Where now for the European Left?

Posted: April 11, 2016 in Election 2016, Elections, European Union, Irish Left, Politics, Sinn Féin, Syriza

What a difference a year makes. Early 2015 was a moment of enormous optimism for the Left in the eurozone periphery.

Syriza had swept to power in Greece on 36% of the popular vote. Sinn Féin and Podemos were riding high in the Irish and Spanish polls and looking like potential leaders of left led governments.

After seven years of brutal austerity the possibility of real change seemed imminent. Voters were abandoning the parties of the centre right and considering those of us offering a more profound degree of social and economic change.

Fast forward to early 2016 and the mood has tempered somewhat. Syriza are still in office but hardly in power. Sinn Féin and Podemos had good elections but both came third and governments have yet to be formed in Ireland or Spain.

The Left had an unexpected victory in Portugal but the centre-left government is facing significant pressure from the European Commission. Brussels wants Costa to play by the rules like Hollande in France and Renzi in Italy rather than listen to his external coalition allies in the Left Block and Communist Party.

There are indeed signs of change but they are coming slowly and generating huge resistance from the centres of economic and political power.

Where the Left has taken office its ability to fulfil its democratic mandate is being constrained by the balance of political forces in and the fiscal rules of the European Union.

Where the Left has fallen short of the mandate required to take office the old political system is as yet unable to cope with the changed electoral landscape.

The political charade that has been the first forty days of the 32nd Dáil is not the result of some quirky Irish idiosyncrasy. It is the Irish act in a European, indeed global, drama.

The Eurozone crisis has had a profound impact on the party political systems of its peripheral member states. But these systems are still in transition and it is not clear what they will look like on the other side.

Indeed the Eurozone core has also been affected, though in a different way. Opposition to the status quo in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland has leant to the Left. In Germany and France it has leant to the Right.

Meanwhile the European Union remains in a state of subdued crisis. The economy continues to stagnate. The refugee crisis is accelerating. Internal borders are closing. The threat of Berxit looms large.

This is not an existential crisis as some europhiles like to describe it. It is a structural crisis affecting the social, economic and political foundations of the European Union and its member states.

It is a crisis made by those very political elites –at home and in Brussels and Frankfurt- that are now desperately scrambling to hold the fragile political and economic status quo together.

As our own recent electoral results show, a growing number of people are questioning the old political and economic order. The combined centre right vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is at its lowest point in history. This is a Eurozone periphery wide phenomena.

It is also clear from the dispersal of opposition votes across Sinn Féin, smaller left parties and independents that voters asking questions have not yet settled on who is offering the best answers. The combined progressive vote in the last general election was at its highest in history. This again is a Eurozone periphery wide phenomena.

The big question for all of us on the Left is what to do next? What lessons can be learned from the tumultuous last twelve months?

Syriza and the progressive social movements in Greece showed us the route to state power. But they got there too early, with no European allies and insufficient political strength to deliver real change. Today Tsipras is merely trying to survive while Greek society continues to suffer the consequences of EU imposed austerity.

In Spain and Ireland we need more time. Time to build ever greater popular support for real social and economic alternatives. Time to build trust between the various forces advocating real change. Time to ensure that when we acquire state power the balance of forces across Europe are sufficient to withstand the pressures that so effectively constrained Syriza.

Now is not the time to breath life into dying political system interested only in its own survival and that of the 20% of the population who benefit from its failed social and economic policies.

Meanwhile Portugal is stuck between the rest of us. Trying to navigate the harsh terrain of weak domestic and EU wide political strength and an increasingly insecure EU political elite seeking to impose ‘conformity’ as an antidote to the very crisis that conformity has created.

We should all be watching Portugal carefully to see who wins out in what is the latest moment in the EU wide battle between faltering status quo and the growing forces of change.

Our political system is in crisis and urgently needs change. In the flux and uncertainty that surrounds us there are real opportunities to build a fairer, more equal society. Now is not the time to lose our nerve. The responsible course of action is not to prop up a failing system but to offer people hope that a better Ireland and Europe is not just possible but within reach.


Originally published in the Sunday Business Post 10.4.16

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