Building progressive alliances: perspectives for social democracy in Europe

#CriticalThinking

Picture of László Andor
László Andor

Secretary-General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and former European commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion

In the 1990s, the new progressive trend was to say ‘yes’ to the market economy but ‘no’ to the market society. In this day and age – after the great financial crisis and in the midst of the climate emergency – these answers are insufficient and obsolete. The question is not whether the market economy is acceptable or not, but rather which model works best and what kind of reforms are needed to avoid financial, social and environmental breakdown.

In principle, the great financial crisis of 2008-9 should have provided a golden opportunity for social democrats by exposing all the flaws of the inherited model of finance and business. Instead, progressives found themselves losing, rather than winning, positions. In the 2010-11 period, most national elections saw the triumph of right-wing parties, at the expense of the centre-left.  Through their political majorities, the right was able to put their views into effect, especially regarding the response to the eurozone crisis.

In 2012-14, the pendulum swung back to the centre-left. In other words, the last social-democratic revival took place just a few years ago. For about three years, starting with Denmark, Europe’s social democrats experienced an electoral resurgence. By 2013-15, progressive parties were either leading governments or participating in ruling coalitions in most European Union (EU) member states. This included the largest members of the euro area – Germany, France, Italy – as well as the Benelux. However, this unique opportunity to influence the European agenda was missed. Five years later, the proportion of seats held by social democrats in the European Parliament (EP) is the lowest it’s ever been.

The long-term trend of social democratic erosion can easily be linked to greater pluralism in Europe – resulting from the decline of both centre-left and centre-right catch-all parties – and the rise of various off-mainstream political parties, including radicals, extremists, populists, regionalists etc. Additional voter volatility could make social democrats more vulnerable than before and perhaps more vulnerable than any other tendency in the political landscape.

The pursuit of a Green New Deal connects the European and North American centre-left today

On the other hand, the programmatic proximity of second-preference parties means that close competitors can also be coalition partners – at the national, sub-national or European level. Within the spectrum of voter fluidity, social democrats may well be best placed to form multiparty coalitions. Such political alliances can only succeed if they remain committed to a future society that is fairer and more equal than what was inherited.

The past decade has produced an avalanche of literature on how to reform capitalism and more specifically the EU. In 2019, Joseph Stiglitz published a manifesto under the title “Rewriting the Rules of the European Economy”. It goes well beyond the usual critique of austerity. Stiglitz advocates collective bargaining to generate better wage dynamics and fairer taxation to promote both justice and growth. He welcomes the enhanced role of the European Investment Bank (EIB) and calls for further reinforcement and a greater engagement in supporting public investment.

Stiglitz has also contributed to the volume edited by Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato to redesign the capitalist system – “Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth”. Such progressive economists are often seen as advocates of radical change. However, what they are actually saying is that the US and Europe have a lot to learn from each other when it comes to improving their respective performances. What Europe has to learn from the US is fiscal federalism and government-funded innovation, while the US should follow the European lead on issues like social security and climate protection.

The pursuit of a Green New Deal connects the European and North American centre-left today, more than the Third Way did 25 years ago. Relevant goals and tools were outlined in the run-up to the 2019 EP elections in the “Report of the Independent Commission for Sustainable Equality 2019-2024” sponsored by the S&D Group in the EP. It suggests measuring progress with indicators other than GDP and seeking improvements to well-being at the workplace and elsewhere. A programme must be created to tackle both inequality and climate change through a fundamental reform of economic governance at EU level, and a strong focus on climate justice also beyond the borders of the EU.

The success of social-democratic forces largely depends on whether the EU can be reformed along progressive blueprints

The EU, especially at the time of the eurozone crisis, has obstructed rather than stimulated the implementation of progressive programmes at the national or local levels. Hence the success of social-democratic forces largely depends on whether the EU can be reformed along progressive blueprints. The focus is on three key issues: reshaping the global order in the interest of sustainability, revamping the monetary union to facilitate convergence and reinventing Social Europe to tackle inequality.

Stronger representation of progressive leaders in today’s EU executive – the European Commission – than under Barroso or Juncker (9 out of 27 commissioners) is a good starting point for the implementation. It also helps that reforming the EU is not only in the interest of the centre-left. While looking for ways to restore a meaningful social-democratic character for the 21st century, centre-left progressives must see themselves as part of a broader alliance loosely linked together by the commitment to global sustainability, European peace and social justice.

A critical assessment of the neoliberal period is a crucial part of this progressive reconstruction with respect to economic and social policies but also the global agenda. Across Europe there are large constituencies looking for a coordinated political force that simultaneously pursues sustainability and equality. Social democratic leadership is arguably a key factor for this broad alliance to succeed.

Reference to past success is undoubtedly insufficient for the electorate. While the appeal of progressive values remains strong virtually everywhere in Europe, voters may not associate those with the existing social democratic parties or their leaders. The series of recent debacles suggest that a new framework providing coherence in ideology, policy as well as organisation is yet to be worked out.

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