Image: Ed Everett / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Image: Ed Everett / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Momentum for a Europe of the many

Mario Candeias & Johanna Bussemer

Opportunities for a connective platform

Since the beginning of the great crisis ten years ago the political landscape is been revolved. Due to the given new authoritarianism of the ruling classes it is not that much surprising that various protest movements and new left parties were defeated. It is rather astonishing that time and again new radical movements are bursting out all over the place. Meanwhile they have a fierce competition from the radical right, having a menacing rise all over Europe. In face of the European elections the political landscape is very polarized. But the left is divided and quarrelling over the European question. However many share the urge to resist the threat from a global authoritarianism and from the rise of the radical right. This could be the necessary impulse for a strong mobilization. Moreover we suggest to create a European Momentum, a connective platform across the dividing lines of the left, to symbolically articulate this feeling of urgency and create a base for something new.

Uprisings and mobilizations

When Europeans head to the polls to re-elect the European Parliament in May 2019, the process will further lay bare the cracks in the European party system as we know it. As the financial crisis enters its tenth year, the economies of the EU’s member states seem to have returned to relative, low-level stability. However, the political ripples emanating from the crisis continue to have far-reaching consequences: in many EU states, the dominant major parties are seeing their support ebb away, while new parties and protest movements are taking shape.

Initially, this political shift held considerable promise for the Left in the years following 2011, embodied by a broad range of events that included new strike actions against austerity and the financial crisis, the occupation of city squares and even electoral victory for Syriza in Greece. But each of these gains came up against a wall of heavily institutionalised power, which is perhaps felt nowhere more keenly than in the European institutions (previously dubbed the ‘troika’). And yet the legacy of these achievements can still be seen: In spite of the severe defeat against the Troika, Syriza is still in the government, and the last memorandum ended in summer 2018. Albeit fierce budget cuts and privatizations were enforced by the European institutions, nevertheless the Greek government was able to implement some important reforms, in health, fighting energy poverty or concerning tax justice. It remains to be seen whether Tsipras will win another term. The Greek experience led to many frustrations. But resistance in Europe is lifting its head time and again.

This is partly thanks to the new protest movements that have been unleashed and their ongoing resonance. Out of the 15M movement in Spain grew Podemos and then Unid@s Podemos, creating a fruitful relationship between the old and the new Left. Following the widespread strike actions and occupation of squares by the Nuit Debout protests in France, La France Insoumise, the left-wing party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was able to establish itself as a new political force and has now become the country’s leading opposition party. It is true that until now the greatest and most lasting results have been achieved where La France Insoumise stood together with the French Communist Party. However, the relationship between La France Insoumise and the more traditional communist party remains fraught with tension: the two officially split at the FCP’s conference held at the end of November 2018. La France Insoumises’ organisational base, the Parti de Gauche (Left Party), has already relinquished its membership of the European Left (EL) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon is looking to set up a second pan-European left-wing alliance. Meanwhile, the ‘yellow vest’ protesters are proving once more that there are still many in France who feel they have no political representation (cf. Chwala 2018, Bussemer 2018b).

In the United Kingdom, anger with the government’s handling of the financial crisis has led to contradictory processes: on the one hand, we have seen the near collapse of social democracy in the country after years of New Labour, the rise of the radical right-wing party UKIP, and Brexit, a project driven by UKIP and ultra-right-wing members of the Conservative Party. On the other hand, the Labour Party has undergone a turbulent period of renewal since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, the creation and mobilisation of Momentum and an inner-party “civil war”. It is comparable to the developments that took place around Bernie Sanders in the US; however, unlike events across the pond, in the UK this led not to initial defeat but to a newfound hope in social democracy. Here opportunities are taking shape for a new form of social democracy to be born – one that breaks free of the neoliberal mould. British Labour has managed to wrest the party free from the thoroughly neoliberal project that was Blairism and taken it back to its socialist roots. Equally, the creation of the grassroots organisation Momentum, which sees itself as a platform for organisations and movements that support Labour but which is not integrated into the formal party structure, has allowed the party to embrace a more modern style of cooperation. The Labour leadership team, consisting of Corbyn, John McDonnell and Jon Trickett, works closely with Momentum and was able to secure the party leadership thanks to the sharp rise in new members inspired by these movements. The success of the party’s restructuring has, however, been limited when it comes to securing majorities within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

There is only one other example of a moderate regeneration of social democracy delivering success: in Portugal, a country which saw Europe’s largest protests against the crisis (relative to its population), we have witnessed an incredibly successful cooperation between the country’s two radical left parties, and their toleration of the social democratic, anti-austerity government (cf. Candeias and Principe 2017). Elsewhere social democracy is experiencing a dramatic collapse, starting with PASOK in Greece, the Parti Socialiste in France and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), to name but a few. Germany’s Social Democratic Party has also been gradually on the decline since 1998 and now finds itself in a vicious downward spiral.

