The real story in the European elections wasn’t the rise of ‘populists and extremists’, but the return of the left-right divide


The European Parliament elections saw a number of smaller parties with broadly Eurosceptic or anti-establishment platforms do well across Europe. Jonathan White writes that while this has been dismissed by some commentators as a victory for ‘populists and extremists’, the elections represent a more fundamental shift in European politics. He notes that these parties have substantial differences and display a left-right divide in terms of their ideology. He argues that a more democratic Europe requires recognising the differences among these parties and accepting the limitations of the technocratic approach currently pursued by the EU’s institutions.

For two decades after the Cold War, observers of European democracy talked of the end of left-right politics. Ideological convergence seemed the dominant trend in parliaments and publics alike. This week’s European Parliament election results are one piece of evidence to suggest something different has occurred. After six years of social and economic upheaval, a more polarised Europe is evident, one whose divisions retain some of the familiar features of the left-right opposition.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA

The elections have been widely narrated as the triumph of ‘anti-establishment’ parties – or as The Economist likes to call them, ‘populists and extremists’. Such categories mask major differences. Though dissent is the common denominator, the questions raised by the Front National, UKIP and the Danish People’s Party sharply diverge from those posed by SYRIZA, Podemos, the Dutch Socialists and the Portuguese Left Bloc, to name just some of the parties successful in these elections. How they articulate the causes of economic stress is essentially different.

On the one side, the analysis of economic hardship has tended to focus on the moral failings of outsider groups. Be it immigrants, welfare dependants, lazy southerners, greedy bankers, mindless bureaucrats or the political class, someone somewhere is behaving badly. These accounts are stories of transgression – of offences against morality and common sense. On the other side, the origins of hardship lie rather in the failure of a template. A critique of adhesion forms the basis of such accounts – be it adhesion to an erroneous doctrine (neoliberalism, austerity) or to an unworkable economic system (capitalism, growth-led development). Seen from this angle, the politics of UKIP and SYRIZA could hardly be more contrasting.

Such differences express a left-right division. Historically, suggest political thinkers, this division has centred on attitudes to inequality, with the left defined by its inclination to seek the rectification of inequality and the Right by its scepticism on grounds of feasibility or desirability. In the twentieth century, this distinction often overlapped with diverging attitudes towards the institutions of state and market. If we take these elements to be at the core of the left-right divide, today’s disagreements are consistent with it.

Accounts of economic hardship centred on transgression tend towards underwriting the order whose standards they claim have been violated: these positions generally display a fairly sympathetic view of the market (even if there is concern at how certain groups have ‘distorted’ it) and a quite limited concern with inequality (extending at most to the thought that certain inequalities are ‘excessive’). Accounts centred on adhesion to problematic doctrines and practices by contrast generally place the pre-crisis order in question, including the market economy and the inequalities systematically generated by it.

Europe’s ‘populists and extremists’ thus come in markedly different left-right hues. Still, in one important respect it is true they are alike. They talk an avowedly ethical language. However questionable some of their interpretations, a focus on values is unmistakeable. They decry injustice, call for fairness, and harness a sense of outrage.

This contrasts with the dry mode of reasoning that prevails in contemporary political discourse. When governing politicians, central bankers, IMF officials and media commentators discuss the economic crisis, it is often as a technical problem. Phrases such as ‘quantitative easing’, ‘debt restructuring’ and the like present themselves as value-neutral solutions aimed at repairing the functioning of a system. Austerity programmes have been widely promoted in this technical, data-driven fashion. While ethical positions are certainly implicit – advocates of austerity typically display an indifference to social inequality consistent with a rightist orientation – it is in the form of rational calculus that these arguments are advanced.

Many of the casualties in these most recent European elections have been parties associated too closely with this technical mode of politics. This applies to the governing austerity parties of several Mediterranean countries, liberal parties such as the German FDP and British Lib Dems, and many other mainstream parties of the centre-right and centre-left. The success of anti-establishment parties of one kind or another, with their insistence on questions of justice and fairness, is evidence of widespread public disaffection with the politics of expertise. Low rates of participation – just 13 per cent in Slovakia – are testament to the same.

