The European Left's Continuous Rise and Its Challenges


May 29, 2011. Demonstrators in Madrid’s famous Puerta del Sol protest againstpoliticians, bankers, and authorities’ handling of the economic crisis [Source:]

Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau used to be a grassroots activist. During the 2008 global financial crisis, she co-founded Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and worked as a spokesperson. At that time, she didn’t hesitate to criticize the Spanish Banks Council as criminal at public hearings. She was elected in the May 2015 municipal election after running as a candidate of Barcelona en Comu – a new left alliance that includes PODEMOS.

Mayor Ada Colau is a typical example of the Left’s rise in Europe. From SYRIZA’s victory, to PODEMOS in Spain and left parties of Portugal, people’s discontent with austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis is leading to the rise of the Left.

Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis warns that Europe could be sliding into “a modern 1930s”: The European economy is very serious and no one can predict the next economic crisis. To make matters worse, governments will be more limited in their options if another meltdown happens. Membership in a single currency leaves less room for maneuver, and years of spending cuts have meant extensive social and economic devastation.

It is especially bleak for the young. In Greece and Spain, nearly half are without work; in Italy, 38%; in France, nearly 20%. As a journalist says, the “graduate without a future” can be found all across the continent. The opportunities young people expect from education are not there.

To make the current crisis more miserable is the lack of solutions to the current global recession. Global growth has become more dependent on the Chinese economy which is slowing down. Fears are mounting of a US recession and the contraction of European industrial production due to a possible credit crisis in Europe’s banks.

The Left Rises, Support for the Right Expands It is up to the left to offer an alternative outlet. Spain has been impacted more than most by the austerity policies. In fact, popular discontent has been funneled in the direction of PODEMOS, a progressive party arguing for an alternative to austerity. PODEMOS has flourished thanks to movements that organize local communities, such as the anti-eviction movement. But one of engine of PODEMOS growth is its approach to communication. Eschewing the traditional symbols and language of the left, even resisting talking in the language of “left” versus “right”, it has moved beyond the traditional left’s comfort zone. It has appealed to a younger generation in despair. The message is one of relentless optimism and hope. PODEMOS’s approach is resolutely patriotic: patriotism is redefined as defending the interests of the majority against the minority elite and ridding the country of injustice.

In Portugal, left parties garnered more than 50% of the vote, and the austerity policies that have paralyzed the country for four years took a major hit. Parliament has 230 seats. Currently, the right controls 104 seats; the left, 121. Even more surprising was that the Left Bloc more than doubled its representation despite the fact that there were three left parties competing for voters.

One in five Portuguese are below the poverty line and the minimum wage is $584 a month. Portugal has one of the greatest income disparities in Europe: The top 20 percent earn six times more than the bottom 20 percent. Education levels are also among the lowest in the EU. Austerity has further impoverished people’s lives. A study by the Committee for a Citizens Audit on the public Debt found that most debt was not due to government spending but massive tax cuts and rising interest rates. The committee concluded that as much as 50 to 60 percent of most countries’ debt was “illegitimate”.

The economic crisis hasn’t simply resulted in the rise of the left in Europe. Europe’s far right is already feeding off the despair of economic crisis and a backlash against refugees fleeing violence from the Middle East. Where once the main target were Jews, now it’s Muslims. Despite failing to achieve an anticipated breakthrough in the regional elections, Front National won nearly 7 million votes in France. In the current political climate, it is likely that next year’s presidential election will require a runoff and that even if she doesn’t ultimately win the runoff that it is quite possible for her to come out with the most votes in the first round.

In Sweden, the far-right Swedish Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi origins, occasionally lead opinion polls, regularly receiving support from nearly a fifth of the electorate. Its leader once denounced the growth of Islam as “our greatest foreign threat since World War II”. In Finland, already stricken by recession, the hard-right Finns party is already in government. Polls in the Netherlands suggest a party led by Geert Wilders (who is likened to the U.S.’s Donald Trump) wants Muslim immigration stopped to prevent an “Islamic invasion”. Even in Germany which has resisted the rise of the far right in the postwar period, support for the populist hard-right is growing.

What is to be done?

If there is one thing that the recent election in Greece made obvious, it is that small countries cannot take on the power of the EU by themselves. The European Union is now the single most powerful alliance of capital on the planet, and it’s not shy about crushing anything it sees as potential threat. However, its power has already started cracking.

In the long run, a common currency is a bad idea for everyone but Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and the banks. However, a quick exit would be like pulling a spear out of your leg. Without careful preparations, you will likely hemorrhage to death. While the ultimate goal should be to move away from the euro, the process may take a while.

One thing the European Union is vulnerable on is democracy. Being in the EU essentially means abandoning sovereignty. The recently signed agreement between the Troika and Greece says that the former can veto any policy it does not agree with, including anti-corruption legislation aimed at tax scofflaws. Essentially, democracy has become dispensable. SYRIZA and the Portuguese left successfully made this an issue in their campaigns. It has great potential to become a Pan-European issue.

A convincing, coherent alternative to slash-and-burn economies is desperately needed. But, urgency is needed amidst the ranks for the left wing: the far right is stronger, better organized, and positioned to benefit from any impending crises. The history of Europe should be warning enough. Time to prepare and better be quick.