European Elections and the Rout of the Left

Probably unbeknownst to the rest of the world is the fact that, between Thursday 4 June and Sunday 7 June, Europeans went to the polls to elect the members of the Euro-Parliament (EP). The EP was created in 1978, and the first election took place in June 1979. It is located in Strasbourg , France , in the region of Alsace , near the German border. It is an area that was disputed by Germany and France for centuries. The symbolism inherent in choosing Strasbourg for the only directly-elected Institution in the European Union is self-evident. The spirit can be felt when crossing the bridge that links Strasbourg to the German city of Kehl , without the need to change currency or show passports or even IDs, as border guards have disappeared almost all over Europe as a result of the Schengen agreement.

The EP cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, as many hasty commentators tend to claim. This perception is also widespread among the people, who tend to consider European institutions, including the EP, as dark venues for technocrats who are only interested in rubbish, like determining what the maximum size of eggplants should be. Such claims, it should be said, are sometimes not too far from the truth. European institutions and mechanisms are difficult to grasp, even for experts. As members of the Commission are mostly technocrats and the Commission enjoys the exclusive right to introduce bills, and the EP does not have an exclusive role in the decision-making process, but shares it with the Council and deals with issues that in most cases are economic and commercial, and popular control is very feeble due to the lack of a real European public opinion, EU institutions are prey to lobbies of all sorts. The European Community and European Union are two distinct but somehow overlapping entities. European institutions have developed over time through the approval of various, complicated treaties. The European Constitutional Treaty, which has, however, never been ratified, was a monstrous entity consisting of hundreds of pages and articles, which incorporated the previous treaties.

Now, it is true that the EP is dissimilar from classic Parliaments (for example, MPs do not have the right to introduce bills within the assembly, as only the European Commission can do it), and that it does not have a say on each and every issue. Nevertheless, the EP has been constantly expanding its powers, following the drafting of several pan-European treaties. However, the highest expression of its (rather limited) powers is the approval of the EU budget, although the EP has the last word on non-compulsory spending, whereas the Council (made up of Ministers from each member State, who shift depending on the issue under discussion: for example, the Economic and Financial Affairs Council consists of all the Economic and Finance ministers in Europe), which could be quite incorrectly considered as some sort of German-style Upper House, has the last word on compulsory spending, that is, all the expenses resulting from European treaties, and is therefore the most important part of the budget. However, it is also true that some three-quarters of EU issues are decided through the co-decision procedure, which means that a bill (a term that might sound incorrect, as binding EU legislation does not consist of Acts of Parliament, but, rather regulations and directives) has to be passed by both the Council and the EP. EU legislation is directly applicable all over the Union, in the case of regulations and detailed directives, or needs to be given execution through state legislation, in the case of directives. EU legislation is therefore binding on member States and their citizens, and prevails over clashing State legislation, just like federal law prevails over state laws in the US. It has been estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of all member states’ legislation is decided upon at the European level. Thus, it is undeniable that the role of the EP, and the European Union in general, is crucial.

The European Constitutional Treaty, in addition to making the Nice Charter of fundamental rights part of the acquis communautaire, amongst other things, would have also conferred upon the EP the power to appoint the President of the Commission. However, as unanimous ratification of the treaty was required, its rejection in popular referenda in France and Holland brought the process to a halt. The ensuing Lisbon Treaty, a different version of the Constitutional Treaty that was drafted after the negative referenda, expanded the co-decision procedure, thus giving the popular assembly a say on further matters. The Treaty, however, was rejected in Ireland in June 2008. A new referendum is due to take place during the upcoming fall. Still, the EP already enjoys very relevant powers.

Why, then, is Europe seen as a far-away entity? Why do political leaders spurn the EP, and stick with State assemblies? Would a US politician, for example, give up his seat at the federal Congress for one, say, at the New York State Lower House? Why did only 43 percent of the voters show up in polling stations (with lows, in States like Slovakia, of 20 percent), when, normally, in state Parliamentary elections, even when voting is not compulsory (as is the case of Belgium), no less than 70-75 percent of the people go to the polls? And, finally and more importantly, as this will define EU policies for the next few years, why did these few voters severely punish the Socialists and the Left in general, with the exception of the Green party, and rewarded Conservatives and extreme right-wing, quasi-Fascist xenophobic parties?

