Another Europe is Possible – But Not Another European Union

Europe’s radical left has been bitterly divided over the question of European integration. But wishful thinking aside, the structures of the European Union can’t be used to achieve socialist goals. Sooner or later, any left government will have to confront and defy its economic straitjacket.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, campaigns at a pre-election rally on January 22, 2015 in Athens, Greece. Matt Cardy / Getty

There’s a strange monument to European unity on Barcelona’s Montjuic hill: big stone slabs, with a quote from the Treaty of Rome in Catalan, and the dates of birth and death for a series of European notables, ranging from founding fathers of the European Union like Jean Monnet, to national politicians like Winston Churchill, Willy Brandt, and Francois Mitterrand.

But there’s a surprising addition to their ranks: Rosa Luxemburg. The inclusion of this Polish-German revolutionary would no doubt have bemused her contemporary Churchill, who denounced Luxemburg for belonging to a “sinister conspiracy” of “international Jews,” drawn from “the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America,” who were seeking to overthrow Western civilization.

The gulf between Luxemburg and Churchill was scarcely greater than the gulf between her political vision and that of the present-day European Union. However, there’s one group in the European parliament that claims direct descent from Luxemburg’s ideas: the various strands of Europe’s radical left. Is their position at the heart of the European project as incongruous as Luxemburg’s presence on Montjuic? Or can the radical left somehow bend that project to its purposes?

After the Fall

That’s one of the main questions arising from a new book by Richard Dunphy and Luke March, two of the few Anglophone academics who have given radical-left parties — RLPs for short — serious attention. Their latest work looks at the experience of the European Left Party, a transnational party formed in 2004 by some of Europe’s leading RLPs to coordinate their efforts. It opens out into a wider picture of the contemporary radical left and its approach to European integration.

Dunphy started his career with one of the most important books on twentieth-century Irish politics, The Making of Fianna Fáil Power in Ireland 19231948 (1995). He made short work of the idea that class divisions and identities were irrelevant to the Irish party system, drawing insights from thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas and Göran Therborn to show how Fianna Fáil had forged a social bloc that underpinned its unique record of electoral success. Dunphy then shifted from Ireland to Europe with Contesting Capitalism? Left Parties and European Integration (2004), which looked at the experience of communist and postcommunist parties in the pre-enlargement EU, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

Luke March’s first books examined the post-Soviet communist parties in Russia and Moldova. His next work, Radical Left Parties in Europe (2011), was, as Cas Mudde observed, the “first comparative monograph of the radical left in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” It made a strong case for the enduring relevance of its subject matter, with case studies from twelve countries. Together, Contesting Capitalism?, Radical Left Parties in Europe, and The European Left Party form a loose trilogy about the European radical left in a postcommunist world.

The installments in that trilogy roughly coincide with three phases in the history of RLPs since 1989. In the 1990s, it was still possible to argue that Europe’s radical left was a residual force, the afterglow of twentieth-century communism, fated to eventually disappear. All the parties Dunphy wrote about in Contesting Capitalism? stemmed directly from the pro-Soviet communist movement (although one, Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party, had broken with Moscow almost half a century earlier). Some had opted to soldier on under the same banner, like the French, Greek, and Portuguese communists; others had rebranded themselves for a new age, like the Swedish Left Party or Spain’s United Left. But they all derived from the Communist International launched under Bolshevik supervision in 1919.

By the time March published Radical Left Parties in Europe, there was another decade of experience to draw upon, and several new parties had joined the communist or postcommunist left, from the Dutch Socialist Party to the Left Bloc in Portugal. These debutantes had never been aligned with Moscow: their origins lay in far-left micro-parties, usually Maoist or Trotskyist in ideology, whose leaders had moderated their programs in a bid for electoral success. There had also been some high-profile defectors from the camp of social democracy, including Germany’s Oskar Lafontaine and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France. Overall, as March argued, the radical left was now “an increasingly consolidated actor on the EU political scene and one of the major challenges to contemporary social democracy.”


At that point, it was still a rare event for radical-left parties to break the 10 percent barrier, and it was only in marginal states like Cyprus and Moldova that they had actually been able to win elections. March saw “little prospect that RLPs will outflank social-democratic parties in the near future, since social democrats are still far larger, [and] have greater governing experience and political and organizational capital.” But then, in the course of two elections held in 2012, Syriza overtook Pasok and established itself as the main opposition party in Greece with 27 percent of the vote.

