Brian Milne looks though the aftermath of what was both an exciting and yet underwhelming election. Big promises and serious threats were envisaged but nether seemed to materialised. Brian breaks down what is clearly though, a very different looking Parliament.
We have just had very significant European elections in which turnout reached a record high since the 1990s and in several countries young people voted in large numbers for the first time since those more optimist 1990s. The Greens were ultimately more impressive than other political movements, but the hype that was trying to convince us we would see a ‘populist wave’ ultimately produced a relatively small ripple. Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK used the same type of divisive tropes and occasionally recycled some of the originals used by the fascists during the first half of the 20 century to muster support.
The countervailing force is left of centre and recently fortified mainstream centrist parties in the shape of Greens in the Green/EFA and those who will align with them in GUE/NGL and the liberals who are the majority of the ALDE group who are now preparing themselves to play the role of ‘kingmakers’ with the selection of major functions in the hierarchy of the EU immediately forthcoming. The EU elections were the first since the 2015 refugee crisis that sparked off the so-called populist movements’ growth. They showed the European project is flexible and resilient, that electorates by and large care enough about the EU to want to have a say on its policies by steering its political direction rather than discard all it has achieved and has still to accomplish in a burst of voter anger.
The elections and where they have taken us
The EU has numerous problems to solve, yet the message from electorates is that they want the EU to seek solutions and act on them rather than fail and dissolve. There has been around a decade of crises that could have steered this election in an entirely other direction, thus the message we have seen is reassuring. It must now be taken seriously. Those elected should bear in mind that 51% of Europeans turned out for these elections. Whilst it is not per se a big turnout it was manifestly better than 43% last time and the best this century. The percentage turnout went up in 21 of the 28 member states with impressive increases in a number of countries such as like Germany, Hungary, Poland and Spain, proving that widespread predictions voter disengagement proved to be mainly wide of the mark to the point of almost alarmist in some cases.
The pundits who were preoccupied with the notion that renewed voter engagement could create more problems than disengagement were proved wrong. The much discussed and feared wave of populism in which reactionary nationalists were foretold as flooding and thereafter dominating Brussels has not materialised. Of course, the popularity of the parties in France, Italy, Hungary and UK were predominantly votes for anti-EU and hard right parties, even though in some cases like RN and Lega they are saying they want to stay in to force reforms that will return power to nations. Those votes were by and large not new, given that both France and UK have sent MEPs to Brussels previously. In spite of some gains, they were not very numerous this time, thus by the most generous estimate they now have in the range of 170 sin the new 751 seat parliament when we include anti-EU MEPs in other parties that are not considered populist movements. That may be a significant, but insufficient to be decisive. It is far short of somewhat exaggerated claims that populist right parties would sweep through Europe. But there again, which must be noted, neither has the left. The protest seems to be giving way to a statement that is about the EU getting its act together and moving on with inevitable, very necessary reforms a priority.
Changing political and ideological balance
The traditional centre, once the political ‘safe place’ for voters has been shrinking in recent history, with this election it shrank further. The two big blocs in previous parliaments that consist of the centre-right EPP of Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel and the centre-left S&D mainly consists of Europe’s decreasingly popular social democrats shrank from 412 seats for the two to 328, thus losing them their majority. The way power and roles was apportioned has been more or less curtailed, which is actually a good development. Thus other groups will be players in the wrangling over who replaces Juncker as head of the Commission and Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.
