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Analysis: European parliamentary elections – could the stakes in a peripheral country hold hope for change?

By E Dimitris Kitis 26 May 2014

There were elections for the European Parliament in European Union (EU) member states from 22 - 25 May. The ongoing Eurozone crisis started several months after the last election for the European Parliament in June 2009, and Europe’s establishment parties were expected to feel the brunt of it for the first time. In Greece, the member state that has been hit the hardest by the crisis, the stakes could not be higher, and the country may yet again have a hand in deciding the future of the union. Arguably, the election results are the most important ever for the future of the European ideal. By E. DIMITRIS KITIS.

There are several political agglomerations (Europarties) in the European Parliament that are usually made up of national parties from the different member states unified under a common denominator, whether an ideological tradition (socialism, conservatism, liberalism, etc.), or the goals they seek to achieve within EU institutions, e.g. a return to national sovereignty for various Eurosceptic groups. The two major such Europarties have traditionally been the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Party of European Socialists (S&D), with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) coming third.

Then there are the smaller (getting less than 7% of the vote) centrist and left-wing parties of the European Green Party (Greens/EFA) and the Party of the European Left (GUE/NGL). Finally, there are a host of Eurosceptic and far-right parties that have also hovered below the 7% mark, but all this is set to change. One of the changes projected by recent forecasts of PollWatch2014 has come to fruition; the seats held by the two main parties have significantly dropped, whereas the Party of the European Left has advanced towards the third position in the parliament held by the Liberals. But perhaps the most unsettling effect of the Eurozone crisis has been the extraordinary electoral gains made by parties, such as UKIP in the UK and Front National in France, that could see neo-Nazis, nationalists, right-wing populists and Euroskeptics control as much as 17% of the European Parliament, even though they remain disunited in meaningful political terms.

The example of Greece is instructive as to what has been going on in Europe. What has taken place in that country since the arrival of the Troika (the tripartite authority comprised of the European Commission [EC], European Central Bank [ECB] and International Monetary Fund [IMF] that is in charge of lending and overseeing-dictating neoliberal structural adjustment programmes to reform the economies of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus) is the collapse of the previous system of power, which lasted since the end of the dictatorship (1974) and saw two main parties, the PanHellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the conservative New Democracy alternating in government. The harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece by the Troika in return for the bailouts that were needed have created extreme conditions in the country (wages and pensions have been halved, the national income has dropped by one quarter, poverty is on the rise and six in ten young people are unemployed). Of course, the final recipients of the bailouts are the international financial markets, meaning the mostly French and German banks that had loaned money to Greece in the first place (and some would say US banks, too, that are exposed because of their involvement with French and German banks). The power of the two main parties in Greece could not withstand the imposed austerity, which limited their capacity to sustain a winner-takes-all system of political patronage whereby appointment to government and public sector jobs, even far down the organisational chain, was subject to political support rather than merit.

This system of (party-political) appointments extended to even municipal cleaners in some boroughs, and competition within it for increasingly scarce resources has severely intensified in the face of Troika-enforced redundancies. Consequently, the two main parties’ influence waned to such an extent that they were forced into a coalition government in the last national elections (June 2012) in order to continue with the reforms demanded by the Troika. PASOK received less than 13% of the vote (from 44% in the 2009 elections) and has since suffered further losses threatening its very existence. Meanwhile, SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), a marginal hodge-podge of communists, social democrats, greens and anti-racist groups polling around 4% until 2012, has risen to become the opposition and has now also won the European election, consolidating its position at around 27% with a 4% lead from the nearest contender, New Democracy. It remains the exception in a Europe progressively dominated by right-wing, populist and extremist parties that have been the principal beneficiaries of the social disaffection generated by the Eurozone crisis and are reigniting nationalist sentiment and old hatreds.

Moreover, the fact that North Europeans are not told that the taxpayer money lent to South Europeans is actually ending up in the coffers of private (Northern) banks with the remainder used to shore up South Europe’s new kleptocratic (political & business) elites, contributes to their resentment. France is a prime example: in the recent French local elections, the nationalist and Eurosceptic Front National claimed the biggest victory in its history while the country’s socialist president Francois Hollande has given in to pressure from the markets and Brussels to reduce the budget deficit by passing an austerity programme that includes social security and healthcare cuts. However, he has simultaneously limited the government’s ability to deal with the budget deficit by committing to a reduction of taxes for business in an apparent bid to create jobs.

