Since the beginning of the great crisis ten years ago the political landscape has been revolutionized. Due to the new authoritarianism of the ruling classes, it is not particularly surprising that various protest movements and new left parties were defeated. It is rather astonishing that new radical movements erupt out all over the place time and again. In the meantime they face fierce competition from the radical right, whose rise across Europe appears increasingly threatening. The political landscape remains deeply polarized in the run-up to the European elections. The Left is divided and squabbles over the European question, although many share the urge to resist the threat of global authoritarianism and the rise of the radical right. This could provide the needed impulse for a strong mobilization. To this end we propose creating a European Momentum—a connective platform across the dividing lines of the Left, to symbolically articulate this feeling of urgency and create the basis for something new.
Uprisings and Mobilizations
When Europeans head to the polls to re-elect the European Parliament in May 2019, the process will further lay bare the cracks in the European party system as we know it. As the financial crisis enters its tenth year, the economies of the EU’s member states seem to have returned to relative, low-level stability. However, the political ripples emanating from the crisis continue to have far-reaching consequences: in many EU states, the dominant major parties are seeing their support ebb away, while new parties and protest movements are taking shape.
Initially, this political shift held considerable promise for the Left in the years following 2011, embodied by a broad range of events that included new strike actions against austerity and the financial crisis, the occupation of city squares, and even electoral victory for Syriza in Greece. But each of these gains came up against a wall of heavily institutionalized power, which is perhaps felt nowhere more keenly than in the European institutions (previously dubbed the “troika”). And yet the legacy of these achievements can still be seen: in spite of the severe defeat against the Troika, Syriza is still in government, and the last memorandum ended in summer 2018. Although fierce budget cuts and privatizations were enforced by the European institutions, the Greek government was nevertheless able to implement some important reforms in health care, energy poverty, and tax justice. It remains to be seen whether Tsipras will win another term, and the Greek experience led to many frustrations. But resistance in Europe rears its head time and again.
This is partly thanks to the new protest movements that have been unleashed and their ongoing resonance. Out of the 15M movement in Spain grew Podemos and then Unid@s Podemos, creating a fruitful relationship between the old and the new Left. Following the widespread strike actions and occupation of squares by the Nuit Debout protests in France, the left-wing party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon La France Insoumise was able to establish itself as a new political force and has now become the country’s leading opposition party. It is true that until now the greatest and most lasting results have been achieved where La France Insoumise stood together with the French Communist Party. However, the relationship between La France Insoumise and the more traditional Communist Party remains fraught with tension: the two officially split at the PCF’s congress held at the end of November 2018. La France Insoumise’s organizational base, the Parti de Gauche, has already relinquished its membership of the European Left (EL) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon is looking to set up a second pan-European left-wing alliance. Meanwhile, the “yellow vest” protesters are proving once more that there are still many in France who feel they have no political representation.
In the United Kingdom, anger with the government’s handling of the financial crisis has led to contradictory processes: on the one hand, we have seen the near collapse of social democracy in the country after years of New Labour, the rise of the radical right-wing party UKIP, and Brexit—a project driven by UKIP and ultra-right-wing members of the Conservative Party. On the other hand, the Labour Party has undergone a turbulent period of renewal since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, the creation and mobilisation of Momentum and an inner-party “civil war”. It is comparable to the developments that took place around Bernie Sanders in the US; however, unlike events across the pond, in the UK this led not to initial defeat but to a newfound hope in social democracy. Here opportunities are taking shape for a new form of social democracy to be born—one that breaks free from the neoliberal mould. British Labour has managed to wrest the party away from the thoroughly neoliberal project that was Blairism and taken it back to its socialist roots. Equally, the creation of the grassroots organization Momentum, which sees itself as a platform for organizations and movements that support Labour but is not integrated into the formal party structure, has allowed the party to embrace a more modern style of cooperation. The Labour leadership team consisting of Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Jon Trickett works closely with Momentum and was able to secure the party leadership thanks to the sharp rise in new members inspired by these movements. The success of the party’s restructuring, however, has been limited when it comes to securing majorities within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
There is only one other example of a moderate regeneration of social democracy delivering success: in Portugal, a country which saw Europe’s largest protests against the crisis (relative to its population), we have witnessed an incredibly successful cooperation between the country’s two radical left parties and their toleration of the social-democratic, anti-austerity government. Elsewhere social democracy is experiencing a dramatic collapse starting with PASOK in Greece, the Parti Socialiste in France, and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) to name but a few. Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has also been gradually on the decline since 1998 and now finds itself in a vicious downward spiral.
