EU Election Results Reflect Widespread Disapproval of Austerity Policy Throughout Europe

Professors Trevor Evans and John Weeks talk about the serious gains made by right-wing parties and the prospects for a progressive EU.

TRANSCRIPT:

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And here to give us a report on the outcome of the European Parliament elections are our two guests.

Trevor Evans is a professor of monetary theory, monetary policy, and international monetary relations at the Berlin School of Economics and Law. He is also the coordinator of the European Network of Economists for an Alternative Economic Policy in Europe.

Also joining us is John Weeks. John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the University of London and author of the new book Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality, and Distorts Policy.

Thank you both for joining us.

JOHN WEEKS, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, UNIV. OF LONDON: Thank you. Pleased to be here.

TREVOR MARTIN, PROF. ECONOMICS, BERLIN SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND LAW: Hi.

WORONCZUK: So, Trevor, let’s start with you. Do you think that the elections show a prominent rise to the right, that the right is sweeping power within Europe?

MARTIN: Well, it’s not sweeping power, but the two parties of the center, the center-left and the center-right, have both lost votes. The left has picked up votes in places like Greece, but also in Spain.

But there has been this very disturbing increase in the vote of right-wing parties in a number of countries. Obviously France is the most spectacular, with the national National Front coming in first place, but also in a number of other countries—Denmark, a country that’s always been very favorable to the E.U., a right-wing party coming there in first place. In the Netherlands, another country, a small country that’s always been very favorable to the E.U., the right-wing party there has also done quite well, although not quite as well as it did at the last elections. So, clearly there is very deep concern in Europe about what’s happening, above all what’s happening at the economic level, and it has been the right-wing parties that have been able to pick up support with large numbers, particularly of working-class people turning to these right-wing parties to express their disagreement with what’s happening.

WORONCZUK: Now, from what I understand, though, there was only a 43 percent electoral outcome—electoral [incompr.] only 43 percent turnout to the votes for the parliament. Why do you think that was?

WEEKS: Well, I think—first let me speak for Britain. I think that Britain historically, that any election except a general election you get a low turnout. Actually, the turnout this time for the European elections was about the same as last time, so it didn’t fall. That may have been partly because there were some local elections at the same time.

But there are some countries—and Trevor would probably know this better than I—where turnout was extremely low. I think in Slovakia the turnout was extremely low, like 27 percent. And when you have low turnouts, it is the right wing—well, it is the more, you might say, fervent groups that tend to make gains. This is in no way to understate or minimize the gains of the far right, which is very, very dangerous, but they certainly took advantage of the low turnout.

WORONCZUK: Now, Trevor, you said that some of the turnout had to do with some of the grievances that citizens had with the economic policies. But from what I understand, the E.U. Parliament doesn’t actually have any power over monetary policy, that most of this power—or any central banking policy, that most of this is still left to the national governments. So what kind of influence do we expect to see that the right-wing parties will have over economic policy?

MARTIN: Well, I think that the European Union is perceived as being in important respects responsible for the sort of economic policies that are being implemented in Europe, that what we’ve seen over the last few years is that in response to the crisis, policy has been centralized for the euro area countries in the European Commission. Policies that in the past would have been decided by national governments are now decided at the Commission, so that we have a whole series of new rules that of been introduced over the last two years in response to the crisis, where national governments now have to submit their budgets, their annual budgets to the European Commission for approval. There are new rules that are extremely strict about the level of government deficits, about a whole series of other indicators.

And what that means is that to the extent that national governments and national parliaments used to have some control over economic policy, a lot of that has now been taken to the European Commission. It’s important to point out, as you just said, that the European Parliament does not have control over these issues. So the national parliaments have lost a lot of their influence. The European Parliament has never had influence over economic policy. So a lot is now being decided by the European Commission—civil servants who are outside democratic control.

And in some ways this is being played up by national governments. If you are a conservative government in Spain or in France or in other countries, then it’s very helpful to be able to put the blame onto the European commission and say, the E.U. requires us to do this, and give the impression that you’re not terribly happy with it. So the result is that the very strict austerity policies that have been introduced since 2010, 2011 in Europe are seen very, very much as being the result of the European Union. And it is seen quite rightly as being largely outside popular democratic control.