This state of affairs sums up the trouble in Europe: the neoliberalism that has increasingly shaped policy in the continent has proven as adept at destroying the welfare state and social contract of societies as it has the idea of European solidarity amongst different nations, which was established after the bloodletting of two World Wars and the extermination of Europe’s Jews in the 20th century. The resulting irrationality, as is witnessed in the rapid rise of a milieu of far-right parties with worryingly xenophobic and misanthropic agendas, could have been avoided if socialist parties, such as Tony Blair’s (New) Labour, Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party of Germany and PASOK in Greece had safeguarded the achievements of the welfare state, which limited the growth of inequality in the past. Instead, socialist parties joined the neoliberal bandwagon and struck a Faustian pact with financial markets by embracing privatisation and enabling the attack on the post-war welfare state. As a result, the S&D were unable to capitalise on the losses of the EPP, gaining a total of only 5 seats (the EPP lost 51) in the European Parliament compared to 2009.

In Greece, SYRIZA’s success has ruffled some feathers. The governing coalition (made up of the two former main parties: New Democracy and PASOK) was desperately trying to convince the electorate in the run-up to elections that a win in the European elections by SYRIZA would plunge the country into instability and harm the advances that have been made towards recovery. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and the European right have rallied in support of coalition Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the government’s austerity programme in what may look as a propaganda war aimed to convince the Greek electorate that the country is turning a new leaf. The government’s track record of backroom deals with the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn (a party that won 7% of the vote in the 2012 national elections and almost 10% in the European elections), passing statutes and regulations without a vote, or austerity measures without consultation in parliament, and shutting the public broadcaster in a single day, has made people highly skeptical of any statement issued by the government. Nevertheless, the government has averted catastrophe in the form of a total collapse of their base of support or humiliating landslide by SYRIZA.

Increasing authoritarianism and the weakening of democracy also forebode negative developments for the Continent as a whole. Greece’s recent return to the bond market and recorded primary budget surplus have been presented as evidence of success by the governing coalition. However, the economy remains in a downward spiral with the overall debt approaching 180% of GDP (Greece went into the crisis with 120% debt-to-GDP ratio) and unemployment levels at over 27% (youth unemployment stands at 57%). This creates a peculiar paradox whereby the Greek state remains insolvent but Greek bonds are sold (and presumably bought by someone) in financial markets. The government’s only solution to these problems is more borrowing and hoping for a future deal to restructure the debt under unclear rules, which might further threaten weaker stakeholders, i.e. pensions, unemployment benefits, healthcare and education. In this climate, the leader of the opposition (SYRIZA), Alexis Tsipras, has called the country a “debt colony” that will have to rely on handouts for the next 50 years.

SYRIZA appears to many to offer the only hope for offsetting Euroskepticism and averting Europe’s possible fragmentation in a style reminiscent of the 1930s. Indeed, SYRIZA’s programme for a “New Deal” or Marshall plan for the European South, although admittedly vague and proposed by an inexperienced party, remains the only alternative to neoliberalism and the unceasing squeeze on the middle class and the poor. The plan contains proposals for nationalisation of strategically important companies but does not rule out privatisations. Other proposals include Keynesian measures for stimulating the economy and an international conference for the cancellation of the odious debt of countries in Southern Europe.

In the case of Greece, government debt has been exacerbated by excessive purchases of armaments (supplied by French and German companies) that have increasingly become associated with cases of high-level bribery of the country’s political elite. Nevertheless, SYRIZA appears to be also committed to both the common currency and the EU despite some internal wrangling. It remains unlikely that a political party from an impoverished country in the South is going to succeed in reconciling all of the contradictions in its own programme (and constituency) and stand up to the hegemony of Germany, the EC and the ECB.

However, the hope for an electoral breakthrough by SYRIZA in the country that has suffered the most from austerity was sufficient for Alexis Tsipras to be unanimously named the candidate for the EC presidency by all national parties comprising GUE/NGL that is running for the European Parliament. Moreover, for the first time, the strength of the Europarties and the alliances they form in the European Parliament will influence who will be elected as president of the Commission.

The relative gains of the European Left could be the litmus test that will kick-start a new discussion about what should be done differently in Europe. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour opposition in the UK parliament, has recently suggested that his party might consider re-nationalising parts of the railway system that have been mismanaged by the private sector.

The fact remains, though, that SYRIZA’s victory in Greece, although impressive, came short of dealing a death blow to the governing coalition and demonstrates the need for building political alliances that will challenge the neoliberal consensus within Europe. Hopefully, the fight-back of the people of Europe against the bankers and EU politicians who have cynically shifted the losses from the books of (private) financial institutions onto the shoulders of the weakest nations and the weakest taxpayers in every nation in the guise of bailouts, spending cuts and pay freezes may (at long last) be round the corner.

Could then a peripheral and impoverished country like Greece serve as a magnifying lens for what is really at stake in the EU, and make headway towards a more democratic management of the crisis and the Union itself? DM

Photo: Alexis Tsipras (L), Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), and Rena Dourou (R), newly elected candidate of the party for local governor of the region of Athens, celebrate with supporters the results of the European Parliamentary elections and the second round of the local administration elections in a pre election kiosk of the SYRIZA party, in Athens, Greece, 25 May 2014. EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

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