European Social Democracy: Opponents or Potential Partners?

Angelina Giannopoulou

This two-days workshop in Madrid in March aimed to reveal the present state of the European Social Democracy, through a concrete analysis of the European Social Democratic parties in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Belgium.

This event follows the workshop held in Helsinki (see the conference report) where we examined the parties of Italy, Sweden, Central-Eastern Europe, Greece and the United Kingdom.

In parallel, the workshop was an attempt to capture the relation between the social democracy and the radical left nowadays and both political forces’ strategy for Europe.

20 people approximately participated in the workshop that ended up with a Public Event under the title “A left strategy in Europe: a road full of thorns” co-organised by transform!, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels office and Fundación por la Europa de los Ciudadanos (FEC).

Μarga Ferré, president of FEC and a member of transform’s board moderated the discussion among Alberto Garzón, federal coordinator of Izquierda Unida and MP of Unidos Podemos, Juan Carlos Monedero, professor and founding member of Podemos, Mariana Mortágua, MP and vice-president of the Bloco de Esquerda parliamentary group, Beppe Caccia, Dr. of Euro-American Political Studies and a member of EuroNomade collective, and Catherine Samary, economist and member of Attac France. While 200 people approximately were attending the public event, 2000 were watching it through livestreaming.

After an opening session from the hosts that set the main axes of the discussion, the first panel presented the Social Democracy in Spain and Portugal. José Gusmão, economist and advisor of Bloco de Esquerda in the European Parliament outlined the economic and political landscape in Portugal before the bail-out programme. The country had never experienced a growth over 2% since entering the EU and until 2013 Portugal was continuously under huge recession. In 2013 huge demonstrations, though very diverse, gave rise to a new political majority that after the elections and with main pillar the anti-austerity strategy managed to form a government of the Socialist Party supported by the Left Bloc, the Communist Party and the Greens in 2015. The “Geringonça” (contraption) was a conservative conception aimed to ridicule this coalition through arguments such as “they will never negotiate a budget” or “if they do the economy will collapse”. However, this government has managed so far significant steps towards the improvement of the living conditions of the citizens in Portugal. In parallel, the power relations have also been transformed. The Portuguese social democratic party had never a great influence in the trade unions and in the workers’ movement, since it is not part of any great social democratic tradition. Now, there is inside the party a traditional social democratic minority represented mostly by young people with a support by party’s basis, as well as by the electoral basis. At the same time, the attitude towards the “useful vote” concept has changed. People know now that a vote to a radical left party is a useful vote. It contributes to progressive coalitions and to parliamentary control. Furthermore, since the limits of this government towards the European institutions’ demands are obvious, the Left Bloc has the ability to say “no” and withdraw its support for the government if the party thinks that they cannot vote for anti-popular measure.

Armando Fernández Steinko, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid presented the Social democratic party of Spain in a historico-sociological perspective. PSOE has been always a moderate political force since it was the most solid ally of the Spanish Crown and the institutional continuity. Through the years, the left currents became marginal and they have been structurally isolated. PSOE did never develop a strategy for the autonomy issues in Catalunya and the Basque country, they were only creating soft coalitions with Basque and Catalan nationalists. In 2008-2010 with the crisis outbreak and the end of the financialized welfare state the legitimacy of PSOE’s social-liberal project erodes. In parallel, the nationalist movements in Catalunya are being radicalized and the Socialist Party of Catalunya splits. The Socialists in Catalunya are now even weaker than before. In this framework, Podemos became the main alternative on the left of PSOE. The socialist current inside PSOE, after its disappointment from the support that the party decided towards Rajoy’s minority government, saw Unidos Podemos as a way to be represented. Armando Steinko ended up with the conclusion that Spain needs a new “mosaic” left that can gain more popular support which exceeds the 20-22%.

The French case was presented by Roger Martelli, historian and collaborator with Espaces Marx and Fondation Gabriel Péri. Starting point was the induction that the previous participation in socialist governments in France was a massive failure for the radical left. In 2012 presidential elections, François Hollande decided to put an end to the ambiguity at the heart of the French Socialist Party and rally behind the prevailing wisdom of European Socialism, in the tradition of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and, nearer still, Matteo Renzi. In 2014, after disastrous local elections, he even decided to force change: he replaced Jean-Marc Ayrault with Manuel Valls as Prime Minister – with the support of part of the Left –, including Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon. The policies that followed destabilised opinion on the Left, radicalized the Right and of course enabled a massive breakthrough by the National Front. Hamon’s run for the presidency of France has not solved the structural problem which has possessed the Socialist Party. Hamon needs to address, to his right, the supporters of Emmanuel Macron, and, to his left, the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has a quite wide platform for his electoral campaign, supported by very diverse groups of people.

The political developments in SPD were addressed by Cornelia Hildebrandt from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and a member of transform’s board who pointed out SPD’s key role in the European politics. Though SPD has been an important player in the European Parliament also, the party appeared with an exclamatory lack of strategy towards the European integration crisis. SPD has been suffered for years from identity issues. Especially after Schröder’s “Agenda 2010”, the party not only lost its traditional bonds with the people, but also a permanent electoral decline was established. The party percentagewise is close to 20-25%, a situation that now seems to start changing. Since Martin Schulz became the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in that year’s Federal elections in Germany, the party’s ratings have reached even the 33% in the polls. Schulz’s candidacy tries to build a new profile for the party, more close to the social questions and therefore, the social classes that social democracy used to represent. SPD can only succeed in the forthcoming elections by actually putting the social question on the table. However, if this is possible, then what will the radical left’s role be? SPD will surely need a coalition partner in order to form a government. Can the “Linke” support such a coalition and if yes, do we know how this will impinge on the radical left’s strategy in general?

