETUC’s ‘A New Path for Europe’, which proposes investments in sectors important for the development of society and which could also be seen as contributing to the social-ecological transformation of the economy. In addition, IndustriAll, the industrial federation within the ETUC, published a document called ‘Put Industry Back to Work’, in which European austerity policy is sharply criticised and very concrete proposals for an alternative policy made. The European trade union organisations are closely linked to the socialist / social democratic parties while their relationships with the left are rather weak. On the other hand, there is good cooperation between the network of left-wing trade-unionists (TUNE) and GUE/NGL. But the relationship between the political left and the official European trade unions should also be strengthened even though ETUC and its federations are rather more like institutions than trade union movements. Still, their participation is important for building another, a social Europe. There is no alternative because the fight against social dumping, against precarisation of work, and for strengthening the rights of labour and of collective bargaining is crucial for building another Europe.
       In conclusion, the European left is at a decisive political juncture. Its future depends on its ability to seize the opportunities offered by the failure of neoliberal austerity policy and the accompanying political changes. A broad and strong alliance of the left, ecological, and progressive forces is needed as a counterpart to neoliberal politics and the nationalist and racist right as well. In view of the many important programmatic positions shared by the different forces, despite the existing differences, this should be possible. On the other hand, the risk of another division of left forces is high. A serious and solidary debate around divergences and convergences and the willingness to cooperate is crucial in order to overcome the left’s fragmentation.


    1. <http://www.european-left.org/sites/default/files/1_-_en_-_political_document_el_-_congress_final.pdf>.