EU Elections Spotlight Europe’s Weakened Left

Attilio Moro analyzes why the failures of neoliberalism are feeding right-wing populism in Europe. 

By Attilio Moro 
in Brussels
Special to Consortium News

The EU Parliament elections that wrapped up over the weekend may not have been the blowout that some predicted for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. But the champions of the European political establishment were still badly damaged.

In Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU party, weathered the polling, with some slippage. But its main ally, the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, lost nearly half its ground from five years ago. In France, Macron’s centrist grouping lost to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, or RN.

The results reveal a rising political tide buoying rightwing, anti-EU populists: Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini; Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the U.K.’s Brexit Party leader Nigel Farrage.

The trend leaves the partnership of the centrist European People’s Party (with Merkel as its tacit leader) and the Party of European Socialists, or PES, no longer able to run the European Parliament as it has for 40 years. Now they will need the help of external forces.

Marine Le Pen: Capturing anti-EU outrage. (Rémi Noyon via Wikimedia Commons)

All of this was predictable.

For too many years the EU political elites have neglected their  constituencies. Instead, to please Germany and banking interests, they  enforced austerity policies at the expense of lower-income people and employment.

Ultraliberalist Orthodoxy 

For too many years the EU elites have been prone to support an ultra-liberalist orthodoxy that has been ravaging the welfare state. Meanwhile, they failed to adequately address the social consequences of mass immigration. Unable to forge a common policy, they hypocritically preached human rights while striking deals with Turkey and other Mediterranean countries that provided money to keep migrants in detention camps.

Barrier along Hungarian-Serbian border, 2015. (Délmagyarország/ Andrea Schmidt via Wikimedia Commons)

For too many years the EU has been accommodating corporate lobbying and hardly responding to the problem of rising unemployment among young people in southern Europe.

The cardinal question is why voters in the lower-middle classes — marginalized and impoverished by ultra-liberal, right-wing policies— are now voting for right-wing and even extreme right-wing parties? Why not leftist parties, in keeping with the classical logic of political alternatives?

The answer appears to be simple: the European left is not seen as an alternative.

The only big European country where the left (in a very mild version of that term) marked gains is Spain. There the Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez won 33 percent of the vote. But that result mainly reflected public animus towards the corrupt and centrist People’s Party, or PP, which flooded Spanish banks with money just as the “leftist” Democratic Party, or PD, did in Italy.

Spain’s Pedro Sánchez at left: A People’s Party no-vote-getter. (CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019)

Italy’s left has more or less disappeared. It has been drowned by the very bourgeois PD, which took 23 percent of the vote, down from 38 percent five years ago. 

Mute on Yellow Vests 

In France, during the Yellow Vest era, the most impressive social uprising in recent European history, leftist parties merely held ground. Both the longstanding Socialist Party and the new Left Party got 6 percent. Neither one was able to give a political voice to the Gilet Jaunes. Instead, most of the anticapitalistic insurgency was absorbed by Le Pen’s extreme right-wing Rassemblement National (National Rally) or the Greens.

The liberal-democrats of ALDE — the most avowedly pro-business and pro-EU political group in the EU Parliament — managed to win around 15 percent of the vote. This was a clearly alarmed reaction to the prospect of an anti-European populist takeover. 

What Next?

Again, the two traditional leadership groups — the People’s Party and the PES  — will no longer be able to run the show on their own and will need new allies. ALDE will be more than happy to help, as will the Greens, under certain conditions.

The populist and right-wing parties of Le Pen, Salvini and Orban will remain in the opposition. But they will have a stronger say in the appointment of the new commissioners in Brussels. And they may continue to capitalize on the further decline of the middle class.

The “mild” PES  –  which prioritized the defense of Volkswagen over workers’ rights during the past five years — will be pushed to the margin of the new majority. The “harder” European United Left will remain at the margin of the opposition. Both are damned to disappear from the EU Parliament and from European society altogether if they continue to cede monopoly over the social protest movements to the populist and right-wing parties. 

