The Elephant in the Room
Left Parties and the European Union
by Dec 01, 2020
European left parties have, over the last couple of decades, become increasingly critical of political developments in the European Union, particularly as a response to the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the subsequent euro crisis. These were accompanied by high and sustained unemployment and promises of a social pillar that never materialized. All the while, the neoliberal economic integration continued at its fullest and contributed to the increased power of market forces over social development.
However, even if criticism of the European Union has been sharpened, this has not been well reflected in the political strategies of the left. True, new questions of significant importance have been raised, particularly as reactions to the crisis and the political developments in Greece. There, the left party Syriza gave up its political program after it won government power in January 2015. The government was more or less forcibly set under EU administration—or, as many critics say, the Syriza governments capitulated to the European Union, a capitulation that is defended politically not only by representatives of Syriza itself, but also by representatives of most other left parties and within transform! europe.1
This led to the question, raised both by critics inside Syriza and in some other left groupings in Europe, of whether the European Union can be reformed from within at all.2 The measures taken by the European Union (or the Troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) against the other strongly crisis-ridden countries—Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—further actualized this issue. Should withdrawal from the Economic and Monetary Union, and thus the euro and possibly also the European Union, be a relevant tool in the political toolkit of the left, or is conquest and reform of the European Union from the inside the way to create a social Europe? The answer to such a question is, of course, decisive for the strategy of the left in Europe.
However, there seems to be a lack of both ability and willingness to engage in this discussion in several of the major left parties. Relations with the European Union have thus in many ways become the elephant in the room of many such parties. This also includes a discussion of the experiences of the Syriza government, which seems to be difficult to get on the agenda of left forums in Europe. Underlying this reluctance, we find different ways to understand the role and character of the European Union, and not least how these have evolved over time.
Europe’s Chaotic Left
The left forces in Europe are weak—both quantitatively and qualitatively. They are characterized by the political and ideological crisis that has ridden the political left during the last decades, preventing them from becoming a leading force against the economic crisis, attacks on the welfare state, and growing inequality and poverty. It is primarily the far right that has managed to exploit people’s increasing discontent and dissatisfaction. In national elections held in EU member states in 2017 and 2018, right-wing parties more than doubled their number of votes, from 10.3 to 22.1 million. In the same period, left parties stagnated, with around 10 million votes.3 At the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, support for the left parties declined even further, while support for the far right again increased.
Over the past decades, a number of reshuffles have taken place within the left. In Italy, there is hardly anything remaining of the traditional left parties. They have more or less obliterated themselves through unsuccessful political maneuvering. In France, there are conflicting trends. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been the leading figure on the left ever since he broke with the Socialist Party and formed the Party de Gauche (Left Party) in 2008. Based on this party, he initiated the Front de Gauche (Left Front) in 2009 as an electoral alliance, including the Communist Party and others. However, the alliance between Mélenchon’s people and the Communist Party was fragile and eventually broke down. The Left Front was thus formally dissolved in 2018. By then, however, Mélenchon had already formed his next political organization, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). The party, or movement, first had success with Mélenchon as candidate in the 2017 presidential elections (close to 20 percent in the first round), but it failed to mobilize more than 6.3 percent in the 2019 European elections. The traditional and historically strong Communist Party is at its lowest point ever, with only 2.5 percent of the votes in the last elections, and is thus excluded from the European Parliament for the first time since 1979. Germany’s Die Linke (The Left) did not do well during the last election either, losing another quarter of its support and ending up with 5.5 percent of the vote.
In Eastern Europe, left parties are few and far between. Only the Czech Republic, through its traditional Communist Party, managed to be represented in the European Parliament in the 2019 elections. In Slovenia, a new left party, Levica (Left), did well during the last parliamentary elections at home, but failed in the EU elections. In Belgium, a transformed former Maoist party, Parti du Travail de Belgique (Belgian Labor Party) made strides (14.5 percent of the vote in the French-speaking part of Belgium) with a clear class orientation and a radical program. In Greece, Syriza still had a higher turnout than most other forces on the European left (well over 23 percent of votes in the last EU elections), even though support for them has declined overall (they received 36 percent of votes in the 2015 national elections). This happened in spite of their role as loyal executioners of the Troika’s brutal austerity policies, which created major problems on the left in Greece as well as in Europe more broadly.