It was the first time since the end of the Cold War that an established center-left party had lost its dominant position to a radical-left challenger. Syriza’s breakthrough opened a third phase that has lasted to the present day. For a brief moment in 2012, it looked as if the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) would emulate Syriza by vaulting past the country’s center left. The surge didn’t materialize on polling day, and the SP has never looked as strong since then: when it did finally overtake the Dutch Labour Party in 2017, that was mainly because support for its rival had collapsed.

A more enduring challenge to social-democratic hegemony came from Podemos, which was agonizingly close to supplanting the Spanish Socialists in the elections of 2015–16: the combined vote share for Podemos and the postcommunist United Left was actually bigger than the Socialist electorate in December 2015, but a joint list between the two left parties slipped backwards six months later. In the 2017 French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon won nearly 20 percent of the vote as the standard-bearer for La France Insoumise — the best performance by the French radical left since 1969, three times bigger than the vote for the Socialist Party candidate, and just 2 percent shy of making the run-off against Emmanuel Macron in place of Marine Le Pen.

Alongside these high-profile successes, there have also been more limited breakthroughs for RLPs, from Belgium to Ireland. It hasn’t been a linear trend. Some important parties, like Germany’s Die Linke and the Dutch SP, have lost ground since reaching their electoral high points before 2012. Podemos and La France Insoumise have also fallen back. Italy’s radical left is a shadow of its former self, and some countries still lack RLPs that have reached Luke March’s minimum threshold for relevance: “over 3 percent of the national vote and parliamentary seats on at least one occasion since 1990.” In Britain and the United States, new left forces have emerged from within the shell of existing parties, with all the problems that entails.

No party has yet managed to emulate Syriza by forming a government from a position of strength, and the failure of Syriza itself to achieve the most basic goals after taking power in 2015 still haunts the European left. But overall, the radical left has reached a qualitatively higher level over the last decade. From Athens to Dublin, Lisbon to Paris, the question of how to deal with the European Union has been ever-present as one of the key strategic bugbears.

History of a Debate

In the opening chapters of The European Left Party, Dunphy and March sketch out the historical background to this debate (a story told at greater length by Dunphy in Contesting Capitalism?). Before 1989, the “Communists and Allies” group in the European Parliament consisted mainly of communist MEPs from Italy and France, supplemented in the 1980s by their comrades from new member-states in Iberia and Greece.

There was a sharp line of division between Euro-federalist and national-sovereigntist perspectives, with the Italians and their fellow Eurocommunists in Spain and Greece clustered around one pole, the French and their traditionalist allies in Portugal and (also) Greece rooted firmly at the other. These conflicting views of European integration overlapped with other lines of division within the radical left:

. . . between Eurocommunists and left socialists who have sought to formulate paths to socialism that are fully compatible with the sorts of liberal-democratic values that have underpinned Western European democracy since 1945, and pro-Soviet or Marxist-Leninist parties and groups that reject such views as class betrayal; between parties that operate in political environments where nationalism and nationalist isolationism have been profoundly discredited by the experience of the twentieth century – for example, Italy, Germany and Spain – and those that operate in environments where strengthened nation-states and “national roads to socialism” still seem to pack potential as agents of social and class transformation; and between those who operate in countries that can boast of highly developed welfare states and higher levels of social protection than the EU espouses – and who may see the EU as a threat to these standards – and those who operate in countries with relatively low levels of social protection and, perhaps, high levels of elite corruption – and who are tempted to see “Europe” as a potential solution to otherwise insoluble “national” problems.

As Dunphy and March rightly stress, it would be wrong to present the national-sovereigntist position as the monopoly of nostalgic, pro-Soviet communist parties. The Danish Socialist People’s Party, whose communist founder Aksel Larsen had broken with the USSR to chart a new, democratic-socialist path, was also very critical of the European project, although it gradually softened its line in the 1990s.

The Euro-federalist sympathies of the Italian communists could partly be attributed to the influence of Altiero Spinelli. The European Union now claims Spinelli as one of its founding fathers — an “unrelenting federalist” no less — but he was a much more interesting figure than that might suggest. Expelled from the Italian Communist Party in 1937 because he condemned the Moscow show trials, Spinelli was still a committed socialist when he drafted the famous Manifesto of Ventotene with Ernesto Rossi while they were detained by Mussolini’s regime in 1941. The manifesto called for an end to national states in Europe after the defeat of fascism; it also insisted that “the European revolution must be socialist, that is, it must have as its goal the emancipation of the working classes,” and demanded nationalization of industry “on a vast scale” to eliminate all private companies large enough to blackmail the holders of state power.