Attilio Moro is a veteran Italian journalist who was a correspondent for the daily Il Giorno from New York and worked earlier in both radio (Italia Radio) and TV. He has travelled extensively, covering the first Iraq war, the first elections in Cambodia and South Africa, and has reported from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and several Latin American countries, including Cuba, Ecuador and Argentina. Presently, he is a correspondent on European affairs based in Brussels.

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23 comments for “EU Elections Spotlight Europe’s Weakened Left

  1. Gyre07
    May 30, 2019 at 01:08

    Just lying underneath the wave of populism sweeping the West, there’s also a dark uber right-wing nationalism spreading that the Jews are trying to capitalize on. Le Pen is expressing undying loyalty to the Jews in France, as are RW demagogues like Tommy Robinson in London. What to make of that other than they’re using the cultural disintegration of the West (which they’ve had more than a casual hand in creating via the US and NATO), to carefully apply their unique talents to sow hatred towards all Muslims throughout Europe as well as the US. Rather than disaster capitalism, they’re spreading their own form of disaster Zionism to the most gullible nations on Earth.

  2. May 28, 2019 at 13:40

    “As someone who was a angry critic of the Euro back in 1992, yesterday’s outcome was about as predictable as dawn. Why?

    The Euro, being a fiat currency comprised of almost pure information, was a product of the human imagination. Because of this, it’s success or failure was a function of monetary design. It was designed to produce wage stability, massive borrowing at usurious rates, and a dominance of financial gamesmanship…”

    IMHO, the idea of Euro was sound, but the execution flaw was that it was used to patch over other policy flaws. “Free trade” was perhaps a good idea 40 years ago, but only if it were not “overly ambitious”, leaving enough restriction in place to maintain legitimate national interests. The globalist ideology has an extremely narrow view of those interests. Welfare state is a noble idea, but hard to maintain without reasonably full employment and spirit of national solidarity. De-industralisation together with mass immigration gave a blow to both. Observe that UK kept its currency and outcomes were not very different than, say, in France, although each nation has its own style of exhibiting discontent.

    With free movement of goods, services and people, leftist idea were not operational, that lead to search for other ways of expressing “leftism”. As a result, “new left” has a distinct ersatz flavor. Europe, collectively or separately, has to replace what it views as “common sense”, and so does North America etc. In the meantime, the reason sleeps and monsters awake.

    • May 29, 2019 at 02:49

      The Euro may have been a groovy idea, but it was designed by a neoliberal / monetarist crackpot with a University of Chicago education. Because this was true, it really is quite impossible to suggest that it had any chance to be anything but economic madness. Millions of lives have been ruined by this insanity. It can be argued that Europe’s destruction by neoliberalism was so predictable, it could be correctly viewed as a feature and not a bug in the Euro’s design.

      I have written about this before a some length. See:
      if that’s not enough, try:

      • Josep
        May 31, 2019 at 17:46

        Speaking as an American who despises the US dollar and finds physical euro coins and banknotes more appealing (which can be another subject on its own), I must sadly agree. What could have been an alternative to the US dollar was sadly mismanaged.

        On the other hand, I will continue to support alternatives to the US dollar. IIRC the euro was created as a competitor to the US dollar in international trade, and this was also the very same currency Hussein tried to sell oil in before his execution. Then again, my guess is that if the euro is to be abolished in favor of the pre-euro national currencies, international trade would be done in them the same way China and Russia have begun doing trade in rubles and yuan.

        Side question: looking at Russian state-owned television broadcasts and news sites (e.g., sometimes the exchange rates between rubles and US dollars or euros are displayed. Only these two currencies and nothing else. Not even yen, yuan, francs or pounds. One thing I don’t get is, if the US is an adversary to Russia, then why do Russian state-owned broadcasters still offer exchange rates with US dollars?

        Another question: given the tumultuous state of the euro, what made Putin think it’d be okay to trade with Iran in euros? I mean, sure, they’re moving away from US dollars, but still!

  3. OlyaPola
    May 28, 2019 at 12:15

    “EU Elections Spotlight Europe’s Weakened Left”

    Honing in on a component of a complex system is a process of self-delusion obfuscating other components, one of which could be

    “EU Elections Spotlight part of Europe’s population continued immersion in “Representative Democracy (oxymoron)”.