All these elements are certainly linked. Although the EP enjoys relevant powers, it nonetheless does not have any say on those fundamental issues that make the headlines on papers and ignite widespread political debate, that is, a common foreign and economic/fiscal policy. These remain local, although some sort of coordination, or at least talks among States exists. The events preceding the Iraqi war are a clear example: part of Europe, notably Germany and France, which Donald Rumsfeld defiantly termed as “Old Europe”, sided together against the intervention; and then Britain, Italy, Spain and most of the new Eastern members, despite widespread popular opposition, joined the US in its mad Iraqi effort. The EU has a High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, who is nevertheless tasked with not much more than a coordinating role. He is no minister, of course.

The Constitutional Treaty provided for the creation of a “Union foreign minister”, a name that gave many the shivers, especially the British; the Lisbon treaty changed that name back to “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy”. In the end, the substance does not change: the coordinating role would be strengthened, but the typically “diplomatic” name shows what the reality is: all foreign affairs decisions, and only for issues included in the treaties, are made unanimously, and EU member States preserve their sovereignty and do as they wish, as in Iraq. There is no common army, nor common embassies. Just coordination. If there has always been little hope of achieving a common foreign policy due to British opposition, this proves practically impossible now after the entry of euroskeptical, pro-US ultras in the East (although, it must be said, all euroskepticism vanishes when it comes to cashing in European funds). This adds to immigration policies. Passports have the same color, but they are issued by member States (although it says European Union on the cover). Short-term visas are common for the Schengen area (which means that if you intend to go to France, then Germany and England, for example, you’ll need two different visas), but long-term ones are issued by Member States. Only EU citizens are allowed to move to another member State and work there; the same does not apply to foreign residents. However, there is no such thing as a “European citizenship”: you are an EU citizen if you are a citizen of a Member State. Decisions on the granting/loss of citizenships are still made at the state level. All States act selfishly with regard to immigration: when illegal immigrants are found on a State’s territory, the first goal of State authorities is trying to understand whether they came from some other Member State, in order to send the immigrant back there. When immigrants come by sea, quarrels between member States over who should send ships to save these people before their boat sinks, and land them for identification, take place almost daily (Italy and Malta being, for obvious reasons, the most contentious ones). In particular, Italy, after recently signing an agreement with Libya, where immigrants are normally tortured and raped, has adopted a policy of direct repulsion. This means that people are not even landed: they are taken from their boats and embarked on Italian military ships, and then carried back to Lybia, where they are likely to be incarcerated for years, whatever their nationality, age, sex, thus without even verifying whether they are entitled to political asylum. Europe, though officially protesting against this practice, silently applaudes. In the end, no matter what one thinks of immigration policies, in this case as well each State is on its own. The lack of a common policy dealing with what happens around Europe does not help.

The crisis has helped deepen these xenophobic feelings, which are directed also at fellow Europeans, not necessarily Asians or Africans. The lack of a common response to the crisis has made things worse. Last January, “British jobs for British workers” became a widespread slogan at the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire, an economically depressed area of Britain , where construction jobs had been regularly awarded to Portuguese and Italian workers: the typical war among the poor. The lack of a common European response to the crisis can only result in such episodes. And the reason why there is no common response is not just nationalism and selfishness but, above all, the lack of legal instruments to pursue a common economic policy.

The Euro-zone (therefore, only those member States that have adopted the Euro as their currency) has a common monetary policy, which is decided upon by the European Central Bank, located in Frankfurt. The ECB decides on interest rates. However, the ECB represents the den of monetarism in Europe. Modelled on the German Bundesbank, its main concern is price stability. Therefore, this “philosophical” approach resulted, before the economic crisis, in the constant growth of interest rates in order to keep inflation at bay. This, however, made loans and mortgages more expensive, thus heavily affecting people’s everyday life, especially the millions of Europeans with variable-rate mortgages. The monetarist approach is also well visible in the Stability Pact, which provides that each State’s annual budget deficit should be no higher than 3 percent of GDP, and the national debt lower than 60 per cent of GDP or close to that value. This has tied the hands of many European governments, due to the massive size of their national debts (Italy represents the perfect example, with a national debt equivalent at the moment to 113 percent of the GDP and growing). The fact that interest rates are now around 1 percent should not fool anybody: as soon as the crisis is over, the Central Bank will start pushing interest rates up one more time.

A common monetary policy alone is not enough, however. The EU does not have a common economic policy: each Member State has been pouring money into its own economy, in different amounts. The crisis has struck very badly in Spain , which based its recent growth on a real estate bubble that has, obviously, burst (unemployment is now 18 percent). Ireland and Greece have also been hit with particular violence. “Healthier” Western Member States have refused to bail out the crisis-devastated Eastern part of the Union. Last 22 February, European G20 members decided, during a summit in Berlin, to entrust the IMF with the bailout of Eastern Europe. What this means is obvious: IMF policies will have to be enforced in Eastern members, with the obvious, notorious effects. No need to repeat them here, as they are well known.