It is in only a few cases that the radical left has been able to benefit from this development. But there are promising initiatives and fresh starts taking shape almost everywhere, be it in Slovenia and Croatia, Poland, Belgium or Italy, and they have received and will continue to need support from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung within the scope of its international activities. New left-wing parties have also been successful at the ballot box in many of the smaller states of Eastern and South Eastern Europe. The political landscape emerging as a result of these new (and, on occasion, rather successful) parties such as Slovenia’s Levica is complex. Where the Right criticises the EU, the Left appears sympathetic to Europe. Poland’s Razem party is pro-European because the country’s Right is pursuing anti-EU, nationalist policies and putting key fundamental rights at stake. In the Balkans, where conservatives have thrown their weight behind the EU project and thus simultaneously chipped away at labour, social and fundamental rights, the Left has to be critical of the EU by implication.
These small victories pale in comparison to the rise of the radical right taking place almost all over Europe. However, one thing is worth noting: the only countries where the radical right could be kept out of power, or its surge halted, were those states where the Left is strong (Greece, Spain, Portugal, UK). This also proves how important social mobilization and organization inspired by the Left are in the fight against the radical right. But this is no guarantee for the future, as we can see in Spain with the rise of Vox, a neo-fascist party rooted in the Francoist tradition.
Across Europe (albeit with substantial variance between different countries) and internationally, most notably in the US and Latin America, a new feminist International is taking shape with tremendous potential for organization on the Left. The success of these feminist movements is closely linked to the rise of the radical right, which has wasted no time in launching a sexist—and in some cases much more aggressive—assault on women’s and reproductive rights, for example in the US, Poland, Spain, and Argentina. In such cases the feminist movement has proven to be highly effective at mobilizing demonstrators—more than six million people took part in Spain’s women’s strike—as well as at preventing attacks on women’s rights, as demonstrated in Poland when politicians attempted to tighten abortion laws.
Meanwhile, those orchestrating these attacks, the radical right, are by no means a uniform group. In France the Front National was nearly able to take presidential power, but then underwent a surprisingly significant disintegration forcing a reorganization: the party changed its name to Rassemblement National, reaching up to 20 percent in the polls. In Germany the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is becoming more and more radical. What will be crucial in determining the future of these right-wing parties is how an ethno-nationalist (“völkisch”) as well as a national-“social” faction interacts with those within the party who are radically national-neoliberal. The developments taking place in Austria give cause for concern that similar trends may occur in Germany and elsewhere. There has also been unease in the aftermath of the Italian elections, a country once considered one of the most pro-European polities. Here Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, a party that incorporates both right- and left-wing policies, governs together with the far-right and xenophobic Lega led by Matteo Salvini, while the divided Left fights for its survival and needs to reorganize. Like in many other cases in Europe, the Italian Left has yet to find a way to fill the void that opened up following the fall of social democracy.
The Rise of the Radical Right and a New Authoritarianism
The rise of the radical right is also a consequence of a new form of authoritarianism that assumes multiple guises. The foundations were laid by the EU’s authoritarian and anti-democratic handling of the crisis and, not least, by the actions of the German government and successive German finance ministers. Yet there is another form of authoritarianism at play, one that is mainly embodied by the authoritarian, nationalist governments at the helm in Poland and Hungary, and by leaders such as Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi. The re-emergence of political entrepreneurs, or “Bonapartism”, is not restricted to these specific examples. In France, Emmanuel Macron and his movement, En Marche!, simultaneously dismantled both of the country’s longstanding political powerhouses, the UMP and the PS, while in Austria Sebastian Kurz and his modestly named “Liste Sebastian Kurz – the New People’s Party” not only hollowed out the old People’s Party (ÖVP), but also paved the way for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) to return to government.
For a long time Germany seemed to be immune to these radical political shifts. It was considered a haven of stability in uncertain times marred by a perpetual sense of crisis—despite the fact that its export model and the hard-line austerity policies it imposed on its European “partners” are one of the main reasons why Europe is now facing its biggest crisis, one in which European integration itself is being called into question for the first time. Here the issue is not so much the threat of other member states following the example of the UK and leaving the Union; rather, the EU seems plagued by a gradual decay from within, with its institutions seeing their legitimacy ebb away.
In response to this, as seen most recently in discussions around Italy’s budget, the EU is attempting to assert its legitimacy through authoritarian means. These attempts are being met with rejection by large swathes of the population in the affected countries and, with varying degrees of openness, boycotted by a growing number of governments. From Hungary to Germany, the majority of European governments are no longer fully adhering to ratified agreements on certain issues; some even openly violate accords.
Weaker states hope that by opposing the EU they can exert pressure and score political points in their own countries, as Hungary is currently attempting with regard to the issue of migration and central bank policy. The dominant governments, most notably Germany and its allies, violate agreements only to then subsequently lay down new rules through new regulations with constitutional status (a notable example being the Fiscal Compact). However, the EU’s loss of legitimacy is also partly a result of Germany’s dominance in Europe. Now that Germany has itself entered a period of instability, the political sands have started to shift.
