EU voters may finally be given some real choices

The emerging split between the centre left and centre right in the EU over fundamental questions of economic policy including sustainable growth and social justice is without precedent.

John Palmer
22 March 2012

A little noticed meeting in Berlin last weekend may signal a radical break with the way politics is conducted in the European Union and give European voters real choices over the direction the EU should take in the aftermath of the Euro crisis. The decision taken by the great majority of European socialist and social democratic parties to oppose the mindless austerity being imposed by the predominantly conservative led EU governments prefigures the emergence of a serious, trans-national European politics. 

Until now attention has focused on the financial and economic turmoil created by the Euro-area crisis and the controversial new Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance. But the emerging split between the centre left and centre right in the EU over fundamental questions of economic policy including sustainable growth and social justice is without precedent. Until now, most decisions at EU level have been sustained by a semi-permanent centre right/centre left consensus. 

European electorates will now be asked to decide which side are they on in the ideological conflict over how to react to the most serious European economic crisis since the 1930s. The next European Parliament elections in 2014 – for the first time – give voters across the EU an unprecedented choice about economic strategy and this new trans-national European debate is also bound to impact on national politics.

The European Union always struggled to get the attention of the voting public. The general perception was that EU decision making was, by its nature, technical, esoteric and – like the European Parliament itself - of marginal interest to voters. 

But 25 EU governments have now signed up to a radical transfer of economic decision-making from national to the new Euro-area decision-making bodies. Key economic policies which have hitherto defined exclusively national political politics will now form the centre piece of the divisions between the trans-national European parties. 

Over the past ten years political power in the EU Council of Ministers - and also therefore in the European Commission – has become concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of centre-right, conservative parties. European social democratic parties have lost power in almost every EU Member State – a process which only now may be reversed in France as it has been already in Denmark and Slovakia.

Perhaps this loss of office explains why left of centre parties now find themselves offering at least verbal opposition to the obsessive austerity strategy of the conservative majority. Meanwhile the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democrats have also identified other issues on which they will act together – including the so-called Tobin Tax on financial transactions.

The refusal of Chancellor Merkel, David Cameron and other right wing EU leaders to meet with François Hollande, the socialist candidate for President of France, reflects the bitterness of this emerging divide at the heart of the Union. But if the right lose power in Berlin in next year’s election as well as in Paris this year, changes to EU/Euro-area economic strategy are likely to follow.

In another unprecedented move EU social democratic parties are now signed up to fight the next European Parliament elections not only on a common policy platform but also with an agreed candidate for election as the next Commission President. The other major EU parties are planning to do the same. 

In spite of this, many in the European Left and Green parties remain sceptical about the extent to which the social democrats will really change direction and break with the past. They are likely to rally around the more far-reaching economic policy changes advocated by Euro-Memorandum, the network of European socialist and Green economists. 

In all of this little or nothing has been heard from the British Labour Party about whether they would endorse or oppose the new Euro-area Treaty or whether they will line up to oppose pro-austerity European conservatives with the other centre left parties. Time for Ed Miliband – son of a convinced European socialist – to declare his hand.

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