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European elections: What prospects for the European Left?

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In this essay, political science scholar Arthur Moinet argues that the future of the European Left lies in ending its coalition with the EPP and proposing an ambitious political program based on environmental concerns and social progress.

The European left currently faces a severe crisis. Jan Rovny, in an outstanding article What Happened To Europe’s Left?, explains that the various political defeats of social-democratic parties in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Greece originate from a shift in focus to the new middle classes, allowing the new ‘precariat’ to slide towards nationalist protectionism.

More globally, their current difficulties are also partly due to their failure to act effectively and produce results when they gain power. As a result, many people are convinced that the left repeatedly fail to bring positive change to daily life, and have lost touch with the real issues.

For Rovny, the political sphere is now crystallizing into a new cleavage between cosmopolitans and traditionalists, where the left, especially social democrats, are gradually discarded.

That said, I believe social democracy’s future should find its source in a new European Project. Often, in a crisis situation, it is better to return to fundamental principles. Historically, socialism and social democracy have embodied internationalist values. The European Construction is an idea for the left, not the extremists. Thus, the upcoming European Elections should be a good opportunity for the European Left to reaffirm its values.

Nevertheless, this will only be possible by committing to three guiding principles.

1) Refusing the “big coalition” and promoting institutional change

The first task for the European left and the Party of European Socialists (S&D) should be to break definitively with the European People’s Party (EPP).

I don’t believe in the idea that this coalition forms a natural barrier against populism. First of all, remember that the EPP has long advocated for Victor Orbán in Hungary and many members still support him.

More generally, I am convinced that the “big-coalition’’ contributes more and more to reinforcing extremism. Many citizens think that Europe does not have any impact on their daily life. But, after all, is it not conservatism’s aim to maintain the established order? This shadow of a ‘progressive coalition’, supported by certain leaders, makes no sense: it reinforces the misunderstanding of citizens and extremism.

We can take the German example, where the effectiveness of the ‘big coalition’ has come to an end. The popularity of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) sinks lower with every election, and the Christian Democratic Union of Merkel is increasingly weakened. It is only understandable that citizens feel that their vote has no influence on the political order, and finally vote for extremism.

In a very interesting article for the New York Times, Amanda Taub, an American journalist, points out that agreements between centre-left and centre-right, which are the ‘’building blocks’’ of European stability, can quickly collapse, as has occurred in France, Belgium, Poland, Italy…

As a result, social democrats and socialists, gathered around the S&D, must finally break with the liberals of the European People’s Party (EPP). This is the only way to break with the current European status quo, and to be in a position to make more ambitious proposals.

Even in case of defeat, I believe the S&D would fare better in parliamentary opposition than in a commission where its influence is missing.

Furthermore, the conservatives reject a global reform of European institutions. The European left must propose institutional reform, promoting a real legislative initiative and an effective supervisory power for the European parliament. Too often, the parliament is reduced to a mere rubber stamp, while it should in fact control the European Commission.

The European parliament should also obtain budgetary and monetary prerogatives. For instance, it could vote on various economic objectives, like deficit thresholds, inflation… Also, the parliament should obtain the right to inquiry, to which citizens should have recourse: in its manifesto, the European left should propose to simplify the European Citizens’ Initiative process.

In addition, I believe that legislative power could acquire more legitimacy with a real European election: the establishment of Transnational lists should focus on European issues and challenges, and avoid this election being dominated by national issues.

This measure will form a new democratic guarantee, at a time when many experts point out that the ECB has acquired too much political power.

By the same token, it would also be good to ensure a strong role for the European Committee of Regions and the Economic and Social Committee, to promote more European social dialogue.

To conclude, the European left should push to establish once and for all a European budget, financed by more efficient taxation and oriented toward investments and regional development.

2) Imposing real social justice

In a recent book by Stephanie Mudge, it is argued that parties of the left have given up their duty to protect the poorest people, leaving room for extremist parties. While this judgement may seem harsh, it is undeniable that leftist politicians need to take it seriously.

The left must re-examine its position towards inequality and social justice. The notions of merit and ‘fair inequalities’ are increasingly irrelevant. Ed Miliband, for example, questions this very notion of inequality, highlighting the necessity of improving redistribution mechanisms and limiting wealth disparities.

However, it is precisely social democracy that can resolve these tensions at work within liberalism and capitalism: traditionally it has always aimed to bring social justice and strong redistribution to the free market. The European left must return to this simple principle.

To this end, the European left should propose a common fiscal reform. European states must harmonize their taxes and define common rates, particularly for corporate taxes.

