The Left and European Elections

Now we know for sure that « Europe » does not exist. At least not in the

hearts and minds of Europeans. Only two days after they concluded a war

against Yugoslavia, decided and fought by the United States, the fifteen

countries of the European Union (EU) voted together with an enthusiasm

heretofore witnessed mostly in the United States: 51% stayed out. Five years

earlier, the abstention rate ran at 43.2%. This was considered much too high

then; in 1989, the rate had been 42%; in 1994, 39%; in 1979, 37%…

The euro is born, the European Parliament less powerless than it used to

be, a war has been fought on European soil. And yet, in France, the ruling

Socialist party scored a victory with a mere 10% of the eligible voters. In

Britain, where the turnout was 23%, one in three voters ignored an election

was even taking place. Outside business offices and editorial boards,

euro-enthusiasm is decidedly hard to find.

Why should it be otherwise? If Europe were to mean something, it would have

to stand for an economic model different from the American prototype and

assert a foreign policy departing from that dictated by Washington. On both

scores, the disappointment is overwhelming as Europe gets ready to pay the

cost of reconstructing what American airplanes have destroyed in the Balkans

and as European units are set to play a leading role in removing landmines

from the region.

For a very long time, and especially during François Mitterrand’s endless

presidency (1981-1995), many European socialists had been claiming that their

alignment on Washington–its diplomacy, its free-market economic policies–was

the unpleasant product of « European solidarities » largely shaped by

right-wing governments in Britain and Germany. Europe could not be social, we

were told, so long as Socialists remained a distinct minority in Europe.

Six months ago, all that was supposed to have changed. With the electoral

defeat of Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats in Germany, eleven out of the

fifteen European governments were controlled by left-of-center coalitions,

most notably including Greens in Germany and France and communists or former

communists in France and Italy. Consequently, the four largest European

countries became (and still are) nominally governed by the left, whereas the

exact opposite had been true two years before. Yet, as one could have

surmised, the transition from Major-Juppé-Kohl-Berlusconi to Blair-Jospin-Schröder-d’Alema

has barely changed the direction of Europe.

Americans are familiar with the fact that a shift from Bush to Clinton (to

Bush?) might not herald the dawn of a new democratic process. This may be why

so few of them bother to cast a vote. Europe used to be different. Despite the

fact that the leading socialist (or social democratic) parties kept veering to

the right, discarding most of their egalitarian ideology in the process, the

arrogance and free-market extremism of European conservatives (such as

Margaret Thatcher or Silvio Berlusconi), the damage they could wreak on a

still functioning welfare state, made electoral competition worth its while.

Hence the sigh of relief that shook Britain, France, Italy, and Germany when,

in those countries, the Right was sent packing by the voters.

Some of these left victories, moreover, were not the product of a marketing

campaign, effective sound-bytes and « triangulation ». In France, for

example, Jospin’s unexpected ousting of the right in 1997 owed much to the

huge popular mobilization which, eighteen months before, had shaken the

right’s confidence that its government could enact free-market « reforms ».

When, on December 12 1995, two million Frenchmen demonstrated against the

attempt to dismantle part of the welfare state, The Economist

accurately captured the mood of the times : « Strikers by the million, riots

in the street : the événements in France over the past fortnight make the

country look like a banana republic in which an isolated government is

battling to impose IMF austerity on a hostile population ». Indeed, the right

had lost in the streets and in the factories before it even had a chance to

lose at the polls.

In the political aftermath of electoral victory, it was therefore the

left’s turn to build the bridge to the 21st century and a more social Europe.

After a common market and a common currency, one henceforth needed to worry

about a common labor and environmental policy. Not much was done in these

respects, however, especially in Germany where the Schröder government seemed

hobbling from defeat to retreat. Oskar Lafontaine’s replacement by Hans Eichel

had made the point painfully clear, Lionel Jospin’s sweeping privatizations

would only confirm it: markets, not « Socialist » governments, are ruling

the new global economy.

Yet, a few weeks ago, European socialists proclaimed their unity; they

crafted a common 21-point manifesto in Milan; they rallied in Paris around

Blair, Schroder, Jospin, and d’Alema. And they pledged that a more social

Europe, less beholden to capital investors, would be christened by the polls.

The dream went so far as to proclaim that Clinton might lend a hand: was not

he a man of the left, too?

This socialist unity and sense of purpose survived a mere 48 hours. Three

days before the election, Blair and Schroder launched their Clintonian «

third-way » manifesto, in effect isolating Jospin (whose government includes

communist ministers). Both Blair and Schroder advocated tax breaks and market

deregulation; both vowed to preserve a « low-wage sector ». As they

explained in a decidedly « new socialist » vein, « capital markets should

be opened up so that growing firms and entrepreneurs can have ready access to

finance. Overall the taxation of hard work and enterprise should be reduced


The Financial Times summed it all up, unable to quite contain its

glee : « The agenda for social democracy launched by Tony Blair and Gerhard

Schröder says most of the right things about the market economy (…) a

vigorous capitalism with a tough but kindly face (…) The document’s most

valuable contribution is to the process of building a new EU consensus,

towards minimum intervention in a free and open economy ».

The « contribution » proved brilliant… Largely because of the electoral

rout of the British Labour Party and of the German Social Democrats, both

unable to mobilize their voters around the policies the Financial Times

had endorsed (in Britain, turnout fell to 18% in Labour districts), the

socialist group in the European Parliament lost altogether 34 seats–and its

relative majority. As a result, the European People’s Party (Christian

Democrats / Conservatives) has become the largest political party in the

European Parliament. The center-left can now be excused from enacting the

progressive labor and environmental policies it claimed to want although its

eleven governments did almost nothing to promote them when they could have.

As for an independent foreign policy, things are even clearer and just as

bleak for Europe. No sooner had the war against Yugoslavia ended–a war where,

of the 2000 targets chosen by Nato, all but one were selected by US

intelligence–Javier Solana, the Nato secretary-general during the bombing,

became the first head of Europe’s common foreign and security policy. Mr.

Solana is a former pacifist. He is also a socialist. But it is a safe bet that

Washington and its leftist president need not fear too much trouble from him.

Serge Halimi

Le Monde diplomatique


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