The Elephant in the Room

Left Parties and the European Union

by Asbjørn Wahl
Dec 01, 2020

European left parties have, over the last couple of decades, become increasingly critical of political developments in the European Union, particularly as a response to the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the subsequent euro crisis. These were accompanied by high and sustained unemployment and promises of a social pillar that never materialized. All the while, the neoliberal economic integration continued at its fullest and contributed to the increased power of market forces over social development.

However, even if criticism of the European Union has been sharpened, this has not been well reflected in the political strategies of the left. True, new questions of significant importance have been raised, particularly as reactions to the crisis and the political developments in Greece. There, the left party Syriza gave up its political program after it won government power in January 2015. The government was more or less forcibly set under EU administration—or, as many critics say, the Syriza governments capitulated to the European Union, a capitulation that is defended politically not only by representatives of Syriza itself, but also by representatives of most other left parties and within transform! europe.1

This led to the question, raised both by critics inside Syriza and in some other left groupings in Europe, of whether the European Union can be reformed from within at all.2 The measures taken by the European Union (or the Troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) against the other strongly crisis-ridden countries—Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—further actualized this issue. Should withdrawal from the Economic and Monetary Union, and thus the euro and possibly also the European Union, be a relevant tool in the political toolkit of the left, or is conquest and reform of the European Union from the inside the way to create a social Europe? The answer to such a question is, of course, decisive for the strategy of the left in Europe.

However, there seems to be a lack of both ability and willingness to engage in this discussion in several of the major left parties. Relations with the European Union have thus in many ways become the elephant in the room of many such parties. This also includes a discussion of the experiences of the Syriza government, which seems to be difficult to get on the agenda of left forums in Europe. Underlying this reluctance, we find different ways to understand the role and character of the European Union, and not least how these have evolved over time.

Europe’s Chaotic Left

The left forces in Europe are weak—both quantitatively and qualitatively. They are characterized by the political and ideological crisis that has ridden the political left during the last decades, preventing them from becoming a leading force against the economic crisis, attacks on the welfare state, and growing inequality and poverty. It is primarily the far right that has managed to exploit people’s increasing discontent and dissatisfaction. In national elections held in EU member states in 2017 and 2018, right-wing parties more than doubled their number of votes, from 10.3 to 22.1 million. In the same period, left parties stagnated, with around 10 million votes.3 At the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, support for the left parties declined even further, while support for the far right again increased.

Over the past decades, a number of reshuffles have taken place within the left. In Italy, there is hardly anything remaining of the traditional left parties. They have more or less obliterated themselves through unsuccessful political maneuvering. In France, there are conflicting trends. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been the leading figure on the left ever since he broke with the Socialist Party and formed the Party de Gauche (Left Party) in 2008. Based on this party, he initiated the Front de Gauche (Left Front) in 2009 as an electoral alliance, including the Communist Party and others. However, the alliance between Mélenchon’s people and the Communist Party was fragile and eventually broke down. The Left Front was thus formally dissolved in 2018. By then, however, Mélenchon had already formed his next political organization, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). The party, or movement, first had success with Mélenchon as candidate in the 2017 presidential elections (close to 20 percent in the first round), but it failed to mobilize more than 6.3 percent in the 2019 European elections. The traditional and historically strong Communist Party is at its lowest point ever, with only 2.5 percent of the votes in the last elections, and is thus excluded from the European Parliament for the first time since 1979. Germany’s Die Linke (The Left) did not do well during the last election either, losing another quarter of its support and ending up with 5.5 percent of the vote.

In Eastern Europe, left parties are few and far between. Only the Czech Republic, through its traditional Communist Party, managed to be represented in the European Parliament in the 2019 elections. In Slovenia, a new left party, Levica (Left), did well during the last parliamentary elections at home, but failed in the EU elections. In Belgium, a transformed former Maoist party, Parti du Travail de Belgique (Belgian Labor Party) made strides (14.5 percent of the vote in the French-speaking part of Belgium) with a clear class orientation and a radical program. In Greece, Syriza still had a higher turnout than most other forces on the European left (well over 23 percent of votes in the last EU elections), even though support for them has declined overall (they received 36 percent of votes in the 2015 national elections). This happened in spite of their role as loyal executioners of the Troika’s brutal austerity policies, which created major problems on the left in Greece as well as in Europe more broadly.