    • OlyaPola
      May 29, 2019 at 04:58

      “Honing in on a component of a complex system is a process of self-delusion obfuscating other components, one of which could be;

      “EU Elections Spotlight part of Europe’s population continued immersion in “Representative Democracy (oxymoron)”.”
      Through the use of “statistical methods” significance becomes a function of framing to encourage What You See is What You Getism thereby facilitating What You Get is What You Don’t See.

      “Propaganda” is a function of framing, science a function of doubt, and cultish practices including “religion” are modes of bridging doubt by belief to attain “certainty” – the 2ultimate” backstop relying on “the ultimate”.

      Hence Mr. Edwards framing/formulation of “…..questing for certainty it doubts exists.  “ in :

      is misguided and possibly should better be formulated as “questing lateral change in understanding catalysed by doubt in the knowledge that certainty can never exist in any lateral system facilitating:

      • Tiu
        June 2, 2019 at 18:07

        It is all but a charade with the aim of herding the little people into the control of a centralised, authoritarian regime. Dissecting the minutia is playing into their hands.

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    May 28, 2019 at 11:23

    Looking after their own well-being for far too long. The writing was on the wall…

  5. May 28, 2019 at 10:34

    The progressive left MUST formulate a humane and courageous position against unfettered illegal and legal immigration, otherwise it will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Native Western workers are struggling enough against the powerful employer class without the added burden of having to compete against millions of desperate workers.

    I know this is an uncomfortable stand but it’s an imperative across the industrialized West — either the progressive populist left addresses all forms of immigration or it’s relegated to minority status in every legislature across the industrialized world. And yes, part of of its approach must be an acknowledgement that Washington Zio-militarist wars abroad are fueling much of the flight to our shores.

  6. Skip Scott
    May 28, 2019 at 07:58

    Whether “left” or “right”, the real argument is the globalization of corporate control over nations instead of the sovereignty of nations under control of its citizens. The anti-immigration issue is at the heart of the right vs. left struggle, and immigration wouldn’t even be a problem if citizens had control of their governments. Corporate control of US foreign policy is at the root of the crisis, which is really more a refugee crisis than an immigration crisis, all for the maximization of global corporate profit for the 1 percent.

    First we must stop the war machine. Then we can have an honest debate between the libertarians and the progressives about the extent of the role of government in a free society.

    • bob
      May 29, 2019 at 06:08

      spot on

  7. Seamus Padraig
    May 28, 2019 at 05:11

    Marine Le Pen spoke truly when she said that the struggle of our time is not between left and right, but between globalism and nationalism. After all, until our nations are free and sovereign once more, they can’t effectively change their economic, trade or immigration policies anyway. So regaining the sovereignty of our nations must be the first order of business for both the left and the right. We can always argue about tax rates, V-chips and school uniforms later …

  8. Tiu
    May 28, 2019 at 03:24

    The tactical mistake the “left” made is to throw its weight behind “minority issues” and abandon the workers. Backing minorities in a system that requires gaining the majority vote is a bit stupid.
    By definition democracy should represent the majority – not that that happens anywhere other than perhaps Iceland.
    Having said that, it still works for some people! It’ll be interesting to see what the brainwashed Germans come up with when “Mutti” Merkel steps down from overseeing the CIA gulag called Germany in 2021 – pity she’s not going sooner though.

