European elections - Prospects for radical left parties
The EP elections are due from 22nd to 25th May this year. The Netherlands and the UK start the ball rolling on 22nd May – given previous turnouts it’s likely to get stuck in the mud – but almost everyone votes on Sunday. In addition, many countries, will hold either municipal or general elections this year and some both. European electorates being called to the polls for one reason or another during the rest of this year are those of Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and the UK, while 2015 will see general elections in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.
That means that over the next twenty-one months the peoples of Europe will have the opportunity to vote for or against the particular form of integration being imposed upon the continent by the political choices - many of them subject to little or no effective popular or democratic input - made in Brussels, Frankfurt and Luxembourg by the three powerful unelected institutions of this European Union: the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. These elections do not give us a real chance of reversing the political direction of these choices, but they do give us an opportunity to protest, not in isolation but in conjunction with action in the streets, workplaces and places of learning of our countries.
There is evidence that Europe’s peoples are preparing in increasing numbers to seize that opportunity. Of course, this evidence can scarcely be trusted, partly because European elections are very different to national elections in a variety of ways.
Firstly, there is the problem that results in one member state do not necessarily follow a pattern in keeping with results in other member states. With the exception of divided polities such as the UK and Spain, you can usually take a pretty strong stab at who will win overall if you are told the result in one area. This is not the case in the EU, which isn’t a divided polity – it isn’t a polity at all. So voters in one member state might be fed up with their centre-left government and use the EP elections to express their displeasure, while in another member state the same might be true in relation to a government of the centre-right. In Britain the Liberal Democrats, once seen as a centre-left party, are leaking support as a result of their decision to join a viciously anti-working class, pro-corporate government led by the Tories. As federalists constantly complain, people tend to vote on national issues, not on European ones. This is one of the numerous reasons why, as Brecht once said of the government of the GDR, the Europhiles would really like to dissolve the people, and appoint another one. Four hundred million people are, I’ve heard these people say, difficult to predict. In fact, in social science normally the bigger the group the easier it is to predict its behaviour. US elections can be predicted from results in a handful of states because the US people, for all their divisions, are a people. We are a long way from E pluribus unum, and this is demonstrated by the fact that elections in member states continue to refuse to follow a single pattern.
A second difficulty in the way of making accurate predictions is that turnouts are low and falling. They have fallen every year since 63% of the eligible electorate of the EU-9 voted in 1979.[i] In 2009, it was 43% for the EU27. The fact that two of 2009’s lowest turn-out countries will be the first to vote may be concealed by the ban on releasing results until after every country has voted, but this isn’t going to stop newspapers and news programmes from speculating, especially if the visible turnout is again pitifully low or, on the contrary, surprisingly high.
Thirdly, national elections do not necessarily reflect the kind of support which parties may receive in a European election. This is partly because of the low turnouts noted above. It is in addition, and perhaps principally, because when voters decide whom to support in a European election, they are taking a very different kind of decision to the one they take at a general election. They are aware at a general election that they are involved in choosing a government. This undoubtedly cost the Dutch SP dearly in the last general election, in 2012, for example, as left-leaning voters who initially told pollsters that they were fed up with the social democratic PvdA (Labour Party), its history of broken promises and its increasingly neoliberal direction, then began to fear the return of a centre-right Prime Minister and the untrammelled neoliberalism of the VVD, the harsher even of the two major centre-right parties when it comes to economic policy. It doesn’t always work that way of course – voters may decide to vote for the radical left to put pressure on a likely social democratic government, but the point is that none of these considerations logically come into a voter’s decision at all in a European election where no government is at stake. Thirdly, abstention is clearly a serious option for anyone who doubts the legitimacy of the EU and its parliament. We might disagree with that. The SP tells people that staying at home is the same as voting for the status quo, and thus for the ongoing movement towards federalism. But few of us would deny that the position has a certain logic which may be hard to counter.
