A Specter Is Haunting Europe: The Left

The Left in Europe is flexing its muscles. Anti-capitalist, anti-globalization activists played a key role in defeating referendums on the European Union constitution in France on May 29 and the Netherlands on June 1. Relentless sniping from left-wingers in Germany's Social Democratic Party helped drive Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to call for elections this fall, a year ahead of time. The left wing of Schröder's party has sabotaged his reforms, contributing to defeats in regional elections that all but eliminated his support base.

So can Europe's long-splintered traditional Left come back as a real political movement? The hard left lost its way in the 1980s and 1990s as leaders of parties such as Britain's Labour and Germany's Social Democrats tilted to the center to attract support. While few observers believe traditional leftists can win power outright, a loose coalition of left-wing Greens, militant unionists, and old-school socialists is preparing to play the spoiler as European leaders try to salvage the constitution and revive the economy. Already, leftist groups in France, Germany, and the Netherlands are informally coordinating with each other.

The main action is in Germany and France. In Germany, former Social Democrat Chairman Oskar Lafontaine, who campaigned in France against the EU constitution, is likely to lead a new left-wing party, provisionally called the Electoral Alternative for Jobs & Social Justice. It will field candidates and press Schröder to swerve left. The party says it's getting a huge response. "Our fax never stops running," exults Murat Cakir, a governing board member of the party, which wants to raise taxes on the rich and open the spigots of government spending. Meanwhile, in France, Laurent Fabius, former Socialist Prime Minister, has morphed from pro-market moderate to populist firebrand to position himself as a presidential candidate in 2007.

Lots of Leeway

These new old leftists could have a polarizing effect on voters and complicate efforts by mainstream leaders to get the Continent back on track. Leftists may also win seats in national parliaments, becoming power brokers should the major parties lack a majority. Germany's Electoral Alternative, for instance, is in talks to campaign with the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism. A strong protest party could make life hard for Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, who is favored to unseat Schröder in the early elections. Initially, Merkel would have lots of leeway to push through cuts in social welfare benefits. But labor-oriented left-wingers such as Michael Sommer, president of the German Confederation of Labor Unions, have vowed "house-to-house combat" if a new government restricts collective bargaining rights. The model may be Italy, where the unions are well practiced at getting what they want.

Ironically, the far left's hostility to EU expansion and reform is shared by Europe's far right. Both extremes helped defeat the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands. The nightmare scenario is that left-wing and right-wing populism weaken the center, ushering in volatility that hasn't been seen in decades. Since World War II the center has held in Europe. But the pressures of globalization are shaking the traditional power balance.

By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt

Edited by Rose Brady

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