After a difficult few years, the European Union is buoyant again. The threat of Anglo-Saxon populism has not taken root on Europe’s mainland so far, and Macron’s victory in France has breathed new life into the European project. Europhiles are hoping his election will act as a catalyst for further E.U integration, particularly in relation to the Eurozone and other economic matters.
The defeat of Front National and Geert Wilders The Party Of Freedom in the Netherlands is to be celebrated but it should not lead to complacency.
So we won, didn’t we?
Both Front National and The Party Of Freedom came second and polled their best results in their history and both will try and capitalise on those gains in the next election. It would be suicide for those on the pro-EU side to celebrate and declare Mission Accomplished as in many respects the hard work still has to be done, to appeal to and offer solutions to those disaffected by mainstream politics. But while much focus since Brexit and Trump has been on the rise of the far right, we can not forget about the left and the dangers of extremists on that side of the divide. In the UK all the mainstream parties on the left supported the Remain vote, Labour, Lib Dem, Greens, SNP and many still support remaining or are championing a soft Brexit, but let us not forget that many on the left also supported leaving the EU, organising under the banner ‘Lexit’.
UK Labour’s soft support of the EU
The left campaign to leave the EU never did get off the ground, drowned out by Tory leavers and UKIP, but that is not to say the left didn’t play a part in the Leave side winning. Jeremy Corbyn has been blamed by many for a lacklustre campaign and his remarks in an interview about how he is only 70% in favour of the EU didn’t help. But the UK Labour party has a history of Euroscepticism. It opposed joining the EEC and in order to satisfy divisions in its party had a referendum on EEC membership in 1975 – sound familiar? It was only in the 1980s and a speech by Jacques Delors on the creation of a social Europe delivered at the TUC Conference did Labour and the unions adopt a more pro-European stance. By the time of New Labour, the Tories and the right wing media in the UK had turned against the E.U. While Labour and Tony Blair supported the EU they did little to promote it or fight against Euroscepticism, They adopted an isolationist position, opting out of the euro, Schengen, and other elements, securing the UK’s place as outside the E.U’s core . It was at this time that the referendum was lost, not last Spring.
Outside the U.K., left wing Eurosceptics are gaining ground like their right wing cousins. While many of these parties may not support a full exit of the EU, they desire reforms that will end the integration process or erode the EU back to a loose free trade area.
In France, while much attention outside the country was focused on Le Penn, the far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon gained ground and climbed the polls. He advocated reforming the E.U in a way that suited his political ideals and if this failed he would take France out of the E.U. While he may have only come fourth in the first round at 19.58%, it is an increase on his previous results and also indicates that when combining his vote and that of Marine Le Penn, about 40% of French voters are critical of the EU and may, if pushed, vote to leave. While a threat of either a Le Penn or Melenchon victory in France has diminished, the threat to the EU from populist groups continue. In France, Le Republican Party, scared of losing support to National Front, has moved to the right and in the UK the fear of Tories losing votes to UKIP led to the Brexit referendum. If we are not careful we could see the same thing happen in regards to Eurosceptic left wing parties.
Across the left wing continent
Several countries have minor leftist Eurosceptic parties, including Vänsterpartiet, V (The Left Party) in Sweden, which is a socialist and feminist party. It opposed Swedish membership of the EU and now supports its withdrawal. It currently has 21 seats in the Swedish parliament and 1 seat in the European Parliament In Slovenia, United Left, a newly formed alliance of various left-wing groups, has adopted a Eurosceptic position. It currently has 6 seats in the country’s parliament.
However, the bigger danger to the EU currently comes from Italy and the Five Star Movement. While the movement does not align itself to either the left or the right, it shares interests and characteristics with the left, including environmental issues, social justice and opposition to military intervention. However, the party is aligned in the EU parliament with the EFDD, the same group that UKIP is a member of. The Five Star Movement has expressed support for the temporary suspension of the Schengen agreement and more critically, campaigns to bring Italy out of the Euro.
The party got about 25% of the vote share in 2013, making it one of the biggest Eurosceptic parties in the E.U. Current opinion polls put it around 27%, just behind PD (Democratic Party) the main center-left party. If they gain power, they at best would unsettle the EU, and at worst, if it follows through on its aim to leave the Eurozone, lead to its break up. The Five Star Movement was born out of the Eurozone crisis, a crisis that has brought with it the rise of far left parties in Europe.
Ireland, which received a bailout in 2011, has also seen a rise in populist far left parties which are critical if not fully opposed to the E.U. Sinn Fein is Ireland’s third most popular party in terms of seats. While it campaigned in Northern Ireland for the UK to remain in the EU it has always taken a hostile position to the E.U. It has campaigned against all EU treaty referenda, against Irish membership of the euro and is opposed to further economic or military integration in Europe. Its position is shared by other left-wing groups that have risen in popularity in the last five years. They all oppose the bailout that was given to Ireland and are against various austerity measures. One of these groups is the Socialist Party whose member and former MEP Paul Murphy spoke in support of Hugo Chaves and his policies in the European Parliament. The party supports the UK leaving the E.U and also an Irish withdrawal. It argues this point on the Lexit platform.
While the party currently only has three seats in the Irish Parliament, it garners a lot of support on the ground and has created a strong grassroots movement. They, along with other smaller far left parties have impacted national politics. They organised large-scale protests against the introduction of water charges in Ireland. Despite the parties being small, they managed to influence larger parties, scared of losing votes to the far left. Mainstream parties changed their position on water charges. It now looks likely that Ireland will not introduce the charges which are in breach of E.U law. The power of smaller parties to influence larger parties is all too evident in Europe today.
Abusing EU democracy
There is nothing wrong with wanting a left Europe and supporting left causes of fairness and equality. They are indeed noble causes but often I see people and parties of the left only wanting the EU to intervene or pass laws that they support. They support the E.U. only if it does what they want. We can all do this. We can support the EU and European integration if the policies favour us or fit into our ideology. The challenge comes to support the EU if it does something we don’t like or agree with. We can complain about or protest what the EU does without wanting to see it ended or its powers rolled back.
The European Union is a democratic body made up of democratic member states and their positions on issues represent the people of those member states. Likewise, the parliament is made up of MEPs voted by the people of Europe. You may not like all the people elected or support all their positions on certain issues but if you believe in the European project and the concept of unity, you have to support them, even if it goes against your wishes.