But it is this technical mode of politics that remains entrenched in Europe’s wider institutional machinery. It dominates the decision-making of the European Council, European Central Bank and European Commission, and will continue to be well represented in the Parliament itself. Recent institutional innovations such as the European Semester, in which national budgets are submitted to the Commission for prior approval, seem destined to embed further the politics of expertise.

If then these elections illuminate an increasingly polarised political landscape, marked by the rise of left-wing parties in addition to the well-documented successes on the right, it remains to be seen how far these divisions will impinge on decision-making. Avowedly ethical discourses of left and right continue to find themselves politically marginal in much of Europe, and are easily lumped together and dismissed as ‘populists and extremists’ by the louder voices of politics, business and media.

A more democratic Europe requires not only distinguishing these left- and right-wing formations, so that to criticise some is not to criticise all, but weakening the institutional dominance of a technical mode of politics that obscures its own ethical basis.

For a longer discussion of this topic, see the author’s article in the Journal of Political Ideologies. A version of this article also appeared at the PSA blog.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Jonathan White – LSE
Jonathan White is Associate Professor (Reader) in European Politics at the London School of Economics.


Tsipras: “Democracy was the first victim of the crisis”


posted at

Our international partners have much to lose if they continue
to pursue the current austerity policy

Alexis Tsipras the leader of Syriza Party in Greece is a big hope of the new European left and a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. Two years ago, his party almost seized political power in the country which was incredibly quickly changed by the tough austerity measures – as if a war was raging in Greece – into a third world country where democracy and the Greek (as well as European) way of life is quickly vanishing. If parliamentary elections were held tomorrow in Greece, Syriza would be a certain winner. But the Greek left is incredibly divided, so the question remains if Syriza would be able to form a government. Thirty-nine year old Tsipras, the president of the only new European left-wing party which can actually expect to seize political power, is optimistic. As a candidate of the European Left for the president of the European Commission in this year’s European Parliament elections which will be held on 25th May, he visited Ljubljana last Saturday (1/3/2014)and greeted the participants of the United Left’s founding congress. (This interview has first appeared in the newspaper Delo)

Interview by Bostjan Videmsek

After six years of crisis, Greece is devastated on many levels. The country has changed very quickly and in such a radical way that the conditions it found itself in remind us of the way countries change during a war. But the neoliberal experiment continues and in the meantime the crisis became a state of affairs: where is the breaking point? When will people finally become fed up with those who are ruining their lives and their dignity?

For the last six years we have lived in a state of continuous recession and austerity. It did not happen only in Greece, but Greece was a Guinea pig of neoliberalism in the European Union, and we suffered the most, by far. Nothing like this has ever happened in Europe before. Our GDP is now 25 % lower than it was before the crisis. The number of the unemployed is the highest in the EU: the unemployment rate is almost 30% and the youth unemployment rate is almost 60 %. More than three million people [of ten million] are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. Many are without health insurance and have no access to health care services. Not for themselves nor for their children. The situation is getting worse every day.

The question is, what can we do to stop this extremely negative trend. We are in a very difficult position but the solutions are there. The solution is most certainly not the continuation of the austerity policy. The «cure» for the crisis in Greece was worse and it caused more damage than the crisis itself. We must give up this cure immediately and stop the austerity policy! We must abandon the austerity memorandums which were signed between several consecutive Greek governments on one side and the EU, Germany and international financial institutions on the other. We must stop the troika! We must start the programmes aimed at growth and reconstruction of the Greek economy’s production base.

Greece is an EU member state. We are one of the chains holding together the common European currency. After German chancellor Angela Merkel – during her last visit of Bruxelles – said that the eurozone would have collapsed if the EU hadn’t decided to adopt a rescue programme for Greece, it should become crystal clear to everyone that the European Union wasn’t trying to rescue Greece; it was trying to rescue the euro. The eurozone. And its banks. Continue reading

EU’s failure to protect migrants at risk

In recent years, European countries have stepped up border control measures in an attempt to prevent migrants and asylum-seekers from reaching Europe. Some of these measures have resulted in or contributed to serious human rights violations.

European countries have forced people back to countries where the risk of human rights abuses, including torture and arbitrary detention, was already well known.

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See our latest statement on EU’s failure to protect migrants at risk

European countries and the European Union should not engage in border management practices that put migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees at risk. Agreements and operations need to be reviewed and their human rights impact assessed. Join our call for transparency and accountability. Send your S.O.S. to Europe! The petition will be addressed to the President of the European Parliament in March 2013.

