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The Left in the EU needs new strategies



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From now on the radical Left will be the smallest group in the European Parliament. Compared to 2014, we have lost about 30 percent of our mandates. At 5.46 percent the Left reaches a voter approval similar to the one at the end of the 1980s, with the only difference being the current conditions of a distinct swing to the right. In Spain, France, and Germany in particular the left parties remained far behind their expectations.

Within the group of the radical Left the Spanish Unidos Podemos and the Greek Syriza are the strongest parties with six representatives each. The German DIE LINKE sends five mandates to the European Parliament (EP). In addition to that, there will be one representative of the Animal Rights Party. With two seats each the Portuguese Bloco, the Portuguese Left-Green Alliance (including the Communists), Sinn Féin and AKEL from Cyprus are represented. One seat is held by the Swedish Vänsterpartiet, the Danish Unity List-RGA, the Finnish Left Party and the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB-PVDA) respectively. The same is true for the Czech KSČM, who, however, has also lost influence. No longer represented in the European Parliament is the Italian Left, who made it to the EP with the List Another Europe with Tsipras in 2014. The Slovenian Levica did not succeed, in spite of gaining 6.3 percent of voter approval. It remains uncertain whether Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise will join the faction with their six representatives.

Conservatives and Social Democrats have lost 20 percent [1]

With the Greens and the Liberals two explicitly pro-EU party families are the winners. The Greens now have 75, the Liberals—thanks to Macron’s decision to join this faction—hold 108 seats. The right-wing parties of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR), the even further right-wing faction of Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and the newly-founded faction of Identity and Democracy (ID) gain 178 seats altogether, but the final formation of the right-wing factions will only be clear after Brexit is in effect. If we add more parties, such as FIDESZ, they rely on 25 percent of voters.

This means that, beside the Conservatives and Social Democrats/Socialists, the European Parliament will consist of a pro-EU bloc of Greens and Liberals together amounting to about 25 percent, and a strong nationalist-oriented, anti-EU right-wing bloc. Still, these election results show that the parties of the Right did not become as strong as they had hoped. Still, there is a clear right-wing slant in the European Parliament that is more than the mere increase in votes of 22 percent in 2014 to 25 percent in 2019, especially if we take into account the impact of the right-wing parties in the national governments and via the European Council. The political Right is in government or forms part of government in Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. In Italy and France, Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) became the strongest parties in the European elections. And by shifting the agenda they have already been influencing national and European politics for quite some time now.

At the same time, the increase in votes for the Liberals and the Greens are increases of votes for clear pro-EU positions and a consolidation of EU policy. This is of some significance if we consider the Brexit paradox.  On the one hand, in the face of the chaos created by Brexit almost all parties—no matter what their political orientation—moved away from their anti-EU position, or more precisely from their exit positions during their election campaigns. On the other hand, the Brexit Party became the strongest party in Great Britain with more than 30 percent of votes.

EU-wide voter turnout amounted to 50.93 percent, which is significantly higher than in 2014 when the turnout was 43.09 percent, whereby the differences are traditionally very great between Slovakia with a voter turnout of 22.74 percent, Portugal with a voter turnout of 31,40 percent on the one hand, and Spain with 60 percent and those countries with compulsory voting with a voter turnout of 80 percent and more, on the other. There was a significant rise of voter turnout (more than 10 percent) in the Czech Republic (28.72 percent), Germany (61.41 percent), Hungary (43,36 percent), Romania (51.07 percent), and Spain (64.30 percen

A Change in Power Relations

Within the next weeks and months we will see an intensified struggle around the question of shaping the future EU, of its consolidation, the creation of new EU institutions and instruments or the dismantling of them, a shift of competences to the level of national governments going as far as the breach of European treaties and directives even at the expense of the threat of sanctions. The Right will wage this struggle mostly in those areas that further question the democratic character of the EU, weakening human rights positions and their real enforcement. The contradictions arising between the groups and the ruling blocs must be examined in further analyses, as must the cracks within and between ruling blocs.

