Can François Hollande begin a centre-left revival?

The French presidential election will show whether the European left is bouncing back or in possibly

If 2011 was a tough year wherever you were it truly was annus horribilis for the European left - a year of frustration and failure. Frustration as the conservative politicians who lead most European governments spectacularly mishandled the eurozone debt crisis and persisted with co-ordinated austerity programmes that have pushed many countries back into recession and driven unemployment to frightening new levels. Disappointment as socialist governments in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere were toppled from power - collateral damage from the sovereign debt crisis.

From the high point in the late 90s when Blair, Schroeder, Prodi and Jospin set the terms of debate in European politics, the centre-left has now been reduced to impotence in opposition, in power in a mere handful of countries. Although Europe is still embroiled in an economic crisis which originated in the financial sector, social democratic parties rather than their conservative rivals have been the ones to suffer at the hands of the electorate

Incumbency did not help. The governments of Gordon Brown and Spain’s Jose Zapatero were routed because they presided over the boom and then were blamed for the extent of the bust. But, more profoundly, the economic collapse created an identity crisis which social democrats are still wrestling with. Having embraced market economics, light touch regulation and a managerial style of politics in the 1980s and 90s, many centre-left parties have found themselves in political no man’s land – outflanked on the economy by liberals and conservatives and on social policy by the hard-left.  

Indeed, although social democrats in Denmark and Slovakia have taken power in the past few months, the defeat of the Zapatero government in Spain meant that the Prime Ministers of the five biggest EU countries – Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain – are all conservative.

But is the political tide about to turn in France?

With six weeks until the first round of voting, François Hollande is very well placed to become just the second socialist to get the keys to the Elysee Palace in over half a century. Although Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner and has improved his opinion poll numbers in recent weeks, the evidence suggests that he is picking up votes from National Front supporters rather than from the centre. Every poll so far has Hollande ahead by between six-ten points in the second ballot.

The French presidential election has taken on huge importance for the rest of Europe as well as France. The ‘Merkozy’ hegemony has led the response to the eurozone debt crisis, so it did not come as a surprise when Angela Merkel publicly endorsed Sarkozy’s re-election bid. But a similar axis of the left has emerged during the campaign. Last month, Hollande shared a platform with Ed Miliband during a campaign visit to London even if, in truth, they don’t have much in common politically. However, more robust support has come from Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the German SPD. Both Miliband and Gabriel will be acutely aware that if the French left cannot win against a hugely unpopular President who has presided over five years of economic decline, their own election prospects will fade as well.

In Gabriel’s case ideology as well as pragmatism is at play. The Franco-German axis has dominated European politics in the past few years, with the 'Merkozy' inspired fiscal compact treaty the shining example. However, we are gradually starting to see a coherent alternative from Hollande and Gabriel. Both have criticised the fiscal compact treaty, with Hollande promising to re-negotiate if he is elected, and Gabriel threatening to oppose parts of it in the Bundestag. They have also pointed out the glaring omission from the treaty, namely, the absence of any measures to promote economic growth and create jobs. We could expect to hear demands for a growth and jobs pact from a Hollande presidency.

Moreover, last summer, during the negotiations on the EU’s new economic governance framework, they signed up to a pan-European campaign ‘Let’s change Europe’ which, among other things, called for a financial transactions tax, Eurobonds and an embryonic common fiscal framework, while also decrying the “economic and social decline brought about by blind austerity policies.” Although hardly a manifesto, here are the building blocks for a revitalised European left.

The irony of post-debt crisis Europe has been that while the terms of economic debate have shifted firmly to the left, the centre-right has established a clear narrative that has driven economic policy at national and EU levels. From Berlin, London, Paris, Rome and Madrid, the mantra is the same - the debt crisis is solely the result of reckless governments over-spending and a diet of budget cuts and tax rises offers the only route to recovery.

Yet, perversely, there is little public support for co-ordinated austerity and common agreement about the need to re-balance our economy away from relying on financial services and revulsion at the excesses, and incompetence, of the self-appointed masters of the financial universe. In the past two years a raft of financial sector regulation has, most notably, banned uncovered short-selling, put in place limits on bank bonuses and regulated the derivatives market. Merkel and Sarkozy have even driven plans for a financial transactions tax – itself a policy that would have been dismissed out of hand just a few years ago.

For the past two years conservatives and liberals across Europe have tried an economic experiment that has been an abject failure, but have been allowed to do so virtually unchallenged by social democrats who have been confused and in retreat. Faced with a lost decade of austerity induced economic stagnation and social unrest, the fight-back needs to start and the French elections will offer a clear indication of whether the European left is bouncing back or in possibly terminal decline. The stakes are high. If Hollande and the Parti Socialiste cannot win when the political odds are stacked in their favour, then the prospects for their sister-parties here and elsewhere will look increasingly bleak.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande waves as he speaks during a campaign meeting in Nimes, southern France. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”