  9. John A
    May 28, 2019 at 02:34

    There are no parliamentary ‘left’ parties in the EU. To be in the EU, a country has to adopt a free market, privatisation, neoliberal economy. This includes traditional Socialist and Social Democrat parties. In Britain, Blair continued a Clinton third way continuation of Thatcherism. By moving to the right, Blair enabled the Conservatives to move further right and impose austerity. In Sweden, after over half a century of power the Social Democrats have lost the plot, agreeing to weaken unions, weaken job security legislation, privatise etc., while encouraging mass immigration. In France, Hollande was elected as a so-called socialist, and immediately dropped the facade and adopted neoliberal policies.
    Neoliberalism has failed the ordinary people, but massively benefited 1% or 9% or whatever who buy (lobby) politicians. Blair, Osbourne, Cameron, Obama etc., are all multimillions since leaving office. Clearly for services rendered to the rich. For sure, no bribes while in office, but they get showered with ‘gifts’ on leaving. hundreds of thousands of dollars for a speech? Millions for a book advance? Yes, right.
    People have no decent candidates to vote for. So might as well vote for the most disruptive. The reptilian repellent Farage published no manifesto, spoke of no policies other than sound bit slogans ‘No Brexit betrayal’, ‘take our country back’ (reminscent of MAGA?) and he got over 30% of the votes.

    • Ann Garrison
      May 28, 2019 at 18:21

      Whatever else one might say about Nigel Farage, I don’t think his “No Brexit betrayal” was just a soundbite. I think he’s quite serious about it and the UK citizens did vote for it.

  10. Tom Kath
    May 28, 2019 at 00:46

    I find the terms “POPULIST” and “RIGHT” both misleading and far too simplistically applied.
    I would describe the “tide of public opinion” as social nationalism or national socialism. It is the combination of two powerful instincts into a common purpose. It is the social instinct (like herrings) being united with the territorial instinct (like lobsters). Another analogy is the feminine perspective united through a common purpose with the masculine perspective, allowing far greater achievement than either can independently.
    The power of “the people”, identified as true democracy, combines with national pride and ancestral heritage in a very powerful sense of involvement and purpose. It is the COMBINATION of left and right, feminine and masculine, social and territorial. How popular or populist it becomes remains to be seen, but it is also very clearly a rejection of the extremes, be they globalism (extreme socialism) or imperialism (extreme nationalism).

    Of course the ultimate PURPOSE for this uprising has yet to be determined, but the POTENTIAL has, I believe, been grasped. (originally by Hitler perhaps, although arguably for the wrong purpose)

  11. Jeff Harrison
    May 28, 2019 at 00:31

    That’s the thing about democracy. The people get to vote. The elites try to render their votes meaningless and frequently succeed. But if the people get pissed off enough, they can screw up the best laid plans of the elite.

    • Ann Garrison
      May 28, 2019 at 18:23

      I’d like to believe that. Often try.

  12. Jonathan Larson
    May 27, 2019 at 23:43

    As someone who was a angry critic of the Euro back in 1992, yesterday’s outcome was about as predictable as dawn. Why?

    The Euro, being a fiat currency comprised of almost pure information, was a product of the human imagination. Because of this, it’s success or failure was a function of monetary design. It was designed to produce wage stability, massive borrowing at usurious rates, and a dominance of financial gamesmanship over the community’s necessary work like farming and construction. As designed, the Euro has been a roaring success.

    Unfortunately, this economic strategy has left behind a dying middle class, a generation of the young with shit job prospects who will never redeem themselves from debt peonage forced on them by an irrelevant and utterly useless “education” system, a bloated financial system that hasn’t done anything socially useful in decades, and hopelessly corrupt government bodies that will ignore the basic root causes of the problem.

    Where I come from, there was a time—say 1873-1945—when the subject of monetary design was one discussed by millions in barber shops, lunch counters, and church basements. And yes, those core ideas were fully discussed when the People’s Party of 1892 met in Omaha to organize their new political movement. Yes, they were the first people to call themselves Populists. They were also the most successful progressive movement in USA history. North Dakota is the only state with a State Bank. It is the political legacy of the Non-Partisan League—a direct descendant of the People’s Party—and was first organized in 1916. It is wildly successful because it sticks to the real borrowing needs of the state’s citizens. It directs the bank’s money-creation power into the building of necessary infrastructure. The current Republican Senator of North Dakota and former governor, John Henry Hoeven III, is a beloved and respected politician because he did such a good job running the State Bank.