In the European Parliament, most of the left parties belong to the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, which now consists of forty-one representatives after the European elections in May 2019 (a decline of eleven representatives). The coalition constitutes a mixed assembly of parties divided into different tendencies, divisions that are not always easy to understand. Some reject that these are parties in the traditional sense, and others even that they are left wing. Alliances are forming and changing, and politics are sometimes adjusted opportunistically to keep them together.

At the same time, there is also an ongoing battle for left hegemony in Europe through the various initiatives of new alliances, with some parties ending up, seemingly without problem, inside more than one of them. The relationship to the European Union is, to a greater or lesser extent, an essential element of the internal competition currently taking place between three different groups of left parties.

A number of the parties (currently twenty-six of them) are members of the European Left (EL), which was established in 2004 and has party status in the EU system. The EL is more like a network or coordinating body than a well-organized party. Several left parties are not members of the EL. In addition to the EL, two more organizations work to build competing networks or alliances among left parties in Europe: DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.

Mélenchon started to build an alternative alliance partly because he was dissatisfied with the EL, opposed Syriza’s capitulation in Greece, and wanted a sharper political profile. Some years ago, he withdrew Parti de Gauche from the EL on the basis of a conflict with the French Communist Party. His new party, La France Insoumise, has not joined the EL. Prior to the 2019 European elections, he worked actively to build an alternative grouping focused on the stranglehold of the European Union. He succeeded in achieving support for this perspective from Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, Portugal) and Podemos (We Can, the Spanish newcomer), and in April 2018 these parties launched a joint statement called “Lisbon Declaration for a Citizens’ Revolution in Europe: Now the People!”4 Later, left parties in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland joined this Lisbon declaration.

The third alliance builder, Yanis Varoufakis, with DiEM25, built alliances aimed at the 2019 European elections under the name European Spring.5 Central to the program was the project A New Deal for Europe, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reform program for the United States in the 1930s.6 DiEM25, which neither defines itself as a party nor views itself as part of a right-left spectrum, sought to build alliances with a wider range of organizations than Bloco de Esquerda and Podemos, often small and relatively new organizations. This also reflects some skepticism toward Varoufakis among the larger, traditional left parties. Though unsuccessful, Varoufakis put himself up as a candidate for the European elections in Germany, fomenting irritation inside Die Linke. DiEM25 failed to win any seats in the European Parliament in the 2019 elections. However, at the national elections in Greece shortly thereafter, the Greek branch won nine seats in parliament, including one seat for Varoufakis.

It is worth noting also that Bonapartist tendencies are emerging in politics in Europe—that is, tendencies of individuals to break out and build party organizations or movements aimed at winning political positions for themselves. More than anything else, this illustrates the current deep political crisis across the political spectrum in Europe. On the left, both Varoufakis’s DiEM25 and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise can be said to have clear Bonapartist characteristics, with loose organizations lacking democratic structures, relying on electronic communications, focusing primarily on media strategies, and having entrenched leaders. Podemos is probably also more controlled by the clique of academics from the University of Madrid, who started the party in 2014, than the leadership is willing to acknowledge. With the de-democratization that eventually happened under Alexis Tsipras’s leadership, Syriza has also demonstrated tendencies in the same direction, although it has a more traditional party structure.

Sharpened Criticism of EU Policy

Social democracy as well as the dominant parts of European trade union movements have consistently been enthusiastic supporters of the European Union, although particular aspects of EU policy have at times been criticized. In many countries, especially in Scandinavia, but also, for example, in France (with the Communist Party), the left parties fought against EU membership when making a decision was on the table. However, as the years passed, the demand to withdraw from the European Union withered.

What is it that makes the relationship to the European Union so problematic and almost unpredictable for many left parties in Europe? Historically, two factors have played a central role. First, the ideological narrative that accompanied the establishment of the European Union (or the European Economic Community, as it was called at the time), which consisted of two important objectives: that the EU should lay the foundation for lasting peace in Europe, and that it be a tool for social progress for its people. After two devastating world wars, both triggered between European nation-states, the political promises of peace were very appealing. Almost the entire political spectrum, from the right to the left, thus supported, and still supports, these intentions. In addition, through the development of the welfare state in the postwar period, most people felt that social progress was already in the process of being realized.

The second important historical event was François Mitterrand’s reign in France from 1981 to 1995. Mitterrand embarked on a radical, left social democratic program that included widespread nationalization, economic redistribution, and further political interventions in many areas. This was seen by many in the labor movement as the start of the construction of a socialist Europe. After less than two years, however, Mitterrand’s reform project was dropped. The causes of this political collapse, as well as the possibility of pursuing another policy, are debated. Here too, however, demands from the European Community (now the European Union) were included, as France had already pledged to join the European currency system. Then, as now, this created limits on what policies could be pursued.

