Europe’s Embattled Progressives

Europe took a decidedly neoliberal shift thirty years ago, but centre-left moderates still view the union as a beacon of progressivism


It’s the summer of 1941. Italy is conducting a series of territorial annexations in east Africa and the Mediterranean. On one of its smaller islands, Ventotene, a little-known anti-fascist activist is languising in prison. Altiero Spinelli is putting his fantasises about Europe’s post-bellum future to paper. The resulting document, Ventotene Manifesto, would become the blueprint of the European Federalist Movement (EFM) founded two years later. It’s a call for the nations of the Old Continent to forfeit their sovereignty and give way to a European federation under socialist principles. 80 years into the integration project that Spinelli helped spearhead, has the European Union lived up to the expectations of its progressive cheerleaders?

One goal, two paths

Undoubtedly yes, argued historian Konrad H. Jarausch in the latest episode of Uncommon Decency. Right-wing populists, he argues, view Europe as something of a dirty word, on both sides of the Atlantic. For Jarausch, this is a testament to the bloc’s success in building a mixed model of laissez-faire capitalism buffered by a strong safety net. Professor Sheri Berman sees European-style social democracy as the end-stage solution to the central challenge of modern politics, namely that of reconciling a free enterprise economy with a democratic polity.

Jarausch traces Europe’s experiment with liberal democracy all the way back to the aftermath of World War I. That’s when US President Woodrow Wilson came to the continent to preach a vision of a world order made up of self-determined national units emerging from the ashes of collapsed empires. It may have listened to lectures given by transatlantic bigshots, but Europe, Jarausch argues, has since surpassed its former American lodestar. 

With its blend of proportional representation, cooperative foreign policy and generous welfare state, the EU has been far more successful than America at fulfilling its progressive aspirations. America, in fact, is increasingly poised to draw inspiration from its European counterparts. The Biden administration’s latest round of Covid-19 borrow-and-spend alluded to the fact that the two models may now be converging.

Opportunity or security?

The US and the EU share roughly the same base values of liberal democracy and capitalism. But implementation has been markedly different in each case, argues Jarausch. The American Dream teases the opportunity of “higher incomes, bigger houses and grander SUVs”, but Europe takes far better care of the neediest in society. If placed behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, any faintly self-preserving individual would surely opt to be installed in a European society rather than an American. 

The catch, argued the podcast hosts, is that Europe lacks the kind of economic dynamism and innovation that could sustainably fund its welfare model into the future. Their political systems demonstrate even starker differences. Europe’s mode of proportional representation and its limits on campaign spending, Professor Jarausch argues, offer a fairer voting system than America’s gerrymandered, super PAC-fueled electoral system. This is not even to mention foreign policy: the EU is far more reliant on foreign aid and diplomacy rather aggression.

The rise of the populists

But the last two decades have forced progressives to reckon with the limits of the European project. Olaf Scholz’s narrow victory in the German federal race a month ago notwithstanding, social-democratic parties the continent over have become a relic of their former selves—in government in less than five countries and relegated to a distant second place in the European Parliament. For the left-wing populist parties, whose power has been growing following austerity measures taken to counteract the 2021 sovereign debt crisis, this demotion is the consequence of accepting the EU’s neoliberal turn following the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. 

More often than not, it was centre-left governments and politicians who (touting internationalist ideals) pushed policies that hollowed left-wing parties’ working-class appeal. It was the French socialist François Mitterrand who kickstarted the creation of the eurozone, not the German conservative Helmut Kohl. Many of Mitterrand’s aides and allies ended up directing the very institutions that symbolised this neoliberal turn of the past decades: the World Trade Organisation (Pascal Lamy) and the International Monetary Fund (Michel Camdessus). For these far-left critics, it is no surprise that Mitterrand’s advisor Jacques Delors (the architect of France’s “austerity turn”)rose to the presidency of the European Commission in 1985.

Meanwhile, populist parties on the right have also emerged in turn, notably in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, reaching government in countries like Poland and Hungary. This should have taught progressives that an impossible trilemma exists between a generous welfare state, relatively open borders and a moderate public square—choose two, but you can’t have all three.

And yet despite numerous setbacks, the EU has displayed a remarkable degree of resilience, according to Jarausch. The bloc may fall short of Altiero Spinelli’s progressive hopes in 1941, but for scholars like Jarausch, it remains far better than the alternatives.


Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) and François Valentin (@Valen10Francois) are co-hosts of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod). Consider supporting their show on Patreon:

Professor Jarausch recently published Embattled Europe: A Progressive Alternative (2021). 

Professor Sheri Berman (of Colombia’s Barnard College) wrote The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (2006).

12th November 2021