    The growth of Populism is inevitable with the economic conditions Europe currently faces. The only effective solution is to redesign the Euro’s core assumptions—less bloody and time consuming than a revolution. But could that actually happen? I doubt it. Even the folks who proudly call themselves “populists” don’t seem much interested in the Money questions. And the ex-Marxists are hopeless. Marx wasn’t so hot on the Money Question and his followers are worse. Guys like Macron won’t ask the right questions—he is hopelessly trapped by his banking background.

    Yanis Varoufakis was asked the other day of he could be called a Progressive Populist. Visibly agitated he sputtered, “there is no such thing as a progressive populist.” Really, Yanis? If you want to historically accurate about it, that’s the only kind there is. As my favorite historian, Thomas Frank, who comes from Kansas which was real Populism’s home turf, says whenever he hears some pseudo-intellectual use the term populism as a generic form of slander, “just remember, the only way to defeat “right-wing” populism is with the real thing.”

    • geeyp
      May 28, 2019 at 02:06

      Jonathan Larson – This is an excellent synopsis of that portion of the USA that seems to have a handle on this topic. The peoples’ independent thinking once was more widespread. North Dakota has had their shit together for years now.

    • CitizenOne
      May 29, 2019 at 00:50

      What we have experienced here at home as recently as the last forty years is the deregulation of the regulations that were the cornerstone of populist movements and were also the tendencies and favored practices of banks and the government that were emerging out of a great economic depression where both banks and businesses failed in a mighty big way. Under the stipulations of the government banks that had failed were regulated in order to form more stable banking institutions by a government concerned with the needs and concerns of local businesses that required capital in order to build their local economies and the need to provide a safe haven with little risk to take on risks in order to grow local economies at a very local level.

      This is what is called Populism. Populism is not a movement by voters but is a way forward for businesses regulated by government laws in order to provide for economic development backed by the businesses themselves that fund economic growth through investment in their local communities which are the sources of the returns on their investments.

      The phrase “If you build it they will come” has had an economic meaning unlike any other and that is what we call populism. A way for business to build the economy for the benefit of its citizens including business.

      Fake populism is a movement by voters who are duped by vampire capitalists and it has its roots in deregulation and the ability of political campaigns to convince the citizens that what is needed is to deregulate banks in order to realize economic growth.

      How does it work?

      Ronald Reagan said that the problem is the government. What he then did was to deregulate the Savings and Loan Banks. The Saving and Loan industry had a long track record of providing the capital to build local economies. That is what they were created for. It was populism at its finest.

      By deregulating these Savings Banks, con men were able to steal much of the accumulated wealth of Savings and Loan banks and use the accumulated savings from people who placed their money in the S&L banks which ever way they wanted to which was often to make stupid investments. Reagan even laid off the bank inspectors so there were no police to curb the looting going on. The FBI faced with the challenge of investigating the massive fraud of the S&L banks were forced to create a cutoff for their investigations. Any S&L person of interest who was suspected of defrauding the bank for less than one million dollars was officially off the hook.

      In the end, the American tax payers were indebted to the tune of 600 billion dollars in debt which was the sole creation of the deregulations which allowed the S&L savings banks to raid their coffers and spend it on themselves. Fake Populism had found a new home. Deregulation was seen as a boon for the little guy to get government regulations off their backs but was in fact a way for the people in control of the money to steal it or squander it. They did both.

      Bill Clinton a former backwater little known newly minted presidential candidate from Arkansas was hyped all over the place and was hailed as the democratic contender who had a shot at winning the presidency which he did. What Clinton did was he deregulated the other parts of the banking industry. The former separation of investment banks and savings banks was eliminated and Clinton signed into law the “common” wisdom of the economic gurus of the free market economy. Clinton removed regulations which barred investment banks and savings banks from combining into one entity.

      What happened when the long struggle to separate the casino gamblers from the pot of money stored up over decades in savings banks? What happened when investment bankers now in control of the savings banks were enabled to recommend investments in their own investments where they had a conflict of interest to hype their own investments based on the availability of massive amounts of cash due to deregulation? It sure seemed like a good thing for the investors but ultimately the risks they took and the advice they gave caught up with them.

