Through years of austerity, Europe’s radical-left parties spoke of a common challenge to EU neoliberalism. But without any real shared strategy, parties focused on domestic politics are rarely able to build collaboration across borders.

Martin Schirdewan (L), MEP for The Left party, and Bernd Riexinger (R), federal chairman of the Left Party, at a press conference in Berlin, Germany on May 27, 2019. (Gregor Fischer / dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images)

As capitalism’s polycrisis unravels, right-wingers are still winning elections around Europe. Last month the far right won in the Netherlands, and earlier this year conservatives came first both in Greece (where anti-immigrant parties also made a breakthrough) and Spain (where only a deal with regionalists allowed Pedro Sánchez’s social democrats to retain power). Since taking over the government in Italy last October, Giorgia Meloni’s party has easily retained first place, while in Germany the Alternative für Deutschland is second in the polls.

The June 2024 elections for the European Parliament promise a similar picture: the mainstream center-right, and increasingly reactionary, European People’s Party (EPP) is likely to remain the largest group, followed by the social democrats. But the biggest winners in relative terms are set to be two reactionary, and increasingly mainstream, groups: Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), looking to gain eighty-seven and eighty-two seats, respectively.

By contrast, the radical-left group, The Left, is likely to remain the smallest force in the European Parliament, with under forty seats. This reflects the weakness of radical-left parties in their own national arenas, despite a couple of notable exceptions (see the Workers’ Party in Belgium and the Austrian Communist Party). The two big success stories of the past decade, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, have not managed through their participation in government to fundamentally challenge the neoliberal status quo either at home or in the EU; in fact, Syriza’s implementation of cuts and privatizations reinforced both. This year, the two parties scored just half as well as at their peak back in 2015; Syriza concluded its long-term metamorphosis into a centrist party by electing a former Goldman Sachs banker as leader.

But if the radical left looks weak and fragmented, this also owes to its underwhelming coordination and cooperation at the transnational level. Left-wing internationalism may be as old as the Left itself. But in the era of European integration, the radical-left family of parties (broadly defined as standing to the left of social democracy) has always lagged behind in its transnational cooperation at the EU level.

If the radical left looks weak and fragmented, this also owes to its underwhelming coordination and cooperation at the transnational level.

Its first organization in the European Parliament in the 1970s emerged a couple of decades later than those of the main party families, not the least because of the Communist parties’ opposition to European integration, depriving them of representation. The Communist and Allies Group was ridden with internal divisions between Eurocommunist and pro-Moscow parties, before succumbing entirely in 1989. The current group, The Left, founded in 1995, has been noted for its limited convergence with the European Left Party (itself created a decade later than other pan-European parties), mainly due to disagreements over the EU. These two largest transnational organizations of the European radical left today have little political impact and are virtually unknown to a mass audience.

The Syriza Moment

The Eurozone crisis of the 2010s offered legitimate hope that the radical left would get its act together and boost its cooperation. One might assume that the obviously transnational character of the crisis would lead radical-left parties to take their opposition to austerity to the transnational level. In 2013, at a public meeting in London, Syriza leader and future Greek premier Aléxis Tsípras correctly pointed out that “We will not be able to achieve our aims without the solidarity and the help of the European Left. [. . .] Our struggle is the same.”

Promising signs in that direction came two years later, when Syriza’s election victory on the basis of an anti-austerity program sent shock waves throughout Europe. Tsípras celebrated the victory in Athens’s main square by holding hands with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, as the crowds chanted “Syriza, Podemos, venceremos!” Indeed, later that year, Podemos got over 20 percent in the general elections and became Spain’s third-largest political force. Other electoral breakthroughs were made around the same period by the Left Bloc in Portugal and by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.

In the austerity years, a transnational united front against the neoliberal EU failed to materialize.

However, as I show in my recent book, that transnational united front against the neoliberal EU failed to materialize. Despite the euphoria surrounding the first months of the Syriza government, the broader European left — parties, trade unions, and social movements alike — remained markedly national in its opposition to austerity. Transnational cooperation in support of the only anti-austerity government in the EU was confined to rather symbolic gestures of solidarity, falling far short of the kind of pressure that should and could have been put on national governments during the negotiations between Syriza and the infamous Troika.

The international isolation of the Syriza government during those negotiations certainly contributed to its sudden capitulation in July 2015, when it agreed to a third bailout for Greece that entailed further budgetary cuts and privatizations. Despite the additional popular mandate given by the Oxi referendum that it had called, the Syriza government prioritized its commitment to stay in the Eurozone over its programmatic and electoral pledges to end austerity. The impact of that U-turn on the morale of the popular classes and the credibility of the Left in Greece can hardly be exaggerated. At the same time, it had a divisive impact on the Left outside Greece, as some attempted to rationalize it, while others spoke of betrayal.

