Social-democracy is finally back as a serious political force offering real solutions. After a powerful council of the Party of European Socialists, held this past weekend in Bulgaria’s troubled capital, Sofia, there is a palpable feeling that the shock and paralysis of the first years of the crisis have finally been sloughed off to be replaced with an exciting blend of passion, determination and clear, feasible solutions to the crisis that is now increasingly threatening the very European project itself. A European social-democracy for the 21st Century is finally coming together and the glimmers of hope that began to appear at the last activist conference in Hungary have bloomed fiercely into something quite concrete, solid and ready to move forward.
The stakes are, however, extremely high and getting higher. While the activists and delegates seated in the grand hall of the National Palace of Culture voted to adopt a common platform, resolutions for gender equality, a more detailed version of the Youth Guarantee and a European Industrial Policy, below in the street a mass of citizens, NGO’s and political parties (including a very large contingent from Bulgaria’s far-right Ataka party) staged their own version of what some of the Bulgarian newspapers are calling “Taksim” protests.
Certain parallels between our struggles in Turkey and those in Bulgaria may be fairly drawn in that both represent a spontaneous, mostly peaceful outpouring of frustration and anger at authoritarian governments. In Bulgaria’s case however, the party responsible for most of the misery, the right-wing GERB is gone, thrown out for corruption and massive electoral fraud and has been replaced by a minority government consisting of a coalition between the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms that represents mainly the ethnic-Turkish minority. Where Taksim still faces teargas, billy-clubs and a government determined to avoid dialogue, in Sofia there were few police present, and certainly no riot squads, and no condemnation or labelling of the protesters by the government. On the contrary, in his address to the assembly, the President of the Party of European Socialists and leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Sergei Stanishev, acknowledged the right of the protesters to protest peacefully and promised to engage in dialogue with the citizenry in order to more actively meet their just demands. Moreover, he acknowledged and expressed regret for the error of appointing the unpopular and corrupt Delyan Peevski, a businessman and member of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms to the directorate of the national security organ (the event which triggered this round of protests).
Following President Stanishev’s address, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz gave an even more powerful speech in which he clearly laid out the themes and the direction for the rest of the council. He started by pointing out the different leadership style of the democratic left to that of the authoritarian right. Whereas right-wing authoritarians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, former Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuse to admit they are capable of making mistakes and regard dissent as treason, a truly strong leader acknowledges mistakes, rectifies them and asks what it is the people need and expect from them. He went on to say that the democratic left should stop referring to those who criticise the EU in the streets as “Euro-skeptics”. The people are right to criticise the model of Europe currently being offered. The current Europe is neither “social” nor “just” and if we want to save the EU, we must change the EU. The Left must “politicise the EU and Europeanise politics”.
From the addresses given by Sergei Stanishev, Martin Schulz, Zita Gurmai and many others it is clear that European socialists have finally come to a workable analysis of the problem which is not just an economic but also a social, political and, ultimately, civilizational crisis, and, even more importantly, have developed a coherent, meaningful response.
The solution, both so simple and so complex, is fundamentally a return to democracy and the primacy of the social and political over the blithe logic of economics. What is being proposed is nothing less than a refoundation of the European political economy and social contract. Through concrete measures designed to revive employment, growth and social guarantees, social-democracy is once again able to offer a vision based on hope for a society in which people can believe that their children will receive education, good employment and the means of living a decent life and participate in the political processes that guarantee this future.
Many people reading this will possibly find nothing very new or radical in this vision, it is, after all, nothing but classical social-democracy. This is true and yet the particular convergence of globalisation, europeanisation and neo-liberal ideology have, until recently, made even the modest demands of classical social-democracy seem like an unrealisable utopia, even to social-democrats themselves, and this lack of conviction and hope has held us back and paralysed us for too long. Yet, Europeanisation, often seen of late, as the enemy of “Social Europe” may yet be transformed into its vehicle. Certainly, it will take hard work and struggle but it must succeed because the price of failure may truly be too high to contemplate. Youth unemployment has reached terrifying levels and there is only so long one can reasonably hope people will put up with a hopeless stagnant future before society explodes. History teaches us that poorly managed crises lead to terrifying forms of extremism. Surely we have learned enough from history not to allow it to repeat itself.
For the European project to fail would be an awful, retrograde step backwards, but a Europe where banks are bailed out to the tune of billions while the people are left to wallow in poverty and unemployment until they turn to extremism for answers, is a crime. The answer however, is not less Europe but more. More importantly, what is needed is a new, more democratic European order. The PES intends to field a common candidate for the commission when the European elections come around next year and is also urging the other europarties to do the same. It’s time to get serious about a democratic Europe with a common fiscal policy, a common industrial policy and a budget that puts its spending priorities on the well-being of the citizens of the EU.
Looking at Europe and the world right now, it feels like we are at the verge of an exciting new era. Rather like birthing pains, the moment we are living in now is marked by pain and struggle. Yet I am convinced that state authoritarianism in our part of the world and, just maybe, everywhere, is in its final death throes as a new era of pluralist, participatory democracy is emerging into the light. Social-democrats have finally woken up to this process and have decided to try to be the midwives of this new era.
The resolutions adopted by the PES Council last weekend, the concrete measures now set into the common programme and even the circumstances under which the council was held all smell of history in the making. I would like to believe that, 5, or maximum 10, years down the track, we will look back at this time and remember it is the first light of a new dawn. Social-democracy now has the ideas, the plan, the programme, the passion and the leaders to create a good European society for the future, it is now largely up to us whether this vision will succeed.