The 2019 European election produced another bad set of results for the centre-Left. In most countries, with a few exceptions, such as Spain and Denmark, the decline of social democracy continues.
The fall of social democracy
What’s gone under-reported, however, is the poor performance of the radical Left. Until recently, the populist surge was a two-pronged attack – Left-wing populists rising in tandem, if not in sympathy, with the Right-wing populists.
Parties like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and Sinn Fein in Ireland were once part of a Europe-wide backlash against austerity and the unresolved problems of global capitalism. If last month’s election results are anything to go by, the red wave has subsided. Across Europe, the main GUE/NGL grouping of the radical Left lost over a quarter of their seats, slumping from 52 to 38.
One might also add the losses made by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (still officially part of the centre-Left S&D group).
Writing for Jacobin, Wolfgang Streeck searches for an explanation for this reverse, which he notes “came at a time when the old parties of the centre-Left and centre-Right suffered dramatic setbacks”:
“These are, then, times of rapidly shifting political allegiances. But when should the Left expect to make electoral progress among European workers and reformist sections of the middle class, if not now? There is an urgent need to explain the Left’s disastrous failure to do this.”
The most obvious explanation for what happened to the red wave is that it was drowned by a green wave. While socialist parties lost seats across Europe, green parties advanced. Les Verts in France and Die Grünen in Germany did especially well – establishing themselves as the biggest left-of-centre parties in their respective countries.
Who will ride the Green wave?
For Streeck this is all evidence that the Left, broadly defined, is losing its soul to the European project:
“There is not even a debate on the crucial issue of whether the EU can at all be a vehicle for anti-capitalist politics. Instead, there is a naïve or opportunistic acceptance — and it’s hard to say which is worse — of the feel-good ‘Europeanism’ so popular among young people and so useful for both Green electioneering and European technocrats seeking legitimacy for their neoliberal regime.”
One needn’t be a socialist (and I’m not) to recognise that the EU is a capitalist enterprise. Obviously, that’s not a message one gets from the Eurosceptic Right of the British Conservative Party. But in fact, the EU’s idea of capitalism is much stronger than anything the ERG could come up with, because it is so deeply embedded within the institutions of an emerging super-state:
“…the EU’s de facto constitution limits the political space for any anti-capitalist or even pro-labor program, with its safely enshrined free markets (the ‘four freedoms’), the de facto dictatorship of the European Court, and the balanced budget provisions under European Monetary Union, imposing austerity on countries and citizens.”
The ‘four freedoms’ refer to the European single market and its guarantee of free movement for goods, capital, services and people – i.e. unimpeded capitalism within the borders of an EU riven by inequalities of productivity, wealth, infrastructure and education. National borders are erased when it comes to things that suit the most powerful interests – access to cheap money, cheap assets, cheap products and cheap labour. But when it comes to the redistribution required to address the resulting imbalances in economic and social power, the borders magically reappear.
In many ways, the EU is running a more radical and unequal form of capitalism than America is.
The permanent punishment of the Greek people
This is a reality that the Left-leaning, metropolitan middle class refuses to acknowledge. Not even the extremity of what the EU did to Greece (the only member state to elect a radical Left government) is enough to trouble them. But, then, as Streeck reminds us, this is not about the facts:
“Details, however, do not really matter for those for whom ‘Europe’ has become a mood, a feeling, rather than a political institution; a symbol of a happy, hip ‘cosmopolitan’ consumerist life, even if with a few environmentalist corrections.”
Two or three years ago it looked like a new generation of radical voters would be challenging the system. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is radicalism as fashion statement – and, for the moment, green and not red is the colour of the season.
Ironically, the only current EU member state that could have a radical socialist government in the foreseeable future is Brexit Britain (the viceroyalty of Greece no longer counts). Furthermore, the only serious internal challenge to the EU system comes from the national populist block of governments in central Europe and Italy – against which the modern metro Left defines itself.
How long will the Brexit Party last?
To reiterate, I don’t think that either socialism or populism is the answer to what ails us as a county or as a continent. Nevertheless, a system that allows no alternative to euro-capitalism is a desperately limited kind of democracy.