Also, there is no common taxation system. States like Ireland and Latvia based their impressive growth on fiscal dumping, as most of Eastern Europe. As chance would have it, the crisis has been more violent wherever deregulation and laissez fair had been brought to the extreme. The response, however, has not been European: it has been local.

Thus, if the European Union does not have those powers which typically characterize a sovereign country, and these powers remain within state Parliaments, it is obvious that well-known political leaders will rather keep their office in their home States (unless the aim is getting rid of them, as when Romano Prodi’s candidacy to the presidency of the European Commission was strongly hyped by the Italian ruling center-left coalition after his resignation as Prime Minister). If European politicians are therefore a bunch of complete unknowns, dealing with policies which deeply affect the people, but are not at first as visible and are not given coverage in the media as the ones state Parliaments deal with, will the people discuss European matters? Will a European public opinion ever arise? Will European issues be part of the electoral campaign? The answer can only be no, and the issue, as it is clear, is not only linguistic. Indeed, European electoral campaigns mostly concentrate on local issues; and European elections are a test for political parties or coalitions ruling a specific Member State, especially when state parliamentary elections are near (like in Germany, where the Bundestag will be renewed on 29 September). Perhaps, the only party that based its electoral campaign entirely on European issues was the French Green Party, which won an astounding 18 percent of votes. Low turnouts are the result of such apathy, and prove that disaffection with the EU is constantly growing. Paradoxically, the highest turnout was at the first EP election, in 1979, when the turnout was 63 percent, a rate that has been constantly diminishing. Nowadays, perhaps, the only cases when the people talk about Europe are when referenda for the ratification of treaties are held in Member States. In those cases, turnouts tend to be higher.

As said, disaffection is growing. It is growing, because in the past there was, especially in Member States like Italy and Germany, widespread enthusiasm about this project. Now, after having achieved a common currency, it is not clear what Europe is, nor what it will become. Europe ’s institutions appear stalled. The balance was very unstable when members were fifteen. Opening to Eastern members without a previous reform and strengthening of institutions has been a terrible, tragic mistake. What is clear, however, is Europe’s obsession with competition, deregulation, high interest rates and cuts to social spending, and its subjugation to the United States and Israel on most foreign policy issues (that is, States go on their own and cannot build a common policy, but Europe as a whole gets the blame). What is clear is that leftist parties are far too often hardly distinguishable from conservative ones, both locally as well as at the European level. One typical example is the bipartisan approval of the Bolkestein directive, although in a watered-down version. The original version aimed to create a common market of services, and, in doing so, created the “country of origin principle”, according to which a company or individual may provide services in another Member State on the grounds of the laws of its country of establishment/origin, and without registering with the regulators in the host Member State. That would have obviously created social dumping, especially in the case of citizens of States with more lax labor laws operating in States with more stringent ones. The principle has been left over, although no “country of destination principle” has replaced it, and therefore it will be up to the European Court of Justice to determine jurisprudentially which labor laws should be applied in specific cases.

The Left is usually deeply affected by abstentionism. That explains the collapse of the Socialists, who have tumbled from 27.6 percent to 21.9 percent of votes, thus going from 194 to 159 seats (although it should be said that the seats available for this election were 736 instead of 785 of the previous election). This has been particularly true where the economic crisis has been more violent, like in Spain; where the leadership has long been compromised, as in Britain; where the Socialists have had a subordinate role and have endorsed centrist policies, as in Germany; or where their opposition to the ruling party or coalition is completely insubstantial, in particular because of internal divisions, as in France and Italy. Not strangely, the least damaged Socialist parties have been the Scandinavian ones. Even the scandal-ridden Socialist Party in Greece was the most voted party, due to the disastrous management of the economic crisis and the countless scandals of the ruling conservative party.

Conservatives, however, won in all major EU member States, which was perhaps due more to the weakness of Socialist parties than the strength of conservatives. Italy continues to represent a pathological anomaly in Europe, where a completely unsubstantial opposition is opposed to the Prime Minister’s unlimited control of the media.

As it is normal in a time of crisis, right-wing, xenophobic parties won support in many sectors of the population, particularly Geert Wilders’ Dutch far-right Freedom Party (PVV) (17 percent of votes, second party in Holland behind the Christian-Democrats). Also, the Italian Northern League confirmed its strength, and in Austria two anti-immigrant far-Right parties won an unprecedented 17.7 percent of the vote. The far-Right Danish People’s Party won two seats and 14.4 per cent of votes. Hungary’s far-Right Jobbik won three seats for the first time. Britain even elected Nick Griffin, the leader of the (Fascist) British National Party. All these parties have a least common denominator: no to the EU; no to foreigners; no to Islam; no to Turkey in the EU.

