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Social Democracy in East-Central Europe and the future of the European Union

pdfSocial Democracy in East-Central Europe and the future of the European Union

This is a summary of the discussions on the place of social democracy in the region in the future of the EU, which took place on April 13th, 2016, in Wrocław. The closed meeting of social democratic academics and activists from Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany was followed by an open panel debate with the participation of a representative of each country, and the former Polish senator and MEP, Józef Pinior. The occasion of the meeting was the anniversary of the birth of Ferdinand Lassalle, one of the founders of German social democracy, who was born and buried in Wrocław.

13 04 2016After the economic crisis, austerity policies, the policy on Greece, the Brexit menace and finally the refugee crisis, questions about the future of the EU seem more urgent now than ever. Despite initial hopes, the economic crisis did not cause a turn to social democracy in the European Union. The goal of creating a more cohesive, more social Europe seems to have largely remained on paper, despite the political turns that the crisis caused in some of the most affected countries. Social democracy in Europe failed to formulate a convincing answer, and if it did so - for example in the programme before the 2014 European elections - the message did not reach the citizens, for whom, as usual, voting for MEPs was yet another local political battle.
Social democracy in East-Central Europe is mostly in an uncomfortable position. It is only at first glance that the situation in the Czech Republic and Slovakia looks much better than in Hungary and Poland. Despite being part of the governing coalitions, the social democrats in these countries have had to make a lot of difficult compromises. Some question the parties' devotion to certain social democratic ideals. The Hungarian SD lost their battle against Viktor Orban and has been weakened, the Polish SD did not even get to parliament in last year's elections, and this left-wing party is now facing a difficult period of reorganization and reinvention if it is ever to come back to the Sejm. Meanwhile, in Germany, the SPD is faring relatively poorly in opinion polls ahead of the 2017 Bundestag elections.
"I cannot remember a similar meeting of social democratic politicians to the one that Jarosław Kaczyński  and Viktor Orban  held some months ago," said former senator and MEP Józef Pinior during the evening panel discussion. This remark points to an important omission - the lack of close cooperation further strengthens the feeling of helplessness.
In trying to answer the big question posed to them, the discussion's participants focused on four aspects of the problem: the lack of clear, complete visions, the difficulty delivering on social democratic promises at the EU level, the democratic deficit or lack thereof at the EU level, and the question of relations between traditional social democracy and the new left movements that have emerged in some countries after the economic crisis.


The discussion started with a bitter assumption: because the left has to defend Europe against the 13 04 2016strong current of anti-EU attitudes, in the end it is defending the EU with its current neo-liberal face. It's a trap that could lead - as German politologist Wolfgang Merkel argues - to the transformation of social divides from the traditional 'left' and 'right', to 'communitarian' versus 'cosmopolitan'. There is something very worrisome in the fact that after its failure to present an alternative to the neo-liberal economic model after the financial crisis and the wave of far-right movements and parties gathering steam across Europe, social democracy again seems to be too weak and too mired in local politics to face the challenge and table a clear message based on the fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and solidarity.
The economic crisis did not hit East-Central Europe as much as it did the South-European states. Europe's problems were somewhere out there, but not really directly affecting the citizens of the region. The refugee crisis changed this, despite there being almost no refugees in this part of Europe. The sheer fact of the 'threat' evoked deep fears within societies that, in some cases, seem to have freed the genies of xenophobia, racism and other attitudes that had seemed to have been all but uprooted from the EU's Member States. The Union has penetrated the very core of its citizens' daily discussions, and it is no longer possible to put Europe aside, to ignore it or just use it as a scapegoat in internal political games. "The times of pure euroenthusiasm are over," said one of the panel participants. "You can be in favour of a strong EU, but we also have to say that it cannot be like it is now."  Of course, the border between constructive criticism and rejection can sometimes become blurred. It is very important, in trying to react to the fear spreading through the EU's societies, not to accidentally join the anti-European camp.
So why has social democracy been unsuccessful in drafting a different vision of Europe so far?

On one hand, it can be argued that social democratic visions of the EU are already there, but are simply not visible enough. The programmes drafted by the Party of European Socialists ahead of the EP 2014 13 04 2016elections did not find their way to the common citizens. The problem of the low relevance of the European elections, and the above-mentioned focus on local issues during its campaigns, have made such pan-EU programmes almost irrelevant. One supposition would be that they haven't got through to the national political debates, because they're written in abstract terms and don't present any easily-graspable alternative future that European voters can identify with, or even hope for.
On the other hand, it seems that the problem of identifying with social democratic answers starts at the level of the politicians. "If we are asked what a social democratic vision of Europe is, we are not able to answer. All we are able to say is this and that measure is socially democratic," argued one participant.

Countering the populist visions that are filled with empty promises of answering real problems with easy solutions, that draw on the deepest emotions of fear and national pride, the protection of children, scapegoating and so on, seems to be a task doomed to constant failure. There are certain important policy goals that have to be part of a social democratic vision, such as equalization of living standards across the EU, and social investments. They do not, however, add up to an emotional message that could be at least partly as moving in the voters' perception as some of the right-wing visions are. The refugee crisis painfully demonstrates social democrats' inability to formulate a coherent response. In the discussions in Wrocław, it was clear that the urgent need to find a solution that also wouldn't neglect the fears brewing in EU societies, and at the same time be in accordance with social democratic principles, is still a matter of inconclusive debate.
Social democracy in the region looks towards European political structures for answers and inspiration, but is unsatisfied by them and unable to transport them or use them on a national level. And so the vicious circle closes. What is needed is more dialogue about what the answers should be, and most importantly, an effective way of translating them into a vision that appeals to those citizens who, disoriented and full of fear, are susceptible to populism. The European Pillar of Social Rights, proposed in March 2016 by the European Commission, could be a good reference point in this debate.