If we assess the power relations of the individual parliamentary groups with a view to possible majority ratios regarding the election of the President of the EU Commission, among other things it becomes obvious that both large groups, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats, can at 44 percent no longer, as has been the case so far, act as an informal “grand coalition”. That means the EPP and SD&D will not have enough votes to elect the President of the European Commission (and, later, the President of the ECB). Under these circumstances, finding a majority without resorting to either the Euro-sceptical faction of the ECR or both right-wing factions (ID and EFDD) requires inclusion either of the Greens or the Liberals and an opening-up of offers with regard to topics, structures, or personnel. Since neither Macron nor the Greens have signalled their support for Manfred Weber, another problem becomes obvious. Within both factions the representatives of Germany, Italy, and France are losing importance. However, it is not clear yet to what degree this will have political effects.

For the Conservatives and Social Democrats the changed situation means that they need to find partners. A coalition between Conservatives and the Right bloc, possible in theory, also does not have a majority within the European Parliament.

Thus, if Conservatives and Social Democrats want to find a majority without the Right bloc, they have two possibilities:

  1. forming a “liberal grand coalition” together with the Liberals, who, on principle, stand for a continuation of the previous policies and a consolidation of the EU at the same time—both in dispute with the parties of the Right. Although refraining from a fundamental political change, this project would at least mean an intensification of the process of EU-integration and cooperation in the areas of economic and foreign policies, or
  2. forming a “green grand coalition” together with the strengthened Greens. In such a constellation there is the chance of developing either a social-green or a neoliberal-green project as a European “driving force” for “green” capitalism. To what degree this “motor” can be shaped to become one of social-ecological transformation will significantly depend on the strength and direction of social-democratic/socialist parties and on the strength of a radical Left with the capacity to mobilize and assert itself on a European level.
  3. Of course, there is also the chance of acting with changing majorities. Such an approach enables the Conservatives to by and large maintain the status quo with necessary green adaptations and partial consolidation of the EU with regard to foreign, climate, peace, and security policies—in the end the Greens also stand for a militant defence of European values. 

About the Left

If we look at the left side of the party spectrum, the parties of the Left, the Social Democrats, the Socialists, and the Greens taken together only account for just under 35 per cent. The weakest element in this part of the political spectrum is the radical Left.

The Parties of the Radical Left of the hitherto confederal faction of the United European Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) could only win 5.46 percent support and will have 41 representatives in the European Parliament, if La France Insoumise (LFI) joins the faction. Should the negotiations between the national delegations fail, the split of the Left that was obvious in the election campaign will be continued on the parliamentary level and this in the face of a weakened Left, whose voter potential has, with a few exceptions, not been higher than 5 percent since 1989. This means that since the collapse of state socialism, left parties have not succeeded in overcoming their defensive position. At the same time, the conditions for the assertion of left politics have worsened with the shift to the Right within the EU and the weakness of the social-democratic/socialist parties, in spite of successes of individual parties. With the end of the post-war period the Western European Communist parties also have now lost their social significance and relevance as important forces in the struggle against National Socialism, Fascism and war. 

The Greek branch (MeRA25) of the DiEM25 alliance winning 2.99 percent of the votes did not succeed in getting into the European Parliament, failing to negotiate the three-percent threshold. Yanis Varoufakis ran in Germany and could obtain 130,072 votes, i.e. 0.3 percent, in Greece he received 140,000 votes—not enough for getting into the EP. However, it is also possible that this case indicates a more fundamental problem with the implementation and legitimation of transnational lists. At least the path Varoufakis pursued by forming such a list in competition with DIE LINKE did not lead anywhere, in spite of the fact that the top candidate was well-known. 

In addition to the weakened position of the Left, it must be noted that also any new faction of GUE/NGL can be formed only under the condition of a federal structure, since positions regarding the role of the Left in the European Parliament, the understanding of politics, the strategy and organisation as well as specific topics differ widely. Another aspect is that any Europe-oriented strategic development is further complicated by the dominance of nationally oriented left political approaches and their prolongation onto the European level. Thus, working for a common agenda of the federal faction is often possible only for specific questions, in particular, the social question or the issue of international trade agreements (TTIP). The requirement of speaking with one voice contradicts the federal character of the faction.

In order to understand the extent of the changes even better, we will cast a glance at the losses and gains. Compared to 2014, the losses of 11 seats for the Left, 38 seats for the Social Democrats, and 39 seats for the Conservatives are equivalent to a loss of 20 percent of their former voters in the core countries of the EU respectively.  Quite different the situation for the Greens and the Liberals: for the Greens the gain of 25 seats reflects an increase of mandates by 50 percent, while the Liberals could more than double their number of seats.

