European elections confirm polarisation between the classes

The recent European elections reveal one common feature: the defeat of whoever is in power (apart from Greece and Spain where this had already happened in elections earlier this year). The workers of Europe voted against the same policies. They are fed up of cuts in pensions, healthcare, education and a general worsening of their living standards. The elections are a clear indication of the mood developing in society.

The results of the European elections give a clear picture of the mood that exists across the whole of Europe. The results can be summed up in two words: anger and disillusion. The anger could be seen everywhere because the common feature was one of defeat of whichever political party is in power.

The only exceptions were the PSOE in Spain and New Democracy in Greece. The reason for this is clear. In both Greece and Spain there were general elections only very recently where we saw the party in government being voted out. Thus it is too early for the masses in these two countries to judge the policies that are going to be carried out. So Spain and Greece reveal the same process as elsewhere.

The disillusion was clearly evident from the incredibly low turnout everywhere, with an average of 44.5 % across the whole of the European Union. Even countries which normally have quite a high turnout, such as Greece and Italy, saw large numbers preferring to stay at home. In 1979 well over 60% of the EU electorate turned out for the European elections that took place that year. At each successive ballot the turnout has gone down, with the biggest drop coming in 1999 when the turnout fell below the 50% mark. Now it has reached a record all-time low.

This cannot be explained simply by voter apathy towards the European Union or the European parliament. "Europe" is not an abstract concept, or some impartial body standing above all the member countries. The European Union has a clear class content. It is not the "Europe of the peoples" as some dreamy headed liberals would like us to believe. It is not an institution designed to defend the interests of the workers of Europe. No, it is something else. It is a body that is alien to the mass of the people that live within its borders. The European Union is an instrument in the hands of the capitalists of Europe. It is under the control of the major European imperialists, in particular the German, the French capitalists and their junior partners such as Italy and Spain. The British capitalists are also part of this set up, but so far have preferred to hedge their bets and stay out of the Euro.

The European Union is an economic block which came into being as a result of the decline of all the old European powers. None of them could stand alone in the world market. So they are forced to

Stay together if they wish to survive. This however means they also have to attack their own workforce. They have to cutback on real wages, make the workers work longer hours, etc. This is the logic of capitalism for they have to compete with more powerful forces on the world arena (USA and Japan in particular, but also growing powers like China).

While the economy was booming in the 1980s and 1990s it was understandable that in many countries of Europe even ordinary working people could have illusions that "being in Europe" meant something concrete: more jobs, higher wages, even better working conditions – at least on paper if one looks at the European directives on labour rights.

But Europe is now in crisis. Although the latest figures show a very slight improvement, the overall picture is a gloomy one. In Germany the biggest country in the EU and the most important national economy, in spite of slightly increased sales in the last period, unemployment has continued to grow and now stands at over 10%, which represents over 4 million people. Gone are the days of full employment and increasing living standards. The general picture is one of a Europe in the middle of a deep economic crisis.

Nothing underlines better the class nature of the European Union than the Maastricht Treaty which established strict parameters for all the national economies. It set limits on the level of public spending, which meant that all the national governments of the EU member states had to implement austerity policies. All over Europe we have heard the same song repeated over and over again: to meet the Maastricht criteria we must cut pensions, we must cut unemployment benefits, we must privatise and so on and so forth.

The real nature of the European Union is becoming more and more apparent to the workers of Europe and the European elections merely serve to highlight this point. At first a layer of the working class accepted the idea that they had to make some sacrifices. This was facilitated by the union leaders who accepted this idea and sold it to the workers with the promise that with the Euro "everything would be better". (see our article: EU constitution debacle) Only a few years ago in at least some of the EU countries there was a degree of enthusiasm towards the Euro. They had been promised a "stronger economy". But for the bosses this means something completely different to what workers would expect from such a term.

