L’idée de l’Europe est en déclin, et l’Union Européenne est dans un état avancé de désintégration. Avec le Brexit, un pilier capital de l’Union Européenne s’est déjà effondré. D’autres pourraient suivre – si ce n’est pas au cours des cycles électoraux de cette année, alors ce sera pour les suivants.

“ Peu importe le coût. Nous avons repris les rênes de notre pays ! ” clament èrement ceux qui ont soutenu le Brexit. Quitter l’Union Européenne, c’est une aspiration qu’on commence à rencontrer aux quatre coins de l’Europe, même au sein de partis de gauche qui défendent un retour à l’état-nation.

L’Europe est-elle une cause perdue ? Peut-elle être sauvée ? Doit-elle être sauvée ?

DiEM25 est convaincu que nous, les peuples d’Europe, devons reprendre les rênes de nos pays. Nous devons même reprendre les rênes de nos régions. De nos villes et cantons. Mais pour cela, nous devons retrouver un but commun entre peuples souverains. C’est ce que nous apportera un projet Européen internationaliste, commun, transnational. C’est ce que nous apportera un New Deal Européen. Ce document vise à le démontrer.Partie 1 – INTRODUCTION


Rather than putting all their hopes in top-down democratic reforms that never come, progressives should themselves assume responsibility for building a truly democratic Europe. The 2019 elections could be the best chance to engage citizens in radical, participatory processes and end years of statis in the European institutions.

Waiting for European democratic reform is more frustrating than waiting for Godot. In the Beckett play, Godot is clearly never coming, and at least in the eternal wait we can meditate on the absurdity of human existence (and anyway the play will finish at some point). In the European Union, democratic reforms are coming at some point, but are seemingly endlessly deferred. When they do come, as a result of political compromise and national obstructionism, they are rarely what is needed. In the meantime, for lack of ambitious European democracy, the forces of reaction and nationalism grow so that on the one hand democratic reform becomes less likely, and on the other any such reform is less likely to be satisfactory or ambitious. A perfectly vicious circle.

It is time to stop waiting for others. Godot isn’t coming, and he is not called ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘Angela’. The 2019 European elections can be an important moment to mobilise citizens around the request for democratic change. But change will not come through the official ballot boxes alone. Whatever welcome progress may be made by having spitzenkandidaten or transnational lists or even genuine transnational parties will not be sufficient to drive through an ambitious democratic transformation. And so, in addition to fighting in the official elections and getting votes in the official ballot boxes, citizens need to set up their own ballot boxes, and even their own elections.

Turning back the technocratic tide

The intergovernmental and technocratic system of the EU increasingly frustrates any meaningful space for the expression of European citizenship. For as much as the Parliament has gained powers of co-decision, decision-making has moved to informal groups like the Eurogroup, intergovernmental agreements outside of the Community method (such as the Fiscal Compact or the scandalous EU-Turkey agreement), and into secretive ‘trialogue’ negotiations. The structure of the Parliament itself prevents the emergence of real transnational parties. By consequence, European citizens are deprived of political agency at precisely the time when they demand it and need it the most.

The question ‘what Europe is going to do?’ – about the banks, about Greece, about the euro, about the migrants, about Brexit, about Catalonia, about TTIP, about tax evasion… – has been discussed every day in almost every bar and café up and down the continent for nearly a decade of crisis. The idea that there is no European public sphere is no longer tenable. And it is not just discussion. Millions of Europeans have mobilised on the streets in protest or solidarity over the past years. The alleged apathy of citizens is a myth actively fostered by governing elites: it provides the ideological justification for keeping the EU a technocratic, intergovernmental, backroom affair. The distance of citizens from ‘formal Europe’ is fully understandable. They have no seat at the table and few avenues of meaningful political participation. But Europe has a meaning beyond the grey corridors of the European Council, and citizens have been reclaiming it.

It is now time to go the extra mile. People deprived of political agency have little to gain by crafting common positions in the hope that the ‘powers that be’ will take them up. In the 20th century, both the Indian Congress and the South African Congress realised that, rather than expect the imperial elites to change, they needed to construct bottom-up political power in order to transform a system that structurally deprived colonial subjects of citizenship rights. This required a movement that politically enfranchised its members through organised struggle in order to legally and socially enfranchise the majority that was being denied a voice. Today in Europe, most people are not subject to state violence – although migrants and Roma very often are – but like in colonial contexts, institutions increasingly impervious to democratic control need to be resisted and citizens need to politically enfranchise themselves as citizens of the European Union against repeated attempts to relegate them to mere subjects of undemocratic, intergovernmental governance.

Hacking the 2019 elections as an act of civil disobedience could be the way to open up fresh alternatives. We propose using the occasion to elect a Constituent Assembly for Europe.