However, those other ideological groupings will not be the nationalists and anti-Europeans it was feared may sweep the elections. They will most likely include the pro-European ALDE liberal alliance whose positions in a steep climb up from 67 to 107 seats, with them the pro-European Greens, up from 50 to 69 seats. If it is a way of testing that against a sample nation, then UK’s results that partly contributed to that change, saw faith in the old, established parties evaporating to give way to greater pluralism and which contributes to a more balanced European Parliament as well as marks a distinct sea change in domestic politics. Both France and UK saw the apparent success of right wing, entirely or ideologically against the EU that came first, yet overall far more pro-European votes were cast. Despite the appearance of a right wing party ‘winning’ in fact the fight back has begun and is far more apparent if one does not simply look at the result as a declaration of the supposed winners, but as a mathematical simple proposition in which we merely have to look at which parties are pro and anti EU, then add up support with the two tendencies measured by votes. Across Europe, and probably quite evident in several countries, is that the damaged established parties have leadership that is not entirely synchronised with its members, thus we see Labour in the UK with a Brexit executive but up to 80% members and supporters pro-EU, differently proportions in the Conservatives but nonetheless, which effectively means that they and their EU wide equivalent become the political ‘don’t knows’ we do not include in our calculations. They may fall either way, but it is highly likely that sooner or later the left of centre parties will come down on the side of pro-Europeans where their bloc needs urgent reform and reconstruction, but from outside they will continue to dwindle.
None of this should be taken to mean that it will be business as usual for the EU. The original ideal of convergence is, of necessity, fading and mostly sidelined, but quite rightly so. The continent is very much divided, especially on economic lines, into west and east, north and south, but also politically in left and right, core and periphery, everything but just one Europe. At present, more than ever in some respects, the politics of one country are always different from those of the next. Despite that, the results of the elections suggest that most Europeans, even in the UK but also in Hungary, Italy or Poland where executive and popular opinion on the EU often differs despite electoral support for the right, can deal with with and accept several levels and diverse types of political identity. The elections show that the European project is heading off in a more all-inclusive but wide-ranging cooperation of member states that shares some core values but for the time being is going in a less federal direction. For all of that, it shows that Europe is resilient and far more flexible than it even fairly recently appeared to be. Yet with the moderation of the groups like ALDE, it is highly likely that the long and complicated journey that comes with pushing for and achieving necessary reforms and restructuring will revive the now dormant ambitions of federalists to begin to look at a closer unions of nations that will be a force majeure in a world where consolidate power is the only means left to compete with the most powerful nations. Thus, with reforms the EU will need to move toward closer economic unity that brings all member states under a single currency but begins the difficult process of fiscal convergence. The political and social should follow, as certainly the election results tell us of the political domain.
The threat of neoliberal and populist ideologies
The question that must be resolved is what kind of economic system is most advantageous for a continent of dissimilar but conjoined states? It is a serious question has come to define the current era, because with around 40 years of neoliberalism in most advanced industrial societies such as the USA particularly but other advanced economies including Germany and UK in the EU, we still do not know what does and does not work best. Socialism and left of centre social democracy have failed and lost voter traction, but capitalism has become an ugly enemy of the common people with the return of very visible poverty on a rich continent and common knowledge of a shrinking number of people holding the largest amount of wealth, rather than the notional more equitable distribution that was the ideal in the wake of WW2. The EPP group in the EP has far too much neoliberal ideology entrenched in its member parties to simply expunge as a group. The ECR group that is more anti-federalist than anti-EU, although in part Euro-sceptic, is thoroughly ingrained with neoliberalism which, more than any genuine preference for absolute national sovereignty, is their driving force.
The neoliberal experiment has become a virtual economic orgy of lower taxes on the rich, that has seen the deregulation of labour and product markets, a move away from national ‘common wealth’ to financialisation that concentrates wealth and ownership of industry, services and trade into private corporations whose heads are the ‘superrich’ who are now competing to be the first trillionaire. Their emphasis is on finance oriented globalisation instead of socioeconomic internationalisation. Neoliberalism has been a highly extravagant failure that is now going to be extremely close to impossible to unravel, but the EU has the best chance of all economic power groups and nations. The starting point is rebuilding competitiveness because growth has been much lower than it was in the first quarter of a century after WW2 with most of what is still successful and growing amassed at the very top of the executive income scale in innovation IT, hi-tech and trading enterprises. Europe has experienced decades of stagnant and sometimes actually falling incomes for those below that growth with the very visible gap between rich and poor become not just visible but seriously felt and is beginning to penetrate the political domain. Therefore, neoliberalism needs to taken by the throat and strangled until it can be pronounced dead and then buried in the graveyard of economic history.
