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Europe: Why The EU Has Turned To The Left--An Analysis

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 3 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Socialist and social democrat party leaders from the 15 member states of the European Union will have a lot to rejoice about when they meet on Thursday and Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmoe.

Within the past five weeks, voters in two of the EU's largest and most important members, Britain and France, have elected a social democrat -- Tony Blair -- and a socialist -- Lionel Jospin -- as prime minister. Not surprisingly, both men will take part in the Malmoe congress. Their victories -- expected in Blair's case, unexpected in Jospin's -- now brings to 10 the number of EU members with Left premiers.

In six of those 10 countries -- Greece, Italy, Portugal and Sweden as well as Britain and France -- the Left is in power alone. In the remaining four -- Austria, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands -- social democrats hold the premiership in coalitions with Center or Center-Right parties. In addition, in three other EU nations -- Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg -- social democrat ministers take part in coalition governments led by Center or Center-Right parties. Only two EU countries, Germany and Spain, are still run entirely by Center-Right governments.

Those numbers are impressive evidence of the EU's turn to the Left in recent years. No wonder, then, that yesterday Swedish Social Democrat Premier Goeran Persson was able to exult that Jospin's election Sunday showed "the Leftist wave is continuing to spread across Europe." Or that Italian Center-Left Premier Romano Prodi said that the French Socialist's victory showed that what he called "a wave of reform" was sweeping across the EU.

The EU's Parliament, which itself is controlled by a coalition led by the body's Socialist group, has published figures purporting to show that, Union-wide, two out of three voters have voted for the Left in the most recent elections in all member states. At EU headquarters in Brussels, both officials and analysts cannot remember another period in the Union's -- and its predecessor, the European Community's -- history when Left parties have enjoyed such great popular support.

They say that for the first time ever, if the EU's Left and Left-leaning governments band together, they can form a qualified majority in important votes within the EU's Council of Ministers -- the organization's most important decision-making institution. They also say that is unlikely, because there are as many important specific policy differences among the EU's Left leaders as their are similarities in their general attitudes.

What is the meaning and significance of Western Europe's Leftward lurch, which is all the more striking because it has come less than eight years after communism's collapse in Central and Eastern Europe? The phenomenon is complicated and, despite Persson and Prodi's boasts, by no means proof that socialism or social democracy is on the march in Western Europe.

Both EU officials and analysts warn that any such claim must be seen more as partisan rhetoric than as political reality. They emphasize that analyses of recent European elections -- in Spain and Portugal as well as in Britain and France -- demonstrate that voters have been motivated more by anger with their incumbent leaders than by admiration for their Left or Left-leaning opponents. And if that pattern continues, they add, German conservative Helmut Kohl had better be prepared for the biggest fight of his long political life when he runs next year for his fifth (four-year) term as Chancellor.

One independent Brussels analyst, Peter Ludlow of the Center for Policy Studies, sums up the situation in these words: "The fact is," he says, "it is simply very hard to be popular in EU governments at the moment."

The reason for the unpopularity of the EU's governing establishment lies principally in the rather sorry economic state of the Union. Across the Union, more than 10 percent of the working force is now jobless, and many of those unemployed have been so for years. There are growing numbers of homeless, destitute and apparently permanently unemployed people, particularly in France, which officially has the highest unemployment rate -- 12.8 percent -- of any major Western industrial nation. Unofficially, the true figure is closer to 20 percent. In France, Germany, Spain and several other EU members, the cost of keeping so many unemployed for years on the generous government dole may soon become impossible to bear.

What's more, the quality of life in Western Europe has, with some important exceptions -- most notably, Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Holland -- been on the decline throughout the current decade. In France, in some respects a microcosm of the entire EU, chronic unemployment has existed for a far longer time -- almost a quarter-of-a-century, in fact, since the first international oil crisis in 1974 put tens of thousands out of work. The French now nostalgically call the first three decades after the end of World War II "the golden 30 years" because the country's economic course since then has largely been down-hill.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that in every parliamentary election since 1981, -- including Jospin's victory -- French voters have replaced the incumbent government with its opponents. And unless he manages to turn the country around in the next five years, the same fate will undoubtedly await Jospin himself.

To be sure, Western Europe's overall state is a sorry one only in comparison with its own post-war history. Compared to Central and East European nations and to the republics of the former Soviet Union, which are all still struggling to lift themselves out of the morass created by decades of communism, Western Europe still seems like a model worth imitating, membership in the EU a cherished goal. Compared to the widespread poverty and famine in many African, Asian and Latin American countries, the EU is a paradise.

But the Union overall comes off a decided second-best compared to the United States, to Asian high-growth countries like Singapore and South Korea, or to the EU's own exceptions -- again, Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Holland leap first to mind. That is most true of the EU's apparent inability so far to create new jobs and compete well in the growing global market. So, to the growing number of unemployed or under-employed in countries like France and Germany, the EU is far from a paradise, but more like a trap from which emigration is increasingly the only escape. The EU's Left parties may one day soon learn that lesson painfully, just as has its Center and Right groups over the past several years.