On 18 April, the European Parliament posted polling projections for the 2019 European elections. The projections show the European People’s Party (the big alliance of "centre-right" parties, though not including the British Tories) on track to remain the largest party in the Parliament – but by a slimmer majority. The figures had the EPP falling from 217 to 180 seats.
The mainstream-social-democratic bloc “Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats” (aka S&D, the European Parliamentary group of the pan-European reformist left Party of European Socialists, of which Labour is a member) was estimated to get 149 seats, down from 186. Predictions on 25 April had the EPP and S&D on 180 and 161 respectively. The latest poll as we go to press, on 1 May, had the gap at 173-149.
At least before the 2 May local elections, polling in the UK showed Labour doing better than the European survey predicted. In the 2017 British general election, Labour confounded the polling and made unexpected gains by putting forward the most left-wing manifesto in decades.
With a left-wing manifesto that offers a glimmer of hope against the grimness of Brexit xenophobia and austerity, Labour could fatally wound the Tory government. It could make a decisive contribution to taking the European Presidency, and the plum jobs on the European Commission, out of the hands of the EPP. But that would take political courage rather than triangulation. It would also mean Labour committing to put Labour MEPs in office and keep them there. Currently the policy promoted by the Leader’s Office is to get rid of all the UK’s MEPs, by carrying out Brexit…
The Tory Party is in special difficulties on 23 May because it is not in the mainstream party of European conservatism. New Democracy, for example, the Greek Tories, the most unapologetic inflictors of austerity on Greece, and Les Républicains, the French Tories, the re-branded party of Chirac and Sarkozy, are part of the European People’s Party, the UK’s Tories hived off under David Cameron. Judging the EPP “too federalist”, they set up a grouping of their own, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).
One outcome of the EPP-ECR split is that removing the UK from European elections would on balance benefit the EPP, which draws no MEPs from the UK. The ECR is not only an anti-federalist, Eurosceptic group. It is also markedly more reactionary than the EPP. After the UK Conservative Party (18 seats), the second-largest component is the Law and Justice (PiS) party, the “national-conservative”, anti-abortion party which rules Poland, whose leaders oppose LGBT people being allowed to be school teachers and are the leading anti-immigrant force in Eastern European politics.
In 2018, Conservative MEPs were the only right-wing governing party in Western Europe to vote against sanctions on Viktor Orbán’s far-right government in Hungary in response to attacks on the independence of the judiciary, anti-migrant violence and a high-profile official campaign of antisemitic propaganda centred around the bogeyman figure of George Soros. Tory MEPs received letters of thanks from Orbán.
The far-right bloc Europe of Nations and Freedom, bringing together the German AfD, the Austrian Freedom Party, the French Rassemblement National (successor to the Front National) and Italy’s Lega, is predicted to make the biggest gains on 23 May, leaping from 37 seats to 62. The biggest source of growth will be Italy, where Lega is predicted to take 20 additional seats. The ENF bloc is unlikely to be big enough to have much of an impact on the Commission (yet). But its progress will strengthen the “nationalist international” in its work across the continent, attempting to drag politics as a whole rightwards.
The wipe-outs suffered over recent years by Greece’s Pasok, France’s Parti Socialiste, the Netherlands' Labour Party, and Italy's Democratic Party, have been called “Pasokification” – a process whereby those social-democratic parties are become discredited, hegemonised by neoliberal thinking, and hollowed out. Greece's Syriza was often held up as an alternative to Pasokification. Syriza formed a left-wing government in Greece in 2015 and promised defiance before collapsing into administering austerity. It balked at serious confrontation with Greek and European capital and went into technocratic damage-limitation mode, carrying out austerity and claiming there was suddenly no alternative.
Syriza was the brightest star of its European grouping, the European United Left (GUE). Alongside Germany’s Die Linke and Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the larger components of GUE seemed to herald a leftward breakout from the fate of other social-democratic parties. Now that bloc is faltering. Die Linke has been flirting with calls for stronger immigration controls, at the urging of former leader Sahra Wagenknecht. Mélenchon’s party is resolutely populist, and with a nationalist edge: a platform that promises an expansion of the French arms industry, thinly-veiled anti-German protectionism, and a policy of flying tricolours instead of red flags at rallies. A change of direction on the left is necessary.
A new grouping, Maintenant le Peuple (MLP, “Now the People”) is being set up, with Mélenchon at its core, alongside the Spanish Podemos, Portugal’s Left Bloc, the Swedish Vänsterpartiet, and others. But on what political basis? The name of the new bloc junks words like “left” or “socialist”, let alone "worker" or "labour", and goes instead for "people”. But who are the “people”? And who are the “people” against?
In January 2019, far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a chilling speech setting out his vision for Europe. He said: “the conventional division of parties into those of the Right and of the Left will be replaced with a division between those which are pro-immigration and those which are anti-immigration”. The MLP-type left is no better placed to combat that drift than is the "centre-left" S&D. In France and Germany, the siren call of nationalism is tempting many left activists, as opportunist “socialist” politicians like Mélenchon or Wagenknecht try to harness base prejudice to further their careers, and sell it to their supporters with a lick of red paint.
In the UK, too, there is a “Lexit” constituency of self-promoting labour-movement careerists and ladder-climbing “public intellectuals” (most notably gathered around the Full Brexit project, the Morning Star, and their allies in the Brexit Party). Unless they are displaced by a Europe-wide revival of working-class, Marxist socialism, these noxious forces on the left threaten to help make Orbán’s sick dream come true.
Euro-Parliament and democracy
The European Parliament is a strange and weak body. It is dominated by its executive, the European Commission, and by the European Council, the body bringing together the European heads of state. Unlike most parliaments, the European Parliament cannot initiate legislation. It can only approve, disapprove, or amend bills brought by the Commission. Marxists have long favoured a United States of Europe which could ease the deadly national rivalries of the past, lower borders, and permit democracy to function at the international level.
With or without a European federation, capitalists will continue to organise among themselves internationally. It is the working class that needs formal political structures to help make transnational issues the subject of votes and highly visible debates, and not just behind-the-scenes haggling.
The European Parliament falls far short of the kind of democracy that we want to see. In European elections currently, the real prize is the ability to select Commissioners, secured by the biggest party. Since 1999, the biggest party in the European Parliament has been the European People’s Party – essentially, an international coalition of Tories, although excluding the Tory party.