The position of the GUE/NGL parties in the polls
Now to the actual situation in the run-up to these elections. According to a Votewatch[ii] poll-of-polls, the likely overall winners are the social democrats, who remain narrowly ahead of the EPP, though their lead is diminishing. The poll gives them 209 seats to the EPP’s 202. So, tweedle-left will replace tweedle-right as the group with a plurality.
The good news is that the GUE-NGL will on current predictions replace the centre-right ALDE (the ‘Liberals’) as the third largest group. The biggest reason for this is the rise of Syriza in Greece, but almost all GUE parties are improving their position. The radical left vote is increasing sufficiently in Croatia and Sweden to double representation in each case from one to two; the real left are holding our own in Denmark, Germany, and Northern Ireland, which is officially a UK seat; and restoring a GUE/NGL presence in Finland, which will elect one MEP to these ranks, and – spectacularly – Italy, which is predicted to elect five. Only in Cyprus do the polls have the GUE affiliate AKEL losing one of its two MEPs, but that will be the sole weakening of the group’s ranks. France will move from five to seven or eight, after the debacle of 2009, when the New Anti-Capitalist Party fell just short of the threshold, despite the likelihood that NPAC will repeat this feat; Latvia will rise from one to three, as will Ireland, with Sinn Fein restoring and increasing its previous representation and the Socialist Party keeping its seat. In the Netherlands, the SP should double its electoral success of last time from two to four; in Greece, we should see the election of nine MEPs compared to the current tally of three; and in Spain, we could witness the most spectacular recovery of all, Izquierda Unida rising in strength from one to seven. This total will be matched in Portugal, which currently has four GUE/NGL MEPs. The total overall will therefore on these predictions rise from thirty-five to sixty-seven and the proportional vote from 4.6% to 8.9%, a near doubling of both totals. This tally, moreover, has been moving steadily in the right direction. If the polls turn out to be correct, this will be a success indeed.
Where GUE/NGL representation for an individual country is divided between different parties you need to go to the Metapolls website[iii] to find out the details. On current polls, the KKE in Greece would receive two or perhaps three of the nine GUE/NGL seats, with Syriza actually topping the poll ahead of the governing centre-right New Democracy. In France, the Front de Gauche would receive all of the seats, the 5% threshold annulling the votes of the fewer than 3% of the electorate who intend to back the New Anti-Capitalist Party. This is particularly sad when the two groups, or their predecessors, worked well together in the 1999-2004 Parliament, and will cost the GUE two seats unless NPAC can turn it around. Ironically, even if NPAC were to win their extra votes from the FdG, the GUE would end up stronger. This must be frustrating for many left voters like myself who don’t particularly care how the two sides feel about other matters, still less about events almost a century ago, but would back a stuffed donkey if it raised its hoof to oppose every advance of neoliberal federalism. In Portugal, the division is 9.7% for the PCP-led Democratic Unity Coalition and 7% for the Left Bloc. The last country with a divided GUE-NGL delegation, or the potential for such, is Ireland. This is one of a handful of countries not covered by Metapolls and it has proved difficult to get any poll information, but the most likely split from what I have seen is 2/1 Sinn Fein/Socialist Party, which of course as SF also has a UK MEP will mean 3/1 in the GUE.
The position of the far right parties in the polls
The bad news is the growing support for the far right, and their apparent new-found ability to establish a political group in the EP. Far right MEPs are likely to come in greater numbers than previously from Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus and new member state Croatia, which like Cyprus is predicted to elect one right-wing extremist, as are Lithuania and Luxembourg, and, sadly enough Sweden; some, but fewer than previously, from Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the UK, with the last country being the only one in which the far right vote has collapsed completely. What it has done is moved from the neo-Nazi British National Party to UKIP, who have the sense to leave their jackboots at home and cash in on disillusionment with the mainstream parties and the European Union. So while the BNP seems to have imploded, the more ‘respectable’ UKIP, like the Front National in France, could emerge as the biggest party. UKIP, in common with the parties to the right of it, fights on some of the same terrain as do our own parties, and does so – so far at least - with rather more success than most. In Britain, or at least in England, there is no serious left force. Much of the movement to the left of the Labour Party takes an abstentionist line, or in the case of the “No2EU - Yes to Workers' Rights”[iv] movement, does not seem to have any chance of success, largely in their case as a result of their announcement that if elected they will not take their seats! Only in France, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands will there be what can be described as an upsurge in support for the far right, with the Front National rising from three seats to eighteen, the Greek fascists from zero to three, and in the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) going from four to seven.