Divided We Stand

More broadly, the old cleavage over the question of the EU deepened after 2015. It was generally agreed that the undemocratic nature of the EU had been revealed in plain sight, but this led to different conclusions. Some — such as the European Left Party or Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 — persisted in their calls for reforming the EU from within. That approach found common ground with the liberal argument equating rejection of the EU with nationalism.

Instead, the argument goes, we need an acceleration of European integration along progressive lines, such as the introduction of an EU-wide corporate tax or empowering the European Central Bank to fund public deficits. One (pandemic) crisis later, however, and the EU has moved very little in that direction. On the contrary, the reform proposed earlier this year by the European Commission is set to reinforce the EU’s neoliberal fiscal policy, while the money given to member states from the Next Generation funds has been accompanied by neoliberal adjustments.

It is probably true that the EU cannot be transformed into a workers’ Europe. But this conclusion amounts to little without a plausible vision and strategy of making an exit work for workers.

At the other end, the more orthodox Communist parties that have always called for a clean-cut break from the EU saw in Syriza’s capitulation further evidence of the EU’s unreformable character. As the Greek Communist Party put it, “The EU, which is a union of capital, cannot be improved in favor of the peoples, cannot be democratized, cannot be transformed into a Europe of the workers.” That is probably true. But this conclusion amounts to little without a plausible vision and strategy of making an exit work for workers, considering both the level of class consciousness on the matter (highly varied from country to country) and the balance of class forces at both national and transnational levels.

Somewhat of a synthesis between these two polar positions emerged, however, with the transnational “Plan B” for Europe. Set up at the initiative of parties such as La France Insoumise, Left Bloc, Podemos, and Denmark’s Red–Green Alliance, Plan B held five summits between 2016 and 2017, before being revamped as the awkwardly named “Now, the people!” in 2018.

In a nutshell, it claimed that, in light of Syriza’s failed attempt to gain concessions from the EU establishment, a left-wing national government would need a two-tier strategy: plan A would consist of raising demands for a structural reform of the EU along progressive lines, while simultaneously disobeying the neoliberal provisions of its institutional architecture by unilaterally implementing left-wing policies; and plan B would come into play in the likely eventuality that the EU establishment punished the left-wing government by threatening to force the country out of the Eurozone. This had to be met not with capitulation (like Syriza’s), but by setting up “a new system of European cooperation based on the restoration of economic, fiscal and monetary sovereignty.”

Radical-left parties that domestically leaned on social movements and other forms of mass mobilization to articulate a political opposition to austerity failed to do the same at the EU level.

Despite its merit in providing a way out from the divisive dichotomy between reform and exit, this “Disobedient Euroskepticism” failed to gain many more adepts on the European left or build any links to the broader movement and social groups it aimed to represent. Even Podemos, the only party involved in Plan B that has since participated in government, has toned down its stance toward the EU as a junior partner in Spain’s social democratic government (2019–2023) — although that might change following its recent split from the governing coalition as well as the party leader’s sharp criticism of the European Commission over its stance on Gaza.

Mélenchon’s party too, despite being one of Plan B’s main instigators, has virtually sidelined any talks of “disobedience” in order to appease its more moderate partners in the NUPES coalition (which will, nonetheless, almost certainly fail to present a united candidature for the European elections). Indeed, Mélenchon has not been able to convince his own supporters of the need for disobedience (as they remain overwhelmingly in favor of France’s EU membership), and more recently senior figures in the party have claimed there is no incompatibility between disobedience and remaining in the EU.

Thus, Plan B remained an affair among party elites, fading away after 2018 as the parties themselves stepped away from it. Indeed, this eliteness is paradoxically characteristic of other transnational projects emerged on the radical left in recent years, such as the Progressive International or DiEM25, which have largely failed, so far, to build a base in the wider movement — not to mention the popular classes at large.

Power lies outside parliament — and even more so outside the European Parliament, the least powerful of all EU institutions.

All in all, the division over the EU persists today as one of the key inhibitors of transnational cooperation on the radical left. Numerous calls to converge around a coherent vision for Europe have been made, in vain. But is such a vision truly necessary for the Left to overcome its current transnational fragmentation? Does the practical disagreement over how to best counter the EU’s neoliberalism really justify the extent of that fragmentation?