The Left in Europe between Effective Mobilization, Populism, and Reorganization
The radical political changes outlined above will almost certainly have an impact on the results of the upcoming European Parliament elections. Significant shifts are to be expected: according to polls, social democracy may lose half of its parliamentary seats, while the radical right (including the Polish PiS and Hungarian Fidesz parties) could reach up to 21 percent. In Italy the two parties in the right-wing government—Five Stars but especially the Lega—may get up to 70 percent of the vote. These parliamentary shifts, already in place in the powerful European Council, will have direct consequences on the composition of the European Commission as well as on replacements in the European Court of Justice. The political shifts within the nation-states are finally and fully reaching the European level.
The elections are set to take place against a backdrop of uncertainty: when we speak of the crisis entering its tenth year, we do so with good reason. The economic consequences of Brexit may perhaps not be as severe as often depicted; however, the impact the UK’s departure will have on labour and social rights for British and European workers (especially those in Eastern Europe) is likely to be catastrophic. There is also no solution in sight for the issue of Northern Ireland and its “special status”. In any case, a successful Brexit may set a precedent for other states growing weary of Europe. More influential, however, are the movements taking place within nation-states, such as the trends toward independence taking hold from Scotland to Catalonia, which might encourage a different kind of disintegration.
European governments, most recently Macron in France, are frantically putting forward suggestions of ways to counteract this trend toward disintegration and to further consolidate European integration. However, Germany’s government shows no visible signs of making fundamental changes that could shift the current direction Europe is heading. The EU has never been in more desperate need of reform, but the necessary changes are nowhere in sight—and all this is coming at a time when international financial institutions warn that we are facing the very real threat of a new financial and economic crisis. The EU governments only seem to have a consensus when it comes to the expansion of the security apparatuses, to a militarisation of the EU with a view to expanding military cooperation, armament investments, border security, and efforts to keep refugees out.
Given the existing EU governments’ relative inability to bring about reform, it is important to further develop and, most importantly, increase the visibility of left alternatives. The public debate will be heavily shaped by a simple binary choice between those who are “for” or “against” Europe. But the situation is slightly more complex for the Left. The Left in Europe is against the EU in its current incarnation but for a united Europe. The vast majority of potential left-wing voters feel very pro-European but sceptical toward the institutions governing Europe and indifferent about the discussions being held at a European level, which do nothing to address the everyday problems of many. The Left thus has to “do Europe differently” and address it differently, closer to the lives and every-day experiences of individual Europeans. Here the aim should be to engage with the widespread desire to stop the Right from taking control of Europe and to offer a left-wing alternative that actively links this debate with social issues as well as with a critique of the neoliberal policies that have allowed the Right to flourish.
Sadly, there is a lack of unity between Europe’s various left-wing political projects. The European Left (EL) is in a state of relative paralysis, bogged down in a fight over its approach to the euro and the EU. At the same time, there are movements looking to form rival left-wing projects at the European level: take, for example, the split within the Left along the dividing line between La France Insoumise, Podemos, Bloco and others against the “old Left”. Another example is DiEM25’s transition from a grassroots movement to a political party—in Greece it will challenge Syriza, and in Germany DiEM25 will contest the elections with Yanis Varoufakis as its leading candidate; other countries are also planned.
The internal battle lines within the Left have grown in number and severity despite a partial rapprochement in terms of policy and ideas. It is no longer simply a matter of deciding what to put in a manifesto, but a struggle over the adequate party form and its strategy: there are a broad range of visions of what a left-wing, populist party might look like, with a heavy focus on charismatic leadership in contrast to existing left-wing party forms.
Different left-wing parties and lists will stand for election in various countries. However, this may not be damaging to the cause, especially as there will presumably still be no election threshold for smaller parties in 2019. As a result, Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party always stand separately, while in Spain Podemos, Izquierda Unida, regional platforms, and the environmentalist party Equo stand together. In France the Left is still in a state of disarray. Currently the Communist Party is trying to persuade what is left of the Socialist Party to form an alliance. In Italy, there are now efforts to once again create a joint list following a string of defeats for individual parties and lists that ran separately.
It remains plausible that all left-wing parties will ultimately find themselves in the same European parliamentary group, working together to obtain the rights, financing, and platform that come with such a grouping. Even the existing GUE/NGL group, which also includes parties outside of the European Left, is merely a loose alliance that grants numerous freedoms to the individual parties; every party or list will stand for election in accordance with the circumstances in their respective countries and their specific strategy and tactics.