WEEKS: Yeah, I would follow up on that by adding that the rise of authoritarianism, which the far-right represents, is reinforced by this concentration of power within the European Commission. So the ability of citizens, particularly on those in eurozone countries, which is about—is it 18, I think, now that—there are about ten countries that don’t use the euro right now, like Britain. It still uses the pound. But if you’re in the eurozone, you’re very restricted, your government is very restricted in what it can do.

Also, Greece has to be mentioned. I mean, Greece has suffered beyond the imagination of most middle-class people. You just can’t—per capita income now is 35 percent below what it was in 2010. I mean, reflect on that. This is like a war has occurred.

And this is the breeding ground for far-right fascism. I mean, we should call it what it is. Le Pen is a fascist. I think that in Denmark we have fascism. There are also some fascists in Poland. So we’re looking at a very difficult and dangerous situation.

WORONCZUK: But we’ve also seen, in Greece, for example, the rise of this. I think SYRIZA won about a quarter of votes there to enter the parliament. And we’ve also seen some left-wing parties make some significant gains—I think it’s in Spain, and in Portugal as well. So do you see there any possibility for a progressive E.U.?

MARTIN: There’s certainly a possibility of it, but at the moment the electoral strength of the left is confined mainly to the countries that you just mentioned. The rise of SYRIZA is extremely impressive. But we have a democratic left force to the left of social democracy that is proposing a quite different solution to the economic crisis from the one which the center conservative and the center social democratic parties have been putting forward.

So what we have there is a party that shows there are quite different set of policies that could get us out of the crisis and not put all the costs onto working- and middle-class people. And the rise of the party in Spain, although it’s got far fewer votes, 6 percent of the vote, which is much less, it’s all the more impressive because it was only formed in January of this year, and clearly people are coming together who want to see a distinctly different and more progressive policy which won’t be based on cutting living standards.

And I think it’s very important, as John just mentioned, to stress that since—we now have over 10 percent unemployment in Europe, it’s over 20 percent in countries like Greece and Spain, youth unemployment is over 50 percent in countries like Greece and Spain, real wages have fallen in nearly all countries of southern Europe and Eastern Europe, and some of the northwestern Europe, and most worryingly, there is no indication that things are going to get better, that if we look at the projections from the International Monetary Fund, from the European Commission, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, all of them see low growth and protracted high unemployment. So in that sense the outlook in Europe at the moment is very different from that in the United States, where despite all the problems, there is—growth is picking up and unemployment is falling.

So there has been a growth of left-wing groups in a few countries, but the overwhelming bulk of the countries have either conservative or in some cases socially democratic governments, such as France, which pursue identical policies to conservatives. And there is very little prospect at the moment of this situation changing. And I think that’s why we’re seeing the sort of reaction we got at the European elections. People, even if they don’t know the details of what’s going on, have a sense that the outlook is very bleak at the moment.

WORONCZUK: So will these far-right parties that have made some of these electoral gains, will they be challenging any of the neoliberal economic policy that has more or less dominated the eurozone in the past couple of years?

WEEKS: Let me—a couple of points on that. If you take Britain, that is unclear. The right-wing party that won the European elections here is called the United Kingdom Independence Party, called UKIP. It is right-wing. It’s not clear what its economic policies are. I suspect that they aren’t significantly different from the policies of the conservatives, of the Tories. So I suspect they’re probably in the austerity consensus.

If that is the case, I think that they are unlikely to be a long-term threat, because if you’re going to vote, you—as the only real fascists running in the British election was defeated—he was from something called the National Front. And when he said, when he was asked, doesn’t this show that it rejected the racism in your party, and he said the racism of our party was rejected in favor of the racism of UKIP—and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. And UKIP’s racism could well be rejected in favor of the Tory Party’s racism.

Now, once you move to the continent, we’ve got the real thing. In France, that is the real thing. What I mean by that: you have Le Pen’s National Front is chauvinist. It’s not liberal in any way. It’s not neoliberal. It’s not paleoliberal. It is authoritarian. It is a movement with a party with an authoritarian vision for France which includes racism and chauvinism and all the things that we thought had been defeated in 1945.