Read our letter to the Cyprus Presidency of the Council of the European Union

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Migrants’ boats heading to Europe often get into danger at sea.  At least 1,500 people are known to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2011. Some of these deaths could have been prevented. The desire of some European countries to prevent irregular migration (people who do not have permission to live and work in these countries) has undermined safe and timely rescue at sea.

Desperate men, women and children have been left at sea for days while countries argue about where they should be taken. In some cases, people died on these boats while distress calls went unanswered.
Italy Immigrants
Italian Coast Guard rescue migrants, Italy, 13 April 2011 © AP Photo.


Many of those who do manage to enter Europe end up being detained for long periods. Countries use detention as a deterrent, despite the lack of evidence that detention deters people from migrating or seeking asylum.

International and European human rights standards set clear criteria on when it is permissible to detain someone for immigration purposes. In no case should detention be arbitrary, unnecessary or disproportionate. Less restrictive alternatives to detention must be available and explored first. Detention must always be a last resort.

Children, particularly unaccompanied children, should not be detained solely for immigration purposes. Immigration detention is never in their best interest.
Asylum seeker in detention, Slovak Republic, 16 November 2006 © UNHCR.


There has been a growing trend of “criminalization” of irregular migration in Europe. Some countries have introduced criminal penalties for irregular stay or entry. Some also punish people who help irregular migrants.

In several countries, public officials, teachers and doctors who come into contact with irregular migrants must report them to the authorities. As result, children, pregnant women, people with chronic health problems and others do not seek medical care for fear of being reported. Parents are too afraid to send their children to school. Irregular migrants are scared to report crimes and abuses, such as labour exploitation, in fear of being detained and deported.


Amnesty International is campaigning to ensure that:

  • People are treated with dignity at the borders. Their rights must be respected during border control and return operations, including the right to claim asylum.
  • The right to liberty of migrants and asylum-seekers is respected. Immigration detention must only be as a measure of last resort and children must no longer be detained for the purpose of migration control.
  • People on the move no longer suffer abuse because of their migration status. Those who are abused or exploited must have effective access to justice.

Europe is diverging: ignore it at your peril

In the absence of a strong and concerted political direction, the EU is undergoing a process of structural divergence, featuring diverging employment, growth, productivity, competition, and fiscal trajectories.

This is not a recovery, but a joyless and jobless stagnation. Ignore it at your peril.

A protest in Athens, Greece. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved.

A protest in Athens, Greece. Demotix/Nikolas Georgiou. All rights reserved.

In the optimistic 1990s, the introduction of the Euro was to represent the kernel of the European integration process. The single currency was meant to act as the motor for the “ever-closer” convergence of European economies, thereby promoting the integration of public spheres and national policies, leading eventually to a form of political union. Continue reading

A Roadmap to a Just World — People Reanimating Democracy

by Noam Chomsky
DW Global Media Forum, Bonn, Germany, June 17, 2013

I’d like to comment on topics that I think should regularly be on the front pages but are not – and in many crucial cases are scarcely mentioned at all or are presented in ways that seem to me deceptive because they’re framed almost reflexively in terms of doctrines of the powerful.

In these comments I’ll focus primarily on the United States for several reasons: One, it’s the most important country in terms of its power and influence. Second, it’s the most advanced – not in its inherent character, but in the sense that because of its power, other societies tend to move in that direction. The third reason is just that I know it better. But I think what I say generalizes much more widely – at least to my knowledge, obviously there are some variations. So I’ll be concerned then with tendencies in American society and what they portend for the world, given American power.