This policy should have two advantages: limiting the dumping effects, still existing in the common market and which present big problems for the capitalist system, but also taxing multinationals more efficiently.

Indeed, for years, we have seen the rise in power of many large companies, particularly in the digital sector (the famous GAFA), whose activities are naturally more difficult to locate and thus tax correctly. As a result, in a spirit of social justice and financial regulation, we should tax these firms at the European level, according to their presence in each country. I am convinced that it is the European Union which is most capable of imposing this taxation. Gaël Giraud, a French economist, defends this measure in a famous book.

In my view, this policy would represent a huge step forward, and give real meaning to European political action. For example, this common taxation policy would be the first step towards limiting the obscene profits of the European football sector.

The economic benefits of this new European tax should supplement the European Social Fund and Cohesion Fund, aiding the construction of the common European social model.

More generally, European politicians should work to reinvent our redistributive system so that it can limit inequalities and protect those with the lowest income. Parties of the European left also need to push for the removal of tax benefits and family allowance for the richest sectors of society.

Obviously, a crucial issue will be free-trade agreements. The European Union is currently negotiating TAFTA with the United States. While liberals and conservatives are keen on ratification, the European left should above all reaffirm its commitment to a strong European industry, as well as strong environmental and social standards – the only way to establish an efficient and protective European transnationalism.

3) Consolidating European Social Progress

While conservative and populist forces gain ground, a crucial goal for the European left will be to convince citizens that Europeanisation, and more globally, internationalization, are not necessarily bad things. In his famous essay What Should the Left Propose?, Roberto Unger has a important line: “the question should not be ‘how much globalization?’ but rather ‘what manner of globalization?’’’

We need to give real meaning to the European Project. With the continuing growth of populism, I believe this is an urgent need. Indeed, if the European Union has achieved its main goal – peace – it must now move towards a new objective: creating a common social model, based on solidarity and common identity. This is the prerequisite for a Europe which can bring positive change to people’s lives, and ensures solidarity.

Indeed, it is at the European level that common social measures need to be imposed. Europe has enabled harmonized common values and a common market. Now, the European Union should work towards social harmonization.

Tomorrow, to face China, India, Russia, but also multinational companies, we will need collective action. Without Europe, there will be no ecological transition, no fight against tax evasion, no investment plan…

As global tensions continue to increase, the EU needs to take strong positions on environmental and social issues. In this regard, the European left has much to contribute.

First, its historical defence of the environment. Today, it is not possible to be on the left without being an environmentalist. It should be noted that the poorest people are the first to be impacted by climate change and pollution (Zmirou et al, 2015).

The concept of social-ecology is important because it establishes that environmental policy must be the starting point for all social policies. Facing global warming and environmental scandals, the European left could propose a European Environmental Treaty, which would represent an ecological counterpart to the Stability and Growth Pact, and the Maastricht Criteria.

In addition, once and for all, it should impose a ban on endocrine disruptors, and a common tax on pollution.

Secondly, the European left is essentially progressive. If it should come to power, it must demonstrate that Europe can foster social progress.

I think of a European Migration Strategy, currently non-existent, which could finally resolve the migration crisis. I also think of student and professional mobility, which should be as inclusive as possible, establishing new forms of European assistance, opening doors for all citizens. I think of fundamental rights: the European directive limiting working time to 48 hours, a ceiling which should be further reduced. Moreover, I believe that states condemned by the ECHR should be financially sanctioned by the European Commission in order to encourage social progress.

Thanks to such actions, the European left can make the European Union function as a protective shield for citizens, and move towards a new “European Dream” (Petr Drulak, 2014), more focused on policy and citizenship.

To conclude, we should remind ourselves that historically social democracy has represented a strong compromise between the various social classes for the sake of a common social project. This political vision proved successful for Nordic countries after the second world war. Now, as this project is increasingly neglected, it is necessary to give it new meaning.

The European left has a very important advantage: the Party of European Socialists. This is a crucial tool for rethinking the global European project, and imagining the future of social democracy, starting with the upcoming European elections.

There is currently some debate around the S&D’s Spitzenkandidat, but this choice is not the most important: more important will be the future manifesto.

As I have modestly outlined, the future of the European left lies with leaving the coalition with the EPP, and working towards an ambitious political program.

If the European left succeeds in proposing ambitious ideas and eventually changing Europe, it can regain power throughout Europe. Institutional reforms, social and fiscal harmonisation, ecological ambition, social progress: all terms that the European left must take ownership of in the coming months.

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