It is in only a few cases that the radical left has been able to benefit from this development. But there are promising initiatives and fresh starts taking shape almost everywhere, be it in Slovenia and Croatia, Poland, Belgium or Italy, and they have received and will continue to need support from the RLS within the scope of its international activities. New left-wing parties have also been successful at the ballot box in many of the smaller states of Eastern and South Eastern Europe. The political landscape emerging as a result of these new (and, on occasion, rather successful) parties – for example Slovenia’s Levica – is complex. Where the Right criticises the EU, the Left appears sympathetic to Europe. Poland’s Razem party is pro-European because the country’s Right is pursuing EU-critical, nationalist policies and putting key fundamental rights at stake. In the Balkans, where the conservatives have thrown their weight behind the EU project, and thus simultaneously chipped away at workers’, social and fundamental rights, the Left has to be, by implication, critical of the EU.

Yet these small victories pale in comparison to the rise of the radical right that is taking place almost all over Europe. However, one thing is worth noting: the only countries where the radical right could be kept away from power, or its surge halted, were those states where the Left is strong (Greece, Spain, Portugal, the UK). This also proves how important social mobilisation and organisation inspired by the Left are in the fight against the radical right. But this is no guarantee for the future, as we can see in Spain with the rise of Vox, a neofascist party rooted in the Franco tradition.

Across Europe – albeit with substantial variance between different countries – and internationally, most notably in the US and Latin America, a new feminist International is taking shape with tremendous potential for organisation on the Left. The success of these feminist movements is closely linked to the rise of the radical right, which has wasted no time in launching a sexist – and, in some cases, much more aggressive – assault on women’s and reproductive rights, for example in the US, Poland; Spian and Argentina. In such cases, the feminist movement has proven to be highly effective at mobilising demonstrators – more than six million people took part in Spain’s women’s strike – as well as at preventing attacks on women’s rights, as demonstrated in Poland when politicians attempted to tighten abortion laws.

Meanwhile, those orchestrating these attacks, the radical right, are by no means a uniform group. In France the Front National was nearly able to take presidential power, but then experienced a surprisingly significant disintegration, enforcing a reorganisation: the party changed its name to Rassemblement National, reaching up to 20 percent in the polls. In Germany the AfD is becoming more and more radical. What will be crucial in determining the future of these right-wing parties is how an ethno-nationalist (or “volkish”) as well as a national ‘social’ fraction interacts with those within the party who are radical national-neoliberal. The developments taking place in Austria give cause for concern that similar trends may occur in Germany and elsewhere. There has also been unease in the aftermath of elections held in Italy, a country once considered one of the most pro-Europe populations. Here Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, a party that incorporates both right- and left-wing policies, governs together with the radical right and xenophobic Lega party led by Matteo Salvini, while the divided Left fights for its survival and needs to reorganise (see Porcaro and Mezzadra/Caccia). Like in many other cases in Europe, the Italian Left has yet to find a way to fill the void that has opened up following the fall of social democracy.

The rise of the radical Right and a new authoritarianism

The rise of the radical right is also a consequence of a new form of authoritarianism that assumes multiple guises. The foundations were laid in the EU’s authoritarian and anti-democratic handling of the crisis and, not least, in the actions of Germany’s government and successive German finance ministers. Yet there is another form of authoritarianism at play, one that is mainly embodied, for example, by the authoritarian, nationalist governments at the helm in Poland and Hungary, and by leaders such as Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi. But the re-emergence of political entrepreneurs, or Bonapartism, is not restricted to these specific examples. In France, Emmanuel Macron and his movement, En Marche!, simultaneously dismantled both of the country’s longstanding political powerhouses, the UMP and the PS, while in Austria, Sebastian Kurz and his modestly named ‘Liste Sebastian Kurz – the New People’s Party’ not only hollowed out the old People’s Party (ÖVP), but also paved the way for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) to return to government.

For a long time, the Germany seemed to be immune to these radical political shifts. It was considered a haven of stability in uncertain times marred by a perpetual sense of crisis – despite the fact that its export model and the hard-line austerity policies that it imposed on its European ‘partners’ are one of the main reasons why Europe is now facing its biggest crisis – one in which, for the first time, Europe’s very integration is being called into question. Here the issue is not so much the threat of other member states following the example of the UK and leaving the Union; rather, the EU seems plagued by a gradual decay from within, with its institutions seeing their legitimacy ebb away. In response to this, as most recently seen in discussions surrounding Italy’s budget, the EU is attempting to assert its legitimacy through authoritarian means. These attempts are being met with rejection by swathes of the population in the affected countries and – with varying degrees of openness – being boycotted by an increasing number of governments. The majority of European governments, from Hungary to Germany, are no longer fully adhering to ratified agreements on certain issues; some are even openly violating accords. Weaker states hope that by opposing the EU they can exert pressure and score political points in their own countries, as is currently being attempted by Hungary with regard to the issue of migration and central bank policy. The dominant governments, most notably Germany and its allies, violate agreements only to then subsequently lay down new rules through new regulations with constitutional status (a notable example being the Fiscal Compact). However, the EU’s loss of legitimacy is also partly a result of Germany’s dominance in Europe. Now that Germany has itself entered a period of instability, the political sands have started to shift.