Finally the Euro became a reality. Millions of people across Europe are using the same currency. But the dream is turning into a nightmare. In many countries prices have gone up dramatically. Wherever you go ordinary working people complain about big increases in the cost of living. The official statistics attempt to deny this. If you look at the official inflation figures it would appear that what we are witnessing is mass hallucination. The official figures say inflation is low, but the perception of the masses is that they cannot make ends meet. As the old saying goes, "there are lies, damned lies and statistics…"

After having accepted the sacrifices, i.e. the cuts in social spending, jobs, etc., the workers were expecting a respite, a period when things would get better. Instead, we have the Euro but the situation is getting even worse. The governments of Europe are now justifying further cuts with the argument that, "we have to stay in the common currency".

Thus there will be no respite within the straitjacket of the Euro, the Maastricht criteria and the common market, (that is to say, within the limits of capitalism and under the rule of the multinationals). Every government has to attack the workers' rights and to cut the welfare state. It doesn't matter if it is a left-wing or a right wing government.

As we have said many times, the Euro was in reality a reactionary dream, a real nightmare for the oppressed classes all over Europe. It is therefore no wonder that very few people went to the polls last weekend. For although the European Union is a real entity, with real powers, the European Parliament is nothing more than a talking shop, a place where second-rate bureaucrats of the different parties earn very high wages. This is the impression that ordinary workers have in Britain, Italy, France, Spain… And they are right!

The real decisions are usually taken in the ECB building, an unelected body, in accordance with the general managers of the multinationals. When important questions have to be discussed, the Council of Ministers gathers and deliberates. So we see that on an all-European level the real nature of bourgeois democracy is revealed. You can vote every five years for your Euro MPs, but the real decisions are taken elsewhere. So the attitude of many is "what's the point in electing someone who decides on nothing important?"

Even more striking was the turnout in the new countries of the EU. Disaffection there stands at a record level. Only 17% showed up at the polls in Slovakia, 21% in Poland, 28% in the Czech Republic, 27% in Estonia. This is quite amazing, because these countries have only just recently joined the EU (May 1, 2004) and one might have thought that there would at least be a bit of a sense curiosity. The media in the West of Europe had hyped up the expansion of the EU to ten new countries. These would now benefit from entry by becoming even more "modern", etc. A glorious future was about to unfold for the people of these countries.

Instead after just over one month since these countries joined the EU, there were no scenes of joy on the streets, quite the contrary. The population in these countries have the clear sensation that they are considered as second class EU citizens. They are not allowed to travel as freely within the Union as the people living in the old EU. They are not allowed the same freedom to take up a job anywhere in the EU. The only real "freedom" that exists for these countries is the freedom of goods to travel across borders. That is what the French or German bosses understand when they refer to the free market. They can export to the new members whatever they want. And they can also set up factories in these countries and pay the workers a pittance and then re-export back to the wealthier countries without any barriers or hindrances what so ever. Thus the workers of Eastern Europe are just cheap labour for them.

In these countries there is an added factor. When the old Stalinist regimes collapsed the people were promised a better life. Privatisation, the "market economy", "democracy" and so on would bring economic development and growing living standards. Some countries in the last period did see some significant growth, such as Poland and Hungary. However this has come at a very high price. The old welfare state has been systematically dismantled and a greater polarisation between the rich and the poor has taken place. Thus large layers of the population are far worse off than they were before. Thus there is a widespread disillusionment with the results of the transition from the old regimes to capitalism. This polarisation is also taking place in the more developed countries such as Germany and France.

We have mentioned the very low turnout that was witnessed across the whole of Europe. However, in spite of this, last weekend's elections do show one thing clearly. They are an indication of the growing polarisation between the classes. They are also an indication that the workers of Europe are fed up with privatisation, cuts in pensions, education and health, growing unemployment and a general decline in living standards. All the governments of Europe, whether of the Left or the Right, have been carrying out exactly the same policies. The masses of Europe have voted against those policies!

A new turn in Eastern Europe

As we said before, the general trend consists of heavy defeats for whoever is in government. This was clearly the case in Eastern Europe where the parties that have led the process of joining the EU suffered important defeats. In Poland the Social Democrats got only 9.34%! In the Czech Republic the Social Democrats, also in government, saw their share of the vote fall to 8.78%.