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Mitterrand then bowed to the European Community’s demands, making his presidency the last social-democratic attempt to implement a comprehensive socialist reform program in Europe (with the possible exception of the later failure of the wage-earner fund in Sweden in the 1980s). Based on his experience, Mitterrand, together with his Minister of Finance Jacques Delors, concluded that the future of a socialist or social-democratic (Keynesian) policy had to be linked to the development of the European Economic Community rather than the nation-states. Thus, it became the policy of the French socialists, and eventually the social democracies in Europe, to work toward increased economic integration in Europe. But as social scientist Martin Höpner at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne says, “it is a myth to say…that ‘more Europe’ will bring us closer to a social Europe.”7

This European Union of peace and social progress has served as a dominant narrative until the present day. Gradually, however, both French socialists and others began to question the project. They saw that economies were integrated—and deregulated—but little progress was made in what they called the social pillar. While the stated goal was to rein in market forces through increased political governance and regulation at the European level, developments on the ground were characterized by increasing market forces, while the social dimension was hardly visible.

It remains an open question how socialist and social democratic politicians so easily could believe that a supranational construct like the European Economic Community—based on the four freedoms (free movement of capital, goods, services, and persons) as the core elements of its founding treaty (the Rome Treaty of 1958), and with a total lack of democratic structures—could be a tool for a social Europe. Even more mysterious is how that belief could be maintained even after the adoption of the Single Act (which established the EU single market in 1986), the Maastricht Treaty (of 1992, which led to further integration and the creation of the European Union), the Lisbon Treaty (of 2007, a dressed-up version of the constitution rejected in referendums in both France and the Netherlands in 2005), and a series of other neoliberal legislative texts, agreements, and treaties.

Two developments are important in order to understand the increased criticism of the European Union within left parties in recent years. One is the development of EU institutions and policy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis in 2009. The other is the European Union’s role in fighting the left-wing Syriza government in Greece after the 2015 elections.

To save the financial markets, and perhaps even capitalism, from the deep financial and euro crisis, governments and the European Union poured money into private banks. This led to large budget deficits and a massive increase in government debt in many member states. With the Stability and Growth Pact in hand, the European Union demanded the restoration of economic balance, which led to massive cuts in public budgets, large cuts in public-sector wages, an explosive rise in unemployment, and extensive attacks on labor rights, pensions, and working conditions (what is called internal devaluation, in a situation where the euro area national states no longer had the opportunity to devalue their currency). The European Union’s social pillars were not simply set aside once again—they were under massive attack, and criticism from the left and the dissatisfaction of the population grew.

The Troika’s behavior toward the Syriza government led to further criticism from the left. The fact that the European Central Bank used its monopoly to stop the supply of money to the Greek banks in order to force the government to its knees showed clearly where power lies, how brutally it can be imposed, and how powerless a single (and small) member state can be when faced with such power. That the Tsipras government obviously had neither the ability nor the will—nor had it made any preparations—to confront this power with their only viable tool, the withdrawal from the Economic and Monetary Union and thus from the euro, led to its capitulation.

Can the European Union Be Reformed from Within?

The immediate reaction of many was that the European Union must change, and that this should be realized through struggle from a united left in Europe. At the same time, however, new contradictions began to develop. Some on the left started to raise the decisive question: Can the European Union be reformed from within? What happens if the left wins elections in our country and we are prevented from implementing our policy? The Syriza government’s capitulation to the European Union/Troika contributed strongly to this discussion, where the withdrawal from the euro or even the European Union (Grexit) was raised as a possible strategy.

Varoufakis has become a strong spokesperson for reforming the European Union from within. The founding document of DiEM25, which he initiated after his break with Syriza, included the following three demands on the European Union: (1) immediate, full transparency regarding the work of all central EU institutions; (2) the return of responsibility for public debt, the banking sector, investment, immigration, and distribution policy to the national parliaments within one year, to be done through existing institutions by creative interpretation of covenants and treaties; and (3) the establishment of a constitutional assembly within two years, with the task of transforming Europe into a full democracy with a sovereign parliament that respects national autonomy and shares power with national parliaments, and regional and locally elected assemblies by 2025.8

In an interview with Jacobin, Varoufakis said this about his and DiEM25’s goal of changing the European Union from within: “So, our duty is to demonstrate to Europeans that it is perfectly possible (though, of course, not easy) to take over the institutions of the EU, re-align their policies and practices with their views of what Europe should be, and begin the debate at the grassroots level of what kind of democratic European Union we want.”9

Nothing less than that! It must be acknowledged that this sounds rather naive, especially when this policy is supported neither by analyses of power relations and power structures within the European Union, nor by developed strategies for how this can be fought through in practice—and by whom.