The Left in Europe between effective mobilisation, populism and reorganisation

The radical political changes outlined above will almost certainly have an impact on the results of the upcoming European Parliament elections. Significant shifts are to be expected: Following the polls social democracy may lose half of the parliamentary seats, while the radical right might reach up to 21 percent of the seats (incl. Polish PiS and Hungarian Fidesz). In Italy the two parties in the radical right government – Five Stars but especially the Lega – may get up to 70 percent of the votes (see Ey 2018, 2f). These parliamentary shifts, already in place in the most powerful European Council, will have direct consequences on the composition of the European Commission as well as on replacements in the European Court of Justice. The political shifts within the nation states are finally and fully reaching the European level.

The elections are set to take place against a backdrop of uncertainty: when we speak of the crisis entering its tenth year, we do so with good reason. The economic consequences of Brexit may perhaps not be as severe as often mooted; however, the impact the UK’s departure will have on labour and social rights for British and European workers (especially those in Eastern Europe) is likely to be catastrophic. There is also no solution in sight for the issue of Northern Ireland and its ‘special status’. In any case, a successful Brexit may set a precedent for other states who are growing weary of Europe. More influential, however, are the movements taking place within nation states, such as the trends toward independence taking hold from Scotland to Catalonia, which might encourage a different kind of disintegration.

European governments, most recently Macron in France, are frantically putting forward suggestions of ways to counteract this trend toward disintegration and to further consolidate European integration. However, Germany’s government is showing no visible signs of making any fundamental changes that will shift the current direction in which Europe is heading. The EU has never been in more desperate need of reform, but the necessary changes are nowhere in sight – and all this is coming at a time when international financial institutions warn that we are facing the very real threat of a new financial and economic crisis. The EU governments only seem to have a consensus when it comes to the expansion of the security apparatuses, to a militarisation of the EU with a view to expanding military cooperation, armament investments, border security and efforts to keep refugees at bay.

Given the existing EU governments’ relative inability to bring about reform, it is important to further develop and, most importantly, increase the visibility of left alternatives. The public debate will be heavily shaped by a simple binary choice between those who are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Europe. But the situation is slightly more complex for the Left. The Left in Europe is against the EU in its current incarnation but for a united Europe. The vast majority of potential left-wing voters feel very pro-European but sceptical toward the institutions governing Europe and indifferent about the discussions being held at a European level, which do nothing to address the everyday problems of many. The Left Party thus has to ‘make an alter Europe and to address it differently, closer to the lives and every-day experiences of individual Europeans. Here the aim should be to engage with the widespread desire to stop the Right from taking control of Europe and to offer a left-wing alternative that actively links this debate with social issues as well as with a critique of the neoliberal policies that have allowed the Right to flourish.

Sadly, there is a lack of unity between Europe’s various left-wing political projects. The European Left (EL) is in a state of relative paralysis, bogged down in a fight over its approach to the euro and the EU. At the same time, there are movements looking to form rival left-wing projects at the European level: take, for example, the split within the Left along the dividing line between La France Insoumise, Podemos, Bloco and others against the ‘old Left’. Another example is DiEM25’s transition from a grassroots movement to a political party – in Greece it will challenge Syriza, and in Germany DiEM25 will present itself to the elections with Yanis Varoufakis as top candidate; there are plans for other countries too.

The internal battle lines within the Left have grown in number and in severity despite a partial rapprochement in terms of policy and ideas. It is no longer simply a matter of deciding what to put in a manifesto, but it’s a struggle about the adequate party form and its strategy: there are a broad range of visions of what a left-wing, populist party might look like, with its heavy focus on charismatic leadership, that are in contrast to existing left-wing party forms (cf. Candeias 2018b).

Different left-wing parties and lists will stand for election in various countries. However, this may not be damaging to the cause, especially as there will presumably still be no election threshold for smaller parties in 2019. As a result, Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda and the Communist Party always stand separately, while in Spain, Podemos, Izquierda Unida, regional platforms and the environmentalist party Equo stand together. In France, the Left is still in a state of disarray. Currently the Parti Communiste is trying to persuade what is left of the Parti Socialiste to form an alliance. In Italy, there are now efforts to once again create a joint list following a string of defeats for individual parties and lists that ran separately.

