The Hope for a United European Left
by petros konstantinidis
In the past few years we have witnessed the rise of the far-right and the revival of a rhetoric that had been long forgotten. We are living at the dawn of a new political era: it is the time of populism – or, because I personally dislike that word, let's call it “the return of ideology”. The post-Cold War era was the age of liberalism, characterized by the divergence of the centre-right and the centre-left to form what some have called the extreme centre. But this new era demands different political alliances. If we don't want the far-right to end up in government all around the western world, the only answer is a united left.
The end of the Cold War brought with it the end of the ideological battle between the left and the right. Social democratic parties across Europe began to disavow their socialist values and opted for the so called “third way”. Tony Blair's New Labour in the UK led the way for the conciliation of the centre-left with the centre-right. The agreement was simple: the right would follow the left with regards to social matters like minorities' rights and immigration in exchange to the left's complete submission to the right's neoliberal economic model. There you have it: the extreme centre, dominating European politics since the late 90s. This resulted in governments of the centre-right and governments of the centre-left (or, sometimes, grand coalition governments) alternating in most countries of Europe, but never actually changing policy. The most impressive example was in Germany, when the – so-called – social democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented his Agenda 2010, a neoliberal reform programme characterized by cuts in social welfare and deregulation of the job market. It felt like we had reached the end of history, the end of ideology and the end of politics.
And now, be ready for some serious namedropping.
Because then, the crisis roared over us and dethroned all but one of the governments of the strongest European Union states in the next elections. The Parti Socialiste's François Hollande succeeded Nicolas Sarkozy in the Élysée in 2012. Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government collapsed in 2011, passing the hot potato of Italy's economy to a technocratic government led by Mario Monti. In the same year, Spain's social-democratic government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was succeeded by the conservative Partido Popular and Mariano Rajoy. Finally, and also in 2011, in the UK, the Labour Party lost the election to David Cameron's Tories. The only government that remained stable during this tense period was that of Angela Merkel in Germany – and consequently it is this government that became the benchmark in European politics ever since.
Smaller countries witnessed political upheaval as well – especially the ones hit the hardest by the crisis: Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In Greece, again in 2011, the PASOK (social-democratic party) government, headed by George Papandreou, collapsed after passing harsh austerity measures as part of the deal concluded with the infamous “troika” (the tricycle of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF) in exchange for a seemingly never-ending bailout. Papandreou was succeeded by the technocrat Lucas Papademos who led the country to elections in May and June 2012, when Nea Demokratia formed a new government under Antonis Samaras, with the participation of PASOK and the centre-left Demokratiki Aristera. The electoral free fall of PASOK in these elections (from 42.9% in October 2009 to 12.3% in June 2012) coined the term “pasokification”, used by political scientists to describe the electoral downfall of a mainstream social-democratic party, as a result of the adoption of austerity policies.
On the western side of Southern Europe, José Socrates' (later convicted on corruption charges) centre-left government fell – you guessed it right, in 2011 – to be substituted by the centre-right and Pedro Passos Coelho. Further northwest, in Ireland, the liberal centre-right Fianna Fáil party witnessed its own downfall after passing austerity measures that dealt a big blow to the Irish people and was succeeded by the – also centre-right – Fine Gael. The crisis changed Europe's political identity, destroyed mainstream parties and put a tombstone on the theory of the end of ideology.
But why did I just take you on a long journey across European politics of the past decade?
What does all the above tell us about today and how do we come to the conclusion that we need a broad, united left coalition to save Europe? With important elections approaching in the EU's power couple (France and Germany), the stakes are high. As presented above, the marriage of the centre-left and the centre-right of the post-Cold War era is leading to a necessary divorce. In most cases, the centre-left has received the biggest blow, for the simple reason that it started implementing policies that are far from its ideological – and electoral – base.
The centre-right adopted socially liberal values rather easily, while managing to keep its conservatism at the same time. With the economy becoming the major issue due to the crisis, the centre-left was exposed: accepting to follow the neoliberal dogma and implementing austerity measures, they were abandoned by their electorate. In the end, if a country is condemned to apply neoliberal policy, why not elect a centre-right wing party that actually believes in it wholeheartedly?