This is one of the reasons for the recent growth of populism that has donned the mantle of largely defunct socialist ideologies by declaring themselves critical of capitalism and globalisation, whilst often synonymously heading in the opposite direction toward greater privatisation and financialisation. The political groups vying to succeed neoliberal ideologies come from three major political alternatives that are far right nationalists, centre-left reformists and the progressive left. As we have now seen in large parts of the EU, the centre-right represents that neoliberal failure. With exception of the progressive left, the other alternatives remain indebted for their existence and growth to forms of ideology that should have perished with the end of WW2, the end of Stalinism and fall of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. Parts of the latter are now part of the EU, but also include those where the capitalist model and mores of the neoliberal ideology quickly caught on but have as rapidly become an anathema to the people who are now looking back to the only model they remember which is that which collapsed in 1989 and 90. This is where the east west division within the EU is regenerating itself, thus causing new tensions with the right rather than a monopolistic left the driving force.
The demise of social democracy
Until recently, the centre-left, so-called social democrats, which were more far more pro-capitalist than socialist, represented neoliberalism with a far more human face. Its main aim was to drive the policies formed during the era of Bill Clinton in the USA, Tony Blair in the UK and all similarly inclined social democrats toward a prosperous 21 century, needing only minor revisions to the then current and prevalent modes of financialisation and globalisation. However, the nationalist right has very cleverly appeared to disown globalisation, is critical of but not proactively engaged against the financial sector whilst seeking finance from them rather than causing the downfall of neoliberalism’s greatest beneficiaries, instead blaming migrants and foreigners generally for all of the problems we face today. Despite campaign rhetoric, in the USA Donald Trump’s presidency has shown that it is no less committed to generous tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and reduction or elimination of social programmes. Trump has used populist language and overseen the promotion of the ideas propagated by those wishing to protect their wealth through agents of change such as Steve Bannon who has been one of the provocateurs behind the growth and success of European populism. Behind the rhetoric that is highly critical of globalisation, favouring nationalism verbally, global accumulation of wealth and resources is still happening and is even more predatory than it has been in the past.
A new take of the benefits of capitalism
There is another political economic group that advocates what the well known economist Joseph Stiglitz calls progressive capitalism. It has laid down a radically different economic agenda that is based on four priorities and the knock on benefits of enforcing them. The first is the restoration of the delicate balance between markets, the state and civil society. They have recognised that low economic growth and rising inequality that carry with them financial instability and environmental degradation are problems created by the market. These issues cannot be overcome and made good by the market alone, nor would it want to take that responsibility for fear of undermining itself. Progressive capitalists are cognisant of the duty of governments to contain and shape markets through regulation of the environment, health, workplace safety, fair pay, leave, regulated wages and other key areas. Governments are tasked with doing what the market cannot or will not do, for instance investment in essential research, technology, education and health of its electorate, especially the labour force without which even the most caring form of capitalism fails. This is, more or less, the position the liberal parties within the ALDE bloc, whilst ideologically to the left of pro-capitalist parties, are the politically acceptable face of capitalism. It is pragmatically seen where the Greens are most likely to find support and investment in their main cause.
