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.
Le Monde diplomatique