The European Left in Disarray

As voters elect a new European Parliament, the Left is split between multiple “unity projects.” And none of them have a clear idea how to transform the EU.

Yanis Varoufakis speaks at a Diem25 event on May 28, 2016 in London, England. Jack Taylor / Getty Images

Between Thursday and Sunday every country in the European Union will stage elections for the European Parliament in Brussels. But most voters couldn’t tell you much about it. Campaigning across the continent is largely muted, and only a small minority of citizens could name either of the two leading candidates for president of the European Commission, German conservative Manfred Weber and Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans.

After forty years of existence, the EU’s only elected legislative body generates little enthusiasm among its 500 million constituents. Participation has declined steadily since the Parliament’s inception and rarely cracks 50 percent. The lack of interest is understandable. The Commission president isn’t directly elected: in fact, whatever the election results are, the “winner” will be appointed by the European Council, before this choice is ratified by Parliament. It’s quite possible the Council, made up of the leaders of national governments, will pick neither of the main candidates.

Formally speaking, the European Parliament is the second-largest legislature in the world. Yet in reality its 751 members have little say in the nitty gritty of EU politics. It cannot initiate or pass EU-wide laws, but only modify or reject proposals coming from the European Commission, which is in turn appointed by the Council.

This is really the crux of the matter: despite its pretensions to the contrary, the European Union is not a particularly democratic institution. Most of its powerful posts are filled by appointment from above rather than elected by the population. Especially since the fiscal reforms enacted after the 2008 financial crisis, it often functions as a mere straitjacket, preventing individual member-states from breaking with the austerity imposed by budget control measures like the European Semester program.

From the outset, the structures that eventually became the EU were characterized by agreements brokered between elites, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community drawn up by the political classes of West Germany, France, and a smattering of other states in the wake of World War II. Rather than a coherent federal entity with interlocking levels of authority, the EU has tended to grow and develop as circumstances allow, a product of improvisation and responses to external shocks.

For all these reasons, voters rightly see national politics as much more immediately relevant to their lives, and most write off what happens in Brussels as little more than wasteful tinkering by out-of-touch bureaucrats. This attitude is stronger than ever following the fallout of the 2008 crisis and the ongoing economic stagnation across most of the Union. Politicians of the center speak in passionate tones about “our Europe,” but everybody knows that, for better or worse, most voters aren’t particularly interested.

The political fallout of this turmoil has been a classic “crisis of representation,” whereby the traditional parties of government grow increasingly unpopular and are no longer able to command stable parliamentary majorities. The crisis has been most pronounced in countries like France, Greece, and the Netherlands where the center-left has collapsed almost entirely, clearing the way for new insurgent leaders on the Left, Right, and center.

In recent years, the crisis has largely favored the populist right. Its comparatively simple, often demagogic proposals appear comparatively plausible given the EU’s perceived dysfunctionality and authoritarian tendencies. It poses as offering the most direct solutions. Nationalists have proven particularly successful in the EU’s new eastern outposts. But the revival of the far right is a continent-wide phenomenon that cannot be written off as a by-product of culture or economic frustration.

Some countries like Germany, Europe’s de facto leader, remain comparatively stable, but here as well the traditional parties have watched their support plummet and the formation of new parties to their left and right. Democracy in Europe has grown increasingly hollow, its institutional fusion of technocratic austerity-by-decree and largely symbolic social liberalism representing perhaps the best example of what the late Peter Mair described as “ruling the void.”

One might have thought this would also have created favorable circumstances for the radical left, represented largely by the Party of the European Left and the GUE/NGL parliamentary group. Given EU’s political atrophy and economic stagnation, it might seem that a message of social solidarity and democratization across European borders should be able find a receptive audience. But with a few exceptions, in the run up to the elections this does not seem to be the case.

What’s Left?

The situation in 2019 clashes with what we saw in the first post-crisis years, a time of immense material suffering but also political hope. Popular albeit diffuse mass movements for social change sprang up across the continent, and even as elites pushed through breakneck austerity, it at least felt as if popular anger was mounting. This discontent found electoral expression in the stunning rise of Podemos in Spain (growing from nowhere to 8 percent in 2014) and Syriza in Greece, (soaring from 4.6 percent in 2009 to 36.3 percent in 2015). Indeed, the radical left as a whole improved its results in the 2014 European elections, moving from 4.6 to 6.9 percent.

Five years later, that feels like ancient history. The brief, exhilarating hope the Left took in Alexis Tsipras’s election as Greek prime minister in 2015 soon gave way to frustration, disillusionment, and strategic drift following his government’s defeat by the Troika and the social devastation that has continued ever since. Nowhere has the Left really been able to push back against austerity, and in the few countries where it has a role in government it rarely manages to do more than mitigate its effects. Particularly in the EU’s newer eastern members, the parties of the Left are often hopelessly marginalized.

They are also divided between different political projects. The GUE/NGL includes all manner of affiliates, from Communist parties to Greens and even animal rights groups, though it lost the backing of Greece’s orthodox Communist Party, KKE, in 2014. It also includes Syriza, whose presence — and failure — has given rise to two other initiatives, namely the “Now the People!” alliance between Podemos, France Insoumise, and Portugal’s Left Bloc, and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s European Spring initiative. They have yet to create formal groups in Brussels apart from GUE/NGL and are unlikely to do so, as they would need MEPs from at least seven countries.

