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European elections: 'Kicked In The Ballot Box'
WHEN TONY Blair arrives at yet another European summit this week he'll be able to share the burden of electoral defeat with the other heads of state around the table.
Karl Debbaut, CWI
The 2004 European elections will be remembered for when Europe's ruling governments and the idea of the European Union itself, received a 'kick in the ballot box'. There is a widening gap between the European establishment and the population, and it is filled with anger at declining living standards, unemployment and self-serving deceitful politicians.
Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), led by Gerhard Schröder, suffered their lowest percentage vote since 1932 when their vote fell to 21.5%. The SPD tried to remind the German public about its anti-Iraq war stance but that did not divert attention away from the party's responsibility for the most brutal package of economic and social counter-reforms since the second world war.
German state and private employers are pushing for lower wages and a longer working week. Schröder's SPD have been willing partners in this concerted attack against living standards of workers and poor but they have paid with one electoral defeat after another since they scraped back into office in September 2002.
In France, Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) suffered its second electoral defeat in under three months, securing just under 17% of the vote. The protest against welfare and pension reform has crippled the UMP.
In France, as in Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands, the Social Democratic parties benefited from the protest vote as the mainstream opposition parties. In Italy, Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi's party, suffered a backlash while votes of the other parties of his ruling coalition held up.
BUT THIS protest vote doesn't represent any enthusiasm for these parties or their policies. For example, the French working class has vigorously opposed, on the streets and in the polling station, the 'neo-liberal' (ie capitalist) policies of both centre-right and centre-left governments over the past decade.
However, the LO/LCR parties, who claim to stand on a Trotskyist tradition, suffered a serious setback. They polled only 3.3% of the vote and lost all five MEPs. While a short-term squeezing of the vote of the smaller left parties can occur when voters flock to the main opposition party, LO/LCR didn't even raise the idea of a new workers' party as a socialist alternative to the capitalist parties. It was discarded as something for after the elections but in the meantime another opportunity to build such a party has been lost.
What is needed is an active campaign and plan of action for the formation of a new workers' party. Only two years ago the combined vote of LO and LCR reached 10.4% in the first round of the presidential elections. In January 2004 polls indicated that 9% of the French population would vote for LO/LCR and another 22% who had never voted for the radical left before was seriously considering it.
Such was the radicalisation under the salvo of neo-liberal attacks from the newly elected right wing government, helped by the fresh memory of the ousted centre-left government in 2002, that a genuine opening existed to form a new workers' party.
These opportunities, however, are limited in time. It is a warning to parties like the Left Bloc in Portugal that electoral gains can be lost when an initiative to seize political opportunities is not taken.
A workers' Europe
MUCH HAS been made of rising voter apathy and in general the trend has been to see a fall in voter participation for European and national elections in Europe. The turn-out in the ten new EU countries of Central and Eastern Europe averaged a poor 28.7% and in a clear sign of further disillusion with the EU and its policies, a number of representatives for eurosceptic and populist parties were rewarded with seats in Brussels and Strasbourg.
In Poland two anti-EU parties, the Self-Defence party and League of Polish Families together won 29% of the vote. In the Czech Republic the unreconstructed Communist Party gained a stunning 20%, pushing the governing Social Democrats in to third place. In Slovakia the left populist Smer party polled 16.9%.
On average the turnout rate slumped to a record low figure of 42.2%, well below the 49.4% recorded in the last European elections five years ago. However, in a switch from apathy to antipathy, voter turnout went up by 15% in the UK, 9% in the Netherlands and Ireland, and 3% in Italy.
Especially in the UK and the Netherlands this vote also reflected anger against the involvement of these governments in the Iraq war and anger against their domestic anti-working class policies.
The Dutch right-wing government of PM Balkenende has attacked almost everything: unemployment and disability benefits, affordable health care, education, public transport, rent subsidies, refugees and now pensions. These austerity measures have cut the average disposable income for workers with 1,25 % in a year and unemployment is rising at a rate of 14,000 people a month.
Here, the Socialist Party (a party to the left of the PVDA, the Dutch Labour Party, and in which CWI supporters argue for socialist policies), polled 7%. This together with the 7.4% of the vote for Green Left, and the 7.3% for the new anti-corruption party 'Transparent Europe' of EU whistle-blower Van Buitenen, represents an important stage in political development.
It is an example of a process that is repeating itself in a number of European countries, ie a part of the protest vote is going to smaller, working-class based forces to the left of the social democratic parties.
However they are not the only ones to benefit, alongside them populist and sometimes racist forces have succeeded in capitalising on the mood against the capitalist establishment and its policies. The challenge is to build existing and new formations into instruments of working-class struggle that are able to attract wider layers to socialist policies.
As the results in France prove, to complete this task electoral alliances are not enough. We need to promote and fight for the idea of a workers' Europe on the basis of workers unity, joint action and socialism.
Overrated, overpaid and over there
PAT COX, president of the European parliament, thinks that people have a prejudiced view of their MEPs. "People think we're over here and overpaid, and people don't get beyond that prejudice," he lamented.
What does he mean? I thought a prejudice meant a pre-conceived, ill-informed opinion. Let's look at the facts.
MEPs are paid the same wage as members of the national parliament of the country they were elected in. British MPs based in Westminster earn a whopping £55,118 per year.
On top of that the European gravy train entitles them to allowances that can top up incomes by more than £66,000 a year. The regime for travel expenses for example pays each journey MEPs make according to the most expensive airline ticket available on the market. If these people, we treat so unfairly, then decide to fly Easyjet they pocket the difference.
Then there is the secretary allowance of £99,000 a year, which some MEP's choose to pay to family members. The perk most recently exposed is the £175 daily attendance allowance. Hans Peter Martin, an Austrian MEP now re-elected as an independent, secretly filmed MEPs signing for a day's work, claiming £175 and leaving for home. Nice work if you can get it!
The Socialist Party stands for a workers' MP on a worker's wage.
In The Socialist 19 June 2004:
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