The extreme Left basically held and lost a few seats, although votes were widely dispersed when separate lists were presented, such as in France or, even worse, in Italy (at least 8 percent of votes were disgracefully wasted on three separate lists, none of which was able to reach the 4 percent threshold). Amidst this leftist disaster, the Greens have enjoyed great success, increasing their seats from 42 to 52, probably a sign of stronger environmental awareness on the part of Europeans.
Now, what future expects Europe? The economic crisis is expected to deepen, and this will certainly exacerbate nationalism and xenophobia. War is luckily a bygone possibility, a thing of the past. Protectionism is often invoked, but it is not a possibility, especially when we consider that Europe exports massively abroad. There is only one possibility for Europe: sticking together, and talking with one voice. But it has to be the voice of the people, rather than lobbies and monetarism. In a sense we are together, but what degree of unity do we want? Is what we have now satisfactory? Are we afraid of a European federation? Europeans are probably afraid of this Europe, an amorphous entity incapable of making decisions, especially when it matters, as well as standing up to the world’s superpowers when it comes to defending the values that have characterized most Europeans for the past 50 years: in particular, a belief in the active role of government and social safeguards for the mitigation of social inequalities stemming from capitalism (what the Germans call “social market economy); a belief in human rights; the awareness of the importance of defending the environment as well as protecting typical local products and producers; and a faith in multipolarism and in peace amongst nations and the refusal of war as an instrument to solve international disagreement. Allowing extraordinary renditions on Europe’s territory, backing the bombing of Gaza uncritically, pushing the economy towards the Anglo-Saxon model, trying to standardize those local products Europeans have been making for thousands of years, are just few examples of the things Europeans do not want and today’s EU is doing. A stronger Parliament and the creation of a real government would help Europeans become more European, while still preserving their differences when they should be preserved, and better defend popular interests as common policies in the aforementioned fields would lead to higher transparency and more in-depth debates at the European level. The extreme Left as well as the Socialists could have an important role in this, in proposing a different idea of Europe. But when the Left apes the Right, voters will punish the former and vote for the original version (the latter). Let us hope the Left has grasped the lesson this parliamentary election has taught.

Valerio Volpi has a PhD. in Comparative Political Institutions from the University of Bari, Italy. His Ph.D. thesis has been the basis for his book The Roots of Contemporary Imperialism: The Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution, and 200 years of corporate dictatorship (University Press of America, 2009). He is currently living in Rome and can be reached at: Read other articles by Valerio.

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  1. Michael Kenny said on June 15th, 2009 at 8:46am #

    The secret of the EU’s ongoing success is that it is not the result of a dogmatic project but a pragmatic reaction to day to day events inspired only by the determination that Europe should never again be involved in war and that therefore, it must come together and stick together. That concept has unfailingly worked since 1952 and the mistake that is commonly made by commentators is to apply to it the criteria of the “legalised bully” inherent in the concept of the nation state which emerged from the French Revolution.

    Indeed, Mr Volpi himself falls into that trap when he interprets the low turnout in the European Parliament elections to “disaffection”. Quite the contrary! It indicates that European voters are largely satisfied with the current constitutional position. It’s always easy to get out a “no” vote, as the various referenda show. The fact that Europe’s “crazies” were unable to get more than a handful of votes in a low poll shows just how marginal they are and how limited dissatisfaction with the functioning with the EU institutions actually is among the electorate.

    For the same reason, Mr Volpi is also wrong to regard the 2004 enlargement as “a terrible, tragic mistake”. Those countries were let in a lot earlier than they would normally have been but I think the reason for that is that US neo-liberal gurus descended on those countries after the overthrow of the dictatorships with a view to setting up a US-dominated counterweight to the EU, with the ultimate aim of the destroying the latter’s implicit challenge to US hegemony. The EU, basically, had little choice but to head them off at the pass and, in practice, the thing hasn’t worked out badly. Also, for the reason I mentioned in the first paragraph, I don’t think the infamous IMF criteria will ever actually be applied in Europe.

    As for Mr Volpi’s final point: “There is only one possibility for Europe: sticking together, and talking with one voice. But it has to be the voice of the people, rather than lobbies and monetarism”, I couldn’t agree more and I don’t doubt for an instatn that that is precisely what is in the process of happening!