Feb 13, 2014 | 11:32 GMT

9 mins read

Europe's Center-Left Under Pressure as the Economic Crisis Drags On

Europe's Economic Crisis Creates Political Changes
DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images

The economic crisis is reshaping Europe's political and ideological landscape. The nationalist right is becoming more populist, criticizing the European Union and the political elites that back it and rejecting immigration. Center-right parties are afraid of losing votes to their competitors on the right, so they are adopting elements from the nationalists' agenda. Center-left parties are facing an identity crisis because they traditionally have defended deeper European integration and the expansion of the welfare state. With both of these concepts in crisis, progressive parties are struggling to adapt to the new social and political environment in Europe. The far right and center-right will continue attracting voters. As a result, domestic pressures to leave the common currency and adopt new barriers to immigration and free trade are likely to grow in the coming years.

In Europe there is a strong connection between supranational integration and center-left politics. In the early 1940s, former communists — mostly Italians — led the European Federalist Movement, which proposed the gradual dissolution of the nation-state and its replacement by a federation of European states. According to their view, Europe's perennial state of war was the consequence of pervasive nationalism, which made the nation-state the cause of, not the solution to, the Continent's woes. The movement's most notable document was the Ventotene Manifesto, which proposed the creation of a federation of European nations sharing the same currency. This is considered the ideological foundation of economic and political integration in Europe.

In the 1950s, most social democratic parties in Western Europe favored integration. They saw it as a way of improving the quality of life on the Continent and expanding and standardizing social legislation across nations. Their center-right adversaries were not always as convinced but saw the expansion of free trade in Europe as necessary for postwar peace (a view that was shared by the United States, which pushed Western European countries to integrate during the early days of the Cold War). Regardless of their ideology, most mainstream parties agreed that continental integration was the antidote to dangerous nationalism.

The European Economic Community (the European Union's predecessor) was created in 1957 and had elements to please most sectors of the European political establishment. The conservatives were happy to see the creation of a free trade zone, where national barriers to trade were abolished and goods and services could move freely. The progressives were also pleased because substantial amounts of money (in the form of structural funds to help poorer regions and a Common Agricultural Policy to subsidize the agricultural sector) would be spent to ensure social and economic cohesion. In other words, the Europeans found a way to make liberalization and protectionism coexist in apparent harmony.  

The promise of economic prosperity held the European project together. Over time, governments with very different ideological tendencies applied for membership in the bloc, which grew from six Western European members in the 1950s to 28 nations across the Continent in 2014. Most political parties considered the European Union a key factor in economic prosperity. Parties in southern European countries saw integration as a way to secure their transition from dictatorships to democracies in the 1980s. Parties in the former Soviet satellites saw EU membership as necessary in their shift from communism to market economies in the 2000s.

European Union

European Union

In the early 1990s, the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union, led to some soft Euroskepticism in northern Europe. Conservative governments in the United Kingdom and Denmark negotiated opt-outs from the treaty. Most notably, they demanded to be left outside the eurozone. However, even these countries supported the birth of the European Union.

The Effects of the European Crisis

Europe's economic crisis is affecting the Continent's politics and particularly hurting center-left parties. To varying degrees according to country and party, most center-left parties in Europe believe in a state based on the general concept of welfare. The idea of an active and powerful state that provides widespread security, health and education to its citizens is a core tenet of European social democracy — and one that clashes with the fundamental economic and demographic reality of the Continent. The economic downturn is calling into question the role of the state in the economy and welfare in particular.

Before Europe's debt crisis, a demographic and competitiveness crisis was slowly deepening in Western Europe that would have jeopardized the welfare state in some nations even if the current crisis had not occurred. The introduction of the euro further complicated things. Before the creation of the common currency, countries could react to economic downturns by devaluing their currency in an attempt to restore their competitiveness. With the devolution of monetary policy to the European Union, the only tool countries have left to combat the crisis is fiscal policy. However, this often involves austerity measures, such as pension cuts, tax hikes and the reduction of subsidies, most of which go against social democratic platforms.

This is what led to the downfall of the center-left governments in Greece, Spain and Portugal during the early stages of the crisis. These governments had run on a platform of cheap education and health care as well as job security, but they could not deliver — both because the countries could not afford it and because of pressure from the European Union. The victory of the Socialist Party in France generated hopes that President Francois Hollande could substantially revert the EU push for austerity, but the French government is facing dropping approval rates and rising social unrest as it struggles to choose what direction to take.

