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.