Can the left fight back in Europe?

The rise of new democratic forces in Europe marks a challenge to entrenched traditional political sy

Podemos has been criticised as a regressive alternative inspired by the Bolivarian revolution, writes Piet [AFP]
Podemos has been criticised as a regressive alternative inspired by the Bolivarian revolution, writes Piet [AFP]

Earlier this month, Jean-Claude Juncker, the newly elected president of the European Union, unveiled the composition of his team of commissioners. His 27 “players in a winning team”, as Juncker introduced them, will have the responsibility to develop European policies for the next five years. They will face a daunting task as the EU faces colossal economic challenges and its citizens regularly express their growing discontent during local and national ballots.

On the economic level, the priority of the new commission will be to improve employment conditions in Europe by triggering investment and ensuring that banks resume lending to households and small companies. Juncker reaffirmed his commitment to the establishment of a connected digital market and a common energy strategy that should help create new jobs for Europeans. To ensure results, he established a specific task force within the commission on “Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness”.

These good intentions are increasingly met with scepticism by European citizens. The European parliamentary elections last May showcased a rise in nationalist parties from the far right who now can rely on 24 parliamentary members (up from three in the 2009 elections). This presence will allow them to further their anti-immigration and openly “Eurosceptic” political agenda.

The strength of these movements results from their capacity to manage a highly democratic coalition of small euro-communist, ecologist and socialist movements, moving away from the dead-end anarchist option or the traditional leftist drive to reject modernism.

However, this surge is matched by the development of new democratic movements from the left of the political spectrum, such as Podemos (“We Can”) in Spain, Syriza in Greece or “L’Altra Europa” (“The Other Europe”) in Italy. Each one of these parties was able to send representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg and offers a fresh alternative to the stagnation of the European establishment and the xenophobia of the far-right.

New leftist movements

A national poll in Spain recently confirmed that Podemos was firmly entrenched in the Spanish electorate, possibly garnering more than 20 percent of likely votes if general elections were held today. This would make Podemos the third political party in Spain, just behind the historical socialist party.

Similarly, Syriza in Greece has become the second political force in the country. The strength of these movements results from their capacity to manage a highly democratic coalition of small euro-communist, ecologist and socialist movements, moving away from the dead-end anarchist option or the traditional leftist drive to reject modernism. This structure and capacity to bring together diverging interests could serve as a blueprint for a reformed European construction at a time when the EU is regularly criticised for its “democratic deficit“.

The electoral success of these left wing parties is also the result of the diffusion of exogenous democratisation waves, such as the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, in European countries. When Felipe Gonzalez, the former Spanish Socialist PM (1982-1996), criticises Podemos as a regressive alternative inspired by the Bolivarian revolution, he fails to acknowledge that those European movements are devoid of the corrupt and anti-intellectual tendencies which have led Venezuela to the verge of bankruptcy under Chavez.

These movements are spearheaded by political leaders who can boast of a strong academic background and anti-corruption experience. For instance, the leader of Podemos, 36-year-old Pablo Iglesias, holds a PhD in political science. His second in command, Carlos Jimenez Villajero, has a record of tracking corruption scandals in Spain. In Greece, Syriza’s European Parliament group will count on Manolis Glezos, an anti-fascist resistance hero. Even in France, where the movement still fails to record political success due to internal disorganisation, the Europe Ecologie party had presented the candidacy of anti-corruption judge Eva Joly.

Alternative economic agenda

The political objective of these emerging parties is to challenge the supposedly insurmountable horizon of capitalism and neoliberalism and propose instead the development of convergent alternative policies based on the logic of “solidarity, sustainable development, democracy and humanism”. What differentiates them from their far-right counterpart is their capacity to work together. While the failure of the fascist movements to constitute an institutional block at the European Parliament demonstrate the innate incapacity of nationalistic parties to cooperate outside of their frontier, the new left wing parties are built on a transnational normative ideology that favours international cooperation. Individual parties have developed strong cooperation bounds for more than a decade through their participation to the annual World Social Forums.

However, the economic agenda of these parties often remains short-sighted in today’s globalised economy. If their message about wresting power from mainstream parties and vested interests has struck a chord with disaffected citizens, many of their economic solutions can be described as populist, or worse, counterproductive. For example, making it illegal for profitable businesses to layoff workers would antagonise investors and prevent them from adjusting to economic cycles. On the other hand, a strong public programme, financed by those companies, to provide support and training for laid off workers, such as in Scandinavia, would prove more successful.

Similarly, the suggestion to stop public debt repayments would have a direct impact on future borrowing costs for Europe. Instead, a tightening on banking regulations and a stronger mutualisation of public investments, funded by the repayment of bailout programmes by the banking sector, would prove less counterproductive. As economist Antonio Roldan Mones demonstrates, the same criticisms could be made of the additional economic measures suggested by Podemos, such as revoking pension and labour reform or assuming political control of the ECB.

Change in European economic policies

The truth is that even if those parties rightly point out central problems and limitations of the European Union such as the lack of solidarity and direct democracy, the answer is more Europe, not less.

For the first time, Juncker has been able to gather a team of high level officials. While traditionally, Brussels attracted only the outcasts and rejects from national political battles – Brussels was seen as an exile from their country – the new commission is much more convincing in terms of casting. It is composed of several former ministers. The current Finnish prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, resigned to join Juncker’s team showing that Brussels has now become a relevant centre of power for European politics amidst the intergovernmental structure of the EU.

Still, the room for manoeuvre for the new commission remains narrow as its powers are institutionally limited. If the commission is entrusted with providing financial assistance to member states experiencing major economic difficulties, it lacks the capacity to foster economic growth. But even here, there are signs of progress. The new European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, has always called for a European strategy to support growth. Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, has also started to enact a change in the ECB monetary policy and might consider radical measures such as quantitative easing despite the German reluctance. Voters’ demands for reform might finally be heard.

What is clear is that the recent development on the European political scene should not only be understood as a rise in xenophobia and far right parties. What can be ascertained is a demand for greater democracy that is equally represented by innovative and modernist new forces from the Left.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

More from Author
Most Read