Some on the left have a principled, ideological rejection of any strategy to exit the European Union. They perceive the European Union, and even the Economic and Monetary Union, as representing a historically progressive development that has overcome the nation-state and therefore should be defended. Withdrawing from the Economic and Monetary Union or leaving the European Union is in this context considered not only futile, but also a dangerous move toward aligning with the nationalist and authoritarian powers of the far right. The European Union must be defended in the name of internationalism, while its neoliberal policy must be counteracted, it says. Many supporters of these ideas are social democrats, although little has been seen of their internal struggle against neoliberalism. Many of these ideas can also be found in large parts of the left.

Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at the University of London, who was elected to the Greek parliament on Syriza’s ticket in January 2015, but who broke with the party and Tsipras following their surrender to the Troika, has engaged strongly in the debate. To those who see the European Union as an internationalization project that needs to be supported, he claims:

“Therein lies the problem with the Left in Europe today. Its attachment to the EU as an inherently progressive development prevents it from being radical, and indeed integrates it into the neoliberal structures of European capitalism. The Left has become increasingly cut off from its historic constituency, the workers and the poor of Europe, who have naturally sought a political voice elsewhere.… Inevitably the vacuum created by the Left has been steadily filled by some of the worst political forces in European history, including the extreme right.10″

Lapavitsas as well as others on the left now see the European Union as an obstacle to implementing a progressive left program, not least in light of the Greek experience. They claim that both the European Union and the Economic and Monetary Union have extensive structural and institutional barriers. In a previous article, I outlined six such barriers:

  • Democratic deficit, which has increased rather than diminished in recent years.
  • Constitutionalized neoliberalism, which makes socialism and Keynesianism illegal in the European Union.
  • Irreversible legislation, where 100 percent agreement is required to amend a treaty.
  • The euro as an economic straitjacket, with a central bank that is outside of democratic control.
  • Uneven development between member states, which makes coordinated resistance difficult.
  • The extended role of the European Court of Justice, with the so-called Laval Quartet as an illustrative example (in 2007 and 2008, the court delivered four important judgments that weakened trade union rights).11
  • And we can now add: a comprehensive system of financial sanctions for any breaches of treaties, although the possible sanctions included in the Stability and Growth Pact have been temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 crisis.

Plan B: Break with the Treaties

However, a struggle to reform, not to say revolutionize, the European Union from within is still the position held by probably the largest part of the left, at least in practice, as the way to create another Europe. Another position has gradually formed around what is called Plan B, initiated by Mélenchon. This strategy has probably varied somewhat both in form and content since it was launched. The proposal was developed based on the experience of Syriza’s defeat in Greece—with the aim of preventing such a thing from happening again.

The policy has two main elements. First, the development of a clear plan of action to confront EU institutions in the event of a left victory in a member state. Second, the building of a European alliance of parties, movements, and economists that could develop a common strategy to pursue such a policy—a strategy that united unilateral negotiations with possible withdrawal from the euro, as well as from actual treaties, pacts, and other agreements.

The first of a number of Plan B conferences was held in Paris in January 2016, organized by Mélenchon together with, among others, Varoufakis, former Italian Finance Minister Stefano Fassina, and former social democratic German Finance Minister and later leader of Die Linke Oskar Lafontaine. Varoufakis withdrew from the initiative after the first meeting, when he launched his DiEM25—precisely with the aim of reforming the European Union from within. Plan B has operated as a somewhat loose and flexible network of organizations, with varying participation from conference to conference. In the beginning, the conference was a mix of people from left political parties, trade unions, social movements, and other organizations. Gradually, however, it has become a more limited network for left parties.