The second main concern is recognition of the fact that the ‘wealth of nations’ or ‘common wealth’ is the outcome of what we regard as scientific inquiry that has grown as we have learned about the world and all that is there around and among us along with social organisation that enables large numbers of people to work together for the common good. Of course, markets still have a key role in making social cooperation possible. They serve that purpose when they are governed by and adhering to the rule of law and allow themselves to subjected to democratic checks and balances. If not, as we have seen for well over a century in the USA, but only since the 1990s in former Soviet states, individuals can become very rich, very quickly by exploiting others. This has been the strategy of much of Europe’s capitalist based establishment with parties beholden to the generosity of donors in order to raise campaigns that put or keep them in power and that are influential in law making that favours wealth before the lower socioeconomic strata of society. This has served the growth of European populism very well, since rhetorically they speak critically of great wealth whilst their backers are themselves very rich, but are playing a nationalist card to attempt to stave off takeovers by rival, foreign investors where they normally make most of their wealth. Thus, their take on globalism, is one which appears to take the side of the people who have been made dependent on foreign investment and stand to lose employment and economic survival if the foreign owners leave. Populists in Europe have often spoken of renationalisation of particular services such as rail networks and electricity supplies, but are unlikely ever to do that. The real cost would be far greater than just the purchase and forced, unpaid repossession would be a disaster given that most services now belong to continental networks and corporations behind them that would isolate, in effect cut off the service, for any country forcing repossession. Whilst in some people’s mind, the liberals in the European Parliament appear quite left wing, in fact they occupy the real centre and more toward politically neutral ground with one foot in socially democratic politics, but not actual social democracy (there is no contradiction there if carefully considered), and the other firmly planted in progressive capitalism, seeking to do exactly the opposite to the traditionally pro hard capitalist parties and the hard left but also holding the more contradictory and deliberately unclearly presented position of populists.
Then there is the third main concern that urgently needs to be addressed, the mounting problem of concentrated market power. The markets have exploited information advantages by buying up potential competition, not infrequently using private investment groups such as Greybull who are presiding over the collapse of British Steel at present, often known as vulture funds, that exist purely to buy up assets of failing companies, run them down whilst helping to transfer funds to bigger, more successful businesses then creating entry barriers into that sector for newcomers. The dominant companies are thus able to engage in large scale ‘rent-seeking’, which is the practice of manipulating public policy or economic conditions as a strategy for increasing profits to the detriment of all possible competitors. The ascent of corporate market power has been combined with the decline in workers’ bargaining power and often real terms wage freezes, that contribute directly to why inequality is now the norm in the previously converging western edge of Europe and growth only lukewarm rather than hot, but never quite boiling, as it was not so long ago. Where those who are gaining popularity of the right of centre governance are gaining in the EU is that they take a more active role than neoliberalism tries to impose, traditional liberalism being the one political tradition neoliberals cannot contend with although they ‘stole’ many of the core features of liberal ideology to reconstruct to suit their objectives. That is not to say problems are unlikely to become worse, since owing to advances in robotisation and artificial intelligence that have been developed and are owned by vast, powerful corporations, regaining control will be close to impossible. However, those same corporate bodies do not favour populist groups in Europe whose nationalist agendas often include propositions for breaking these companies up then put the small concerns under the strict control of nations, which appears to be nationalisation by not the back door but by the window next to the main entrance.
The fourth major issue on the progressive capitalist agenda is to cut links between economic power and political influence. This is where populist agitators like Bannon are investing great effort in the EU to bring those forces closer together whilst giving the impression that is for the benefit of electorates who should be more and more persuaded by the hard right, nationalist programme. Economic power and political influence have always been mutually reinforcing and capable of perpetuating itself , especially when copying the way that functions in the USA where the richest, most influential corporations and individuals donate funding to elections without limits which has been described as a fundamentally undemocratic system of ‘one dollar, one vote’. The power of money and influence without the kinds of system of checks and balances that is favoured by the European liberals and progressives is an absolute necessity for democracy if it is to survive at all since nothing tends to be capable of constraining the power of the wealthy. This has become more than just a moral and political problem because we already know that economies with less inequality actually perform better than purely profit and power seeking hard capitalist economies. Progressive capitalist reforms of the kind Emmanuel Macron is suggesting very clumsily need to begin by restraining the influence of money in politics and reducing wealth inequality. Macron is at the disadvantage of attempting to take a large part of employment out of state control that is ideologically far closer to several steps left of centre into a progressive and ‘caring’ capitalist model where inequalities begin to level off. Whilst the new rather than old centre has generally similar ideas, within the EU these need to be consolidated otherwise neoliberalism will continue its onslaught and undermine attempts to redress their influence. At a time when neoliberal influence is in decline and certainly strongly challenged by the recent election results, this would be foolish neglect on the part of liberals and their collaborators including the less left inclined Greens.
