While France teeters on the brink of the far right, left parties elsewhere in Europe are showing surprising strength.
Going in to the recent elections in the Netherlands, the mainstream story seemed lifted from William Butler Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming’: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold — The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The right was on the march, the left at war with itself, the traditional parties adrift, and the barbarians were hammering at the gates of the European Union.
It’s a grand image, rather like Game of Thrones. But the reality is considerably more complex.
There is, of course, some truth in the apocalyptic imagery: right-wing parties in the Netherlands, France and Germany have grown. There are indeed some sharp divisions among left parties. And many Europeans are pretty unhappy with those that have inflicted them with austerity policies that have tanked living standards for all but a sliver of the elite.
But there are other narratives at work in Europe these days besides an HBO mega series about blood, war and treachery.
A shot across the status quo in the Netherlands
The recent election in the Netherlands is a case in point. After holding a lead over all the other parties, Geert Wilders’s right-wing, racist Party for Freedom faltered. In the end, his Islamophobes didn’t break the gates, though they did pick up five seats.
Overall it was a victory for the center, but it was also a warning for those who advocate “staying the course” politics — and, most pointedly, the consequences of abandoning principles for power.
The Left Greens did quite well by taking on Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda and challenging Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy on the economic front. In one national debate, Jesse Klaver, the GreenLeft’s dynamic leader, argued that janitors should be paid more and bankers less. The election, he said, is not about “Islam and Muslims,” but about “housing, income, and health care.” The voters clearly bought it.
Rutte’s coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, was crushed, losing 29 seats. For the past four years, the Dutch Labor Party has gone along with Rutte’s programme of raising the retirement age and cutting back social spending and voters punished them for shelving their progressive politics for a seat at the table.
Rutte’s party also lost eight seats, which probably went to centrist parties like Democrats66, suggesting that Rutte’s “business as usual” isn’t what voters want either (though it’s still the number one party in the 150-seat parliament).
There were some lessons from the Dutch elections, though not the simplistic one that the “populist” barbarians lost to the “reasonable” center.
What it mainly demonstrated is that voters are unhappy with the current situation, they are looking for answers and parties on the left and centre left should think carefully about joining governments that think it “reasonable” to impoverish their own people.
France on the brink
Next up in the election docket is France, where polls show Marine Le Pen’s neo-Nazi National Front leading the pack in a five-way race with traditional right-wing candidate Francois Fillon, centrist and former Socialist Party member Emmanuel Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon, and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon.
The first round, scheduled for April 23, will eliminate all but the two top vote getters. A final round will be held May 7.
With Melenchon and Hamon running at 11.5% and 13.5% respectively, thus splitting the left vote, the race appears to be between Fillon, Macron, and Le Pen, with the latter polling slightly ahead of Macron and considerably better than Fillon.
If you’re attracted to the apocalypse analogy, France is probably your ticket.
Le Pen is running a campaign aimed against anyone who doesn’t look like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc, but her strong anti-EU positions play well with young people, in small towns, and among rural inhabitants. All three groups have been left behind by neoliberal EU policies that have resulted in de-industrialization and growing economic inequality. Polls indicate she commands 39% of 18-to-24 year olds, compared with 21% for Macron and 21% for Fillon.
Fillon has been wounded by the revelation that he’s been using public funds to pay family members some $850,000 for work they never did. But even before the scandal, his social conservatism played poorly with the young, and workers are alienated by his economic strategy that harkens back to that of British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, whom he greatly admires. His programmes sound much like Donald Trump’s: Cut jobless benefits and social services, lay off public workers and give tax cuts to the wealthy.
Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker and former minister of economics under Hollande, is running neck and neck with Le Pen under the slogan “En Marche” (“on our way”), compelling critics on the left to ask “to what?” His platform is a mix of fiscal discipline and mild economic stimulation. At 39, he’s young, telegenic and a good speaker. But his policies are vague, and it’s not clear there’s a there there.
Most polls indicate a Le Pen vs Macron runoff, with Macron coming out on top, but that may be dangerous thinking. Macron’s support is soft. Only about 50% of those who say they intend to vote for him are “certain” of their vote. In comparison, 80% of Le Pen’s voters are “certain” they will vote for her.
There are, as well, some disturbing polling indications for the second round. According to the IFOP poll, some 38% of Fillon’s supporters say they’ll jump to Le Pen – that’s 2 million voters – along with 7% of Hamon voters and 11% of Melenchon backers.
What may be the most disturbing number, however, is that 45% of Melenchon voters say they won’t vote at all if Macron is the anti-Le Pen candidate in the second round. Some 26% of Fillon’s voters and 21% of Hamon’s voters would similarly abstain.
Le Pen will need at least 15 million votes to win, and the Front has never won more than six million nationally. But if turnout is low, Le Pen’s strongly motivated voters could put her into the Elysee Palace. In this way, France most resembles Britain prior to the Brexit vote.
If that comes to pass, Le Pen will push for a national referendum on the EU. There’s no guarantee the French will vote to stay in the Union. And if they leave, that will be the huge trade organisation’s death knell. The EU can get along without Britain, but it could not survive a Frexit.
Surprising strength on the German Left
Germany will hold national elections on September 24, but the story there is very different than the one playing out in France.
The German government is currently a grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. The alliance has been a disaster for the Social Democrats, which at one point saw its poll numbers slip below 20%.