Table 2—Share of the Votes at European Elections of the Factions GUE/NGL, Social Democrats/Socialists, Green, Liberals and Conservatives between 1979 and 2019
  Source: Wikipedia/ own calculation and own compilation

What has changed compared to 2014?

Among the continuities there is the ongoing trend of decreasing loyalties to the former major parties: both Social Democratic/Socialist and Conservative parties are significantly and systematically losing both voter loyalty and political consent. While in the European elections of 1994 they still reached just about 35 percent of the voters, it is only about 20 percent today. In the year 2019 the Conservative parties are on the same level as in 1989.

For the first time since the beginning of European elections in 1979, both major parties together remain under 50 percent. That is, in order to secure the required majorities they must approach other party families. If they want to do so without resorting to the right-wing parties and groups in the European Parliament, they need to win the support of the Greens or the Liberals. Thus, both pro-European party families could contribute to a modernization of the EU  institutions and a moderate change in politics resulting in: green modernization, liberal consolidation of the EU, and strengthening EU law as well as increasing the impact of EU institutions on national policies and the creation of new instruments. They will have to do so in an atmosphere of permanent conflict with the political Right, ensuring exacerbated crises—even blockades. 

The results of the European elections of 2014 are an indicator of political polarization: in the core countries and in the Northern EU countries, the protest against the dominant policies flocked to the Right, favouring right-wing populist and right-wing conservative parties. In the Southern European countries, especially in Greece, Spain, and Portugal the protest strengthened the Left, and even in Italy the force of the protest was strong enough for the Left to re-enter the European Parliament thanks to the list Another Europe with Tsipras. In 2019 this polarization no longer exists. Not only in the Northern, but also in the Southern and Central-Eastern European countries of the EU the protest has led to the formation of new right-wing parties, who partly had not yet existed in 2014, and to an increase in votes of the right-wing parties in the 2019 European elections. The League is no longer the Northern League, it became the strongest force in all of Italy, with the European elections reversing the national power relations. At the same time the Right is steadily gaining voter approval thus solidifying its power, the development of the Left is stagnating.

The results of the 2019 European elections reveal a new polarization between the party families no longer along the conflict lines drawn by austerity and social policies but regarding the question of consolidation vs. dismantling of the EU even to a mere free trade zone; of an EU tackling questions of the future and taking up green and digital issues vs. an EU adhering to traditions and favouring stronger possibilities of intervention by national governments and parliaments.

The parties of the Radical Left clearly lagged behind expectations. A trend towards a reversal of at times high poll ratings in favour of the Left in Spain and France has been confirmed. Unlike in 2014, the parties of the Radical Left could not agree on a top candidate but entered the election campaign divided. Three European projects competing against each other: Maintenant le Peuple (MLP), DiEM25, and the European Left Party (EL) all suffered a defeat. Since all party projects—quite diverse with regard to their origin, view of politics and organisational matters, strategy and focus of their campaigns—lost, it is difficult to give simple answers. Yet it is clear that none of them succeeded in adapting to the newly evolved political situation and the emerging new dimensions of conflict, tackling them with a common strategy and, most of all, a European perspective.

Between 2014 and 2019 the change of conflict lines in Europe also took place against the backdrop of a global situation itself undergoing profound change. In the face of these developments and the open view of Brexit chaos, popular support for the EU was extraordinarily high.

The November 2018 Eurobarometer data reveal the following developments: in the years of 2011/2012 up to 2014—the period of the strongest mobilisations of social movements against EU austerity policies, especially in Spain, Portugal and Greece—saw one of the most important challenges at the European level. This conflict constellation helped the success of the Left in 2014. After 2015 the focus of the major tasks of the EU has shifted, first towards the question of how to deal with terrorism and immigration. Clearly less in focus than in 2014 were the problems of unemployment, the economic situation within the EU and state finances. The change in importance of climate change showed itself as a rising but not yet polarising dimension of conflict.