After the war, however, Spinelli increasingly tended to promote European integration as a desirable goal in its own right. The Italian communists added him to their lists as an independent for the first European election in 1979 — Spinelli’s presence gave them some much-needed respectability — and he used his position as an MEP to advance the federalist agenda.

In 1989, the tensions within the Communists and Allies group reached a breaking point, and the Italian party formed a new parliamentary bloc with Spain’s United Left, Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party, and the Greek Left (one of Syriza’s principal forebears). However, the Italian communists soon left their European comrades in the lurch when they disbanded to form the Democratic Party of the Left, which joined the center-left group in the Euro-parliament. Postcommunists and neo-Stalinists, left-Europeanists and national-sovereigntists once again had to come together under the same umbrella, if they wanted to have any political weight at all. This gave rise to the group that now bears a cumbersome title: European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL). The question of how its component parts should relate to the European Union remained an open one.

Delusions of Scalarism

Dunphy and March don’t take any firm position themselves. However, they reject the indiscriminate use of the “Eurosceptic” label, “an ambiguous and highly normative term that can have the unfortunate tendency to lump together parties that reject the European integration project altogether in the name of nationalism; parties that are sceptical about the direction that European integration has taken since the Maastricht Treaty, fearing that it has been hijacked by neoliberalism; and parties that feel the process has lost momentum and betrayed the original ideals of European federalism.” It’s quite possible to reject the entire post-Maastricht European Union in the name of the Ventotene Manifesto: “To assert that the latter position is somehow ‘Eurosceptic’ is to accept the right of European power elites to define Europeanism without challenge, and to rewrite the history of European federalist thought.”

In Contesting Capitalism?, Dunphy distinguished between “critical” and “uncritical” pro-integrationism. By the latter he meant the pursuit of deeper integration as a goal in itself: “The building of a United States of Europe (however this is expressed) becomes the primary project of the left, ‘Europe’ being seen as a panacea, an all-powerful magical invocation to be produced when faced with seemingly insurmountable or incomprehensible problems.” This has been the hegemonic view on the European center-left since the 1990s at the latest, and its influence frequently spills over onto more radical terrain.

One sometimes hears it argued that socialists should no more call for the breakup of the European Union than they would have called for the breakup of Germany or Italy in the late nineteenth century: in those cases, national unification might have been an undemocratic project forced through from above, but its effect was to clear away some of the barriers to progress. Several obvious rejoinders spring to mind.

First of all, there’s no inherent virtue from a socialist perspective in bigger political units. Three very large nation-states occupy the North American continent, while Europe is divided into several dozen small and medium-sized states, yet it doesn’t seem to have done any harm to the prospects of European socialism.

In one of the best recent critiques of left-Europeanism, Cédric Durand sharply criticized the dogma of “scalarism,” as he calls it: “the idea that displacing some of the attributes of nation-states to a wider scale — in this case, the European scale — would intrinsically represent an advance toward human emancipation.” Questions like Scottish or Catalan independence have to be approached with an open mind: there’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about breaking up established states into smaller units, what matters is the political content of the demand for separation. The same goes for the European Union.

Secondly, if we take the parallel with German and Italian unification seriously, it has some ominous implications for the EU project. In both countries, liberals and democrats originally raised the call for a unified nation-state, but it was conservative ruling classes from Prussia and Piedmont that actually put it into effect. The new German state elected a parliament through universal male suffrage, and the Social Democrats had become the largest party by 1912; but real executive power lay elsewhere, in the hands of the Kaiser and the Junker aristocracy. It took several years of war and revolution to transform Germany into a parliamentary republic, which in turn fell to Nazism after little more than a decade.

Without wanting to push the analogy too far, there are some uncomfortable parallels between Wilhelmine Germany and the latter-day European Union. It used to be said that Prussia differed from its neighbors in one crucial respect: instead of being a state with an army, it was an army with a state. Prussian militarism was firmly embedded in the German Reich, and its enduring influence after 1918 hastened the Weimar Republic’s demise.

In recent decades, we could modify the Prussian formula with a dash of poetic licence: postwar Germany wasn’t a state with a central bank, it was a central bank with a state. The single currency has entrenched the culture of the Bundesbank at a higher level, just as the unification of Germany once did the same for the Prussian officer corps. The consequences over the last decade have been disastrous. Through its management of the Euro-crisis, instead of bringing people together, the European Union has driven them further apart. Relations between Germany and southern Europe would certainly be much warmer today if the euro had never existed.

