Europe’s Left Needs a Wake-Up Call

Across the European Union, conservatives and far-right forces are uniting around an anti-immigrant and climate-skeptic agenda. Ahead of June’s EU elections, the continent’s divided left urgently needs to put forward an alternative.

Socialists and Democrats group leader Iratxe García Pérez speaks during a press conference at the Congress of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and the Nowa Lewica party on May 4, 2023 in Krakow, Poland. (Klaudia Radecka / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Speaking to the leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, it doesn’t sound like there’s much will to form a progressive front in next June’s EU elections. For Iratxe García Pérez, president of the main center-left bloc in the Brussels assembly, “the question over 2024 is whether the European People’s Party will still support a pro-European working program or prefer to side with those who want to weaken the European Union.” In short, the center-left leader is waiting for the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) — an alliance made of right-wing parties like Germany’s Christian Democrats and France’s Republicans — to determine the strategy and the coalition.

The leader of the Left group in the European Parliament, Manon Aubry, takes an opposite view: “If the Socialists think that EPP is a real ally, they will betray their own voters,” Aubry says. “It would be naive to think that [the EPP leader] will come back and say: yes to the green deal, yes to reforming budgetary rules, yes to new ethical rules. What is clear is that the far right is gaining more space and the cordon sanitaire is also falling: the Right is more and more collaborating with the far right. Either we present a common front, or we let them win.”

After the last European elections in 2019, the right-wing EPP and the progressive S&D group had once again renewed their historic cooperation, forming a “Grand Coalition” at the EU level together with the liberals of Renew. Yet EPP president Manfred Weber soon began looking for a right-wing alternative. Indeed, nobody has done so much to normalize Europe’s far right as Weber. In 2021, this German politician began a tactical alliance with Giorgia Meloni, the president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party, which includes Spain’s far-right Vox and Poland’s ultraconservative Law and Justice (PiS). Before becoming Italy’s prime minister last October, Meloni had boycotted a plan to create a single far-right group composed of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, ECR, and Identity and Democracy. By blowing up Orbán and Matteo Salvini’s plan for a united far right, Fratelli d’Italia leader Meloni obtained a privileged channel to the EPP. This was also a license for her to govern Italy, despite her neofascist biography.

But what role have Europe’s self-styled progressives played in this? In January 2022, the elections for a new leadership in the European Parliament provided the first institutional experiment of a tactical alliance between Weber’s EPP and Meloni’s ECR. Not only did Social Democrats put up no alternative, but they actually contributed with their votes to the right-wing plan: Roberta Metsola, an EPP member on friendly terms with Fratelli d’Italia, was elected as the Parliament’s president. Even more significantly, the ECR obtained its first vice president, Roberts Zile, in an unprecedented rupture of the cordon sanitaire against the far right.

Before he died in January 2022, the previous president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, had envisaged a different perspective, in which the center-left group of which he was part would play a leading role in a progressive front. Yet, this initiative was easily cast into oblivion, with the S&D group’s chair García Pérez driving the process on her own. This meant allowing EPP chief Weber to act as the key player — as he actually did, carrying on his aggressive strategy. The EPP tested an alliance with the far right by polarizing the climate issue and launching an attack against the green agenda. García Pérez, by contrast, was gun-shy. “Until one of my last speeches in the chamber, I extended a hand to Weber, and offered him my cooperation in case he wants to continue working for a common European project,” she told me in April 2023. Months have passed, and Weber’s attacks on progressives have continued unabated, but the S&D leader’s softness has not changed. Defensive rather than offensive, her strategy does nothing to temper right-wing zeal.

Reversed Perspectives

Europe’s right is stealing both internationalism and thinkers, tools and strategic capacity, from the Left. Through think tanks and satellite organizations, right-wingers have built a network spreading Budapest to Rome and Brussels; they reproduce the same tactics, whether it is an attack on green policies, migrants, or LGBTQ rights. Members of this network, such as the French xenophobic politician Éric Zemmour, explicitly refer to Antonio Gramsci: “I am waging an ideological, or Gramscian, battle,” he says. There is a hegemonic aspiration, and paradoxically it comes from the opposite side of history.

The reversal of perspectives has gone so far that the cordon sanitaire against the far right has not only been broken, but has instead been turned against the Left. After decades in which the extreme right was a taboo, the process of demonization is now being used against both the European political left and civil society, from climate activists to NGOs. This trend is truly Europe-wide, as it can be seen both in the political dynamics of various EU states and in the European Parliament itself. “The extreme left — that’s who we’re on the opposite side to,” the EU Parliament’s current president Roberta Metsola told me in fall 2021, before her election. And thereafter the EPP kept on demonizing the Left in the European Parliament, promoting anti-NGO measures and seeking confrontation with green activists, for instance over the Nature Restoration Law.

Telling in this case were the 2022 French parliamentary elections, when the campaign of Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party was focused on delegitimizing the leftist frontrunner, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, depicted as a man of the “extreme left” willing to trigger “the insurrection.” That is what the French call “diabolisation.”

France was a pioneer also with regard to the Left’s responsiveness. In early May 2022, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) was launched, as an attempt to unite a broad array of left-wing and green forces in a single front. Representing the left-wing France Insoumise party, Manon Aubry has actively participated in the negotiations for the NUPES coalition; and given that she also leads the Left group in the EU Parliament, Aubry was determined to replicate that pattern at the European level, from the start. “’The next step is to unite the left also in Europe,” she told me in June 2022, immediately after NUPES’s successful results in the French parliamentary elections. “Since the beginning of this term, the Social Democrats have had a hesitant strategy in the European Parliament. They have made deals with the EPP and liberal parties, but the result has been a weakening of their measures. A united left bloc can exert pressure and give us an advantage over the right-wingers.”