But German politics has suddenly shifted. On Merkel’s left, the Social Democrats changed leaders and have broken with industrial policies that have driven down the wages of German workers in order to make the country an export juggernaut. On the chancellor’s right, the racist, neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany has drained Christian Democrat voters to support a ban on immigration and a withdrawal from the EU, although the Alternative is dropping in the polls.
The game changer has been the sudden popularity of former EU president Martin Schulz, the new leader of the Social Democrats. The party is now neck and neck with Merkel’s bloc, and some polls show Schulz actually defeating Merkel. In terms of personal popularity, Schulz is now running 16 points ahead of Merkel. While the chancellor’s Christian Democrat alliance tops the polls at 34%, the Social Democrats are polling at 32% and climbing.
Schulz has made considerable headway critiquing declining living standards. Germany has large numbers of poorly paid workers and almost 20% of workers age 25-to-34 are on insecure, short-term contracts. Unemployment benefits have also been cut back, even though Germany’s economy is the most robust in Europe and the country has a $310 billion surplus.
In any case, the days when Merkel could pull down 40% of the vote are gone. Even if her coalition comes in number one, it may not have enough seats to govern, even if its traditional allies, the Free Democrats, make it back into the Bundestag.
That creates the possibility of the first so-called “red-red-green” national government of the Social Democrats, the left-wing Die Linke Party and the Green Party. Die Linke and the Greens are both polling at around 8%. Such an alliance currently runs several major cities, including Berlin. It would not be an entirely comfortable united front: The Social Democrats and the Greens are pro-EU, while Die Linke is highly critical of the organisation.
But there is a model out there that gives hope.
Portugal is currently run by a three-party centre-left to left alliance. Those parties also disagree on things like the EU, the debt and NATO membership, but for the time being they’ve decided that stimulating the economy and easing the burden of almost a decade of austerity trumps the disagreements.
An Italian wild card
And then there are the Italians.
While Italy hasn’t scheduled elections, the defeat of a constitutional referendum supported by Democratic Party leader and then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi last December almost guarantees a vote sometime in the next six months.
Italy has one of the more dysfunctional economies in the EU, with one of the Union’s highest debt ratios and several major banks in deep trouble. It’s the EU’s third largest economy, but growth is anaemic and unemployment stubbornly high, particularly among the young.
Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party still tops the polls, but only just, and it’s fallen nearly 15 points in two years. Nipping at its heels is the somewhat bizarre Five Star Party run by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose politics are, well, odd.
Five Star is strongly opposed to the EU, and allies itself with several right-wing parties in the European parliament. It applauded the election of Trump. On the other hand, it has a platform with many progressive planks, including economic stimulation, increased social services, a guaranteed income for poor Italians, and government transparency. It is also critical of NATO.
Five Star has recently taken a few poll hits, because the party’s mayor of Rome has done a poor job keeping the big, sprawling city running — in truth, even the ancient Romans found it a daunting task — and is caught up in a financial scandal. Some Democratic Party leaders are also being investigated for corruption.
The only other major parties in the mix are former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, which is polling around 13%, and the racist, xenophobic Northern League at 11.5%.
The latter, which is based the northern Po Valley, made a recent effort to broaden its base by taking its campaign to Naples in southern Italy. The result was a riot, with protestors tossing rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails at Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.
There are informal talks going on about uniting the two right-wing parties. Berlusconi has worked with the Northern League in the past.
There are also a gaggle of smaller parties in the parliament, ranging from the Left Ecology/Greens to the Brothers of Italy, none registering over 5%. But since whoever comes out on top will need to form a coalition, even small parties will likely punch above their weight.
If Five Star does come in first and patches together a government, it will press for a referendum on the EU and there is no guarantee that Italians – battered by the austerity policies of the big trade group – won’t decide to bail like the British did. An Italexit would probably be a fatal blow to the EU.
Predicting election outcomes is tricky these days, the Brexit and the election of Trump being cases in point.
The most volatile of the upcoming ballots are in France and Italy. Germany’s will certainly be important, but even if Merkel survives, the centre-right will be much diminished and the left stronger. And that will have EU-wide implications.
The European left is divided, but not all divisions are unhealthy and a robust debate is not a bad thing.
None of the problems Europe faces are simple. Is the EU salvageable? What are the alternatives to austerity? How do you tackle growing inequality and the marginalisation of whole sections of society? How do you avoid the debt trap facing many countries, blocked by the EU’s economic strictures from pursuing any strategy other than more austerity?
In a recent interview, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and one of the founders of the left organisation DiEM25, proposed a “New Deal” for Europe, where in “All Europeans should enjoy in their home country the right to a job paying a living wage, decent housing, high-quality health care and education, and a clean environment.”
The New Deal has five goals that Varoufakis argues can be accomplished under the EU’s current rules and without centring more power in Brussels at the expense of democracy and sovereignty. These would include “large-scale” investment in green technology, guaranteed employment with a living wage, an EU-wide anti-poverty fund, a universal basic income, and anti-eviction protections for the vulnerable.
None of those goals will be easy to achieve, but neither can Europe continue on its current path. The right-wing “populists” may lose an election, but they aren’t going away.
Almost 40 years ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched her conservative assault on trade union rights, health care, education and social services with the slogan, “There is no alternative.” The world is still harvesting the bitter fruits of those years and the tides of hatred and anger they unleashed. It is what put Trump into the Oval Office and Le Pen within smelling distance of the French presidency.
But there is an alternative, and it starts with the simple idea of the greatest good to the greatest number.