“A Safeguarded Sphere”

That all lay in the future when the European Left Party (EL) was born in 2004. Its launch was an attempt to build something more ideologically homogenous than the GUE-NGL caucus, and to give the radical left a stronger voice on the European stage.

Dunphy and March draw up a largely negative balance-sheet of its record to date. To begin with, the EL hasn’t even managed to bring the existing radical left together under the same banner. In the 2014–19 parliament, just 56 percent of MEPs in the GUE-NGL group joined the EL. The list of nonmembers includes some of the most successful left-wing parties in Europe: Podemos, Iceland’s Left-Green Movement (membership of the EL is open to parties from non-EU countries), the Dutch Socialist Party, and La France Insoumise (though Mélenchon’s Left Party was a member until recently).

If the EL had been more successful in uniting the radical left, it would still have been a marginal force in the Euro-parliament. In 2014, GUE-NGL members won 5.6 percent of the vote and 52 seats out of 751; five years later, they won 6.5 percent and 39 out of 705. The weakness of the radical left in the new East European member-states has been a particular problem. In the unlikely event of the center-left bloc cementing a partnership with the Greens and the GUE-NGL, they would still be well short of an overall majority. In any case, the European parliament can’t form an executive: its leaders work with the unelected Commission and the European Council to pass legislation, usually through consensus between the larger groups.

As Peter Mair argued in 2005, there’s nothing accidental about this undemocratic process of decision-making. For Mair, the European Union should properly be seen as “a political system that has been constructed by national political leaders as a safeguarded sphere in which policy making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy.” Although Mair never spelled out the point explicitly in his writings, that meant using the European Union as a lever to enforce neoliberal economic reforms without having to secure a mandate for those reforms at national level. The structures of the European Union are not available for the radical left to make use of, even if its parties were much stronger and more cohesive than they currently are.

Syriza’s Failure

The economic straitjacket imposed by the eurozone was already a major problem for left-wing forces before the crash of 2008. Dunphy and March discuss the experience of Italy’s Rifondazione Communista, which had been considered one of the most successful and dynamic RLPs in Western Europe. On joining a coalition with the center-left, Rifondazione “found itself voting in favour of the 2007 Finance Law which imposed budget cuts to bring Italy into line with the criteria laid down in the Stability and Growth Act (which it and the EL opposed), while struggling unsuccessfully inside the government to ameliorate the effects of some of these cuts by having them postponed, and then lending its support to strike action against the very cuts for which it had voted.” The party’s brief stint in government dealt it a crippling blow from which the Italian radical left has yet to recover.

But the structures of the single currency became a far more intrusive reality for EU citizens as the Euro-crisis unfolded in the wake of the crash — above all in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, where Troika officials took direct charge of government policy. The destructive impact of the Troika on Greek society paved the way for Syriza’s rise from 2012 onwars. As Dunphy and March recall, the European Left Party tried to use Syriza as a rallying-point for its efforts in other countries, nominating Alexis Tsipras as its candidate for the presidency of the European Commission in 2014: “Our candidacy will be a megaphone for all citizens who want to stop austerity and open the way for a social, ecological and democratic rebuilding of Europe.” The Italian left parties even branded their joint slate “The Other Europe — with Alexis Tsipras.”

The abject failure of Syriza to fulfill its mandate after winning the 2015 election thus came as a bitter disappointment to its EL sister-parties. Indeed, as Panagiotis Sotiris observed recently, that failure still haunts the European radical left. The question of what went wrong is complex and multifaceted, of course. But in this context, it’s important to note that the Syriza leadership entered the crisis with a strong commitment to left-Europeanism, whose roots can be traced all the way back to Altiero Spinelli’s influence on the Eurocommunist parties of the 1970s. It was only the minority Left Platform within the party that insisted the eurozone was unreformable.

When it came to the crunch in the summer of 2015, Syriza simply wasn’t prepared for a break with the euro, in practical or even psychological terms. Obviously, it would have been necessary to begin those preparations much earlier, well before taking office. Tsipras clearly didn’t expect the referendum of July 2015 to deliver an overwhelming vote against Troika blackmail, and he had no idea how to capitalize on the outcome.