A Way Forward

As I show in my book, radical-left parties that domestically (at least initially) leaned on social movements and other forms of mass mobilization to articulate a political opposition to austerity failed to do the same at the EU level. Instead, they channeled much of their transnational activity through their representatives in the European Parliament, that is, the institutional framework of the very transnational hegemon they are meant to oppose.

Not only does this stand in stark contrast to the venerable socialist legacy of building independent internationalist organizations (the recovery of which is arguably one of the key tasks for the radical left), but overemphasizing work in the European Parliament naturally gave more weight to the disagreements over the EU that have hindered cooperation on the Left.

Equally important, this institutionalist approach meant that parties found little time for the few anti-austerity transnational initiatives that did develop outside the EU’s institutional framework. Those included Blockupy and Alter Summit, whose failure to build their organizational strength and a real presence at the grassroots level in countries with relevant movements against austerity was also partly due to the parties’ very limited involvement with these initiatives. Conversely, despite their linkages with domestic anti-austerity movements, parties like Syriza and Podemos did not do much to facilitate transnational links between those movements either. They could have acted as central nodes of a Europe-wide movement against austerity and neoliberalism — but they didn’t.

Paradigmatic for this underwhelming interest in transnational mobilization was the European Day of Action organized in November 2012 by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). For the first time ever, it saw simultaneous, coordinated strikes in four crisis-ridden countries – Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Despite this, radical-left parties did not attempt to mobilize even their own rank and file to participate, and the day of action ultimately failed to get any serious traction in any of those countries. That was certainly also due to ETUC’s own meager attempt at mobilization, giving the impression that the whole initiative was little more than a tokenistic gesture. The relatively marginal role played more generally by ETUC in galvanizing popular struggles and movements mirrors that of The Left and European Left Party.

Radical-left parties have, despite occasional internationalist rhetoric, focused overwhelmingly on their domestic arenas.

The marginality of the main transnational organizations of the Left is doubtless rooted in more structural factors, including the lack of a genuine European public sphere or the obstacles to EU-wide collective bargaining. Linked to that is the fact that the European working class is not yet the conscious historical subject needed for sustained mass mobilization at transnational level. But radical-left parties have done very little to help building that subject and have instead, despite occasional internationalist rhetoric, focused overwhelmingly on their domestic arenas. They weren’t all as blunt as the former leader of the Dutch Socialist Party who said that “a major mistake of other left parties in Europe [is] to constantly demand European solidarity.” Yet, even those parties that demanded such solidarity proved captive to the logic of domestic politics, as illustrated by the waning relationship between Syriza and Podemos after 2015.

This dual overemphasis on domestic politics and parliamentarism is ultimately rooted in the (neo-)reformist outlook of these parties. They see social change attainable (primarily) through the institutions of capitalist democracy, which is reflected both in their programmatic moderation and strategic shift away from “the streets.” In turn, this has made them look too much like the mainstream parties that they were meant to be an alternative to. For power lies outside parliament, and even more so outside the European Parliament, the least powerful of all EU institutions.

If the Left can achieve any substantial concessions at the transnational level, it will be through transnationally coordinated collective action, such as the 2017 strike by Ryanair pilots. By forcing the company to accept trade-union representation, the strike set an important precedent for transnational industrial action. Other remarkable transnational campaigns have developed in recent years, such as “Make Amazon Pay,” with rather little help or even publicity from left-wing parties, meaning these important class struggles have remained largely unknown to the working class at large.

It is around this kind of struggles and broader issues, like the cost of living, rise of the far right, war, and climate change, that the European radical left can and should rebuild its transnational cooperation. As Marc Botenga MEP from the Workers’ Party in Belgium put it in a recent interview,

We can win things at the national level, of course, but at the European level we need European struggle. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s happening in more and more sectors. Faced with the unity of European capital — at least on certain topics like the destruction of workers’ rights, liberalization, and market integration — we are seeing more and more worker actions at the European level.

Working together on all these issues does not hinge on complete agreement over the character of the EU. That doesn’t mean, though, putting differences aside but inside – inside a transnational united front that tackles the burning problems facing people today and fights alongside them for solutions that can inspire ever more people across Europe and beyond.

That unity of action is not only compatible but inseparable from fostering an internal culture of disagreement and debate (including over the character of the EU). It is the pursuit of absolute agreement on absolutely everything that always ends up in fragmentation and sectarianism. The best years of the Second and Third International were characterized precisely by this duality of internal differences and external unity. There is no reason why the European left cannot do the same today, if not better.

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