SYRIZA's left-wing government in Greece (in a bizarre coalition with an opportunistic right-wing party, the Independent Greeks) failed to reverse austerity and ended up capitulating to the creditors' demands in July 2015 – even after a referendum in which the Greek people emphatically voted for an end to austerity. As a consequence of SYRIZA's failure, the Spanish PODEMOS lost important ground and finished third in Spain's general elections last year, leading to a new Rajoy government. Even though PODEMOS had united its powers with the far-left Izquierda Unida, it did not manage to reach an agreement with PSOE's Pedro Sánchez, missing the opportunity for the left to unite and set forth a governmental proposal which could be more attractive than Rajoy's neoliberal conservative cocktail.
The Portuguese, however, paved the way for the revitalized hope of a united left. After the elections of 2015 that didn't give the centre-right, led by former Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, a governing majority, the Socialist Party formed a majority with the support of the other leftist parties of the parliament, resulting in Antonio Costa's government. Portugal's example is so far showing positive results for the European left, suggesting that there is a future to the left, away from the grand coalition model.
But what can we expect from the Left in the upcoming elections? In France, the situation is ambiguous. On one hand, the PS is deeply wounded after five years of government under François Hollande. During his presidential term, unemployment rose, the social welfare system witnessed unprecedented cuts and the job market was deregulated. Hollande's presidency was a huge disappointment for the PS' electorate. On the other hand, the election of Benoît Hamon in the PS' primary has brought new hope for a return to left-wing politics and consequently a return of the party's traditional voters to their base. Hamon's agreement with EELV's (Green party) Yannick Jadot has reinforced the ex-minister's candidacy. However, it still seems that Hamon is far from passing to the second round of the presidential election, coming fourth in opinion polls, after the hard nationalist Marine Le Pen, the disoriented liberal Emmanuel Macron and the supporter of imaginary family business François Fillon.
The possible answer for the left's deadlock in France is found just under Hamon in the opinion polls. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a big figure in the French left, is an explosive and charismatic orator and has by far the most detailed programme in this election. His movement, La France Insoumise, has produced the book L'Avenir en Commun, in which the proposals of Mélenchon's candidacy are presented and analysed. Hamon and Mélenchon share a lot of ideas and proposals for the future of France. If one of them withdraws from the presidential race in support of the other, there is a strong possibility that they can be in the second round of the election, against either Le Pen or Macron. If they remain separated, this mission sounds unachievable.
At the moment, and though they have talked about it, a single candidacy seems to be a distant dream. The unwillingness of Hamon to show the exit door to the moderate, neoliberal faction of the PS (especially Manuel Valls and Myriam El Khomri) and their differences regarding the EU (Hamon being clearly pro-EU, while Mélenchon demands change in the EU treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon to support the European project) are so far keeping the two candidates apart. Will this change before mid-April, providing a chance for the European left?
In neighboring Germany, elections are also approaching. Pressure from the right has hurt the governing centre-right CDU, putting Europe's “iron lady” in an uncomfortable position. Is it possible that Angela Merkel's 12-year chancellorship is coming to an end? A few months ago, the answer seemed to be a clear no. However, Martin Schulz's long anticipated return to German politics has reshuffled the deck, with opinion polls putting the former President of the European Parliament on equal – and sometimes even better – standing with Merkel. Schulz has been criticized by many for being a populist of the left, an accusation he doesn't renounce. Breaking away from the path towards the centre and the grand coalition with the CDU that his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel took, Schulz is driving the SPD (social-democratic party) back to its original position on the political spectrum. In this context, we shall not exclude the possibility of Schulz forming a coalition government with Die Grünen (The Greens) and – at least – a part of Die Linke (The Left), following the example of Portugal's red-green-red alliance. But from today until September, we have a long way to go.
All in all, the left needs to find its character again.
In the time of ideology's comeback, there is no other option. After years of playing games with the right, it is time for the left to UNITE and fight for what it stands for. The friendly relations of the centre-right with the centre-left during the post-Cold War liberal age have contributed to the rise of the far-right. With the convergence of mainstream parties, conservatives have moved to the far-right, while many leftists have changed allegiances or chosen abstention. The left needs to fight against the right and vice versa. Confrontation was, is and will always be an indispensable part of politics. The time has come for the European left to put the train back on track. Some moves in this direction have already taken place. In the form of government coalitions like in Portugal, single candidacies in electoral processes, or even with pan-European political movements such as Yanis Varoufakis' and Srećko Horvat's DiEM25, the left needs to unite and reclaim power.
Time is running short for Europe. Facing the rise of the extreme-right, we need an answer. The neoliberal agenda and its destructive austerity measures did enough damage already. It is time to design an attractive alternative for the future of Europe. The Left shall finally claim its responsibility and bring about the change we want to see. To paraphrase Marx, leftists of the world, unite!