The Invisible Front

The votes that have taken place in the European Parliament over the past year on the Green Deal measures show how far Weber has succeeded in polarizing the debate over these issues between Left and Right. But they also reveal that a progressive front is possible. Where there’s a political will, there’s a way, and there are even enough seats, already in this parliamentary term: the unity of social democrats, leftists, greens, and at least part of the Renew liberals, forms a majority.

Asked about S&D’s priorities, the group’s Brussels leader García Pérez refers to “all the achievements we secured over the last four and a half years: the Green Deal, social justice, gender equality, and investments in public policies to make people’s lives better.” Climate and social justice seem to be the two cardinal points around which European green, socialist, and left-wing parties can unite their forces. But what needs understanding is how far these groups and parties do indeed intend to elaborate a common strategy — and take the initiative. A lone but bold voice, the Left’s president Aubry clearly states that “we spent too much time trying to protect ourselves from the reactionary agenda. We should also be offensive.” The unequal distribution of wealth is the first point whose importance Aubry stresses: “Tax the rich” is the European Left workhorse. It can act as a catalyst for “most of the people who suffer from the increase of prices: the superrich have never been so rich, this is time to say stop to that.”

Aubry is a young, energetic leader offering clear prospects for a way ahead. Yet this approach also faces many problems. The idea of a coalition at the European level didn’t seem to pull along the other groups. And its chances of being realized are even flimsier after the collapse of the NUPES coalition in France itself.

In October, French Communist Party (PCF) leader Fabien Roussel left this green-left coalition. Soon, the Socialist Party (PS) followed, with its leader Olivier Faure ordering a “moratorium” on working with NUPES. The PS’s debacle at the presidential elections, together with left-wing voters “pragmatically voting” for better-placed candidate Mélenchon, had made unity a matter of survival. But the PS’s loyalty to the project has always been politically troubled because of internal contradictions and Mélenchon’s hegemonic attitude.

So, it seems like while right-wingers are trying to unite, the Left still suffers divisions. Germany, once a leading force in Europe, now looks increasingly confused and disoriented, as does its progressive front. After its former parliamentary cospeaker Sahra Wagenknecht launched her own party, Die Linke has suffered a harmful split and is now fighting for its survival. But the real issue is not only the internal rifts.

From Berlin, wider splits spread in the European progressive front, too. The Social Democratic chancellor Olaf Scholz has never really taken on the role of a European leadership, and indeed his choices further fragment the S&D grouping. A marginal but telling example concerns his support for the agreement on migration between the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, and his far-right Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, despite the opposition of Scholz’s ally in Italy, the Partito Democratico (PD). And deeper cleavages have emerged since the war in the Middle East beginning on October 7. Scholz’s unconditional support for the Israeli government clashes with pro-cease-fire positions such as that taken by Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

“Yes, We Could”

But the far right can be beaten, as shown by elections this year in the EU’s fourth and fifth largest countries. Both Spain’s right-wing Partido Popular and Poland’s ultraconservative PiS were ready to lean on postfascist parties (Vox and Konfederacja, respectively) to govern. Yet not even this total loss of political inhibition has granted them a majority of seats. After months of postelection coalition talks, Socialist Pedro Sánchez was reelected Spanish prime minister this month. And even if it would be misleading to consider Donald Tusk as a progressive or even a left-wing leader, his coalition’s electoral triumph is a good litmus test of Poland’s aspiration for change. Within three years, Poland’s civil society set broke two records: the biggest protests and the highest turnout since 1989.

Strajk Kobiet (“Women’s Strike”) has in recent years mobilized huge demonstrations to defend the right to abortion, turning into anti-government rallies, especially with a renewed wave of activism since 2020. On the eve of the elections, its leader Marta Lempart told me that “young people don’t feel represented by the ruling class. Our protests have triggered a social change, now we have to turn it into a political change.” In the October 15 election, polls were so crowded that some voters had to wait until 3:00 a.m. to cast their ballots. In Wrocław, locals sent them pizzas to make the wait more bearable. Their votes brought a defeat for the long-ruling PiS — showing that the rise of the far right is not inevitable.

Another world is possible, and even probable, if only there is political will. “Parties of the left should be buoyed up by the knowledge that, in doing more for poorer people in small towns and peripheral areas, they could return to power,” Julia Cagé and Thomas Piketty state in their new analysis, A History of Political Conflict: Elections and Social Inequalities in France, 1789–2022. “Europe’s rightward drift is not set in stone,” they write. “Our new research should give hope to the left. The perception that the working classes have entirely abandoned the left is largely invented by the rightwing media and promoted by conservative elites.”

There is plenty of reason to mobilize. Across the European Union, real pay (i.e., the value of wages when inflation is taken into account) has fallen over the last year, while real profits have increased by nearly 2 percent, according to data published in mid-November by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The impact of inequalities hurts the weakest more. It is disconcerting that in the European Union, in 2022, one in four children were at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

It is no coincidence that last spring in France protests against a rise in the pension age and illiberal repression took to the streets in conjunction with rallies against mega-basins and the unequal access to water. The intertwining of social, democratic, and climate crises makes a left-wing perspective more needed than ever. What remains to be seen is if the Left’s political leaders can make that a reality ahead of June’s elections.