Serious moves are under way to create – yet again – a far right group in the Parliament. This is restricted to parties which are to the right of a number of those such as UKIP and the Danish People’s Party, which will not join them for that reason, but which see the likes of Golden Dawn and Jobbik as beyond the pale and may take the same view of other parties with a chance of election This leaves the Front National, Wilders’ PVV, the Austrian FPÖ, Vlaams Belang, Lega Nord, and the Swedish Democrats. These are predicted to win 37 seats across six member states – enough to form a group. With one other member state on board, as you will know, they could form a group with twelve fewer than that. This would leave the European Parliament with four groups to the right of the mainstream centre-right EPP. I suppose we should welcome this division, but it’s galling to see these people winning support, much of it due to the EU’s destructive policies. As they contain, with a few exceptions amongst the Greens, for example, almost the only other EU-critical forces, we will be competing with them for votes and influence on this one overlapping terrain. The far right clearly oppose open borders, with which the Dutch SP, for one, is also not happy, though for very different reasons; and they have spoken out against EU trade pacts including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP), another target for the radical left.
New protest groups
Germany and Italy will both see an upsurge in numbers of MEPs whom one would imagine under the current division would be non-inscrit, but it is clear that many of these cannot be classified as far right. Italy’s upsurge of non-incrit reflects the continuing fragmentation of and disillusionment with political parties following the system’s collapse some twenty years ago, while Germany’s is at least in part due to the abolition by court order of the 3% electoral threshold for EP elections, which is predicted to allow the election of a number of small parties, including several which might be described as far right. Nobody seems able to predict in which political group, if any, the potentially large delegation from Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) will sit, or the predicted nine deputies from the Czech Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO). ‘Dissatisfied citizens’, after all, would appear to embrace almost the whole population, given developments since the last EP elections.
This fragmentation is part of a more general and more widespread phenomenon which takes the form in part of a decline in party loyalties, class identity and popular participation in political parties and in parliamentary politics. Its effects are unpredictable, particularly for radical left parties, which represent an existing conduit of protest which may be rejected by people disillusioned with traditional parties. We may, in other words, be tarred with the same brush.
The federalists and Europhiles
The Europhiles are worried. They are worried about the far right, clearly, and they are worried about the turn-out. They know that the only thing really likely to increase the turn-out is a big vote for what they call ‘Eurosceptic’ parties. They know that even given such an upsurge of support, the turnout might not increase, or might actually fall. My own prediction is that it will indeed increase as people are given the chance to vote against the EU and its neoliberal direction. We have to ensure that the majority of that turning against goes to us.
The problem for the left is not only that right-wing Eurosceptics are attracting support from people uneasy about or hostile to the EU, but that with their usual opportunism, mainstream parties are suddenly discovering that they too have criticisms of the way in which ‘Europe’ is governed. This is harder for the centre-right to pull off than it is for the centre-left, as their recent domination of member states’ governmenments means that they have long had the upper hand in the Council and are firmly in the driver’s seat at the Commission. At the time of the last election there were only eight centre-left governments in the EU; there are now nine. The centre-right have thus gone from twenty to nineteen.[v] Hardly an earth-shattering change, but polls predict that the social democrats will win a plurality in the EP. One recent poll gave them 221 to the EPP’s 202.