Within the European Left at least there is a minimum consensus fixed on a short programme, although this is unlikely to register with the wider public. Two attractive top candidates were nominated: Violeta Tomić from the Slovenian left party Levica, and Nico Cue, General Secretary of the Steelworkers’ Confederation of Wallonia and Brussels (WBM-FGTB) until 2018. But the EL is sailing in rough waters. Other pan-European initiatives such as DiEM25 have so far only had a limited impact and perhaps already reached their high-water mark. The time is right for something new.
Building European Momentum
This is not least because social movements and initiatives can be seen practically everywhere you turn. What we need is a sort of progressive European alliance that stretches beyond the hard borders of the EU: Europe is much more than just the European Union, which, in its current form, has rightly come in for heavy criticism from the diverse Left. Instead of standing in elections as a party, this alliance should aim to symbolically embody a strong political force advocating and setting out the case for another Europe. We have had enough of these authoritarian measures against the people, of the dismantling of social and labour rights, of the tearing down of social infrastructures from healthcare to education, of precarization and youth unemployment, of pensioners and children forced to live in poverty, of the carnage in the Mediterranean, of racism and anti-feminism, of the verbal and increasingly physical violence of the radical right, of free-trade agreements and the hollowing out of democracy they entail, of the criminalization and suppression of protests, as well as arms exports and the outsourcing of death.
Maybe the elections to the European Parliament offer an opportunity to show that another Europe is possible; that Europe can be rebellious and based on solidarity, taking on the established institutions and ruling classes. This Europe already exists but can barely be heard in the current climate or even in our own discussions, where we lose sight of the immediate problems, our common interests, and our real enemies as we wrangle over separate details or long-term goals.
Here it is about linking up with real movements, to connect them beyond the usual dividing lines within the Left, for example with an eye to the large-scale, Europe-wide mobilization of feminist activists against the impositions of austerity and authoritarianism from Poland to Spain and even beyond in the US and Argentina, which suggests a new feminist International may be on the horizon.
We need a platform that is open for forces trying to break out of the jail that traditional European social democracy has become: the most prominent example would of course be Corbyn’s Labour Party, which has almost fully completed this transition, but there are other notable examples such as Benoît Hammond’s Génération.s, the Polish left-wing Razem (both of which are affiliated with DiEM25), as well as others such as the Demos party in Romania and Croatia’s Zagreb je NAŠ!, which although currently focused on the country’s capital is also building a nationwide political alternative, and many more. This platform could incorporate both the parties of the European Left and the new “movements” and formations, such as France Insoumise, DiEM25, or Unid@s Podemos.
It will also be vital to include the many transnational movements and campaigns, such as the fight against TTIP and other free trade agreements, the “solidarity” and “rebel” cities networks, the refugee welcoming movements along with the movements rescuing refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean, and movements calling for action to stop the already devastating effects of climate change (to name but a few).
We need to bypass discussions on how exactly to implement individual reforms and move forward with a fundamental consensus on the defence and expansion of social and political rights for everyone in the face of the dual threat that is neoliberal authoritarianism and the radical right. Creating links between European campaigns, real, locally-based movements and parties, and institutional politics would be a promising step toward effectively linking up populist momentum with real, popular projects. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung together with the Labour Party and the British organization Momentum is trying to build to political infrastructure for such a connective platform for a European Momentum.
This could lead the “discussions among Europe’s left-wing parties away from the complex question of whether the EU can be saved, and if so, how, to the much more pressing issue of growing social inequality in Europe”. Here the focus should primarily be not on finding European solutions but on achieving fundamental social rights, such as access to public healthcare provision and universal education, sanction-free basic social security payments, minimum wages and minimum basic pensions that keep recipients out of poverty in all countries, access to abortion and the (reproductive) right to live and work with children in a safe, humane environment, the right to affordable and adequate housing, and the right to live without fear. The aim should be to form an alliance that knows who its opponents are and has a few clearly defined objectives—a platform and campaign against austerity and authoritarianism and for a solidarity-based Europe of the many. The time is right, but momentum could dissipate. Let’s strike while the iron is hot.
Johanna Bussemer is Senior Advisor at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung's Europe Unit in Berlin, and Mario Candeias is director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. This article originally appeared in LuXemburg – Gesellschafts Analyse und linke Praxis. Translated by Nivene Rafaat and Helen Veitch for lingua•trans•fair.
 Maintenant le Peuple ("Now the People") or MLP is an electoral alliance of left parties. It is an initiative from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who published the so-called declaration of Lisbon in April 2018 together with Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) und Catarina Martins (Bloco de Esquerda). There they advocate for a “democratic revolution in Europe” against the existing European treaties. Three more parties from Scandinavia joined and MLP was founded in June 2018. Because every single party has to present itself to elections on a national scale, the electoral alliance has a rather symbolic character.