Europe’s crisis and the rise of the far right| by John Palmer

by Apr 17, 2013Magazine

eurocrisisThe general election of February in Italy produced a political deadlock over the formation of a new government and reawakened fears that the crisis of the European Union currency – the Euro – could take a new turn for the worse. A low turnout of voters (by Italian standards) resulted in a centre-left, Democratic Party winning a majority in the Chamber (the lower house), but no majority emerged for any party in the Senate (the upper house).

Much attention has focussed on the Five Star Movement, led by the former comedian, Bepe Grillo, which secured around 25% of the votes, and the political survival of the discredited right-wing former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian economy – like those of other southern European countries within the Euro-area – remains in the grip of a deepening recession and very high unemployment.

Whether or not any new government can be formed, there may have to be another election in the near future. Much depends on whether a significant number of the elected Five Star Movement parliamentarians defy their leader and give a majority to the Democratic Party (mainly former Communist Party members and supporters) led by Pier-Luigi Bersani, in return for urgent reform of the Italian constitution and electoral system.

No one really knows where individual members of the Five Star Movement stand on specific issues. The ‘Movement’ is more of a corporate undertaking dominated by Grillo than a democratic political movement. More alarming, recent revelations suggest that Grillo has some sympathy with neo-fascist groups. He opposes giving Italian citizenship to children born in Italy of immigrant parents, and opposes allowing immigrants into his movement.

But there are signs that some of his supporters may ignore his theatrical calls for a ‘revolution’ to bring down the Italian state, and instead give temporary, conditional support to a Democratic Party government in return for sweeping reforms of the financing of elections and politics as a whole.

If Bersani can form an administration, he is likely to join forces with the minority of European Union leaders – notably the French social democrat Prime Minister, Francois Hollande – to challenge the mindless EU austerity policies imposed on the southern economies mainly because of pressure from the right-wing German government of Angela Merkel.

The case for radical reform of the Euro-area economies is obvious. But nothing has been done to correct the more extreme injustices of the present system, including an ever widening gap between the richest ‘one per cent’ and the bulk of the population. Little or nothing has even been done to force the rich to pay tax required of them by the state. Meanwhile unemployment among the young has reached nightmare proportions.

That said, the political balance of forces in the EU may be starting to shift. In addition to some weak and hesitant social democratic governments in France, Denmark and other countries, the German general election in September may see the emergence of a new coalition including the German Social Democrats (SPD). Significantly, the SPD has begun to distance itself from Merkel’s hard-line austerity conditions for EU support of the weaker Euro-area economies.

Progress would have been much greater if not for the widespread and systemic weakness of the political left and of the trade union movement throughout most of Europe. The unions have been weakened by decades of defeat and de-industrialisation. Thanks to neo-liberal economic and social policies, union organisation is restricted in many countries almost entirely to the public sector.

‘Left’ social democratic and Communist Party organisations are shadows of their former selves. ‘Leninist’ far left organisations have, in many cases, imploded because of internal splits and have lost much of their influence. However, new social movements against austerity, welfare cuts and mass unemployment are emerging. They are characterised by an insistence on democracy, acceptance of political pluralism, and suspicion of the bureaucratic ‘top down’ approach of the old left.

It is hoped that this will lead to a Europe-wide movement to demand a new model of sustainable green economic growth and social justice in Europe. Like the Greek far left Syriza movement, which rejects nationalism and insists on Greece remaining part of the EU and the Euro-area, this new left understands the need for closer European integration.

Meanwhile the extreme, populist far right is exploiting the social crisis and is growing. This includes not only openly fascist and even neo-Nazi groups – like Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary – but also parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which now threatens the Tory party itself. If the centre left fails to shift the direction of EU policy towards growth, jobs and social justice in the months ahead, the threat from the far right will only grow.

John Palmer was formerly the European Editor of The Guardian. He blogs for The Guardian, Social Europe, Open Democracy and Red Pepper.

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