In the European Parliament, most of the left parties belong to the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, which now consists of forty-one representatives after the European elections in May 2019 (a decline of eleven representatives). The coalition constitutes a mixed assembly of parties divided into different tendencies, divisions that are not always easy to understand. Some reject that these are parties in the traditional sense, and others even that they are left wing. Alliances are forming and changing, and politics are sometimes adjusted opportunistically to keep them together.
At the same time, there is also an ongoing battle for left hegemony in Europe through the various initiatives of new alliances, with some parties ending up, seemingly without problem, inside more than one of them. The relationship to the European Union is, to a greater or lesser extent, an essential element of the internal competition currently taking place between three different groups of left parties.
A number of the parties (currently twenty-six of them) are members of the European Left (EL), which was established in 2004 and has party status in the EU system. The EL is more like a network or coordinating body than a well-organized party. Several left parties are not members of the EL. In addition to the EL, two more organizations work to build competing networks or alliances among left parties in Europe: DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.
Mélenchon started to build an alternative alliance partly because he was dissatisfied with the EL, opposed Syriza’s capitulation in Greece, and wanted a sharper political profile. Some years ago, he withdrew Parti de Gauche from the EL on the basis of a conflict with the French Communist Party. His new party, La France Insoumise, has not joined the EL. Prior to the 2019 European elections, he worked actively to build an alternative grouping focused on the stranglehold of the European Union. He succeeded in achieving support for this perspective from Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, Portugal) and Podemos (We Can, the Spanish newcomer), and in April 2018 these parties launched a joint statement called “Lisbon Declaration for a Citizens’ Revolution in Europe: Now the People!”4 Later, left parties in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland joined this Lisbon declaration.
The third alliance builder, Yanis Varoufakis, with DiEM25, built alliances aimed at the 2019 European elections under the name European Spring.5 Central to the program was the project A New Deal for Europe, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reform program for the United States in the 1930s.6 DiEM25, which neither defines itself as a party nor views itself as part of a right-left spectrum, sought to build alliances with a wider range of organizations than Bloco de Esquerda and Podemos, often small and relatively new organizations. This also reflects some skepticism toward Varoufakis among the larger, traditional left parties. Though unsuccessful, Varoufakis put himself up as a candidate for the European elections in Germany, fomenting irritation inside Die Linke. DiEM25 failed to win any seats in the European Parliament in the 2019 elections. However, at the national elections in Greece shortly thereafter, the Greek branch won nine seats in parliament, including one seat for Varoufakis.
It is worth noting also that Bonapartist tendencies are emerging in politics in Europe—that is, tendencies of individuals to break out and build party organizations or movements aimed at winning political positions for themselves. More than anything else, this illustrates the current deep political crisis across the political spectrum in Europe. On the left, both Varoufakis’s DiEM25 and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise can be said to have clear Bonapartist characteristics, with loose organizations lacking democratic structures, relying on electronic communications, focusing primarily on media strategies, and having entrenched leaders. Podemos is probably also more controlled by the clique of academics from the University of Madrid, who started the party in 2014, than the leadership is willing to acknowledge. With the de-democratization that eventually happened under Alexis Tsipras’s leadership, Syriza has also demonstrated tendencies in the same direction, although it has a more traditional party structure.
Sharpened Criticism of EU Policy
Social democracy as well as the dominant parts of European trade union movements have consistently been enthusiastic supporters of the European Union, although particular aspects of EU policy have at times been criticized. In many countries, especially in Scandinavia, but also, for example, in France (with the Communist Party), the left parties fought against EU membership when making a decision was on the table. However, as the years passed, the demand to withdraw from the European Union withered.
