Progressive Futures

The European left facing the challenge of nationalist populism

22 May 2017

As the European left experiences a rather dreary season, including the recent defeats of the French Socialists and Dutch Labour, and seemingly unavoidable losses later this year for the Labour party in Britain and the Social Democrats in Germany, its network of thinktanks gathered to debate the issues dividing the progressive camp and discuss the potential to move beyond its existing political and ideological frontiers.

Andrea Romano

They met in Vienna, at a meeting organised by the Karl-Renner Institut (the foundation of the Austrian Social-Democrats) and Policy Network (the London-based thinktank and research institute, which engages in the modernisation of progressive thinking in Europe and beyond.)

Among the participants (we cannot quote verbatim due to Chatham House rules, which applied at the seminar) were former EU trade commissioner and architect of New Labour Peter Mandelson, the leader of the Dutch left Lodewijk Asscher, one of the principal advisers to Pedro Sánchez – the newly re-elected secretary of the Spanish PSOE, the architect of fiscal policy for the Portuguese government Fernando Rocha Andrade, and representatives from European progressive thinktanks, such as France Stratégie, the Swedish Arena Group, the German Institute for Economic Research, the Lisbon Council, and others.

Many names, many institutions and a unique sense of bewilderment in the face of an urgent call to renew the solidarity of a European left that seems to have lost its traditional foundations. Take, for instance, the issue of free movement of people, a policy with progressive roots, but which now triggers an apparent divide between the socialists of northern Europe and their counterparts to the south. The former have become inclined toward the introduction of limits on inward migration from other EU countries, stating a need to restrain wage dumping, with one participant arguing “we have to stop a race to the bottom for the salaries of our workers caused by absolute freedom of movement within the European borders”.

Equally significant was the discussion on the spectre of the “end of work” as a result of technological innovation, which for some progressive leaders is cause to consider the idea of universal income, while others suggest a more convincing recovery objective of full employment “because we must always remember that it is only from work that you have the full benefits of income as well as dignity”, as pointed out by a British participant.

There are significant divisions among the progressive family, but equally important convergences on some historical tenets: the urgent need to boost social mobility (in crisis not only in Italy but in most of the continental economies), to invest in education policy as the best lever for equality of opportunity, to commit to tax justice.

Perhaps the most significant point of the whole seminar was discussion of the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron: not formally belonging to the European progressive political family, but already making waves with an agenda for government that openly calls for the European left to broaden their political and cultural boundaries.

Many – including this writer – have emphasised the similarities between the reformist agenda of Macron and the experience of the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi, with its focus on issues such as the political governance of the eurozone, the need for more democratic and transparent control of community policies, and the centrality of economic growth as a means to boost public funds.

Not everyone agrees, of course, on the need to push the camp of European progressivism in this direction. But there was palpable feeling that, sooner or later, progressives should question ideological certainties that are no longer able to ensure their political survival, especially in the face of the nationalist populist challenge.

This piece was originally published in Italian by l’Unita

Image credit: Marco Aprile / Shutterstock.com