It’s important to remember that a complex mix of national concerns, concerns about Europe, ignorance of the EU and misunderstanding of its actions and policies feed into voters’ decision-making. It’s important also to remember that these are very early days. The campaign hasn’t begun and it’s clear that perhaps a majority of the potential electorate are not even aware yet that they are taking place. Given that national considerations will continue to play a major role in voters’ decision-making, in countries with coalition governments – especially where they involve both major political currents, as in Germany and Greece – parties outside this cosy arrangement may get a boost.
The gap between the EU’s perception of itself and the way it is seen beyond the Brussels European Quarter is really quite astonishing. The Eurocracy really think that they can excite people by leading them to believe that they will be electing the president of the European Commission. Yet only a minority can name the current president and an even smaller minority has any idea what he and his Commissioners do. When they do know, they rarely like it.
In reality, of course, they are not in any case electing the Commission president at all. Merkel and other leaders have made it quite clear that they will not feel bound by the result of the elections, whatever the political groups may believe. The post is simply too important to be left to the voters, not in and of itself but as a piece in the complex game by which such jobs are divided between the member states.
The slogan of these elections, as you may know, is the typically vacuous ‘This time it’s different’. One thing it purports to mean and yet clearly does not is that we will get to elect the president of the European Commission. This is a very broad interpretation of the relevant provision in the Lisbon Treaty, which is vague in the extreme. It’s contained in Article 17, paragraph 7 of what is now the consolidated Treaty on European Union (TEU), which reads as follows:
Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.
It’s true that this may put some pressure on the member states to accept either the voters’ or the Parliament’s choice, but as Merkel and others have already made clear, they do not feel obliged to do so, and there is certainly no legal obligation to do so. In any case, however, the idea that electing the president of the European Commission will fire Europe’s voters with enthusiasm is typical of the rarefied, out-of-touch atmosphere breathed by Eurocrats. I know no-one who isn’t a specialist, active either in academia or in politics, who knows the difference between the different EU institutions, or is much interested in finding out.
Aside from the typically misleading remarks and delusions of our federalist opponents, we are facing in most of Europe a quite duplicitous media campaign which seeks to portray all opponents of this European Union as ‘anti-European’, nationalistic and ‘populist’. Take this recent Reuters report which noted that “A worst-case scenario for policymakers is a fragmented new parliament peppered with populist parties that reject European integration and seek to block proposals such as the free-trade deal that Brussels is negotiating with the United States.”[vi] The implication is that having two big ‘sensible parties’ is much better than having an assembly that more accurately reflects the ‘fragmentation’ of European electorates. This is a constant drip-drip message which forms part of the downgrading (at best) of any commitment to democracy in favour of ‘efficiency’ and ‘getting things done’. This translates, of course, as ‘efficiently and with a minimum of opposition completing the neoliberal counter-revolution’. The people do not want a neoliberal transformation of their countries and their continent. They do not want their welfare states dismantling, their public services privatising, their national parliaments and national governments seeing their powers transferred to unelected technocratic institutions far away in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Frankfurt. By responding to what the people want you become a ‘populist’, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Golden Dawn or the Vänsterpartiet, UKIP or Syriza, you are dangerous and benighted. Common expressions include “federalists and conservatives”, “Eurosceptics and extremists”, while the equation of “extreme right” and “extreme left” (which means us) is frequent.
Cas Mudde, a Dutchman who works at the University of Georgia in the US, is author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. He wrote recently in the Washington Post in a mostly sensible article playing down the threat of the far right, that ‘While it is not always clear who these “Eurosceptics” are, it is clear that they are “a well-diversified lot” (Schultz), and include far-right parties like the FN, far left parties like the Dutch Socialist Party and the Greek Syriza, (single-issue) Eurosceptics like The Finns and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and sui generis protest parties like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.’[vii] Again, all tarred with the same brush. Mudde’s credibility is further undermined by his basing his prediction - that 85% of EP seats will go to ‘pro-European’ parties - on the most recent national election results. I have explained above why this would be misleading, and this also explains why it’s out of line with every other prediction and with the polls, of which Mudde seems unaware.