There is still some ambiguity about how the initiative should be understood and, not least, how it should be implemented if the political situation makes it possible. The following points, although not exhaustive, give an impression of what Plan B is about:

  • It focuses on what can and should be done when the left has won government power in one or more member states and starts to implement policies in conflict with EU rules and regulations.
  • Plan B is intended to be implemented if Plan A is rejected. The latter is the term for ordinary negotiations with EU institutions, with a view to agreeing on what policies can be pursued within the framework of EU treaties and laws.
  • The activation of Plan B would mean that the left government does not accept the restrictions imposed by the European Union, but openly and consciously advocates for breaking the relevant treaties with a view to implementing its own economic and political reforms nationally, while mobilizing at the European level to support such a process.
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Sometimes, one may get the impression that Plan B is primarily intended to be a warning shot, or a tactical input into Plan A negotiations. Maybe Mélenchon believes that France is large and important enough to be able to implement policies in breach of EU regulations just by threats. If so, it is highly possible that he underestimates the enormous economic and political forces with which a left government—even in France—will be faced. Capitalist forces have won tremendous positions and institutional power through decades of neoliberal assault and the establishment of an increasingly authoritarian, supranational, neoliberal state formation through the European Union. These forces are hardly willing to give any of this up without fighting.

The lack of an analytical and strategic assessment of these power relations constitutes a weakness of Plan B, which will have to include the possibility of full confrontation with the European Union if such a strategy were to be implemented. A government that chooses to take such a step must therefore be prepared to put membership of both the Economic and Monetary Union (the euro) and the European Union on the agenda. Not least because the European Union, in the wake of the financial and euro crisis, has implemented a number of pacts and regulations strongly tightening its requirements on member states, including extensive sanctions for any breaches. Therefore, Plan B will have to be made much more concrete and offensive, as well as better known among people, as a prerequisite for any potential future mobilization.

It is also a question of how deeply this support for Plan B is rooted in many parties. For some parties far from government power, it appears to be only a theoretical model. For others, divergences on the EU question are at play, something well illustrated at the Plan B conference in Stockholm in April 2019, where representatives from the small Polish left party Razem, the British Labour Party, and the Irish Sinn Fein emerged as devoted EU supporters. Participants at the conference discussed several of the political challenges in Europe today, but the Plan B strategy itself was paradoxically not an important theme, although criticism of neoliberalism in the European Union was extensive.12

“Cannon Fodder for Racists and Nationalists”

While the left has sharpened its criticism of the European Union and some parties more or less wholeheartedly agree that breaking EU treaties may be necessary in certain situations, another political development points in the opposite direction. A number of left politicians and activists, who were initially very critical of the European Union, have had problems with their critical EU stance due to the far right’s own growing hostility toward the European Union. This was particularly noticeable during the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. While the campaign was going on, before the referendum on June 23, 2016, I met several left-leaning people who would normally have both campaigned and voted for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, but did not do so because they would not be cannon fodder for racists and nationalists. The argument was that parties and movements on the far right were driving forces in the Brexit campaign, and thus racism, xenophobia, and right-wing nationalism were the dominant positions.

This fear of teaming up with the far right in EU hostility had been raised in parts of the European left even before the Brexit campaign. As a participant in meetings and conferences in various left-wing networks and organizations in Europe over many years, I often encountered this fear. In addition to being concerned about being lumped together with racists and nationalists, some also believe that any withdrawal from or fragmentation of the European Union would only strengthen these right-wing forces, which history has shown is a dangerous mix in Europe. The logical conclusion is that the European Union must be changed from within through social struggle.

The Swedish Left Party is a recent example of how these arguments gain ground on the left in Europe. On the one hand, the party is part of the Plan B network. On the other hand, at a conference in February 2019, it decided to depart from its previous stance that Sweden leave the European Union. In an interview, party leader Jonas Sjöstedt gave three reasons for the change.13 First, the political reality has largely changed, not least because of the acute climate crisis, but also because of the rise of right-wing extremism. Second, the Left Party “will not stand on the same side as racists and nationalists”—referring to the Brexit campaign. Third, the European left has become more EU critical, so the Left Party has gained more allies in its view of the European Union. Therefore, the European left must confront today’s European Union and work for a better one, Sjöstedt claims.

It is not clear from the media coverage or the interview with Sjöstedt whether retracting the out-of-the-European-Union policy was only a tactical, timed decision based on today’s situation, or whether it was meant as a lasting, principled, strategic change. The difference between these two positions is huge, as they are based on completely different assessments of the reformability of the European Union. There are many tactical reasons not to prioritize a slogan such as “out of the European Union!” in today’s situation in Sweden. In a context like the one in Greece, where the left wins government power, the question becomes decisive. Demands to withdraw from the euro or the European Union are no longer just theoretical, they determine the possibilities for a left government to implement its policy, or capitulate.

