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Amid Europe’s Crisis – A Surge from the Left


Rest assured. The specter of socialism is not haunting Europe right now. Francois Hollande is "hardly a rabid socialist" say the editors of the Financial Times. The New York Times chimes in that he is a "cautious moderate on most issues, and certainly not a socialist in the historic meaning of that term." And, we are informed by Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations, that Hollande "is neither a demagogue nor a revolutionary firebrand." But Socialist or not, the Financial Times editors conclude that the French Socialist Party presidential candidate "would channel the government's taxing and spending power to promote faster economic growth and recovery as a surer route to long-term fiscal balance," and what with "austerity's disastrous results sparking discontent in a growing number of European countries, a Hollande victory could signal a continental turning point."

Actually, what is happening in France is not a unique turning point but one of many indicating that winds of change are blowing fiercely from Prague to Athens, from Amsterdam to Paris.

With Hollande likely to become the next president of France," writes Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "Europe's hot populist anger is about to confront the cold austerity measures required by the euro zone, with a predictable result: a storm that rattles the foundations of the European economic house."

This situation is not simple nor without dangers. While some (even some on the left in this country) are trying to play it down, European reactionaries are on the move as well. As could be expected, people seeking simple answers to their nation's plight are being seduced by those seeking to scapegoat immigrants, not only from Asia, Africa or Latin America but from other European countries as well. The fires of racism, Islamaphobia, and anti-Semitism are being carefully stoked.

But the main thrust of opposition to the policies that contributed to the ongoing crisis that falls under the rubric "neo-liberalism" and the policy of retrenchment or "austerity" is coming from the left.

Over the past two weeks, Hollande has emerged as the leading candidate for the president of France; the center-right government of The Netherlands has collapsed; the conservative government in Romania totters, as does the reigning conservative regime in the Czech Republic. That's on the electoral front; meanwhile, millions have taken to the streets in anti-austerity protests.

The major media has pretty much shied away from giving an accurate picture of the European "left" to which it refers, beyond its assurance that France's Hollande is not rabid. But it's worth talking a look.

In Romania, where an election is scheduled for November, opinion polls indicate the Social Liberal Union (USL), the opposition left alliance (currently with 228 seats in the 460 member parliament), has more than 50 percent support and would most likely win an election. It is headed by 39-year-old Victor Ponta, head of the left-leaning opposition Social Liberal Union (USL). Ponta, who has won medals in basketball and auto racing, is from the center-left Social Democrat Party and now serves as interim prime minister.

Romania has been in recession for the past two years. Its part in the European austerity drive has been to slash wages in the public sector and raise sales taxes. Joblessness is officially only 5 percent in the country but the worsening economic situation has led to increased emigration, the population plunging 10 percent over the past decade.

"Romania's example – a ruling center-right party that has struggled to cling to power through repeated confidence votes that delay reforms aimed at healing the economy – may serve as a warning to Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas," said Reuters last week. His government is said to have a 16 percent approval rating.

"The government in Romania became the latest after the Netherlands to collapse over budget cuts, and the Czech government could also be not long for this world," said the UK's Guardian newspaper.

Somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 people took to the streets last Saturday in the biggest demonstrations for decades, and the Romanian trade unions have promised new protests within the next six weeks.

Meanwhile in The Netherlands, opposition austerity measures resulted in the fall of the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The country has been in recession for nearly a nearly a year. The government resigned after the rightwing Freedom Party – the Dutch version of France's National Front of Marine Le Pen – reneged on a previously agreed upon budget deal. Before leaving office, Rutte was able to secure agreement on a series of budget measures from five of the parties represented in the parliament. However, new elections are scheduled and here attention has increasingly focused on the leftist Socialist Party.

The Dutch Socialist Party, the emblem of which is a tomato, says of itself: "In the final analysis the SP is a campaigning organization capable of mobilizing thousands – on occasion tens of thousands – of members and sympathizers to pursue its goals of equality, solidarity and human dignity. Campaigns express these principles in concrete ways which improve lives in the here-and-now, while the SP never takes its eyes off the prize of a better society and a better world."

"Dutch participation in illegal wars abroad and the neoliberal onslaught on social rights and public property at home have formed the focus of the party's major campaigns in recent years. With energy and militancy, but also with characteristic humor and color, the SP has demanded the return of Dutch troops from Afghanistan, the exposure of the illegal and unconstitutional maneuvering that led to the country's support for Bush's war on Iraq, and an end to the presence of US nuclear bombs on Dutch soil."