      Then we elected a republican president and one of Bush’s biggest pushes was for deregulating Social Security and allowing all of the savings of the Social Security Administration to be freed up and to allow all the stored money built over generations to be placed into high risk investments controlled by casino banks. Fortunately for once a president did not succeed in deregulating more bankers to have access to massive piles of cash in order to wager it, casino style, on whatever investments they thought might bring them a fortune. If that had happened then all the money in the Social Security Trust would have magically disappeared overnight as the banks squandered their new found money and made stupid investments ultimately to face financial ruin.

      The end result of banking deregulation in 2008 was that major financial houses collapsed under the weight of their bad investments culminating in the great recession and the collapse of the housing market. Once again, the federal government indebted us all with a deficit of trillions of dollars by bailing out the deregulated banking sector which was on the verge of collapse.

      We went from 600 billion to bail out the S&L industry in the 1980s to bailing out the big banks of Wall Street to the tune of trillions of dollars.

      Fake populism had its roots in trickle down economic theory favored by Reagan. The little guy would benefit when the big rich guy gets richer. The reality was that we were saddled with the debt associated with the collapse of the banking industry when banks were deemed too big to fail after the disastrous consequences of deregulations.

      More recently the Trump administration voted to give trillions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals. What did they do with all the money? Did they invest it in economic growth demanding that the businesses they invested their money in should create new products and services to grow their businesses and create wealth? No, that did not happen. What did happen is that businesses under pressure from investors bought up stocks of their own companies in order to boost the price of stocks and to return a dividend to shareholders based on the new increased prices. Businesses pent all of the money on stock buybacks. In the end the 1.5 trillion dollars in tax breaks was directly transferred to the shareholders without much at all going into building the businesses.

      Corporations in this country are so busy attending to the demands from their shareholders to send them a check that they are held hostage by it. They cannibalized themselves even with the giant tax breaks in order to please Wall Street investors.

      It is happening all over the World. Big Banks and billionaire investors do not seek to materially benefit society with the creation of growth but are engaged in a race for the bottom to curb innovations for short term profits.

      We are all caught up in what has been over the last decades a successful campaign to deregulate government controls that provide for immediate profits by supporting policies that create economic crises over and over. Foreign workers are just a tiny part of the overall strategy to maximize profits by eliminating regulations. The creation of economic unions are just like labor unions and are designed for big banks in order to provide profits for bankers.

      The problem we face is that there is no going back. The economic models that have brought fabulous riches for the ultra wealthy cannot be reversed or undone without consequences. Populism it seems has met its match in the kind of fake populism which has secured concessions from governments under the banner of the free market that is presumed to benefit the little guy but in reality benefits the wealthiest entities on the Planet and does not really care what the social consequences are for humanity.

    • Tim
      May 29, 2019 at 15:31

      > Yanis Varoufakis was asked the other day of he could be called a Progressive Populist.
      > Visibly agitated he sputtered, “there is no such thing as a progressive populist.”
      > Really, Yanis? If you want to historically accurate about it, that’s the only kind there is.

      Like a number of other political terms, people use this word with quite different meanings, according to different historical experiences.

      The people who have called themselves, and been called by others, “populists” in North America and Europe had quite different political aims and views. Someone in Europe with some knowledge of the politics of the last century and a half thinks of Poujadists, and worse. They have usually never heard of the Progressive and Farmer-Labor Parties.

      (And, of course, the lackeys of the capitalist class all cry “Retro me, Satanas!” when they hear anything that sounds remotely like people power…)

      It’s the same with “communist”, “socialist” “social-democrat”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “anarchist”, and so on: there’s not much sense in arguing about these ideas unless you first define what exactly you mean by them.

  13. Dunderhead
    May 27, 2019 at 20:42

    It Is understandable that the rise of populism should alarm people especially from the left, the snappy cartoon sketches of Nazis and fascists the indoctrination centers that are our public schools leave no room for understanding, this is sad as the west is slipping back into a state of crisis. Europe and the world has still neglected to take a hard on varnished book at the collective guilt that brought about both world wars and the political environment that led to Europe’s sad state, not to mention the cold war, gladio in the blow back from the terror wars, all of these stories have the same villains, more people just need to connect the dots.

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