Answers to the question of what was important to tackle on the national level in the countries of the EU reveal a similar picture: in 2014 the problems of economic development, unemployment, and public finances were dominant. At the end of 2018 people perceived a range of different topics that required being dealt with at the national level: unemployment, rising prices and inflation, migration, the economic situation, and pensions. At the end of 2018/early 2019 there were no prominent polarizing topics with the exception of the question of migration. At the end of 2018 Eurobarometer does not yet list the climate crisis among the tasks to be dealt with on a national level, although the issue had been present in individual countries for quite some time by then. Contrary to this, climate protection gains in weight as a task to be dealt with on a European level.   

At the beginning of 2019 the economy, finances, unemployment, climate and environment were almost equally seen as the most important topics to be dealt with on the European level—the situation was still open! At the same time, there was already a trend on the European level indicating that the climate issue could become a new polarising issue. It will depend on the power of the Left to be perceived as a social and ecological political force.

What Is the Importance of These Elections and What Is Their Significance for the Left?  Initial Summarising Conclusions

  1. The shift to the Right described above occurs under the conditions of the previous mainstream parties becoming weaker. This shift to the Right of policies already manifests itself at the European level in questions of migration and refugee policies, in particular when it comes to securing the borders. One example of this development is the cancellation of the European sea rescue programme Sophia that not long ago had been jointly adopted by Conservatives and Social Democrats. The declared aim of changing the EU and their instruments is becoming part of the fiercest conflicts. The question of which institutions will have which competences in the future will become a crucial one. That means that it will not only be about policy-making processes, i.e. concrete topics, but also about questions concerning the treaties and institutions which will become the subjects of conflict more often.
  2. The Greens could win, because they seem most trustworthy and competent when it comes to dealing with questions of the future. This concerns climate issues but also issues of digitalization—in particular, the critique of the copyright law with the possibility of installing upload filters, a topic that was discussed and negotiated on both national and European levels. It also concerns the protection of the environment such as the handling of glyphosate. Regarding all these topics the Greens were accessible and capable of dialogue at the European level, especially so in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In doing so, the Greens could use their openness for new topics, their image of being an advocate for the protection of the environment and the climate. Certainly, the Left also had protection of the environment and the climate on their agenda, seen, among others, in the Climate Manifesto of GUE/NGL published shortly before the elections. But it was much too short-term for the Left to be considered a credible advocate on this topic. The election platform of the EL mentioned the issue without developing it any further.  The ideas of the LFI (La France Insoumise) election programme did not become part of a European left discourse on the environment and the climate.  
  3. A European Left must stand for a social and ecological agenda and transformation. In doing so, however, we must not adopt concepts developed by others. We must develop our agenda independently and together with social movements, initiatives, and other civil society actors and feed work done previously into an inner process of discussion among the Left. However, this requires new and open spaces for the broadest left discourses and alliances possible. The social question will be one particularly significant aspect in this. However, it was not sufficiently visible in the election campaign wherein its concrete practical value lay of the Left for European politics.  In view of this result, the Left not only has to accept our obvious defeat, but we also have to ask ourselves what the reasons were for this defeat. There are no simple answers. It is not the case that one clearly identifiable strategy or type of party of the Radical Left has lost, but all. The only exceptions that deserve to be studied closer are the Portuguese Left Bloc and the Walloon Workers’ Party (PTB). Notably, parties that have lost are the Spanish Podemos, La France Insoumise, DIE LINKE, Syriza, and KSČM. The background to these concrete examples of defeat are completely different political conditions, varying concrete national conflict situations, and the political cultures of different organisations. However, the question that needs to be answered is whether there are any common structural and strategic causes, i.e. if we need new forms of strategic cooperation towards the development of a joint European strategy and agenda. The majority of the Left has been conducting national campaigns for these European elections, which must be seen against the backdrop of their relative strength on the national vis-à-vis their weakness on the European level. But only very few have won anything that way. That is how the European Left is losing its practical value.  
  4. As the Left we have to deal with our political methods, the forms of our politics, among others with the question of why we do not succeed in tackling changed conflict situations in dynamic times of changing mobilisations. We must raise the question of the function of a five-percent-party in the European Parliament and what it would have to achieve in view of the challenges. It must ask itself these questions on both national and European levels.

[1] All subsequent figures refer to those provided on the website from 26 June 2, 14:51, retrieved on 27 June 2019.