It remains plausible that all left-wing parties will ultimately find themselves in the same European parliamentary group, working together to obtain the rights, financing and platform that come with such a grouping. Even the existing GUE/NGL confederal group, which also includes parties outside of the European Left, is merely a loose alliance that grants numerous freedoms to the individual parties; every party or list will stand for election in accordance with the circumstances in their respective countries and their specific strategy and tactics.

Within the European Left at least there is a minimum consensus fixed in a short program, however, this is unlikely to register with the wider public. But two attractive top candidates were nominated: Violeta Tomić from the Slovenian left party Levica and Nico Cue, General Secretary of the metal workers Wallonia-Brussels (WBM-FGTB) until 2018. But the EL has to sail in rough waters. Other pan-European initiatives, such as DiEM25, have so far only had a limited impact and perhaps already reached their high-water mark. The time is right for something new.

To create a European momentum

This is not least because social movements and initiatives can be seen practically everywhere you turn. What we need is a sort of progressive European alliance that stretches beyond the hard borders of the EU: Europe is much more than just the European Union, which, in its current form, has rightly come in for heavy criticism from the diverse Left. Instead of standing in elections as a party, this alliance should aim to symbolically embody a strong political force advocating and setting out the case for another Europe. We have had enough of these authoritarian measures against the people, of the dismantling of social and labour rights, of the tearing down of social infrastructures – from healthcare to education – of precarization and youth unemployment, of pensioners and children forced to live in poverty, of the carnage in the Mediterranean, of racism and anti-feminism, of the verbal and more and more physical violence of the radical right, of free-trade agreements and the hollowing out of democracy that they entail, of the criminalisation and suppression of protests, as well as of arms exports and the outsourcing of death.

Maybe the elections to the European Parliament offer an opportunity to show that another Europe is possible; that Europe can be rebellious and based on solidarity, taking on the established institutions and ruling classes. This Europe does already exist but it can barely be heard in the current climate or even in our own discussions, where we lose sight of the immediate problems, our common interests and our real enemies as we wrangle over separate details or long-term goals.

Here it is about linking up with real movements, to connect them – beyond the usually dividing lines within the Left -, for example with an eye to the large-scale, Europe-wide mobilisation of feminist activists against the impositions of austerity and authoritarianism – from Poland to Spain and even beyond in the US and Argentina – which suggests a new feminist International may be on the horizon.

We need a platform that is open for forces trying to break out of the jail that the traditional European social democratic party has become: the most prominent example would, of course, be Corbyn’s Labour Party, which has almost fully completed this transition, but there are other notable examples, such as Benoît Hammond’s Génération.s, the Polish left-wing Razem (both of which are affiliated with DiEM25) as well as others, such as the Demos party in Romania and Croatia’s Zagreb je NAŠ!, which although currently focused on the country’s capital is also building a nationwide political alternative, and many more. This platform could incorporate both the parties of the European Left and the new ‘movements’ and formations, such as France Insoumise, DiEM25 or Unid@s Podemos.

It will also be vital to include the many transnational movements and campaigns, such as the fight against TTIP and other free trade agreements, the ‘solidarity’ and ‘rebel’ cities networks, the welcome refugees movements along with the movements recuing the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and movements calling for action to stop the already devastating effects of climate change, to name but a few.

We need to bypass discussions on how exactly to implement individual reforms and move forward with a fundamental consensus on the defence and expansion of social and political rights for everyone in the face of the double threat that is neoliberal authoritarianism and the radical right. Creating links between European campaigns, real, locally-based movements and parties, and institutional politics would be a promising step toward effectively linking up populist momentum with real, popular projects (see Candeias 2081b). The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung together with the Labour Party and the British organization Momentum is trying to build to political infrastructure for such a connective platform for an European momentum.

This could lead the “discussions among Europe’s left-wing parties away from the complex question of whether the EU can be saved, and if so, how, to the much more pressing issue of growing social inequality in Europe” (Bussemer 2018a). Here the focus should primarily be not on finding European solutions but on achieving fundamental social rights, such as access to public healthcare provision and universal education, sanction-free basic social security payments, minimum wages and minimum basic pensions that keep recipients out of poverty in all countries, access to abortion and the (reproductive) right to live and work with children in a safe, humane environment, the right to affordable and adequate housing and the right to live without fear. The aim should be to form an alliance that knows who its opponents are and has a few clearly defined objectives. A platform and campaign against austerity and authoritarianism and for a solidarity-based Europe of the many. The time is right, but the momentum may dissipate – let’s strike while the iron is hot.


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Translation: Nivene Rafaat and Helen Veitch for lingua•trans•fair