Will Europe Veer Left?

By Ognyan Minchev

Francois Hollande's victory in France, state elections in Germany, and the political radicalization of Greece all signal a possibility for a revival of the left in Europe. A left-wing wave was anticipated with the beginning of the world financial crisis of 2008. Shrinking labor markets, fiscal austerity measures, and economic stagnation tend to produce political radicalization in favor of the left throughout the history of modern industrial society. But this time, the move leftward proved slow and unconvincing. The European Parliament elections of 2009, together with national elections in Sweden (2010), Spain (2011), Portugal (2011), and most of Central Europe, brought center-right parties into government. What caused the average European voter to sideline left alternatives in the midst of these crises?

The European Left - Socialists, Labor, and Greens - has stagnated since the 1980s, when the political wave of neo-conservatism/neo-liberalism swept across the Western world, returning free-market orthodoxy and replacing half a century of Keynesian regulatory policies. National wealth redistribution through a powerful welfare state provided European social democracy with the policy instruments to pursue its political agenda: more equality, more collective decision-making in favor of "society," and more welfare provisions for the unprivileged social strata.
The collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s generated additional arguments for the crisis of socialist values and associated policies. Soviet communism was a totalitarian and oppressive system, but its demise signaled a general crisis of leftist-socialist visions of the world. Former Soviet bloc countries swiftly chose free-market "shock therapy" economic reform, complementing the wave of political democratization after communism.

It took a decade for Europe's democratic left to develop and implement a strategy adjusting to the realities of a changing world. The new synthesis of socialism and liberalism - the Third Way - was tested first by Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain, and later by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Neue Mitte government in Germany. The strategy of social liberalism involved two major priorities. First, it required reconciliation between the left and the free market. The policies of fiscal austerity and smaller government brought by Margaret Thatcher/Ronald Reagan-style conservatives were adopted as a consensual economic and social-welfare orthodoxy by the Third Way left. The left argued that better market results will promote better welfare policies by generating more wealth in the market, not by changing the balance between private and government spending. The 2008 shake up on Wall Street provoked questions about this free-market consensus, and a new consensus has yet to emerge.

Second, social liberals of the Third Way readily replaced socialist internationalism with globalization in their system of beliefs. Both European and U.S. left-wingers passionately advocated the demise of the nation-state in favor of the powerful tide of globalization. Yet by attacking the nation-state and nationalism, social liberals preserved some continuity with the old leftist internationalist identity, deserted in favor of neo-liberalism, which focused on justice and equality for all peoples - "Proletarians have no Fatherland," insisted Karl Marx - at the expense of the rights of particular nations.

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The 2008 crisis signaled the limits of de-regulation and free-market policies in a world where national institutions have a hard time governing a truly global economic and financial system. Republicans and Democrats alike attempted to rescue the U.S. financial system with several successive government bailout packages. Many other governments of the world did the same, when they could afford it. But not European governments. The crisis of the euro has revealed the limitations of the EU's fiscal mechanisms with its limited bailout capacity to assuage growing public debt at national levels. Instead of attempts to stimulate growth through Keynesian interventions, Europe faces the harsh realities of austerity measures imposed by Berlin, which argues that this is the only way for the euro zone to survive.

This would seem an obvious window of opportunity for the European left to advocate an alternative strategy for crisis management. Hollande ran on a ticket of "economic growth" and against "austerity." But is there really a left-wing alternative to fiscal conservatism in Europe? Or is the choice really about a growing demand for political change within a framework of narrow opportunities for designing alternative economic policies in the EU? In order to succeed, a left-wing strategy would require a high level of solidarity within Europe, which it currently lacks. Only limited leftist solidarity is likely to be generated at the level of national economic decision-making, even in larger European countries. Public opinion in Europe is not inclined toward more pan-European solidarity. Growing public support for far-right parties indicates a swing toward renationlizing policies on economy, social welfare, and immigration.

The swing to the left may widen after the victory of Francois Hollande, which mirrors a strong leadership crisis in Europe. Many center-right leaders, like Nicolas Sarkozy, have not satisfied public expectations. Europe's left-wing parties may improve their chances to rule as a result of the continuing, painful European crisis. Yet they lack new visions or sustainable ideas for political and economic change. They seem not to share a vision of a new European fiscal and institutional model. This may come later, of course, just as they were earlier forced to embrace the free market and globalization. But as of today, Europe has not turned left.

Ognyan Minchev is a non-resident fellow with the Balkan Trust for Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

(AP Photo)

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