Italy, Germany & the EU’s Future
Dispatches From The Edge
Mar. 19, 2018
More than a quarter of a century ago, much of the European center-left made a course change, edging away from its working class base, accommodating itself to the globalization of capital, and handing over the post World War II social contract to private industry. Whether it was the “New Labour” of Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schroder’s “Agenda 2010” in Germany, social democracy came to terms with its traditional foe, capitalism.
Today, that compact is shattered, the once powerful center-left a shadow of its former self, and the European Union—the largest trading bloc on the planet—is in profound trouble.
In election after election over the past year, social democratic parties went down to defeat, although center-right parties also lost voters. Last year’s election in the Netherlands saw the Labor Party decimated, though its conservative coalition partner also took a hit. In France, both the Socialist Party and the traditional conservative parties didn’t even make the runoffs. September’s elections in Germany saw the Social Democrats (GPD) take a pounding, along with their conservative alliance partners, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. And Italy’s center-left Democratic Party was decisively voted out of power.
It would be easy to see this as a shift to the right. The neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has 92 seats in the Bundestag. The Dutch anti-Muslim Party for Freedom picked up five seats. The extreme rightist National Front made the runoffs in France. The racist, anti-immigrant Northern League took 17.5 percent of the Italian vote and is in the running to form a government.
But the fall of the center-left has more to do with the 1990s course change than with any rightward shift by the continent. As the center-left accommodated itself to capital, it eroded its trade union base. In the case of New Labour, Blair explicitly distanced the Party from the unions that had been its backbone since it was founded in 1906.
In Germany, the Social Democrats began rolling back the safety net, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and undermining labor codes that had guaranteed workers steady jobs at decent wages.
The European Union—originally touted as a way to end the years of conflict that had embroiled the continent in two world wars— became a vehicle for enforcing economic discipline on its 27 members. Rigid fiscal rules favored countries like Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, while straitjacketing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, particularly in times of economic crisis.
Center-left parties all over Europe bailed out banks and financial speculators, while inflicting ruinous austerity measures on their own populations to pay for it. It became difficult for most people to distinguish between the policies of the center-right and the center-left.
Both backed austerity as a strategy for the debt crisis. Both weakened trade unions through “reforms” that gave employers greater power. Short-term contracts—so-called “mini jobs”—with lower wages and benefits replaced long-term job security, a strategy that fell especially hard on young people.
The recent Italian elections are a case in point. While the center-left Democratic Party (DP) bailed out several regional banks, its Labor Minister recommended that young Italians emigrate to find jobs. It was the Five Star Movement that called for a guaranteed income for poor Italians and sharply criticized the economics of austerity.
In contrast, the DP called for “fiscal responsibility” and support for the EU, hardly a program that addressed inequality, economic malaise, and youth unemployment. Euro-skeptic parties took 55 percent of the vote, while the Democrats tumbled from 41 percent four years ago to 19 percent.
In the German elections, the SPD did raise the issue of economic justice, but since the Party had been part of the governing coalition, voters plainly did not believe it. The Party’s leader Martin Schulz, , called for a “united states of Europe,” not exactly a barnburner phrase when the EU is increasingly unpopular.
Breaking a pre-election promise to go into opposition, the SPD has re-joined Merkel’s “Grand Coalition.” While the SPD landed some important cabinet posts, history suggests the Party will pay for that decision. It also allows the neo-Nazi AfG to be the official opposition in the Bundestag, handing it a bully pulpit.
The unwillingness of Europe’s social democrats to break from the policies of accommodation has opened an economic flank for the right to attack, and the center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Both the Italian and German center-left avoided the issue during their elections, ceding the issue to the right.
Europe does have an immigration problem, but it is not the right’s specter of “job-stealing, Muslim rapists” overrunning the continent. EU members—most of all Italy—have a shrinking and increasingly aged population. If the continent does not turn those demographics around—and rein in “mini jobs” that discourage young workers from having children—it is in serious long-term trouble. There simply will not be enough workers to support the current level of pensions and health care.
In any case, many of the “immigrants” are EU members—Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Romanians—looking for work in England and Germany because their own austerity-burdened economies can’t offer them a decent living.
The center-left did not buy into the right’s racism, but neither did it make the point that immigrants are in the long-term interests of Europe. Nor did it do much to challenge the foreign policy of the EU and NATO that actively aids or abets wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, wars that fuel millions of those immigrants.
One of the most telling critiques that Five Star aimed at the DP was that the Party supported the overthrow of the Libyan government and the consequent collapse of Libya as a functioning nation. Most the immigrants headed for Italy come from, or through, Libya.
