A Europe of progress and prosperity: social democracy setting off towards the European elections.

Author:Skrzypek, Ania
Position:Notebook

2012 was kind to European social democratic parties. Three elections in particular seemed to signal an encouraging revival in the fortunes of social democracy. First, Robert Fico's landslide victory not only gave his party, SMER, an absolute majority in the Slovak Parliament, but also allowed him to form the first one-party government in the modern history of Slovakia. Second, Francois Hollande's victory over Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections in France marked a turnaround in the fortunes of the Parti Socialiste, and broke the hold of the Merkel-Sarkozy partnership over the European response to the financial crisis. Third, in just six months, Diederik Samson turned PvdA from disgraced losers into junior partners in a new Dutch government, winning Dutch social democrats influence over several key portfolios, including European Affairs. Progressive summits of social democratic leaders in power in European nations have been steadily gaining in numbers, and we might be tempted to assume, therefore, that the worst is over and that the historical pendulum is swinging once more to the left.

But while confidence is important, it should not be overweening (Skrzypek, 2012). We should recall that at the time of the widespread defeat in the European elections in 2009 many were predicting (yet again) the death of social democracy (Lavelle, 2008). In the period since, social democrats have not succeeded in winning the argument that the crisis was the result of the neo-liberal version of capitalism (Crouch, 2011). Despite the appearance of new social protest movements, social democracy has failed to build connections and break from the image of 'old politics' that many of these protestors reject (Kennedy, 2012). And finally, social democrats have not yet put forward a convincing, comprehensive alternative. These three shortcomings mean that though social democrats have managed to win back power in many countries, progressivism has not developed a vision or won a mandate to shape the future in its image.

With European elections coming up in 2014, social democrats will have to address, along with these deficiencies, the broader question of the future of Europe. Those elections are widely seen as, essentially, a referendum on European integration. Europeanisation (Poguntke et al., 2007) no longer seems a matter of voluntary choice, but a vision social democrats will have to articulate and fight for. This means that national social democratic parties will have to undergo a significant transformation: until now they have been primarily anchored in their respective national contexts and used European co-operation primarily in a symbolic way (McGowan, 2001). What is needed now is a vision and a programme capable of taking Europe out of crisis and into the future.

The difficulty is that the EU has just reached its historical nadir in terms of approval ratings. Only one third of European citizens have confidence in the EU, while only slightly more than one fifth believe that the EU is the most appropriate level to deal with the economic crisis (Eurobarometer, 2012). Indeed, for many European citizens--those from countries most harmed by the crash and those from countries called upon to contribute most to the recovery--a united Europe no longer means prosperity and progress, but is rather a synonym of austerity and decline. Social democratic parties thus face a threefold challenge: to commit to a set of tangible pan-European goals; to seek the realisation of that project at all levels of politics, from the local to the European; and to prove they have the capacity to realise those goals.

This article starts from the hypothesis that the European elections are set to evolve from second order elections towards first order ones: the economic crisis has the potential to push European elections up the agenda in individual European nations, while political changes (inaugurated, particularly, by the Lisbon Treaty) may change the relationship between national and European elections. Social democratic parties should, therefore, alter their approach to the European elections. This article is a contribution to debates about the best response to these changing circumstances, describing three building blocks that could serve as foundations for a new sort of European programme. These pillars are: modernising European progressive values; conceptualising the Next European Social Deal; and accelerating expectations for European democracy. The analyses and subsequent proposals set out in this text derive in the main from studies that have been and are currently being conducted within the Next Left Research Programme undertaken by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS; http://www.feps-europe.eu/en/publications-next-left).

Modernising European progressive values

The multiple-tier European Union has become a fact. While the EU...

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