The first day of the workshop ended with a keynote speech by Andrés Gil, chief editor of the politics section in, who presented the political situation in Spain in a nutshell with a focus on the political developments in the left parties, Izquierda Unida and Podemos and their alliance Unidos Podemos. One of his main points was that the Spanish left does not express so far, any special interest on the European politics and the question of European integration. He assumed that these questions are not of concern for the Spanish society.

Second day’s opening session by Walter Baier, the political coordinator of transform! was about the state of affairs in Europe and a political analysis of the recently released Juncker’s White Book. Walter Baier referred to the current European strategy that can be described as an authoritarian and executive federalism that aims in enhancing the military cooperation to the point of creating a military union. The White Book reveals a preference on the scenario of a multi-speed and a “more of the same” Europe. It is used as an ideological exercise towards to re-strengthen the political block that has ruled Europe for decades. In the absence of any reference to democracy in the White Book, the left needs to develop a strategy with concrete steps that can promote our vision for a Europe for the people, by the people. We have to think about the concept of regional cooperation, of the countries of the South for example, besides regional cooperation is not something new if we think about the Visegrad Group. The speaker pointed out the importance of analyzing our political parties, especially when we reflect on the great transformations inside the radical left after the collapse of the state socialism. The political parties are not only machines, they are formations that connect political projects with the civil society. Walter Baier underlined also the question of sovereignty and its significance for a radical left project that has to be at the same time internationalist and solidary. His conclusions included some thoughts on liberty and its relation with the social question.

The Labour Party (PvdA) in the Netherlands was presented by Amieke Bouma, Lecturer at the Department of European Studies in the University of Amsterdam. The developments in PvdA should be analyzed also under the scope of a multi-party system with numerous political parties, in which no one has a chance of gaining power alone, therefore parties often form coalition governments. Additionally, PvdA’s strategy should be examined taking into consideration the course of the Socialist Party (SP-Socialistische Partij), which in the last general elections in the Netherlands achieved a 9.1% of the votes, while the PvdA 5.7%. When in 2012, SP faced a huge fall in its electoral strength (from 16.6 to 9.7% of the votes), the PvdA appeared as the governing party of the left. The party’s decision to form a coalition government with the conservative VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) was taken mainly under the perspective to offer a response to the Eurocrisis. This government brought a reduction to the welfare state that caused a wide disappointment in party’s electorate, besides PvdA was a party that traditionally attracted people with migrant background. PvDa was aligned with the austerity doctrine and urged more stringent budgetary discipline. Jeroen Dijsselbloem as a Minister of Finance in the Netherlands represented the “neoliberalisation” of the party. The swing of the voters to the right is obvious also by the fact that even if all the left parties were gathered together, they could not achieve more than 30% of the votes.

Marc Johan Botenga, responsible for European Affairs in the Worker’s Party of Belgium (PtB-PvdA) presented the Belgian Socialist Parties (SP.a and PS) that governed the country for 25 years without any interruption. While there is a powerful socialist trade union, the Christian democratic trade union is the biggest one, also presenting a powerful tendency within the workers’ movement. A very crucial point of Botenga’s speech was that the formation of a right-wing federal government following the 2014 elections should have facilitated a revival for the socialist parties. Despite the great influence throughout the state apparatus, local authorities, social democratic trade unions etc., the PS faces difficulties to be a credible opposition to Michel’s Government, since the main argument is that the PS in government did the same. Belgium is a special case of a federal state with two linguistic communities and without a national constituency and within this framework the socialist party managed to create an impressive apparatus. Now, in addition to the various signals of decline, the party is having a big crisis due to scandals in which many of its members seem to be involved in. The question of cooperation between the left PtB and the Socialist Party is a wide one and includes surely the European dimension and the responses on this. Any cooperation of the left with other forces should aim at strengthening the forces of social change and popular mobilization. The Socialist Party seems to choose undermining social struggles in favour of electoral logic.

The last case study was introduced by Tamara Ehs, lecturer in Political Science in the University of Vienna. Tamara Ehs presented the Social democratic party in Austria (SPÖ) and a part of her speech was focused on the relation between the SPÖ and the far-right party Freedom Party (FPÖ) that has currently the monopoly of opposition, since there is no politically relevant left party in Austria. SPÖ’s project is mostly neoliberalism with a “social democratic face”, as illustrated in Christian Kern’s “Plan A”. Even with the historical chance of the crisis since 2008 the SPÖ did not come up with new solutions approaching the transformed electorate. The party has clearly lost its bonds with the working class, the precarious workers etc. It has reached an all-time low, only obtaining 26.8% of the votes in the last national elections in 2013. Inner party democracy is of a huge importance in party’s strategy and social alliances. The party functions in a very authoritarian way and the members cannot control anything. For the party, parliament and being in government is perceived as the only way of doing reformist politics. Therefore, the people’s interests take the second place behind the readiness to be in government without any precondition. A central point of this presentation was that the social question is addressed only by the Far-Right. The SPÖ has abandoned such issues and consequently, the party is unwilling to make a critique to the financial system and the globalization. Even if the left in Austria can be rebuilt again, there is no room for any kind of cooperation between the leftists and the social democrats.

The conclusions of the discussions during these two days were made by Haris Golemis, scientific advisor of transform! and director of Nicos Poulantzas Institute in Athens. Further questions and a new round of discussion followed. The organizers gave notice of their intention to make a publication including written contributions from the participants of both workshops in Helsinki and in Madrid.

Livestream of the public event A left strategy in Europe: a road full of thorns

Vorschaubild des YouTube-Videos
A left strategy in Europe: a road full of thorns
By clicking on the button, you agree to submitting data to YouTube.