Unlike their center-left peers, left-wing parties are more vocal in their criticism of austerity and believe that nation-states should be allowed to restore trade barriers to protect local businesses. But even these parties often struggle to criticize the euro or immigration. Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza party — one of the few left-wing parties performing well in opinion polls — has probably been the most vocal critic of austerity measures, but it is interested in keeping the euro. Left-wing parties are growing in Spain and Portugal but have yet to break with the progressive ideology of supporting the European Union. Most of them believe that reforms can be made without leaving the bloc, and immigration is not a key part of their agenda.

Conservative parties are finding it easier to adapt to the new environment. For them, the application of structural reforms — including the reduction of the state's involvement in the economy, privatizations, flexible labor legislation and constraints on labor movements — is in line with their political agenda. These reforms are quite unpopular among some voters, but they do not create as many internal conflicts for these parties as they do for the center-left.

Some conservative parties are also comfortable with criticizing EU integration. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative-led government is pushing to renegotiate the terms of Britain's EU membership and has promised a referendum on the country's permanence in the bloc for 2017. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has criticized the European Union for failing to acknowledge the national differences and priorities among member states. These parties are considerably different (Britain's Conservatives are pro-market, while Fidesz promotes Budapest's greater involvement in the Hungarian economy) but share the perception that Brussels has taken away too much sovereignty from member states.

Even those conservative parties that generally support EU integration have suggested recently that nation-states should have a greater say in EU affairs. Members of Germany's Christian Democratic Union have criticized the European Union's lack of democratic accountability and have recently suggested a curb on welfare benefits for foreigners. France's Union for a Popular Movement has repeatedly criticized the free movement of people within Europe and rejected Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the Schengen treaty. It is more difficult for countries in Europe's core to challenge EU integration substantially because they have more at stake. However, they are also starting to question Brussels' authority.

Why Nationalist Parties Are Gaining Popularity

Defense of the welfare state and criticism of the European Union are at the core of far-right nationalist parties' agendas. These parties believe that the process of European integration should be frozen, or even reversed, to protect social benefits and create jobs. Parties such as France's National Front and the Dutch Party of Freedom believe that leaving the euro is essential for their countries' economic recovery and that massive immigration is damaging national economies.

There are significant ideological differences within the nationalist right. The National Front defends the need to apply protectionist measures — in line with France's economic tradition — while the Party of Freedom defends the Netherlands' historical role as a trading nation and therefore supports free trade within Europe. However, they share the belief that their nations have given up too much sovereignty to unelected officials in Brussels. These parties are attracting voters in areas that have been affected by the crisis and who are worried about immigration and crime. They are also becoming attractive to people who think that growing immigration is eroding national identity and values.

Nationalist parties on the right also capitalize on their strong criticism of the political and economic establishment. Some of their popular support comes not from voters who reject the European Union, but from people who are disenchanted with the traditional elites. These voters often see politicians in national capitals and Brussels — as well as bankers and international corporations — as responsible for the current crisis. Because nationalist parties have rarely been in power, people perceive them as attractive alternatives to the establishment. Right-wing nationalist parties have replaced Communist parties as the main protest parties, especially in northern Europe.

The Center-Left's Struggle

Europe's center-left parties are facing a key dilemma: whether to campaign for a reform of the European Union from within, or to adopt more firm anti-EU rhetoric that defends stronger nation-states. The first option involves pushing for slow reforms whose benefits would only be perceived in the long term. The second option involves more drastic measures such as leaving the euro and regaining national sovereignty.

As the economic crisis lingers and popular support for the European Union declines in some countries, center-left parties eventually will feel more confident in adopting a more aggressive stance on the bloc. But their rivals in the center-right, the nationalist right and, to a certain extent, the far left are already doing it, which means these parties are increasingly dominating the anti-EU agenda and the center-left has lost ground.

More important, right-wing nationalist parties are ceasing to be on the fringes of domestic politics because people are supporting them more openly. With the European crisis, support for parties such as the National Front is no longer taboo, and criticism of immigration has become a legitimate issue in parties' political agendas. As conservative and nationalist parties in Europe become more comfortable with demanding the devolution of sovereignty from Brussels than their progressive adversaries, in coming years the main challenges for the survival of the European Union will come from the center-right and the far right.

After World War II, nationalism broadly was seen as a dangerous ideology, and most political parties considered European integration its antidote. With the economic crisis, voters and parties are rediscovering nationalism and becoming more vocal in their support for the devolution of national sovereignty from Brussels. In some cases, populist parties are taking advantage of this situation and channeling popular discontent against the European Union and immigrants.

This does not mean that European nations will return to fascism anytime soon. But the voices rejecting the main features of the European Union — such as the euro, or the free movement of people and goods — likely will grow louder in the coming years, challenging the survival of the continental bloc in its current form.

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