"The party has resisted the creeping privatization of health care privatization and the deregulation of postal services and energy provision, defended vital social programs, fought the raising of the pension age and the reduction of state support to students, and called for an end to the ideologically-motivated neoliberalism which prevails both at home and in Europe."

On April 22, the party, the third largest in the country, called for "a careful budgetary plan that avoids destroying the economy through spending cuts and leaves room for a new beginning, while taking into account the position of people who did not cause the crisis, but who have been presented with the bill for it," adding that whether Hollande in France or the Dutch Labour Party "will follow through is the question. It is an important test for the social democrats."

"Fortunately the real left has also done well, with the polls giving Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Euro-MP, who is the presidential candidate of the Front de Gauche, 12 percent of the votes," said the Dutch socialists. "In the Netherlands, the SP with – according to the polls – thirty seats, is on its way to the top. Melenchon in France and the SP in the Netherlands are more badly needed than ever, in order to keep the social democrats on the right path and put an end to the austerity diktats from Brussels."

"The Netherlands has stood steadfastly with the Germans and has even demanded a little more from Greece and other highly indebted countries," commented the German new agency Deutsche Welle. "The fact that the Dutch government has collapsed over an austerity package to reduce its own debt is an irony of history."

Disgruntled Voters will also head to the polls in Greece this weekend. There, left and anti-austerity parties, including the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the Center-Left Democratic Left (Dimar), the Ecogreens (Ikologi Prasini) and the Communist Party (KKE) are predicted to garner together anywhere between 20 and 35 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the far right Golden Dawn party (Chrysi Avyi) is expected to enter parliament for the first time with over 3 percent of the vote needed to do so.

With the wrenching economic crisis growing in Spain and political revolt spreading across the continent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has continued to resolutely defend her focus on euro-zone austerity and insists that the new EU fiscal pact, signed in March, would not be revisited. The agreement "cannot be renegotiated," she declared last week. However, Hollande has pledged that if he wins the May 6 runoff, he would ask for changes to the pact that imposes strict new rules governing budget deficits and social spending. "It is not Germany that will decide for the entirety of Europe," Hollande responded, "I will tell her that the French people had made a decision that envisages a renegotiation of the pact."

What does all this portend for the United States? As economist Paul Krugman noted last week, our country has "never fully embraced the doctrine" of austerity but has, nonetheless, "had de facto austerity in the form of huge spending and employment cuts at the state and local level." For the good part of that observation we can thank the not-exactly-overwhelming resistance of the Obama Administration; for the bad part, credit the Republican Congressional leadership and its allies in numerous state governments.

"After a period in which Mr. Obama has pushed back with some success against demands for austerity, the Republicans are committed to reversing course, at a time when demand in the US and the global economy is still weak and the deficit is at a record," writes Financial Times bureau chief Richard McGregor.

"So we're now living in a world of zombie economic policies – policies that should have been killed by the evidence that all of their premises are wrong, but which keep shambling along nonetheless. And it's anyone's guess when this reign of error will end," wrote Krugman.

In a commentary titled, "The Lesson for Obama of Europe's Failed Austerity," economist Robert Reich, wrote, "the president should make it clear he won't allow government spending cuts to take precedence over job creation. He won't follow Europe into an austerity trap of slower growth and higher unemployment. While he understands the need to reduce the nation's long-term budget deficit, he should commit to vetoing any spending cuts until the unemployment rate in the US is down to 5 percent. Instead, he should commit to further job-creating investments in the nation's crumbling infrastructure – pot-holed roads, unsafe bridges, inadequate pipelines, woefully-strained public transportation, and outmoded ports."

"Finally, Obama should make sure Americans understand the link between America's fragile recovery and widening inequality," continued Reich. "As long as so much of the nation's disposable income and wealth goes to the top, the vast middle class lacks the purchasing power to fire up the economy. That's why the so-called `Buffett rule' he has proposed – setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires – needs to be seen as just a first step toward ensuring that the gains from growth are more widely shared. He should vow to do more in his second term."

"But to put any of this into effect, Obama will need a Congress that's committed to better jobs and wages for all Americans," says Reich. "He should remind voters that congressional Republicans prevented him from doing all that was needed in the first term, and they must not be allowed to do so again."

The Republicans have repeatedly suggested that the U.S. could become "another Greece" and well it might if they get their way and the austerity of budget cuts and layoffs continue. Only strong popular resistance can prevent it and an invigorated and united left can, and should, help bring that about.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly worked for a healthcare union.  

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