Sjöstedt was directly asked if it is “a good strategy to abolish a political demand because someone you disagree with shares it?” His answer raises new questions: “I think the progressive EU criticism that dominates the Nordic countries must draw a crystal-clear line against nationalism and racism. We are not on the same side as Ukip [a UK right-wing populist party established first and foremost to campaign for Brexit]. Not on the same side as racists who criticize the EU. We have an abyss that sets us apart. That must be clear.”14

This political logic is not easy to understand. If there is an abyss that separates the Left Party’s criticism of the European Union from the criticism of racists and nationalists, then what is the problem? Why then does the Left Party need to change parts of its EU policy so as not to be teamed up with racists and nationalists? Would it not be important that the Left Party promote its well-founded criticism of the European Union and its policies, even if it would lead to a break with the European Union, if it is necessary in order to pursue a different policy?

The fact that the Brexit campaign was dominated by a nationalist and xenophobic agenda, as Sjöstedt points out, provides a solid basis for criticizing the Labour Party, Momentum (which supported the Labour Party in elections), and the trade union movement for not having put forward their own criticisms of both the European Union and the far right. They could have captured people’s rightful discontent with the European Union and its policies, politicized it, and turned it into a fight against the increasingly authoritarian and neoliberal European Union.

However, large parts of the Labour Party and Momentum, and even larger parts of the British trade union movement, are devoted supporters of the EU project. In this way, they deprived themselves of the opportunity to represent and be the voice of the massive popular discontent that has legitimately built up against the neoliberal European Union over the years. In other words, they gave the far right a monopoly over the most aggressive criticism of the European Union, and thus also over putting the fight into its own political and ideological framework. It is no wonder then that the Brexit campaign was characterized by nationalism and xenophobia.

A Low Level of Class Struggle

Political developments in society cannot be seen in isolation from the development of class struggle. It is not new that the left and the trade union movement in Europe are in crisis, although conditions vary widely from country to country. What particularly marked the European Union’s role and character in this crisis was the development from Keynesian to neoliberal hegemony politically and economically. The introduction of a single currency, the euro, and the way it was done represented a crucial step in the neoliberal transformation of the European Union. This has also given the upper hand to capitalist forces in their fight against the labor movement, which has of course affected left-wing parties in Europe.

Following the financial and euro crisis in 2007–09, the reactionary austerity policy in the European Union was reinforced while it took on evermore authoritarian forms, which were institutionalized through new legislation (such as “six-pack,” “two-pack,” the European Semester, the Financial Pact, and so on) and a more prominent role for the European Court of Justice through the Laval Quartet. Dismantling the welfare states and defeating the trade union movement have thus become integral parts of modern EU institutions and politics, far from the narrative of the European Union as a means of social progress.

This has greatly weakened the trade union movement, which lost half of its membership in Western Europe between 1980 and 2015. The decline has been greatest in the private sector. The deindustrialization or relocation of industrial companies to Asian and other low-cost countries (capital’s strategy of globalization) has further contributed to the weakening of the trade union movement in areas it was traditionally the strongest, most well-organized, and militant. In addition, rising unemployment has weakened the trade unions’ negotiating power, while trade union rights have been undermined by changes in labor laws, including restrictions on negotiation rights and the right to strike.

The expansion of the European Union eastward and the establishment of a common labor market have played particularly important roles. This is not least due to the gigantic wage gap that exists between member states in eastern and western Europe, as well as the mass unemployment rate, which has climbed to 30 percent in the most crisis-ridden countries (Greece, Spain), where youth unemployment has even grown to double that. This has given employers a great deal of leeway to exploit nonunionized labor, set workers up against one another, and promote social dumping and lawlessness in the labor market.

In this situation, we experience a trade union movement on the defensive and in a deep political and ideological crisis. In particular, great parts of the institutionalized trade unions at the European level have increasingly distanced themselves from the members they should be defending. They still cling to the historic compromise between labor and capital, which formed the political basis for the postwar period of growth and prosperity, but has been dismantled by employers as the balance of power has shifted in their favor. The European Union’s brutal austerity policy is thus interpreted as wrong policy, not as an expression of conflicting class interests. The task then becomes to convince governments and employers, through social dialogue, that current policy is wrong and should be corrected, rather than to mobilize and fight to shift the balance of class forces.

