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EU: Victorious Leftist Parties Celebrate Their Unity

Copenhagen, Sweden; 6 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - In an article in the major Swedish daily "Svenska Dagbladet" yesterday, Britain's new Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote that left-of-center leaders across the unemployment-ridden European Union must work to create more jobs, a better environment and, last but far from least, on behalf of the EU itself.

Blair said that all the Union's institutions, including its planned European Monetary Union (EMU), are what he called "relevant" to ordinary citizens. He called for, among other things, more openness and accountability from EU officials and institutions.

Blair's concerns about employment, the environment and the EU have emerged as the centerpieces of the European Social Democratic Party's (known under the acronym ESP) Third Congress in Malmoe, Sweden. The meeting opened yesterday and continues through today. Founded in 1992, the EPS is a loose alliance of left-of-center parties and movements within the EU. Blair -- who was elected on May 1-- and France's Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- elected exactly a month later -- are the stars of the meeting.

Blair's expected and Jospin's unexpected electoral victories in effect added insult to injury to proponents of neo-liberalism and Center-Right parties across the EU's 15 member states. With their triumphs, an unprecedented number -- 13 -- of EU states are now either being run by Socialists or Social Democrats or by coalitions in which Left ministers participate.

The almost 1,000 socialists and social democrats gathered in Malmoe have already heard several speakers proclaim the demise of free-market philosophies, as understood and practiced by past leaders such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher and the U.S.' Ronald Reagan. Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, himself a Social Democrat heading a minority government in Stockholm told them yesterday: "The people have turned their backs on the right-wing experiments."

From an economic point of view, Persson may be right in the case of at least four EU members. Britain, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands currently have the EU's healthiest economies, and are all being run by Left governments or Left-led coalitions. (The current Left-Center government in Ireland could change after today's general elections, however). Welfare systems in Holland and Denmark are still cradle-to-grave, and their taxes are among the highest within the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Yet Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in the EU and both Holland and Denmark have managed to avoid the 1990s' recession that has afflicted the rest of the EU. Unemployment is falling in the three countries, and in Britain, and what is sometimes called "the feel-good" factor is on the rise in all four. But wherever in the Union there are still old jobs and social welfare policies in practice -- notably, in Germany, France and Spain -- the economy is sluggish and unemployment high, and still rising.

But the EU's triumphant Left, now celebrating its unity, must eventually come to terms with important policy differences among its many tendencies. These differences among are not merely semantic. Socialist, social democrat and labor mean one thing in France, another in Sweden and yet a third in Britain. While Blair praises and intends to build on the economic achievements of decades of Tory governments, France's Jospin is a more orthodox and un-reconstructed Socialist who favors large-scale -- and traditionally French -- government intervention in the economy.

Indeed, the differences among socialists and social democrats can be so great that all they have in common is similar names. Swedish commentators call Tony Blair's Labor a "liberal Social Democratic Party;" Germans find remarkable similarities between him and their own conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Both would be considered very Right-wing in Denmark and very Left-wing in the United States.

Thus, the biggest question in Malmoe is perhaps how the EU's Left will resolve its internal differences on the future course of the Union. Tony Blair says he plans to call for the introduction of an employment chapter in "Maastricht Two." That's the name given to the EU treaty due to be signed in Amsterdam in 10 days that will, it is hoped, reform the institutions set up in the original 1992 Maastricht Treaty that created the Union. Those reforms must be agreed upon before the EU can undertake membership talks with some or all of the Central and East European candidate states.

But France's Jospin stresses that he wants a more flexible interpretation of the EMU-eligibility criteria so as to minimize the social cost of its implementation.

His rhetoric apparently reflects what many voters across the EU feel -- that they are prepared to trade grand plans for future EU integration and a new currency for some old-fashioned security.

The differences between Blair and Jospin -- that is, between social democrats and socialists -- on these and other key EU issues were due to be harmonized at the EPS' Malmoe congress. It remains very much to be seen, however, whether a 48-hour meeting can resolve decades-old contradictory national attitudes.