WORONCZUK: But it’s not exactly clear, I guess, whether or not these right parties will coalesce into a single bloc. I think I read in The Guardian that Le Pen’s leaders said that they wouldn’t be forming a block with Golden Dawn. So what you make of that? Do you think that the right wing is going to coalesce into a powerful voting bloc? Or will it remain fragmented?

MARTIN: They’re clearly going to remain fragmented. I mean, the one good thing about the outcome is that these groups are totally riven between themselves. And there are at least three groupings, but even that is too simple. There’s the far right—there’s Golden Dawn and /ˈjækɔv/ in Hungary. These are semifascist groups.

Then you have got quite solid grouping with the right wingers, where the key parties are the National Front in France and the Dutch Party. They would like to establish links with some of the other more populist right-wing parties, but they’re keeping their distance from the National Front. And Britain doesn’t want to be too identified with the National Front, and a number of the other smaller right-wing nationalist parties are keeping their distance from the French National Front and the Dutch right-wing party. So there are at least three groupings, and the hostilities between them are quite marked. Then it’s unlikely that they are going to be able to work closely together.

WEEKS: I agree with that. I would add a couple of things. One is that it’s in the nature of communists and socialist parties to try to cooperate, because in general they aren’t chauvinist. It’s in the nature of right-wing parties not to, because they are chauvinist and they carry on the old hatreds. I mean, for example, the neofascists. Before, you called it fascism. But in Hungary they want to take back Hungarian territory, which is now, you know, part of Romania and has been for 50, 60 years. They want to do a number of things which—it would not make them—didn’t make them very friendly with the right-wing parties from their other neighbors.

And as for the Golden Dawn, you must remember that Germany occupied Greece for four years during World War II and was extremely brutal. I would think it would be very difficult for the Golden Dawn to warm up too closely to anything German, particularly being so—the perception of the Greek population is that austerity is driven by the German government.

WORONCZUK: Alright, gentlemen, let’s get some brief final comments from both of you. Trevor, let’s start with you.

MARTIN: Well, the real problem in Europe is that the outlook is for stagnation and high unemployment. And what people have shown at this election is that they’ve turned to left-wing groupings in Greece and Spain, but in a number of other countries they have moved away from the center to more radical right-wing groups, in some cases neofascist groups.

And it’s very important that we manage to win wider political support for progressive alternatives. There are alternative proposals for how Europe could get out of the crisis that it’s in, but these are not being pushed by these far-right groups. And I think the challenge for progressive parties, progressive economists like John and I, is to try and show that there is a different way out of the crisis which will improve the position of employment, which will end the cuts in real wages, and can actually begin to build real democracy.

And I think one of the key things in Europe is the fact that at the moment, it is a profoundly undemocratic structure, that Europe does offer the possibility of getting much greater democratic control over the economy, but the way it’s set up at the moment is one where economic decisions are being made by officials at the European Commission with a very, very weak parliament. We need to strengthen democracy, we need to move forward so that we can have a truly progressive European economic policy, because in my view, it’s only at a European level that we have the chance of getting democratic control over the big corporations that dominate European economy, over the financial markets that set the exchange rates, the interest rates, and so many other key features of the economy. So I think there is a basis for a really progressive policy at a European level, where you could do things that are no longer possible at the level of the nation state. But clearly at the moment it is the right wing, with a move away from Europe and backing out of Europe that has been able to get more publicity.

WEEKS: I would just make two quick points, because Trevor has been very thorough. One is that while these right-wing parties are unlikely to coalesce into a bloc (or even if they do formally organize a bloc, they’re going to be a relatively ineffective one), they have a lot of potential to be disruptive and they have a lot of potential to further discredit the policies of the European Union, and particularly to give the impression that the European Parliament not only is weak but is a pointless encroachment upon people’s rights.

The other point I would make is that you might say, why should Real News watchers in the United States, why should you care? This is something that’s going on far away, and so on. I don’t want to be apocalyptic, but this is a very serious business. We’re talking about the rise of the right. If you’re worried about the rise of the Tea Party in the United States, then you should certainly be worried about the rise of chauvinism throughout Europe and through right-wing parties. And this could lead to a very unstable international situation, particularly as the parties of the center begin to tack to the right in order to try to shore up their support.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Trevor Evans from Berlin School of Economics and Law and John Weeks, professor emeritus of the University of London, thank you both for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you.

WEEKS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Bye-bye.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.