If Tsipras wasn’t ready to take Greece out of the eurozone at that point, there was still an alternative to outright capitulation: for Syriza to make way temporarily for a government of technocrats that would sign an agreement with the European Union so the Greek state could remain solvent. Once that was done, Tsipras could have led his party into a new election with a clear platform calling for Greece to leave the single currency, as the only way to escape the Troika’s austerity programs. If the majority of Greeks shied away from that prospect — as might very well have been the case — it would still have clarified the stakes, and preserved Syriza as a radical alternative to the status quo.

Instead, Tsipras used all the political capital he had built up since 2012 to do the Troika’s bidding and carry out the most draconian public-spending cuts to date. The social suffering caused by those cuts was bad enough. But Syriza’s U-turn in office also choked off any belief in the possibility of an alternative, and the moral collapse of Tsipras and his lieutenants extended well beyond questions of economic policy. Needless to say, the primary responsibility for what happened lies with the architects of Euro-austerity. However, Syriza won support precisely because it promised to challenge those architects. Europe is still counting the cost of its inability to do so.

Lessons Learned?

Dunphy and March quote from the political document adopted by the EL at its fifth congress in December 2016:

The democratic legitimacy of each country must take priority over the current European treaties. A state should have the right to non-application of European directives and decisions that are regressive in terms of social and democratic gains and the people’s rights. European laws should be drawn up jointly by the European Parliament and the national parliaments. The European Commission should not have the right to initiate legislation.

As the authors note, this would in effect give member-states the right to disregard any EU directive. After all, who can determine objectively which directives are “regressive in terms of social and democratic gains”, and which ones are not? Cédric Durand has pushed this argument to its logical conclusion, suggesting that every EU country should have the freedom to opt out of European legislation, while at the same time new laws could be adopted by a simple majority in the Euro-parliament: “This would drastically increase the stakes of European politics, making it less boring and encouraging the emergence of a truly continental-scale democratic life.”

One of the EL’s founding members, the Portuguese Left Bloc, turned sharply away from left-Europeanism — in theory at any rate — after the experience of Syriza. As two leading members of the party argued, in an essay also quoted by Dunphy and March:

The main European delusion is the idea that the European Union’s sorry state is due to the subversion of the generous and solidary intentions of its founding fathers. If we disregard the propaganda about the European Social Model, which was never actually converted into real European law or policies, it becomes clear that the EU was never intended as a Union based on economic and social solidarity.

However, Portugal has since become an example cited approvingly by those who insist a radical break with European integration is unnecessary. Dunphy and March don’t touch on the experience of the center-left Costa government, which relied on support from the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party after 2015. Portugal can now be added to the list of countries where the radical left has formed part of a governing majority (neither of its RLPs took ministerial positions in Costa’s cabinet). The experiment was a success, in electoral terms at any rate: Costa’s Socialist Party was reelected with an increased vote share in 2019, and the Left Bloc held onto the seats it had won four years earlier, although the Communists lost some of their electorate and the overall turnout was very low (less than 49 percent).

The Portuguese model has stood out at a time when good news of any kind for the European Left has been rare. But we shouldn’t lose sight of its limitations. In Radical Left Parties in Europe, Luke March noted that the achievements of RLPs in office had been fairly modest: “incremental increases in welfare and employment benefits, the dilution of marketization and privatization, progressive legislation, some increase in government subsidies and regulation, but hardly a ‘radical’ reformulation of capitalism.” The Costa government clearly fits within that framework. Its legislative accomplishments have largely involved rolling back some of the destructive, antisocial measures enacted under Troika supervision after 2010. The restoration of four public holidays, for example, was a very welcome move for Portuguese workers, but it was a right they had already enjoyed before the economic crisis.

Even within those carefully circumscribed limits, the Portuguese experiment has relied upon a period of sustained economic growth that made it possible to increase public spending while obeying the eurozone’s budgetary rules. The European Commission had been gearing up to fine Portugal in the summer of 2016 for supposed laxity when the UK’s Brexit vote prompted EU officials to take a softer line. The shackles of the single currency still constrain its members, and the real test will come during an economic downturn.

Greece was in an especially vulnerable position when Syriza took power at the start of 2015. But any left government with an ambitious program of social reform will come into conflict with the framework of the eurozone. The moment of truth may not arrive as quickly as it did for Syriza, but it will certainly come sooner or later. The hard-won lessons of the past decade should not be discarded simply because right-wing forces can also take up the banner of opposition to the European Union, as Britain has clearly demonstrated. European integration poses a very particular set of challenges for left-wing forces in the region. Those challenges must be faced without any lingering illusions in the progressive character of the European project.