No easy fix
There is no easy fix that can possibly reverse damage inflicted by decades of neoliberalism, although a political agenda along the lines described here can slow it down and later begin to turn round that influence. The left generally demands such radical alternatives that what they usually propose would totally deplete capital that is required in all economies, whatever the political ideology. Neoliberal proprietors and investors would simply cut and run, taking as much finance and as many material assets as possible, thus depleting nations. A great deal depends on whether EU reformers are as determined in their proposed approaches to combat problems like excessive market power and inequality as the private sector has been when deliberately creating them and most recently driving voters into populist hands.
One of the most important things to bear in mind is that globalism and internationalism are the same conceptually except that one is a capitalist precept as against a core socialist ideology. It appears that the preoccupation with the most negative aspects of globalisation, for instance the worldwide influence and impact of powerful corporations that control production, trade and finance, have been separated from the notion of internationalism that proposes to bring nations together from the bottom up rather than top down, traditional using such paroles as ‘workers of the world unite’. In fact that has often happened as single employers control workers worldwide without carrying over the drawing together of unequal employment regulations that should long since have brought with them relative wage parity and universal working conditions. Although they need rounding off, those notions with the minimum wage, working hours, holidays and other leave directives that the centre and left of centre have pushed through have begun the process toward regaining some of the idealism of internationalism without abandoning capitalism in the process. This has been one of the most obvious causes of Brexit, pushed by political and economic objectors to liberalisation of working conditions. Again, this is something the new centre ground has been very close to but can very much gain from by developing it further, thus regaining more ground from hard right populist opponents.
Of course it requires a comprehensive agenda that focuses on education, innovation and research to push advances in the right direction and the other true sources of wealth such as the inclusion of employees in decision making without removing it from owners and investors entirely. It also has an urgent duty to protect the environment and fight climate change that has been demanded by young campaigners such as Greta Thunberg and the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion in the UK. New EU wide public programmes that ensure no citizens as denied the basic conditions for a decent life that include economic security, access to real rather than token employment and a living wage, comprehensive healthcare, adequate good quality and safe housing, benefits such as secure retirement and pensions with meaningful, fulfilling quality education for children through to higher education and specific job training. This political socioeconomic agenda is quite a viable proposition that we cannot afford not to see realised. The alternatives offered by the traditional right that is far closer to insatiable capitalism along with nationalists and neoliberals would make more economic stagnation, inequality, environmental degradation and growing political rancour that have the potential to lead to outcomes we do not want to contemplate. Europe has over a millennium of wars on our continent, some national civil and others international conflicts, with uprisings, bloody revolutions and other events that have cost many lives but totally failed. The EU repeated states its pride in over 70 years of peace and growing stability, although the present period is undermining the latter and could in the long term lead to the end of the former. That is where the liberal and consciously people oriented political groups must go to take control and, in time, get the EU back on track, albeit it a different and much better track.