When center-left parties embraced socially progressive policies, voters supported them. In Portugal two left parties formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to get the economy back on track, lower the jobless rate, and roll back many of the austerity measures enforced on the country by the EU. In recent local elections, voters gave them a ringing endorsement.
Jeremy Corbyn took the British Labour Party to the left with a program to re-nationalize railroads, water, energy and the postal service, and Labour is now running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Polls also indicate that voters like Labour’s program of green energy, improving health care, and funding education and public works.
The examples of Portugal and Britain argue that voters are not turning away from left policies, but from the direction that the center left has taken over the past quarter century.
The formulas of the right—xenophobia and nationalism—will do little to alleviate the growing economic inequality in Europe, nor will they address some very real existential problems like climate change. The real threat to the Dutch doesn’t comes from Muslims, but the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, sometime in the next few decades, will send the North Sea over the Netherland’s dikes.
When Europe emerged from the last world war, the left played an essential role in establishing a social contract that guaranteed decent housing, health care and employment for the continent’s people. There was still inequality, exploitation, and greed—it is, after all, capitalism—but there was also a compact that did its best to keep the playing field level. In the words of Mette Frederiksen, a leading Danish social democrat, “to save capitalism from itself.”
The Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan government in Washington broke that compact. Taxes were shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the working class and poor. Public services were privatized, education defunded, and the safety net shredded.
If the center-left is to make a comeback, it will have to re-discover its roots and lure voters away from xenophobia and narrow nationalism with a program that improves peoples’ lives and begins the difficult task of facing up to what capitalism has wrought on the planet.
Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlempireseries.wordpress.com
One response to “Why Europe’s Center-Left Keeps Losing Elections”
Dear Mr. Hallinan,
with interest I read your article “Why the Center Left Keeps Losing Elections in Europe”. It is in most parts a very accurate analysis of the reasons for the shift of voters away from the center left to parties with a more extreme agenda both on the right and left of the political spectrum. However, what I think you have not sufficiently emphasized here is the wide spread feeling of helplessness and frustration with the way traditional parties have colluded to keep political power retained exclusively among themselves. Just look at Germany where the former political antagonists CDU and SPD are now ruling the country since 2005 with ever increasing overlap of their agendas. I think this alone is sufficient to explain a great deal of the erosion of the political center. The tiredness of voters with the stale political parties of the past is the foundation of the election victories by Macron in France or Kurz in Austria. Both politicians provided voters for the first time in ages a (probably just perceived) alternative to the established system. This is in my view the same mechanism leading to the victory of Trump, an outcome for which in my view not ignorant or ill informed voters are responsible but the abysmal image of the two established parties’ politics. A further mistake particularly of the left center parties is their increasing focus on politics for vocal minorities. While support of minorities is surely commendable, it is no wonder if the silent majority turns away once they realize that their own interests are, in comparison, largely ignored by the left.
Regarding the immigration problem I would like to point out that not only the “center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric” but rather their infuriating unwillingness to control and steer immigration similarly to the large immigration countries like Canada or the US. No established party in Europe bothers to explain their voters how immigration of millions of totally uneducated people into Europe’s welfare system should create an advantage for us. You write yourself that many citizens of the poorer EU nations seek their fortune in Germany or England. Would you not agree that these citizens are much easier to integrate into our high tech economies? A personal story illustrating this further: during a recent research stay in China I met several colleagues from Iran who moved there to escape the fundamentalist Islamic regime at home. They told me that they initially tried to come to Germany and were rejected! What better example to illustrate the folly of our immigration policies that nuclear physicists at PhD level are rejected while thousands of migrants without any education are accepted.
Finally a comment to your labeling of the “Alternative for Germany” party as neo-Nazi. While there is surely a small fraction of far right wingers in that party, most of its members are conservatives who have been abandoned by the increasing shift of the “Christian Democratic Union” to the left. The rise of that party is by no means pointing to a rise of neo-Nazism in Germany but rather filling the conservative vacuum left by the Christian Democrats. If you consider the “Alternative for Germany” as neo-Nazi, you should then also write that Austria is now co-governed by neo-Nazis because their right wing party is very similar to their German counterpart. However, I think it is not constructive to do so. In my perception, Jews in Europe are increasingly endangered not by the rise of conservative right wing parties but rather by the increasing fraction of fundamentalist Muslim immigrants who bring their strong anti-Jewish sentiments with them.
I hope you find my comments from this side of the pond not entirely useless and I am looking forward to further contributions from you and FPIF.