According to establishment figures such as Julian Priestley, former general secretary of both the Socialist Group and later the Parliament itself, all of this support for ‘Eurosceptics’ can be put down to ‘apathy’ compounded by “general ignorance about what is at stake in the elections”, though he does admit to “general public anger about the way that the economic and social crisis has been handled at all levels”. It’s difficult to see how “apathy” and “anger” can coexist, but this does not present Priestley with any problems. He thinks the mix “could lead to some startlingly alarming results.”
Priestley happily equates Marine LePen with Jean-Luc Melanchon as “populists”, despite the fact that when Priestley was Secretary General of the Socialist Group Melanchon’s political views would have fitted quite comfortably under its umbrella. But then, to move from the right to the left of a social democratic party over the last quarter century it was necessary only to maintain one’s opinions, as Roy Hattersley famously observed.
Priestley sees two dangers in the advance of this ‘populism’: whether of the left or the right is to him of no concern. Apparently, the whole lot of us are out to “sabotage core-business’ and “wreck the work programme of the EU”. I do not think that many of us on the left see our role in quite this way, but, Priestley continues, “The second danger is more insidious; it is the debilitating effect a populist breakthrough would have on mainstream politicians.” Its results would, he fears, be “creeping euroscepticism, the confidence to launch strong initiatives lacking, and a slide into masterful inactivity in the absence of public support for anything ‘coming out of Brussels’” which “would ratchet up support for nationalistic anti-establishment forces until some kind of tipping point is reached.” Note the language employed: “sabotage”, “wreck” “populist” as a catch-all term, and “nationalistic” with “anti-establishment”, the latter being as great a crime as the former. No matter that this “establishment” is responsible for the erosion and in some cases destruction of the social and democratic gains of the last century or more; no matter that it has launched an attack on Greece and other members states which can be compared, without too much exaggeration, to what is done to the population of a country which has lost a war; to be “anti” such an establishment remains by definition a crime.
Priestley argues that these ‘Eurosceptics’ – that includes us, remember - can be defeated, driven back. He pins his hopes on the fact that the Parliament “is using new media intelligently to stimulate interest among young voters”; on “the novelty of the ‘presidentialisation’ of the campaign”; and on the fact that “Europe has intruded itself into national politics”. One’s ears ring here with the deafening sound of barrels being scraped. In reality, while there is indeed a growing awareness of the EU’s importance to everyday life, it is translating far more into the realisation that ‘Brussels’ is responsible for many of the people’s ills: for the undermining of the welfare state, the removal of powers from democratically elected institutions, the narrowing of policy choices available to elected governments. I have always believed that the more the people understand the EU, the less they will like what they see.
Unlike his sad little list of ‘reasons to be optimistic’. Priestley’s conclusion raises a genuine problem which we will face. Suddenly, everyone has become EU-critical. We are used, of course, to social democrats being left wing in opposition and right wing in government. Now we have a European version of this. A group of British Labour MEPs and what Priestley, with telling elitism calls “Brussels insiders” has written a book entitled Our Europe, Not Theirs. It argues that “the Left (sic) must launch a ferocious onslaught on the right’s ten year long domination of the EU institutions which has made blinkered austerity the reigning ideology, contributed to mass unemployment, denied half of our young people of (sic) a decent future, brought back inequality and poverty with a vengeance and connived in the dismantling of our cherished social protections.”
