Elections to the European Union Parliament held May 25 reflected the growing mass revulsion against the centrist parties that have directed most Western European governments and the EU itself — especially given the EU’s management of the severe capitalist crisis that struck in 2008 and has remained in force ever since. Only 43 percent of EU eligible voters actually voted.
The center-right or conservative parties, on the one hand, and the social democratic or nominally socialist center-left parties, on the other, have alternated managing the imperialist Western European governments since 1945. Since 2008, both center-left and center-right parties have collaborated to impose austerity on the working class in Europe.
The European ruling class — especially the big financial capitalists — have imposed unpopular austerity programs on indebted individual countries to assure debt repayment. They have done this using the EU’s bureaucratic financial institutions, known as the “Troika” — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
Essentially, the EU is the European ruling class’ instrument to take more and more of what the workers produce and transfer it to the rich. It has reduced workers’ wages, pensions and unemployment benefits and cut health care and education.
Coupled with the absence in most European countries of a credible and effective left electoral alternative, the revulsion with the centrist parties and the EU led to gains in many countries by ultra-right nationalist parties that are publicly anti-EU and that usually have anti-immigrant, xenophobic and even racist programs. The rightist gains were especially large in two major imperialist powers — Britain and France — and in Netherlands and Denmark.
The working class and its organizations must, of course, fight these rightist and especially the racist parties, in the streets as well as in elections. There is no need, however, to exaggerate the threat from rightist or neofascist parties or its imminence.
The EU Parliament is only a talk shop, not an executive power. The EU doesn’t actually administer a state apparatus or a national army, like Washington does. What power the EU has lies in its bureaucratic institutions like the Troika, not in Parliament.
Progressive parties made gains in hardest hit countries
The vote played out differently in different countries. Consider those European countries where the capitalist crisis has struck the hardest. To use one crisis indicator, unemployment rates are higher than 25 percent in Spain and Greece, 18 percent in Portugal and 14 percent in Ireland. The Troika and the local ruling classes have imposed horrific cuts to guarantee payments to the big banks in all of them.
The votes in these countries increased the number of seats of parties with a more progressive or pro-working-class program. Only in Greece did a far-right party also make gains.
The vote in Spain sent both the “socialists” (PSOE) and the rightist Popular Party to a crashing defeat, signaling a change to come. A new party of the “Indignant” movement managed to attract 8 percent of the votes, and the United Left also gained.
More important than the electoral result in the Spanish state were subsequent events. For four days, youths protesting a raid on a squatters’ building fought with local police in Barcelona.
On June 2, the Spanish king, a very unpopular symbol of the continuation of the fascist Franco regime, abdicated. Working-class organizations immediately called demonstrations to demand a referendum on establishing a republic.
In Portugal, the communists and in Ireland the Sinn Fein party made stronger showings in the elections, polling in the teens. Rightist parties lost ground.
In Greece, the Communist Party got 6 percent of the vote, while the new left social-democratic party Syriza came in first with 27 percent. Syriza gained nearly all the votes lost by the traditional social democrats, who were compromised by their support for austerity. The fascist Golden Dawn gained, getting 11 percent.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s rightist party lost heavily, and a 20 percent protest vote went to the unorthodox 5 Star Movement, an anti-austerity grouping headed by a comedian named Beppe Grillo. The center-left Democratic Party that governs Italy came in first.
In Germany, whose ruling class dominates Europe, the traditional parties maintained their leading roles. No leftist or rightist parties gained. Unemployment is still reasonably low in Germany, though workers’ wages and benefits have eroded steadily over the past 20 years.
In Britain, both the Labor and the ruling Conservative parties showed poorly, with most of the protest vote going to the relatively undefined but clearly anti-EU Independence Party (UKIP). This party — which is different from the openly racist British National Party — came in first with 27.5 percent of the vote, even though it has never won a seat in the British Parliament.
The worst result was in France, where the racist National Front came in first with 25 percent. No leftist party gained. The Socialist Party, which is closely identified with EU austerity and has betrayed every vestige of solidarity with working-class interests, was trashed.