Why Wolfgang Munchau and Pope Francis aligned with the left
‘Despite the self-congratulatory tone of many on the left in Ireland, the protests reflect a broader European trend – if anything, Ireland is late to the party’
‘As the new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker admitted this week in Strasbourg, after the financial crisis EU leaders expected the recovery to come faster. “But recovery did not come faster,” he said, somewhat stoically. Above, Juncker prepares to address the European Parliament on the plan on growth, jobs and investment. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/ REUTERS
The left gained two unlikely political champions this week. Writing in the austere pages of the Financial Times on Monday, the respected economic commentator Wolfgang Munchau argued that the radical left has the solutions to Europe’s economic woes. Outlining his opposition to the “consensus view” on how to solve the euro zone’s problems, he noted that only parties of the hard left support “sensible policies such as debt restructuring”.
On Tuesday, a stern Pope Francis told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU was regarded with “aloofness, mistrust, and even at times, suspicion”. Alluding to social issues such as unemployment, labour rights and migration, the Pontiff called on European leaders to put the individual back at the heart of EU policy (though his pejorative feminisation of Europe as a haggard grandmother “no longer fertile and vibrant” offended many)
The Left is experiencing a surge in support across Europe. The recent mass protests in Ireland in response to water charges are part of a broader trend of public disillusionment with mainstream politics. Despite the self-congratulatory tone of many on the left in Ireland, the protests reflect a broader European trend – if anything, Ireland is late to the party. Frustration with the political establishment has been a consistent feature of the European political landscape since the euro zone crisis erupted. The European elections in May saw a sharp rise in support for parties of the far-left and right in countries as diverse as France, Greece and Denmark.
Similarly, the emerging trend in Ireland whereby Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour appear to be losing ground to independents is reflected elsewhere. Across Europe traditional two-party systems are fracturing. In Britain, the Labour and Conservative Parties are grappling with how to respond to the rise of the UK Independence Party ahead of next year’s general election. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front topped the polls in May’s European elections, increasing pressure on the two political stalwarts of French politics, François Hollande’s Socialist party and the centre-right UMP.
New political parties are making political inroads elsewhere, increasing pressure on the political centre. In Spain, the recent rise of the far-left party Podemos is shaking up Spanish politics. In Italy, leftwing party Five Star Movement, formed in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, won a quarter of the votes in last year’s elections to the Italian lower house, while Greece’s Syriza , led by the charismatic Alexis Tspiras, is topping the poll. Both parties are more than just whimsical protest movements, but rather represent a serious challenge to the political establishment.
At the root of this move towards the political fringes lies economics. While the acute phase of the euro zone crisis has passed, Europe’s economic problems have not. The sovereign debt crisis, which saw five EU member states seek bailouts, has left the euro area shattered economically. Euro zone growth stalled in the second quarter of this year, notching up 0.6 per cent year-on-year in the third quarter, but still well below the 2 per cent growth of pre-crisis levels. Even economic behemoths such as Germany, despite its labour market holding up, is experiencing a slowdown due to the impact of Russian sanctions and weak demand from other euro zone economies.
Ironically, Ireland’s star performance this year compared to the rest of the euro zone is primarily a result of its strong trade links with the US and Britain. Euro area inflation is dangerously low at 0.3 per cent, while unemployment remains at record highs. As the new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker admitted this week in Strasbourg, after the financial crisis EU leaders expected the recovery to come faster. “But recovery did not come faster,” he said, somewhat stoically.
It is against this bleak economic backdrop that the European Commission unveiled an ambitious investment package this week. The aim of the “Juncker plan” is to mobilise €315 billion of investment though a core fund of €21 billion, which will be used to finance infrastructural and other investment projects across the European Union. No new EU money has been used – instead the idea is to leverage already existing EU money to attract private investment, and entice the investment community to “buy-in” to Europe, rather than increase already-bloated public debt levels. An independent assessment board will vet applications, with the Commission promising that the process will not become political.
The fund is due to be up and running by the middle of next year. In the meantime governments have been instructed to come up with a list of suitable projects.
As a jaded EU public faces the prospect of an eighth year of low economic growth, the Juncker Commission will be hoping that this plan could help reinvigorate the moribund European economy.
If not, the continuing drift away from the political centre towards alternative parties and candidates from the right and left, is likely to continue for some time as voters seek out political alternatives.
Suzanne Lynch is European Correspondent