What is it that makes the relationship to the European Union so problematic and almost unpredictable for many left parties in Europe? Historically, two factors have played a central role. First, the ideological narrative that accompanied the establishment of the European Union (or the European Economic Community, as it was called at the time), which consisted of two important objectives: that the EU should lay the foundation for lasting peace in Europe, and that it be a tool for social progress for its people. After two devastating world wars, both triggered between European nation-states, the political promises of peace were very appealing. Almost the entire political spectrum, from the right to the left, thus supported, and still supports, these intentions. In addition, through the development of the welfare state in the postwar period, most people felt that social progress was already in the process of being realized.
The second important historical event was François Mitterrand’s reign in France from 1981 to 1995. Mitterrand embarked on a radical, left social democratic program that included widespread nationalization, economic redistribution, and further political interventions in many areas. This was seen by many in the labor movement as the start of the construction of a socialist Europe. After less than two years, however, Mitterrand’s reform project was dropped. The causes of this political collapse, as well as the possibility of pursuing another policy, are debated. Here too, however, demands from the European Community (now the European Union) were included, as France had already pledged to join the European currency system. Then, as now, this created limits on what policies could be pursued.
Mitterrand then bowed to the European Community’s demands, making his presidency the last social-democratic attempt to implement a comprehensive socialist reform program in Europe (with the possible exception of the later failure of the wage-earner fund in Sweden in the 1980s). Based on his experience, Mitterrand, together with his Minister of Finance Jacques Delors, concluded that the future of a socialist or social-democratic (Keynesian) policy had to be linked to the development of the European Economic Community rather than the nation-states. Thus, it became the policy of the French socialists, and eventually the social democracies in Europe, to work toward increased economic integration in Europe. But as social scientist Martin Höpner at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne says, “it is a myth to say…that ‘more Europe’ will bring us closer to a social Europe.”7
This European Union of peace and social progress has served as a dominant narrative until the present day. Gradually, however, both French socialists and others began to question the project. They saw that economies were integrated—and deregulated—but little progress was made in what they called the social pillar. While the stated goal was to rein in market forces through increased political governance and regulation at the European level, developments on the ground were characterized by increasing market forces, while the social dimension was hardly visible.
It remains an open question how socialist and social democratic politicians so easily could believe that a supranational construct like the European Economic Community—based on the four freedoms (free movement of capital, goods, services, and persons) as the core elements of its founding treaty (the Rome Treaty of 1958), and with a total lack of democratic structures—could be a tool for a social Europe. Even more mysterious is how that belief could be maintained even after the adoption of the Single Act (which established the EU single market in 1986), the Maastricht Treaty (of 1992, which led to further integration and the creation of the European Union), the Lisbon Treaty (of 2007, a dressed-up version of the constitution rejected in referendums in both France and the Netherlands in 2005), and a series of other neoliberal legislative texts, agreements, and treaties.
Two developments are important in order to understand the increased criticism of the European Union within left parties in recent years. One is the development of EU institutions and policy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis in 2009. The other is the European Union’s role in fighting the left-wing Syriza government in Greece after the 2015 elections.
To save the financial markets, and perhaps even capitalism, from the deep financial and euro crisis, governments and the European Union poured money into private banks. This led to large budget deficits and a massive increase in government debt in many member states. With the Stability and Growth Pact in hand, the European Union demanded the restoration of economic balance, which led to massive cuts in public budgets, large cuts in public-sector wages, an explosive rise in unemployment, and extensive attacks on labor rights, pensions, and working conditions (what is called internal devaluation, in a situation where the euro area national states no longer had the opportunity to devalue their currency). The European Union’s social pillars were not simply set aside once again—they were under massive attack, and criticism from the left and the dissatisfaction of the population grew.
The Troika’s behavior toward the Syriza government led to further criticism from the left. The fact that the European Central Bank used its monopoly to stop the supply of money to the Greek banks in order to force the government to its knees showed clearly where power lies, how brutally it can be imposed, and how powerless a single (and small) member state can be when faced with such power. That the Tsipras government obviously had neither the ability nor the will—nor had it made any preparations—to confront this power with their only viable tool, the withdrawal from the Economic and Monetary Union and thus from the euro, led to its capitulation.
