Close scrutiny of the European Parliament and recent national elections belies a simple story of long-run decline for social democrats. A progressive programme is key to revival.
In the European Parliament just inaugurated, the proportion of seats held by socialist, social-democratic and related progressive parties—hereinafter just referred to as the social democrats—is the lowest ever. Electoral support for progressives continues to show a downward trend in Europe. Perhaps the 2019 result was better than expected by most but this simply means that an EP election at the end of 2018 would have been even more disappointing.
In recent years, progressives have had to get used to doom and gloom in most European countries—so much so that we tend to forget that the last social-democratic revival took place just a few years ago. For about three years from the end of 2011, starting with Denmark, social democrats in Europe experienced electoral success. As a result, in 2013-15 progressive parties were either leading governments or participating in ruling coalitions in most EU member states, including the largest of the euro area (Germany, France, Italy) and the Benelux countries. In the 2014 EP elections, progressives won just marginally fewer seats than the European Peoples’ Party (EPP). But the opportunity to influence the European agenda was missed—partly because of a focus on personality, instead of policy, during the campaign and the subsequent negotiation process.
Nor are the continuing electoral clouds without silver linings. On the positive side is the strong performance of the left in the Iberian peninsula and a few other parts of the European south, together with the Dutch surge and the return of the centre-left to government in the north. On the other hand, the collapse of the Socialist Party in France leaves a large hole in the map and the disarray into which the German SPD has fallen since the EP elections has become a comparable drama. Among the ‘new EU member states’ in the east, social democrats are in power in some countries—but not without controversy—and modest improvements in others have not been robust enough to offer solace.
While showing some strength in the north and the south, social democrats are at a historical low in the two major countries which have been the driving forces of European integration for seven decades. This invites reflection on the role the EU crisis has played in the decline of social democracy and the importance of European policy within any progressive reconstruction strategy.
In France, voters had already deserted the PS in 2017 for the spontaneous ‘popular front’, organised around the campaign of the centrist Emmanuel Macron, to stop the surge of the far-right Marine Le Pen. Some of these former Socialist voters remain with Macron, although in the meantime the voting base of his party (LREM) has shifted significantly, towards higher-income and more conservative voters.
In Germany, those opting away from the SPD have gone in different directions but, especially among the youth, the Greens have been the main beneficiary. Although the SPD has made serious efforts to integrate a socially-just response to the challenges of climate change and digitalisation, there is a generation gap—not least because the party is perceived to be weak on the core social-democratic programme. It has been found in bed with the centre right for two long, resulting in strategic self-restraint and electoral erosion.
In the United Kingdom, the shift away from Labour took place at even higher speed, in the context of ‘Brexit’ becoming the main polarising issue at the EP elections. What was avoided in 2017 by shifting the focus of the campaign to domestic issues became a major factor in 2019: the drift of the Labour Party towards facilitation of a ‘soft’ Brexit pushed millions of voters to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.
Although not in 2019, in previous years similar shifts away from social democrats took place towards the radical left in Greece and Spain. During the eurozone crisis, Pasok and PSOE voters deserted the centre-left for Syriza and Podemos respectively. Having experienced the recovery, the PSOE has however benefited from reverse migration in recent years, while in Greece the formerly anti-austerity Syriza itself started to occupy centre-left territory.
These shifts, which have taken place relatively quickly in specific contexts, put in perspective the theory of long-term social-democratic decline. True, the changing class composition of European societies has eroded the base of social democracy and the end of full employment, together with the fiscal crisis of the welfare state, has created confusion around the progressive mandate. But this has been a trend for three or four decades. The recent volatility of voting patterns is a new phenomenon, however, requiring fresh analysis and probably new answers.
Voter volatility may leave social democrats more vulnerable than before and more vulnerable than others in the political landscape. But the proximity of second-preference parties means those close competitors can also be coalition partners—at the national, sub-national or European level. Furthermore, within the spectrum of voter fluidity, social democrats may well be best placed to form ruling coalitions in most cases. The question then becomes what happens after progressives form governments—alone or, more usually, with others.
Defining a progressive programme at the EU level appears intrinsically a key task but also because it frames member-state policies to some extent. Compared with five years ago, today that programme seems better prepared and more cohesive. Social democrats, together with their allies, must focus on three key issues: reshaping the global order in the interest of sustainability, revamping the monetary union to facilitate convergence and reinventing Social Europe to tackle inequality.
For social democrats, the constant development of Social Europe is supposed to be a core goal—even if some believe the point is to be more liberal than the Liberals or greener than the Greens. It should be clear that absorbing policies championed by liberals or greens cannot be a substitute for delivering on key issues, including Keynesian macroeconomic policy. The availability of jobs and the quality of our workplaces today depend on EU regulation, and this has to be updated to ensure that new trends such as digitalisation and robotisation do not undermine the high standards achieved. The success of several legislative cycles at EU level has ended the period when workers coming from other EU member states were presented as the main threat to national welfare.
Further efforts to stamp out ‘social dumping’ have to concentrate on such proposals as the co-ordination of minimum income across countries. Although the EU is not and will not be a welfare state, it has to develop a safety net for the national welfare system, for example through a reinsurance of national unemployment benefit schemes. This is the endeavour that gave rise to the term ‘Social Union’.
Missing the opportunity of earlier social-democratic electoral success to reform the EU financial and economic model leaves a crucial and comprehensive task which no other force is yet ready or capable to tackle. One can, as Joseph Stiglitz does, argue for a general rewriting of the rules of the European economy, but there should not be any doubt that the reform of the single currency must be at the centre of this effort.
If and when the reconstruction of the economic and monetary union (EMU) can be relaunched, the most urgent tasks will be the completion of the banking union by adding deposit insurance to the existing pillars and the introduction of a genuine fiscal capacity in support of risk-sharing and convergence. Such measures do not require a federal leap or treaty change.
Due to the risk of disintegration should another economic downturn eventuate, EMU reform is vital but further building-blocks of a new business model should not be forgotten either. In particular, the time has probably come for an effective industrial policy, with new potential for innovation as well as regional development.
Finally, the future of EU integration and, within that, the perspective of Social Europe also depend on a progressive global agenda. Europeans, more than others, can and must strive to rescue collective action in the world. The main threat to multilateralism comes from the country which invented the system—the United States of America. The US has been looking for ways to manage its own relative decline and today this has become more disruptive than constructive. It threatens the achievements of the recent past, including in climate policy, nuclear disarmament and economic development.
The current juncture calls for a rediscovery of the great generation of social democrats—Brandt, Palme and Brundtland—and a progressive international agenda in the pursuit of global solidarities. Saving EU integration and multilateralism from the new authoritarians and nationalists is not about defending the status quo ante, since the laissez faire of transnational finance and the ‘race to the bottom’ generated by unregulated trade in the past thirty years have contributed to some of the alarming political developments of our time.
The multilateral system should rather be seen as the baby which, after throwing out the neoliberal bathwater, is the only possible framework which gives a chance for policies pursuing sustainability and equality.