Another striking feature was the rise in some countries of those parties that took a clear anti-EU stance. The case of Britain's UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) is one of the most obvious examples.

This phenomenon also emerged in the Czech Republic and was reflected in the success of the Communist Party (CP), which reached 20.6 %. The success of the CP reflects the anti-EU mood in this country which only joined six weeks ago, but it also reveals that a shift to the left is taking place. Thus the idea of "Communism" is far from dead as our Western media would like us to believe. Unfortunately the Czech CP put its anti-EU rhetoric before class interests. Thus instead of putting forward a genuinely internationalist alternative to the EU they fell back on the old nationalist traditions of the Stalinists. This is also combined with collaboration with their own national bourgeoisie locally. In the recent presidential elections the support of the party was essential for the victory of Vaklav Klaus, a bourgeois right-winger!

We see that an anti-EU stance has widespread support amongst layers of the population. The tragedy is that this is not channelled by the workers' parties across Europe into an anti-capitalist socialist position. By doing this the leaders of the Left are playing into the hands of the nationalists and confusing the banner of the labour movement with that of our enemies. It is vital that the workers' parties put forward a clear class and internationalist alternative and fight against these nationalist tendencies. The solution for the masses in Poland, Hungary, or even Denmark or Sweden is not national isolation, which is impossible in present-day capitalism. Genuine socialists, genuine communists, cannot pose the alternative as either in the EU or out of it.

Yes, we are against the European Union because it is a capitalist outfit, designed to strengthen West European imperialism. But the alternative cannot be so-called national independence. Even outside the EU the capitalists would continue to attack the workers. Even as far away as South Africa the government has imposed a limit of 3% of GDP on the budget deficit, the same criteria established by Maastricht, and South Africa will certainly never be a member of the EU. The policies are the same everywhere because it is the whole of the capitalist system worldwide that is in crisis. Therefore our struggle cannot be carried out merely on the national level. It must be international, for the socialist transformation of the whole of Europe, together with all the rest of the European workers.

German SPD pays for its austerity problems

In Germany the SPD suffered its worst ever defeat, with 21.4% of the vote. Compared to the last national elections (2002) Schroeder's party lost 17% of the vote. Who could deny that this result is not due to the austerity policies of the SPD government? We saw big demonstrations in Germany last year against "Agenda 2010", the government's policy of cuts in pensions and the welfare state. A lot of SPD voters did not vote for the party this time round preferring to stay at home. One survey showed that something like 11 million made this choice. In line with what we have seen across Europe the traditional left vote, the working class vote mainly, did not turn to the right. The Christian Democrats in Germany were unable to benefit in any serious way from the demise of the SPD. Only partially did they gain from the SPD's setback. The CDU received 4.2% less than in 1999!

The protest of leftwing voters went elsewhere. It went to what was perceived as being to the left of the SPD. It turned mainly to the Green Party, that doubled its percentage, and to the PDS that got 6% of the vote. It is important to underline this. The effect of the SPD defeat did not produce a CDU increase and this is clearly an effect of the mass demonstrations of the past year. The mobilisation of the working class produces in general a political radicalisation to the left.

Defeat of French right confirmed

In France Raffarin suffered another heavy defeat after the previous battering in last April's regional election. The right wing is now more divided than ever. The new party founded by Chirac just two years ago, the UMP, got only 16.6 % of the vote, with the UDF, the other right-wing government party coming in at 12.2%, together with Le Pen and two other right-wing parties. Thus instead of uniting the right-wing, Chirac's latest attempt at rebuilding the forces of the right has only created more divisions.

This is not a process that is taking place in a vacuum. It is a direct effect of the mobilisations of the French workers over the last few months. Only yesterday there was a demonstration against the privatisation of electricity and gas planned by the government, with more than ten thousand workers marching through Paris.