Can the European Union Be Reformed from Within?
The immediate reaction of many was that the European Union must change, and that this should be realized through struggle from a united left in Europe. At the same time, however, new contradictions began to develop. Some on the left started to raise the decisive question: Can the European Union be reformed from within? What happens if the left wins elections in our country and we are prevented from implementing our policy? The Syriza government’s capitulation to the European Union/Troika contributed strongly to this discussion, where the withdrawal from the euro or even the European Union (Grexit) was raised as a possible strategy.
Varoufakis has become a strong spokesperson for reforming the European Union from within. The founding document of DiEM25, which he initiated after his break with Syriza, included the following three demands on the European Union: (1) immediate, full transparency regarding the work of all central EU institutions; (2) the return of responsibility for public debt, the banking sector, investment, immigration, and distribution policy to the national parliaments within one year, to be done through existing institutions by creative interpretation of covenants and treaties; and (3) the establishment of a constitutional assembly within two years, with the task of transforming Europe into a full democracy with a sovereign parliament that respects national autonomy and shares power with national parliaments, and regional and locally elected assemblies by 2025.8
In an interview with Jacobin, Varoufakis said this about his and DiEM25’s goal of changing the European Union from within: “So, our duty is to demonstrate to Europeans that it is perfectly possible (though, of course, not easy) to take over the institutions of the EU, re-align their policies and practices with their views of what Europe should be, and begin the debate at the grassroots level of what kind of democratic European Union we want.”9
Nothing less than that! It must be acknowledged that this sounds rather naive, especially when this policy is supported neither by analyses of power relations and power structures within the European Union, nor by developed strategies for how this can be fought through in practice—and by whom.
Some on the left have a principled, ideological rejection of any strategy to exit the European Union. They perceive the European Union, and even the Economic and Monetary Union, as representing a historically progressive development that has overcome the nation-state and therefore should be defended. Withdrawing from the Economic and Monetary Union or leaving the European Union is in this context considered not only futile, but also a dangerous move toward aligning with the nationalist and authoritarian powers of the far right. The European Union must be defended in the name of internationalism, while its neoliberal policy must be counteracted, it says. Many supporters of these ideas are social democrats, although little has been seen of their internal struggle against neoliberalism. Many of these ideas can also be found in large parts of the left.
Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at the University of London, who was elected to the Greek parliament on Syriza’s ticket in January 2015, but who broke with the party and Tsipras following their surrender to the Troika, has engaged strongly in the debate. To those who see the European Union as an internationalization project that needs to be supported, he claims:
“Therein lies the problem with the Left in Europe today. Its attachment to the EU as an inherently progressive development prevents it from being radical, and indeed integrates it into the neoliberal structures of European capitalism. The Left has become increasingly cut off from its historic constituency, the workers and the poor of Europe, who have naturally sought a political voice elsewhere.… Inevitably the vacuum created by the Left has been steadily filled by some of the worst political forces in European history, including the extreme right.10″
Lapavitsas as well as others on the left now see the European Union as an obstacle to implementing a progressive left program, not least in light of the Greek experience. They claim that both the European Union and the Economic and Monetary Union have extensive structural and institutional barriers. In a previous article, I outlined six such barriers:
- Democratic deficit, which has increased rather than diminished in recent years.
- Constitutionalized neoliberalism, which makes socialism and Keynesianism illegal in the European Union.
- Irreversible legislation, where 100 percent agreement is required to amend a treaty.
- The euro as an economic straitjacket, with a central bank that is outside of democratic control.
- Uneven development between member states, which makes coordinated resistance difficult.
- The extended role of the European Court of Justice, with the so-called Laval Quartet as an illustrative example (in 2007 and 2008, the court delivered four important judgments that weakened trade union rights).11
- And we can now add: a comprehensive system of financial sanctions for any breaches of treaties, although the possible sanctions included in the Stability and Growth Pact have been temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 crisis.