A democratic strategy for a citizens’ Europe

This political and performative act would work as follows. All candidates in the official European parliamentary elections, as well as all citizens and any individual who declares an interest in the future of Europe, would be able to stand for the constituent assembly.

These candidates may organise themselves in transnational lists, and European parties would be asked to field candidates for election, so as to create an immediate link between the emerging assembly and the European Parliament. Taking part in the assembly process would represent a stupendous opportunity to show commitment to the idea of citizens-led democratic renewal. Civil society and social movements would be encouraged to propose their own lists. Ideas, programmes and values for a future European constitution would come forward. The communication campaign and the performative act of organising the election of such an assembly would provide a powerful push for getting the debate on European democratic reform on the agenda for the 2019 election campaign.

Preparing the ground for the election of a constituent assembly will take time and money. The whole exercise could be carried by NGOs interested in democratic renewal coming together before the election to organise it. A network of organisations could secure the necessary funding and human resources to start the process and see the election through. New transnational parties could also play an important role. Clearly, depending how large the elections get and how many places hold them, the process might get very expensive. But as a performative act there is no need for a complete coverage of the European territory, only for enough participation to create awareness around the idea and a sense of legitimacy.

So here is how it would work: on the day of the elections, in as many cities, towns and villages as possible across Europe, just outside the official polling stations, voters would be able to physically elect members of the constituent assembly. At the same time, online elections would be held. These elections, which should be accompanied by as much publicity as possible, would choose a group of, say, 200 elected representatives.

The constituent assembly itself would not have the legitimacy to decide on a new democratic constitution.  ‘Elections’ self-organised citizens across Europe would not be formally adequate for that. Rather, the assembly would serve as a new civic power to inject ideas for democratic renewal into the European institutions, show that citizens are full of ideas and energy for such a project, and ensure that they cannot be ignored or side-lined in any future convention or treaty change. The assembly could be accompanied by a secretariat and would operate as a new kind of organisation: a cross between a citizen-led NGO and a democratically elected congress.

Following the elections, the assembly would meet as the elected representatives together with randomly selected citizens, representatives of non-European countries (because Europe’s actions impact the whole world and the whole world needs to have a say – and this is what real transnationalism should ultimately be about), representatives of municipalities and local authorities as well as interested NGOs and social movements to elaborate ideas for the values and content of a democratic European constitution. Online, a wiki-constitution would be discussed and collaboratively drafted. Indeed, the assembly would be a significant actor to initiate a wider process of citizens’ assemblies, through a cycle of meetings, discussions and debates organised in town-halls, schools, universities, cultural spaces and other venues throughout Europe, with coordination and exchange between these different cities and citizens.

The process could focus on three questions:

How to ensure democratic decision–making at a European level in which the interests of people throughout the continent, and the consequences of European decisions for other people affected, are taken into account and the common interest is guaranteed through a just, accountable and transparent process?

 How to ensure the maximum possibilities for direct citizen involvement in political decision–making, as an expression of European citizenship and the best guarantee of common interest?

 Which economic, political, and social issues are best approached at European level and what legislative competences should democratic transnational institutions have in these areas?

This process could run in parallel to ‘official’ processes at a European level, but would be more effective if it could fully infiltrate and initiate the formal processes and possibly lead to the participatory drafting of a new constitution to be approved by European citizens by transnational referendum. Beyond just a drafting of a new constitutional proposal, such process would itself be an experiment in transnational participation and a testament of the possibility of practicing European democracy in a new way. The recent process of participatory constitutional redrafting in Iceland is an important precedent in the development of empowering processes where citizens commonly decide their rules for living together. The scale of the task is enormous, but that is no reason not to start.

Doing nothing is not an option

Many of the changes proposed by such a participative process may require EU treaty change, and therefore unanimity between Member States. Treaty requirements should not prevent European citizens from initiating processes of change and adopting various strategies for enacting those changes. The important first step would be to establish transnational movements of citizens for a democratic infrastructure for Europe. The second step would be to adopt strategies, depending on legal procedures, for forcing institutional changes to be adopted. Leaving all initiative for treaty change to Member States, or worse, just some powerful Member States, is no longer an acceptable option. Doing so just reinforces the impression that the only options available are either to submit to the authority of the leaders of the most powerful countries or to abandon all European integration. However, a third alternative is available: citizens themselves proposing a genuine European democracy.

Etienne Balibar has recently powerfully argued that we need to be more nuanced in the way we talk about the EU and its history. It is important to distinguish between the philosophical prehistory of Europe as a utopian idea of perpetual peace, the political origins of the federalist project particularly in the anti-fascist resistance, and the historical beginnings of the supranational institutions in the Cold War. Only by reclaiming Europe in the first two senses, taking Europe into hands of the citizens as an act of resistance and invention, and through recovering a sense of utopian energy that can transform the apparently insolvable contradictions of political power, will projecting a positive European future become possible. This is no play, and citizens are not spectators in a theatre. Let’s stop waiting and let’s start acting.