Playing by Their Rules

The recent row in the Party of the European Left triggered by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s criticisms of Syriza are reflective of a broader strategic dilemma: namely, that objective circumstances force the Left to operate on an institutional playing field the rules of which are (at least in some instances) intentionally devised to frustrate and limit its efforts. Already a minority force, the Left in the EU also finds itself fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

Because political systems and electoral calendars remain wildly divergent, European elections serve as bellwethers of upcoming national and regional elections more than anything else. As everyone knows that little can be changed by parliamentarians in Brussels, voting for them is seen as a test of party popularity and an endorsement (or rejection) of national governments. This encourages the adoption of national perspectives and prioritizing of national issues, both as a tactic for reaching voters as well as a reflection of how uninspired the mainstream conception of “Europe” really is. Though leading candidates were symbolically introduced for 2019 as a step towards Europeanization, a real European polity that extends across languages and borders remains little more than a pipe dream of liberal Europeanists.

The distance between national electorates and the EU is widened by sporadic interventions into member-states’ domestic policy, such as last year when the European Commission rejected Italy’s draft budget for 2019 citing inadequate deficit reduction targets. Experiences like these bolster Euroscepticism and calls to leave the Union entirely. Though perhaps a disaster in practical terms, leaving the EU remains, at least in theory, the quickest route for a single European country to radically alter its domestic social and economic policy. The Right has thus far proven adept at fusing this aspect with nationalist rhetoric to generate mass support in a way that the Left, with a few noble exceptions, has not.

Against this rightward drift, most of the broad center-left and large parts of the socialist left propose democratizing the EU, imposing tougher social standards and creating what Social Democrats in the 1990s used to call a “social Europe.” Democratizing the EU in its existing form would require, at the very least, sweeping modifications to the Maastricht Treaty and the architecture of the eurozone. These drastic reforms would necessarily mean much more than just electing a national left-wing government — a Herculean task in its own right. As Syriza’s failed attempt to change course while playing by the rules demonstrated, such a project can only be realized with simultaneous electoral majorities in multiple core countries — above all Germany, where a center-left coalition appears more out of reach than ever.

This action plan has been by and large the orientation of the Party of the European Left since its founding in 2004. Explicitly committed to the European Union as a flawed but reformable institution, its program for the current election calls for “a progressive exit from the crisis” and the creation of a “different Europe,” proposing a number of policies that any right-minded socialist would love to see implemented. But given the track record of the last two decades and the Party of European Socialists’ continued refusal to decisively break with centrist coalitions and bloc with the Left, one has to wonder whether the Union will break apart on its own long before an effective electoral majority could crystallize.

The resulting strategic impasse has thus far resulted in two institutional splits. One has been a pivot to what many call “left populism.” Embodied by charismatic leaders like Pablo Iglesias and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, these parties take a more combative attitude towards the European institutions and seek to tap into anti-elite sentiment, but lack a coherent strategic vision for what to do with their momentum. It has translated into the kind of electoral success that eludes most of the Left but may have reached its initial limits, as recent elections in Spain and stagnant poll numbers for France Insoumise suggest.

The most comprehensive plan for European reform is put forward by, depending on who you ask, “Democracy in Europem” “DiEM25,” or “European Spring” — the initiative launched by Yanis Varoufakis and most recently associated with Pamela Anderson, among others. With little preexisting membership or social base, one could be tempted to write the campaign off as little more than a PR stunt. But its call for a “European New Deal” at least puts forward a coherent road map to how the existing European Union could be subjected to dramatic progressive transformation without the need for a breakup or chaotic rupture, and conveys it in a way that is understandable for the average voter. Given the ongoing catastrophe that is Brexit, fear of further turmoil may give Varoufakis’s vision the necessary boost to at least win a seat or two in the next legislature.

Whatever the precise result on May 23–26 and whether or not DiEM25 manages to send Varoufakis to Brussels (highlighting its “radical-Europeanist” ambition, he is standing as a representative of Germany rather than his native Greece), the parties of the Left as a whole will likely enter the new parliament with the same number of seats but more divided than ever. The centrifugal forces pulling at the EU on all sides will continue, and with a possible recession looming it does not take a PhD in political science to reason that European politics will remain volatile for the time being. This makes the Left’s strategic impasse all the more disconcerting. Europe as it currently exists is unsustainable, and if the Left fails to change its direction something — or someone — else will.

Given the state of the Left on most of the continent it seems unlikely to benefit from a breakup of the European Union. If recent trends are any indication, the kind of broad social base and political power necessary to implement a bold, socialist exit from the EU is still quite a way off — Jeremy Corbyn being the hopeful exception.

Whether in or outside of the Union, however, the Left has to find ways to rewrite at least a few of the rules if it is going to stand a fighting chance in the years to come. Any Plan B or Green New Deal for Europe worthy of the name will have to not only win elections but challenge the institutions that prevent Europe from becoming more equal and democratic, for it is these that ultimately eat away at the very fabric of European society and make its supposedly lofty aims all the more unattainable.