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The crisis of the political left must be seen in the context of these developments in class struggle—with a trade union movement deeply rooted in a social partnership ideology and a general low level of struggle. Thus, understandably, there is no particular pressure on the left parties from outside either, leaving them in danger of becoming even more integrated into the political-administrative apparatus of the European Union in Brussels.

The European Left: A Diagnosis

As we have seen, the left in Europe is a diverse group of organizations. During most of the last century, two main political tendencies in the labor movement dominated: communism and social democracy. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the breakdown of the class compromise in Western Europe, both political projects seem to have come to an end. The traditional Communist parties in Western Europe, from the most Moscow-oriented type to the reformed euro-communist variants (as in Italy and Spain), were gradually chipped away at. Over the past few years, we have also experienced social democratic parties collapsing one after the other. Those still standing, albeit reduced, have more or less given up their traditional ideology and largely adopted a soft neoliberal policy.

Several of the current left parties in Europe are more recent, including mergers and regroupings among various small groups and parties, but do not necessarily maintain strong links with past historical traditions. Most of them are, politically, relatively moderate organizations. Many of them are weakly rooted in the working class, as well as in the trade union movement. Very few of the parties have any well-developed socialist strategy or analyses of economic and power relations. Rather, they have a good deal of social-liberal and social-democratic tendencies (the space for such perspectives has widened in recent years, as traditional parties with those ideologies have become increasingly neoliberal).

With some exceptions, the parties are strongly parliamentarily oriented, focused on a limited number of popular single issues for which media attention is sought, while the ability to mobilize social power from below is weak. Thus, we can say that we are in the middle of a Gramscian moment, where the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

Wolfgang Streeck, German professor of sociology, director of the Max Planck Institute, and former social democrat, describes the left’s weakness and further decline in last year’s European Union elections thus:

“These are, then, times of rapidly shifting political allegiances. But when should the Left expect to make electoral progress among European workers and reformist sections of the middle class, if not now? There is an urgent need to explain the Left’s disastrous failure to do this.… The first and most basic reason is the seemingly total absence of a realistic anti-capitalist, or at least anti-neoliberal, left-wing political strategy related to the European Union. There is not even a debate on the crucial issue of whether the EU can at all be a vehicle for anti-capitalist politics.15″

The goal of many of the European left parties is to get into government, most often as an alliance partner with a larger and dominant neoliberal social democratic party. For the vast majority of left parties that have tried this—in France, Italy, Norway, and Denmark—the experience has been anything from negative to disastrous.16 Despite this, it seems that, whether they have been in such governments or not, most left parties—such as the German and Dutch, as well as the Nordic left parties (except the Red-Green Alliance)—still have this ambition. The Spanish Podemos, which formed in 2014 as neither right nor left and in opposition to the elite and political caste (as they called it), entered a coalition with the left party Izquierda Unida, aligning themselves and joining a coalition government with the Socialist Party.

This political suicidality is difficult to understand, not least when we find that left parties that do not go into such governments, but limit themselves to giving critical support to a social democratic-dominated rather than a government of various right-wing parties, do far better. These parties have shown that they have a much better opportunity to promote their own policies, including the opportunity to mobilize pressure from below rather than to compromise their policies in parliamentary back rooms. The Swedish historian, newspaper editor, and author Åsa Linderborg has addressed this problem in an article about the development of the Left Party in Sweden:

“It is not easy to summarize the project of the Left Party. It is the only party that has an anti-capitalist critique of power, but for 25 years has worked to gain legitimacy as the Social Democrat’s collaborative partner. For years, the party has supported a right-wing Social Democratic party that has cut taxes and weakened the redistribution policy. They have voted in favour of budget rules that jeopardize the Swedish economy. The result has been deeper class inequalities and an extreme concentration of wealth. Welfare and democracy are thus undermined”.17

Much indicates that many left parties’ relations with the European Union lack consistency. For example, more and more parties on the left are supporting the Plan B strategy, which is both demanding and confrontational. At the same time, they hardly contribute to developing this strategy, but rather pursue a policy in the European Parliament and at the national level that does not reflect such a confrontational policy, but which, inadvertently or otherwise, is part of a strategy to reform the European Union from within.

To be in favor of breaking EU treaties in given situations does not mean that “Break the Treaty!” needs to be the primary demand of political left parties at all times. It is a question of strategy and tactics. A mobilization to strengthen left forces must, as a starting point, be based on a concrete analysis of the concrete situation, including the actual power relations in society. In a situation in which class struggle intensifies, any left party may experience what Syriza did, namely that EU institutions and treaties pose massive barriers to progressive development. The possibility or necessity of exiting the euro, or even the European Union, will come up whether we like it or not. The choice will be brutal: either give up the fight for social(ist) reforms and remain in the European Union, or break with the European Union in order to continue the struggle. Capitulation is hardly a meaningful path for any real left party.

