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Trends and challenges in today’s European politics

9 June 2012
Published in Attualità
by Francesco Belcastro

The second weekend of May was marked by elections in the UK, seek France, salve Italy and Greece. Regional elections in the German Lander of North Rhine-Westafalia then followed in Germany. Different votes (administrative in Britain and Italy, try presidential in France, parliamentary in Greece, state’s election in Germany) and dramatically different outcomes render any analysis difficult, nonetheless a few trends can be easily detected. At first sight, election results might seem as an overall success for the moderate left parties: the triumph of Mr. Hollande over Mr. Sarkozy in France, the good result obtained by Ed Miliband’s Labour in Councils all around Britain and the victory of the SPD in Germany biggest Lander, all indicates a strong return of “the Left” in Western Europe. The success of the extreme right represents the second trend: the substantial result obtained by Marine Le Pen’s Front National in the first round of French elections as well the UK Independence Party’s solid result in Britain show how these forces are now established in their countries’ political landscape. In Italy, the (relative) success of the centre-left parties and the collapse of the former “Berlusconi coalition” has been overshadowed by the growth of the “Movimento cinque stelle”, the anti-system party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. While this movement is not conventionally right wing oriented, it tends to draw “anti-establishment” votes similarly to other extreme right parties in Europe. In Greece, the collapse of the “traditional” parties seems to be a consequence of the country’s specific circumstances, particularly the unpopularity of the austerity measure imposed by the Troika and supported by both PASOK and Nea Demokratia. The Left Syriza took the second largest share of votes (over 15%) in recent elections, overcoming the traditional “mainstream” Socialists of PASOK. Yet one cannot ignore the deep divide between the pro-European Pasok and Syriza, whose leader –Alexis Tsipras– has openly threatened to dispute the austerity measures imposed by Germany and its allies, was he elected. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party obtaining nearly a 7% share of votes and entering the parliament for the first time in its history represents an equally important development.

Despite the significant differences in political systems, both in terms of structure and tradition, among these countries, trends have marked European politics quite significantly in the last couple of decades . The late 1990s saw a wave of left parties taking over in Britain, Germany, Italy and other European countries. On the other hand, David Cameron’s election back in 2010 marked the first moment in a long time in which four major European countries were ruled by right-wing parties. The May elections might as well mean that the wind has changed, nevertheless it is clear that the challenges that the European “moderate left” has to face go beyond the electoral confrontation. What appears to have changed in European politics is the balance of the forces of the right, with extreme right movements gaining significant momentum at the expense of conservative/moderate parties. While this might indicate a success for the left in the short term, the increase of anti-system votes and of the extreme right suggests that bigger challenges lay ahead.

The challenges ahead (A reasoned approach)

  1. The European Crisis. The financial crisis poses challenges and imposes constraints to the left and right alike. But it does represent a bigger problem for left parties once they get into power: austerity measures and commitment to social equality clash. That might be the reason why PASOK paid a higher price than Nea Demokratia in Greek elections. While the working class core of the moderate left parties might have faded –less so in countries like Italy, where the trade unions still play a key role– it is harder for a party that defines itself “Socialist” or simply “Centre-left” to impose measures perceived as unfair by most of the population, affecting more some traditional parts of their electorate. Francoise Hollande pledged to re-evaluate the unfair austerity measures that many saw as imposed by Angela Merkel with the consensus of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, but what will this mean in terms of development of the European crisis and of the future of the EU?
  2. The future of the EU. The crisis is not over, that much we all agree on. If the EU survives the crisis –and it likely, and hopefully, will– it will be radically different. How it will change, however, is a disputed matter. More Europe, less Europe, closing up the democracy deficit, giving the EU a stronger leadership. What is potentially more critical for the moderate left is bringing the theme of social equality at the centre of the European project. That poses a duple problem: finding a way to effectively modify “the European system”, but also completing at a European level a puzzle that still troubles the left parties at national level: what does third way mean exactly? What does it mean in terms of “models of development”?
  3. Models of development. The end of the Cold War represented the sunset of the Soviet model: most left European parties had already changed their horizon a long time before, the notable exception being the “vintage” Communist Party of Italy, that was forced to undertake significant changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Communism not being an alternative, the different left parties of Europe developed a plethora of “Third way” progressive models, from Germany’s Social-Democracy to Britain’s New Labour. The latter represents better than any other example the contradiction of the European left: from the first successful years –with achievements such as the Minimum National Wage– to the last years –with the Iraq quagmire– and the accuse of “Neo-Thatcherism”, the journey of Blair and Brown’s party shows the power and the contradiction of the European left at the dawn of the new millennium. Engaging with what should be the “purpose”, or rather the goals of a moderate left party in today’s Europe, is beyond the scope of this article. Yet there are two or three themes that any Left party could not allow itself to ignore, such as the rise of the Extreme right.
  4. The rise of the extreme right parties. Extreme right parties have been said to be “on the rise” in Europe for the past two decades, yet any new electoral success of these forces in Hungary, Finland, France or Greece seems to surprise European observers. While the growth of these parties would immediately appear to be a threat to conservative/moderate parties –particularly in countries such as the UK, where extreme right parties are able to challenge mainstream ones on themes such as Euro-scepticism– these parties represent a long term threat to moderate left parties as well as to the system altogether. Extreme right parties represent a threat to the left forces in at least three ways. Firstly, their growth is a sign of major shifts in the European political scenario, in the Continent’s political culture and political discourse, which is likely to be a self-reinforcing process. Secondly, these parties have proven capable to “fish” among left parties traditional electorate. Thirdly, extreme right parties are able to challenge left parties on some of the themes where they appear to be “softer”, the first and foremost being immigration and models of integration.
  5. Immigration and models of integration. It is no secret that right-wing movements around Europe have been able to capitalise on the fear (justified or exaggerated) of the foreign invasion , particularly its Islamic component. Immigration is the major theme on which the left is losing the cultural battle. Squeezed between the simple (if scary) recipes of the Extreme right1 –“Let’s send them back where they came from”– and the lack of clear models of integration to look up to, mainstream left’s parties stance on immigration and models of integration is at best unclear and at worst extremely uncomfortable. Not that one could demand to any serious party that aims to govern a big country to be “pro” or “against” an historical process such as immigration (that luxury that only extreme parties enjoy). But if politics is also about finding solutions to problems, shying away from the issue or offering a “light right” solution might not to be enough. Quoting a Greek voter: “This people tell me I don’t have to fear immigration, but my house is the one that gets de-priced when they move in”. To this and similar concerns the extreme right offers a straightforward answer: “Let’s send them home”.

    Some Conclusions

    The recent round of elections in five European countries brought significant gains for four mainstream left parties out of five, with the exception of PASOK being hardly hit by the protest vote in Greece and overtaken by the extreme left Syriza. Yet the elections seem to show that a few challenges are looming for these parties. The rise of abstentions and of what has been defined as “protest vote”, favouring extreme right parties, might represent a great challenge in next couple of years. Furthermore, there are a few themes that so far have been to a certain extent avoided by the left parties, themes on which these parties appear to be an easy target for criticism, such as immigration or social equality in the European Union. These issues are not only electoral matters. The stake is higher than victory or loss in the next round of elections. These are the issues that will shape the future of the Old Continent and help answering the crucial matter of the role and aims of Left parties in today’s Europe. Problems that need a strong answer “from the Left”.

    1 progressively adopted by the moderate right in the hope to limit the appeal of the extreme right (such as in the case of Sarkozy in France)

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