American power is diminishing, as it has been in fact since its peak in 1945, but it’s still incomparable. And it’s dangerous. Obama’s remarkable global terror campaign and the limited, pathetic reaction to it in the West is one shocking example. And it is a campaign of international terrorism – by far the most extreme in the world. Those who harbor any doubts on that should read the report issued by Stanford University and New York University, and actually I’ll return to even more serious examples than international terrorism.According to received doctrine, we live in capitalist democracies, which are the best possible system, despite some flaws. There’s been an interesting debate over the years about the relation between capitalism and democracy, for example, are they even compatible? I won’t be pursuing this because I’d like to discuss a different system – what we could call the “really existing capitalist democracy”, RECD for short, pronounced “wrecked” by accident. To begin with, how does RECD compare with democracy? Well that depends on what we mean by “democracy”. There are several versions of this. One, there is a kind of received version. It’s soaring rhetoric of the Obama variety, patriotic speeches, what children are taught in school, and so on. In the U.S. version, it’s government “of, by and for the people”. And it’s quite easy to compare that with RECD. Continue reading

From ‘utopia’ to dystopia and resistance, a short run

by COSTAS DOUZINAS 16 December 2013

Originally published at Open Democracy : Can Europe Make It?‘utopia’-to-dystopia-and-resistance-short-run

The latest mutation of the neoliberal doctrine is turning Greece into a real life dystopia, but resistance can still save the day.

Demotix/Socrates Baltagiannis. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Socrates Baltagiannis. All rights reserved.

Michael Anderson’s film ‘Logan’s Run’ (1976) opens with the following statement:

“Sometime in the twenty-third century, the survivors of a war, overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domed city, sealed away from the forgotten world outside. Here, in an ecologically balanced world, mankind lives only for pleasure, freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything. There’s just one catch: Life must end at thirty unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carousel.”

The first part is a description of pretty much every utopia.A society cut off from a threatening outside world, that lives secluded in peace and plenty. There is no conflict, people are happy, nothing disturbs their existence, their needs and desires are fully catered for. People can call in sex partners or go to orgy rooms but they cannot have long-term relationships.

As is usually the case, all utopias have a little flaw that turns them into dystopias. The dome dwellers are conditioned to accept that life will be ‘renewed’ at the age of 30. Implanted with ‘life-clocks’ of changing colors, in accordance with the advancing age of their holders, they are prepared for ‘lastday’, their thirtieth birthday. Assembled at the ‘carousel’ to be ‘reborn’, they are exterminated. Continue reading

Social Democracy, the Radical Left and the spectre of populism

originally posted at Chronos Mag

Political scientist Giorgos Katsambekis talks with distinguished professor at UCL,
Philippe Marlière, who specializes in European and French politics


Giorgos Katsambekis: You have devoted a large part of your research and writing to the European Social Democracy. How would you assess today the role of Social Democratic parties in the ongoing crisis? Are they a part of the European problem or a part of the solution?

Philippe Marlière: Social Democracy in Europe is clearly part of the problem given that over the past thirty years or so it has progressively abandoned its traditional aims of redistributive justice. What is more, it has turned its back on the idea that Capitalism needs to be tamed or constrained. (Bearing in mind that it had for long given up on overthrowing Capitalism altogether) Post-War Social Democracy was about the belief that market societies could work for the benefit of the majority, and not of a minority. At the heart of the social democratic philosophy was the idea of compromise between Capital and Work. This is no longer on the social democratic agenda. Social Democracy has now almost totally capitulated – and in many countries the adverb ‘almost’ is redundant – to the forces of globalised Capitalism. From the 1980s onward, the project of constructing ‘Socialism in Europe’ was short-lived and turned out to be an illusion. European integration – sometimes piloted by a majority of social democratic member states – has indeed increased the process of economic competition and social dumping in Europe. This has been the new face of the European Union since the Single European Act of 1986. Since then, the trend has been dramatically amplified. This being said – the Greek situation apart – Social Democracy, as a partisan force, is only weakened, but it is not dead yet. No one knows at present whether its future in other European countries will be similar to PASOK’s or whether it will benefit from the discredit of conservatives to get back to power. After all, France is currently run by a social democratic government and in a year time, Britain and Portugal might also have new social democratic governments. The death of Social Democracy has been announced so many times since the Bolshevik revolution! But so far, it has proved a very adaptable and resilient political force.

G. Katsambekis: Coming now to the main ‘laboratory’ of the European crisis, Greece, how would you comment on the recent call by 58 Greek centre-left and liberal-centrist intellectuals to create a new centre-left formation –a ‘third pole’– in order to oppose the new two-partyism of New Democracy and SYRIZA? Their aspiration, as noted in their declaration, is to represent those that don’t feel represented by the Greek ‘Right nor by the neo-communist national-populist Left’. Continue reading