How to deliver

The European construction is very complex, and so is the decision making process. The question is, even if we have answers, how can we credibly claim that we would be able to deliver on them? On our political promises? Especially now that the euro and refugee crises have deepened the disagreements between the Member States, making it even more difficult to reach a consensus or even gather the necessary 13 04 2016majority of votes in some instances.
On one hand, the choice seems to be easy - either to move back and try to pursue policy goals on the national level, or try to work within the complex structure of decision-making at the EU level. Despite the claims of right-wing populism, most economic and social policies these days are almost impossible to manage while neglecting the European, or even global dimension. There are examples of such actions - Hungary and Poland have used social policy instruments that are deemed populist (energy prices in Hungary, child allowances in Poland). And in a way, these demonstrate how to deliver a socially democratic promise. But they are still elements of anti-European, nationalist discourse that could never be even close to any social democratic vision.

If we wanted, on the other hand, to deal with the European decision-making structure, we would encounter some well-known obstacles. For instance, the most important questions at the EU level are answered through compromise. "These decisions do not have a political colour," one panel participant argued. Would it then be reasonable now to strongly criticize the current shape of the EU, pushing for deeper integration that would in the end make it easier for political families to deliver on their promises through an amended decision-making process? Another idea would be to reconsider the EU's competences and think whether, in some fields, a move back would not indeed be reasonable at this point. Such a move could, however, be seen as a defeat in the battle with the Eurosceptics, and in the end bears similar kinds of consequences - further weakening of what is already there, even if it's far from perfect.

Is there a democracy deficit at the EU level?

One could talk about reforms at the EU level that would, for example, give more competences to 13 04 2016supranational institutions, allow for more areas to be decided by QMV, or even reshape the institutions' structure so that they would more closely resemble the political system of a federal state. All this has been a part of the debate on the future of the EU for decades, but it is only in recent years that the side of the debate advocating an ever-closer Union has seemed to have been defeated. To be able to formulate such postulates, however, social democracy would first need to make sure that EU institutions are trusted and that there is no democratic deficit. This issue has also been widely discussed for years, and has two major strands: one side being roughly that the EU is a democratic construct, that it only needs more transparency and needs to get 'closer' to its citizens, and the other claiming that the European construct needs serious re-modelling and 'federalisation' if it is ever to be seen as a democratic system. But now that the challenges seem to leave little room for formulating questions about democratic deficits along those lines, the focus should be on enhancing democratic elements wherever they exist. To say now that the EU is undemocratic is again risky, given the Eurosceptic discourses now seemingly dominating national debate about the Union.

Given the conclusion of the 'delivery problem' part of the discussion, social democrats should instead be thinking about a strategy for changing the image of EU institutions from business-and-great-powers-friendly, to being more citizen-friendly. In doing this, one should also not close their eyes to the obvious pitfalls as far as democracy is concerned at the EU level, and remain focused on incremental changes. The aim here would be to amend slowly, not to risk moving the whole construction so much that it would actually help dissolve it completely.

Old vs. New?

To some participants, resigning from a 'revolutionary' pace of change could mean that things in the meantime could get so bad that there would be nothing left to defend. Social democracy's problem with 'daring to do' came up several times during the discussions in Wrocław. The two positions were framed into another issue: the relations between 'traditional' social democracy and the 'new left' that emerged in the aftermath of the economic crisis in, for example, Spain and Greece. The Polish party Razem, although of different origins than Podemos or Syriza, cites those movements as inspiration.
13 04 2016 "Social democracy has turned out not to be an alternative at the EU level," said another participant. "Therefore, these new movements emerged and they should not be neglected". Perhaps it would be more reasonable for social democratic parties to join forces with them, instead of trying to diminish their significance?
One problem the new movements have, as was indicated, is that to some extent they exclude themselves rather than being particularly excluded by anyone else. Perhaps they should open themselves a little bit more to allies on the same side of the political spectrum? In part, this is already happening, as the reality of governing a country requires making alliances and there is no better ally at the European level for Syriza, for example, than social democracy.
Traditional parties could on the other hand learn from the new movements, for example  in the field of internal democracy in a political party. Despite hostilities, original battles and often justified criticism of each other, these two strands of left-wing politics in Europe seem to have no other choice but to make connections and cooperate at some level. 


Still, the discussion left more questions open than it answered. Social democracy has to face the threat of the emergence of the potential new division mentioned above. If voters start to identify mainly as either nationalists (Eurosceptics), or as cosmopolitan (pro-European), then the space for social democratic politics will be severely and durably restricted. Progressive politics nowadays needs to present an offer to an electorate that is already shaken, unsure of the political affiliations, lost and led astray by right-wing populists. This seems almost impossibly difficult, but burying our heads in the sand will not  help. It is time once again to openly admit - as the Wrocław discussion's participants agreed - that since the mistakes of the Third Way, social democracy has failed to propose an alternative vision of a better world. This realisation has to push the progressive parties and organisations in the region to look at the challenge together, and start working on solutions that take into consideration national circumstances. Right-wing populists often make the argument that East-Central Europe is neglected in the EU, that the 'new' Member States treated unfairly and are unappreciated. The role of social democracy is to counter such discourse by, amongst other things, proposing an alternative that both includes region-specific problems and demonstrates that only in a large EU family can those problems have a chance to be resolved.

This is the summary of the discussions during the closed workshop. The public debate that took place in the evening of April 13th is available to watch here:

link nagranie debaty

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