To be sure, breaking EU treaties or opting out of the euro, and perhaps even the European Union, is a struggle that will require massive mobilization from below and solidarity from outside in order to succeed. To do so, both the party organization and members, as well as alliance partners, must be prepared for such a struggle. This is unfortunately not the situation today.

The left’s problems with its EU policy will only increase if parties do not want to pursue anti-EU policies in fear of being teamed up with racists and nationalists, although this general stance might have been limited to the specific Brexit referendum. In reality, the opposite is true. If the left really aims to weaken the European Union as the authoritarian, neoliberal power center it has become, then exiting will have to be an important and necessary tool to wield. It is not exit movements that have created and strengthened far-right parties in country after country in Europe, nor have they led such parties to hold government power in Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Poland. It is not radical criticism of the European Union from the left that is responsible for nationalism and the far right, but rather existing EU policies that have devastated the lives of millions of working people, fomenting growing discontent and people’s ever-growing feelings of powerlessness.

The only way through this crisis is for the left to develop its own struggle against and criticism of the authoritarian, neoliberal European Union by advancing internationalist, solidaristic, and antiracist politics on the other side of the abyss of the far right’s criticism. The development of an internationalist, solidaristic, and unified Europe presupposes the defeat of the institutionalized, authoritarian, neoliberal European Union, replaced by a unified Europe developed on the basis of democracy, solidarity, and self-determination.

To get there, the deep political and ideological crisis on the left in Europe must be acknowledged. The role and character of the European Union must be studied and analyzed, and a genuinely anticapitalist strategy developed. In this context, the Plan B strategy will be important to support and further develop. This will require clarification of analyses and strategies, but, properly developed, such a process can contribute to a necessary radicalization of the European left.


  1. A network of organizations active in the field of political education and critical scientific analysis, linked to the Party of the European Left. Find out more at
  2. A comprehensive presentation of this position can be found in Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU (Cambridge: Polity, 2019).
  3. Walter Baier, “Far Right in Austria: We Are Living in Dangerous Times,” Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, March 26, 2019.
  4. Catarina Martins, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Pablo Iglesias, “For a Citizen Revolution in Europe – Lisbon Declaration,” Now the People!, April 12, 2018.
  5. Yanis Varoufakis is a professor of political economy, former member of the Greek Parliament for Syriza, and acted as Minister of Finance in Alexis Tsipras’s government until it capitulated to the Troika after the referendum on EU austerity policy in July 2015. After breaking with Syriza and Tsipras, he launched the organization Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25).
  6. DiEM25, European New Deal (DiEM25, 2017).
  7. Martin Höpner, “Social Europe Is a Myth,” Social Europe, November 5, 2018.
  8. DiEM25, The EU Will Be Democratised. or It Will Disintegrate! (DiEM25, 2016), 6–7.
  9. Yanis Varoufakis, “How Should the Left Approach Europe? Interviewed, along Manuel Bompard, by Jacobin (France),” Yanis Varoufakis (blog), September 12, 2018.
  10. Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU, 129–30.
  11. A more comprehensive presentation of this development can be found in Asbjørn Wahl, “European Labor: Political and Ideological Crisis in an Increasingly More Authoritarian European Union,” Monthly Review 65, no. 8 (January 2014): 36–57.
  12. Plan B,” Vänsterpartiet, April 12, 2019.
  13. Ingrid Grønli Åm, “Vi stiller oss ikke på samme side som rasister og nasjonalister,” Morgenbladet, March 27, 2019.
  14. Grønli Åm, “Vi stiller oss ikke på samme side som rasister og nasjonalister.”
  15. Wolfgang Streeck, “Four Reasons the European Left Lost,” Jacobin, May 30, 2019.
  16. An analysis of this phenomenon can be found in Asbjørn Wahl, “To Be in Office, but Not in Power: Left Parties in the Squeeze between People’s Expectations and an Unfavourable Balance of Power,” in The Left in Government: Latin America and Europe Compared, ed. Birgit Daiber (Brussels: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2010).
  17. Åsa Linderborg, “At Vänsterpartiet kalles «ekstremistisk» er både latterlig og provoserende,” Klassekampen, January 12, 2018.

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