This protest against right-wing policies has been channelled through the Socialist Party, which obtained nearly 30% of the vote, and partially towards the Communist Party, which recorded 5.8%. This confirms the amazing turn around in fortunes of the main political parties of France in such a short period. It was not very long ago that the right wing scored alarming victories in France, which provoked a reaction among the workers and youth of France. Then the short-sighted were predicting years of reaction, revealing simply how superficial they were. They refused to see the more general picture that was unfolding. Now the old traditional mass parties of the French working class are back with a bang.

This fact testifies that the two traditional parties of the French working class still maintain a big following amongst the masses. When millions of workers in France wish to kick out a right-wing government like that of Chirac and Raffarin, it is clear where they turn their attention: to the SP and the CP.

This is exactly the opposite to what the sectarian left-wing groups, like the LCR or Lutte Ouvriere (LO), were expecting. Many times they have declared the Socialist or the Communist Party "dead". Their successes in the Presidential elections led them to be convinced even more of this. They saw themselves as marching ever onwards until they became the main forces within the French working class. Now reality has hit them hard on the head and given them a wake up call. Now it is the extreme left-wing that is in crisis. The united LCR-LO list cored a poor 2.6% in these elections, confirming what we have always said. They were successful on the basis of a protest vote, but when it comes to removing the right-wing bourgeois parties the masses turn to their traditional organisations. We say this not to gloat, but in order to draw the attention of the more advanced layers of the workers and youth as to how the working class moves. Unless we learn from this we will make serious mistakes in how we approach the labour movement as a whole.

A new turn in the class struggle and a protracted crisis of the right-wing are both opening up in France. The Marxists will know how to turn the workers and build an alternative rooted within the labour movement.

Blow to Berlusconi

If in Paris Chirac is now crying, in Rome Berlusconi certainly is not laughing. The results of the European elections in Italy are very significant because they were a political test for the right-wing Berlusconi government. Although in many countries the low turnout may have served to distort the results somewhat the Berlusconi government cannot console itself with this. The turnout in Italy of 73% was one of the highest of all and Forza Italia, Berlusconi's party, was heavily defeated in the European and Council elections (which took place on the same day). Berlusconi lost four million votes compared to the 2001 national elections, falling from 29.5 % to 21% of the vote. Berlusconi has been facing difficulties over the last period. And he clearly wanted the European elections to stand as a referendum of popular support. He had hoped it would confirm support for him as prime minister. Unfortunately for him it turned out to be the exact opposite as he clearly lost.

However, the Left in Italy find themselves in a similar position to the right in Germany. They proved incapable of picking up everything that Berlusconi lost. The opposition were only able to take partial advantage of this defeat. The Left Democracy (the DS, former PDS, the bulk of the old Italian Communist Party), La Margherita (a bourgeois party made up of a fusion of smaller forces) and one of the several split-offs from the old Socialist Party put forward a joint list called "United in the Olive Tree". This is an attempt to base themselves on the old Olive Tree coalition that governed the country before Berlusconi came to power in 2001. This list achieved 31%, which is striking for the three parties stood separately in the local elections on the same day and their combined vote was greater than 31%, which would indicate that some of their supporters do not like the partners their parties have lined up with.

The official Left paid for its "wait and see" policy on Iraq. They called for the withdrawal of the Italian troops only just a few weeks before the elections, making it difficult for people to believe that they were being serious about this demand. But they also paid for their programme, one that is not so different from what Berlusconi has been carrying out. We also have to remember that the Olive Tree coalition carried out severe cuts, privatisations, deregulation of labour conditions, etc., and many people have not forgotten that. Thus this time round people had fewer illusions that they could really be a genuine alternative to Berlusconi.

However, in Italy as elsewhere in Europe, there were indications that there is also a shift to the left taking place, in spite of the poor showing of the DS. This was reflected in the vote for PRC (the party that emerged from the left wing of the old Italian Communist Party), which went from 5 to 6.1%. And a total of 13% went to those parties standing to the left of the DS. This left shift was also evident in the local council elections where the centre-left coalition won all the main councils that were up for re-election, such as Sardinian regional council and the town councils of Bari, Padua and Bologna, where Cofferati, the former general secretary of the CGIL, was elected as mayor. What was most striking was the fact that out of 63 provincial councils, only three went to the right-wing! This represents a major blow against the right wing.