What Europe needs to do
The proposition that progressive capitalism is the means to that end is not a contradiction at all. It is the most viable and stimulating alternative to ideologies on the left and right that have very clearly failed, thus represent the best means we have of escaping our current economic and political malaise that has been cleverly exploited by populists using carefully chosen and managed nationalist agendas. The expected outcome of the European elections has not produced an overwhelming force from the hard right, but over the next five years the parties and their groups that can capitalise on their new found strength need to key their eye on each of several political balls that they need to kick into what are often open goals. The populists are a small enough proportion of the EP to have very little success although the UK’s Brexit Party led by the already more irritating than constructive Nigel Farage has promised to do what they can to disrupt. In fact, with the attendance record of their predecessors and the undermining of the prestige of European hard right parties by disturbing rather than debating, the populists stand to be ridiculed rather than feared. Two new parties with ambitious agendas that are pan-European managed to each have only one MEP elected despite dogged campaigns to become key players in European politics. The pro-EU Volt Europe party participated in eight EU countries on a common political platform, but did not fare well. The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, better known as DiEM25, is the pan-European political movement launched in 2015 by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and a Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat. Both parties expected a far better reception and support, but underestimated the small c conservatism of European electorates that distrusts those that are essentially unknown qualities. Similarly, in the UK the newly formed Change-UK failed to impress, thus is sending no MEPs to Brussels. With a single MEP each, neither Volt nor DiEM25 will have little more effect than a flea on an elephant, however they represent two seats the populists possibly expected to take and both would appear to be, at least according to their manifestos, no friends of neoliberalism.
Among other new entries to the EP are also some intelligent, dynamic and relatively young people, the German Greens particularly, who have the intellect and aspiration to change the EU toward a more responsible and proactive protector of our environment. Part of that needs to be a radical sea change in how people are both persuaded then included since many of the environmentalist agenda proposes measures that challenge neoliberal control of what are now seen to be sectors such as the exploitation of carbon fuels that pollute the atmosphere, large scale and agrochemical agriculture that depletes the land, abusive dumping of waste and rubbish into aquatic environments and the irresponsible discarding of whatever becomes superfluous by individuals. Not only do they need to lead environmental awareness and change but also their approach to the socioeconomic agenda. They very much need to gain the favour and cooperation of progressive capitalism, steering it toward what has been called ‘caring capitalism’ where assets, products and the processes employed by both are beneficial to both owners and consumers in a more balanced manner, thus employers become not just salary against services providers but also partners in the balance between work and personal life, investing in education, health and other social resources that benefit the economy in the longer term. There are now people in office in the EU who, thank the results of this election, have that in their hands but must now learn to use it.
However, in the interim the leadership of the EU is about to change. The often controversial, frequently indiscrete and not seldom irrational Jean-Claude Juncker is coming to the end of his presidency of the European Commission and Donald Tusk who has been an often very reasonable and sometimes outstanding president of the European Council likewise. It is now essential that the new EU leadership is of the quality and intellect to follow the innovators and steer the institutions they head in the right direction. The election of these people stands before us with some of the components they need to build on and recuperate the ambitions of the EU to become closer rather than be led apart by aggressive nationalists who would ultimately contribute to sustaining neoliberalism that wishes to undermine and end European unity in order to restore their seats of power, the USA particularly, but do not let us overlook Russia, China and one or two other powerful nations that are too easily ignored where populism does dominate. The EU needs to take populism and its real loyalties seriously, with this election as a warning shot across the bows at the beginning of a five year voyage. The wealthy sponsors of populism do not look favourably on failure; therefore it is in the hands of the institutions of the EU to give voters good reason to reject them. The neoliberal machinery behind the scenes that wants the EU to fail rather than those they are funding to bring about failure must be kept in sight at all times. If progressive capitalism rather than soft socialism is the chosen means to that end, then the starting point must be giving the people of Europe what they need, then when they see life improving the all important environmental issues that are now a mainstream political issue will be more attractive. One might say, give people full bellies, a secure roof over their heads, accessible health services and meaningful education and training then they may feel somewhat more inclined to look around themselves, see the deteriorating and often dirty world around them, thus also want change. The rich corporations and individuals whose first concern is to increase their wealth and power at almost any price will lose traction, their servants including populist movements will no longer be useful, then something approaching a unified EU may be a serious consideration. This rests in the hands of those whose mandate begins now.