I am a close follower of European Union politics. Yet I have somehow missed the social democrats’ resistance to ‘blinkered austerity’ and other aspects of neoliberalism. The real left has long argued for what Priestley and co purport to advocate here: “a radical programme for change, based on job creation, harnessing all resources for competitiveness, infrastructure, social investment and research, and fairer trade combined with a regulatory assault on corporate abuse and a priority offensive against tax avoidance by the wealthiest companies.”[viii]
I have my doubts about ‘competitiveness’ as a meaningful concept but the rest of it I can happily live with. It would be possible for an optimist to conclude that the social democrats have finally come to their senses, seen the error of their ways, responded to pressure from those to the left of them – from us -, returned to their long-forgotten traditions of solidarity and compassion. I am not an optimist. I try to be a realist and I would argue that the likelihood of this progressive programme being implemented by parties which have spent the last quarter century enthusiastically backing neoliberal measures, the theft of the people’s property in privatisation programmes, the erosion of our welfare states, the deregulation of financial services, and all the rest of it, is non-existent.
One interesting characteristic of this attempt to create a stereotype of a ‘populist’ is that article after article fails to quote any of those accused of such, whether from the left or the right, while routinely giving the views of what are defined as ‘mainstream’ parties. Nigel Farage, we are told by Le Monde, is involved in an attempt “to impose his views on the United Kingdom”, whereas, whatever we may think of him, he and his UKIP colleagues are surely involved in an attempt to win election via a popular vote. That, of course, does not sound as sinister. Quoted in the same article is Anni Podimata of PASOK, a party which last time I checked was running at under 6% in the polls, which should surely justify the description ‘former mainstream party’. No sign of a quote from Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza is at close to 27%.[ix]
There are many reasons to refuse to vote in these elections, and many who would otherwise agree with the majority of our positions will be hard to persuade to come to the polls. The stronger showing of the centre-left would once have been welcomed by our parties, but a social democratic plurality in the European Parliament will in truth make little difference to the lives of working people in Sweden, Greece or Ireland – or in any other member state. This is partly because, despite recent reforms, the EU’s only elected institution has limited power, and is certainly no true parliament, the essence of which is surely to protect the citizens from an arbitrary exercise of power by the executive. The European Parliament’s inability to do so is partly due to constitutional limitations, and partly due to the deadening consensus which in reality, behind all the bluster, rules the day in Brussels and Strasbourg. The latter we can change, though it will be very difficult, given the preponderance of the Europhile centre-right and centre-left groups, and the fact that the social democrats will prefer to work with the conservatives than with us. The most we can hope to do is something we should certainly not be ashamed of wanting to do: make trouble, bring the duplicity of the powerful to the attention of the people, do what we can to stand in the way of their plans – not as “wreckers” or “saboteurs” but as people with an alternative view, people who believe another Europe – of sovereign states working freely together when they see that this is useful - is possible.
The European Parliament cannot reflect the will of the European people because there is no European people. Each of our parties can represent its own country’s people, however, by doing what you can to defend them from the arbitrary exercise of power. Last week the website of the party with which I have long been associated, the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, featured a picture of its MEP, Dennis de Jong, holding a truck drivers’ contract which guaranteed that driver the princely sum of €150 per week. No-one has the right to impose a system which allows such injustices. We have, most definitely, the right to fight such a system. Back to that slogan, ‘this time it’s different’, which I said was vacuous. When faced with an empty statement such as this it is up to interested parties to inject it with their own meaning. I sincerely hope that we will succeed in doing so.
Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine and a former member of the GUE-NGL secretariat. He is in addition Associate Professor of International Relations at the American Graduate School in Paris and English language translator for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands. This article is based on a talk he gave to workers from the Vänsterpartiet, the Swedish Left Party, who were on a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels.
[ii] http://www.votewatch.eu/ , in 2009, using the same model as it is employing this time around, “the final forecast correctly predicted 720 of the then 736 seats won by each political group (a 98% success rate), and 660 of the seats won by each national party (a 90% success rate).”
[vi] Robin Emmott, “Europe's centre left to take most votes in EU elections: poll” Reuters, Feb.19.2014
[vii] Cas Mudde “A European shutdown? The 2014 European elections and the great recession”, Washington Post, Nov.4, 2013
[viii] Julian Priestley, “Stopping the populist advance on the European parliament”, Policy Network, 3 October 2013,