Again, we see how the class struggle and the mobilisation of the working class affects the electoral front. In all those areas where we have seen important labour disputes in the recent period, such as Melfi, [see FIAT Melfi workers go back to work with heads held high!] the PRC got more than 10%, well above its overall national average. In Sicily (until the last elections a stronghold of the right wing) the united Olive Tree list beat Berlusconi.

Because the divisions in the Left and the confusing effect of the DS'a alliance with a series of so-called "centre-left" bourgeois parties, these results are only a pale and distorted reflection of the waves of class struggle that have come one after the other in the recent period. These electoral results will now serve to deepen even further the crisis of the Berlusconi government. Already before these elections splits were clearly evident with his coalition. These elections results will now give confidence to the masses that "Berlusconi can be defeated".

General conclusions

The European election results confirm what was already clear to anyone who had eyes to see. They represent a general rejection of all the anti-working class policies carried by all governments in Europe over the past period. Whether we saw a defeat for the right or for the left, the masses voted against the same policies. This must be a worrying element for the ruling classes of Europe. It is a clear signal that the masses are against them.

What was also clear was the fact that there was no clear class alternative which could galvanise the workers' opposition. Lacking such a clear alternative, this protest in some cases took the shape of a vote for forces like the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain (See Historic defeats for Blair in Super Thursday's polarised elections), or other reactionary parties especially in Eastern Europe. However, this is only a temporary phenomenon. It is due to the weaknesses of the workers' leadership or, as in Britain, because the traditional workers' party, the Labour Party, under Blair's leadership, has been in power and has viciously attacked workers' rights. It is a vote against Blair, not for reactionary solutions put forward by the UKIP leaders.

The vote across Europe also shows that when the working class begins to move in a decisive way, the workers always turn to their traditional mass organisations. This was clearly the case in Spain with the PSOE winning a "surprise" victory last April. We also saw this in France and it is partially the case also in Italy. The workers will try again and again to change their parties. These parties will be thrown back into power by the workers. When they do not carry out what the workers want they will suffer defeats and will be kicked out, but after a period of right wing rule the workers will turn to them again. In this process the workers will learn that what they must do is not merely vote but get actively involved and win these parties back to the working class and it historical ideals.

The poor result obtained by the RESPECT coalition (only 160,000), standing to the left of the Labour Party, and the poor showing of the joint LCR-LO list in France show that there is no real credible alternative to the traditional mass organisations of the working class. This point is even more underlined by the fact that Blair has been in government for some years now and is responsible for many anti-working policies, and is particularly seen as the most loyal supporter of Bush and his adventure in Iraq. He is probably becoming the most hated politician in Britain. In spite of this RESPECT makes hardly any inroads into the Labour vote. It confirms what we have always said there is no real alternative to patient work within the mass organisations. Under the pressure of events, mass mobilisations, major defeats in the elections, etc., these parties will be shaken from top to bottom. The ranks will begin to move to the left and look for an answer. In the next historical period we will see major changes within these parties. We had a glimpse of this in the 1970s in particular. We will see this again on a higher plane.

The task of the Marxists is to analyse these results and draw the necessary conclusions. We consider them as a useful barometer of the present situation as far as the class relations are concerned. They bring to the surface a process which we have analysed many times in our publications, a polarisation between the classes with a radicalisation to the left of important layers of workers and youth.

This facilitates our task, which is one of patient, daily work in the workplaces, schools and universities where we have to develop the understanding, first amongst the advanced layers – and later among the mass – that only with a Marxist tendency rooted in the mass organisations of the working class we will be able to avoid defeat, despair and disillusionment and channel the anger against the system that is growing amongst the working class and the youth throughout the whole continent. Once the workers of Europe have the leadership they deserve no force on earth will be able to stop them. Then we will be able to pose the real alternative to the bosses' EU, a United States of Socialist Europe.