The first transnational European list – a DiEM25 initiative


On 7 February in Brussels, the European Parliament rejected the idea of creating transnational European lists for the 2019 Elections. Nevertheless, the first transnational European list of candidates for the 2019 Elections was created on 10 March, in Naples.

On the initiative of the Democracy in Europe Movement, DiEM25, founded in 2016 by the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, several national, regional and municipal political organisations from all over Europe met in the Domus Ars in Naples:

Génération-s, the left-wing French environmental movement led by Benoît Hamon;

DeMA, Democrazia e Autonomia,  a citizen platform, led by the mayor of the “rebel city” of Naples, Luigi De Magistris

Razem, the Polish feminist, pro-labour, anti-austerity movement, represented by, among others, Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk

Livre , the pro-European, left-wing libertarian, ecological, Portuguese movement, represented by its co-founder Rui Tavares

Alternativet, the Danish, progressive, European, environmentalist party represented by Rasmus Nordqvist

Bündnis – DiEM25, the electoral wing of DiEM25 in Germany

Open to the public with its press conference livestreamed, the meeting took place under the benevolent regard of a great lady of the European left, Susan George, and was observed by representatives of the Romanian DEMOS movement, the German DiB party, the French Communist Party, the Croatian parties Nova ljevica and Zagreb Je NAŠ! the Slovenian Levica Party, as well as the Party of European Greens and the Party of the European Left.

In the context of the European Elections of 2019, the organisations gathered at the Naples meeting decided to present:

–  a common policy programme,

–  a single spitzenkandidate (a candidate for the head of the commission),

–  a common coordination,

–  a list of candidates (corresponding to the sum of the lists presented in each country by each party and movement member of the list). This list, which will be agreed upon and democratically voted on by the members of the various movements and parties, may provide for the swapping of candidates across countries.

An act of constructive disobedience

This initiative is put forward, explicitly and deliberately, as an act of constructive disobedience, that is, an act of concerted, manifest disobedience capable of accelerating change.

The technocrats in Brussels don’t want transnational lists? In reality, it only takes a little imagination and political creativity to simulate them within the framework of existing laws.

A rebellion is developing

This act of disobedience announced by the organisations gathered in Naples is only the first in a long series.

The European New Deal, for example, i.e. the economic policy developed within DiEM25, around which the list will build its programme, recommends disobeying the status quo by using existing European institutions in order to simulate federal functionality within the framework of the current treaties – thus without providing a pretext for ruinous and unrealistic exits from the European Union.

This federal simulation will ensure the creation of an economic, ecological, feminist and social policy framework capable of addressing under-investment, poverty and inequalities in Europe, tackling public and private debt crises, promoting public and common goods, and implementing a massive green investment programme representing at least 4.5% of the European Union’s GDP in direct cooperation with European cities.

In the same spirit, the forces gathered in Naples plan to launch a citizens’ assembly process, beginning in villages and cities all over Europe. This process will enable European citizens to implement, at least symbolically, the constitutional process that Europe needs and that the European institutions do not have the strength to ensure. This process of participatory democracy will initiate the creation of a democratic Constitution written by the peoples of Europe for the peoples of Europe, capable of putting citizens, local communities and municipalities at the centre of decision-making processes, eventually leading to a Constituent Assembly which, together with the European Parliament, will draw up the future European democratic Constitution by 2025.

A European liberation movement

Far from being a simple electoral cartel, therefore, this newly created list represents the electoral expression of a common vision now beginning to spread among the peoples of Europe.

Aware of the fact that European problems can only be solved at the European level, and firmly opposed to any compromise with the existing European institutions, the groups gathered in Naples have set themselves the objective, not only of participating in the 2019 elections, but more generally of launching a movement that Rui Tavares has proposed calling a European liberation movement.

As well stated by Luigi De Magistris, for years the forces of national, local, civil society have been resisting Brussels’s institutional violence – the time has come to strike back.

An open call

The organisations gathered in Naples intend to broaden the scope of this movement well beyond its first members. A call has been extended to other political and civil society movements throughout Europe to participate in the political elaboration and electoral expression of the programme.

We stress that the process is wide open to civil society.

For too many years, professional politicians have had an interest in deepening an artificial distinction between grassroots politics and institutional politics, thus separating citizen action from power.

DiEM25, together with all the protagonists in Naples, invites civil society movements, local authorities and citizens’ initiatives to respond to the call and to bring their know-how, experience and demands into the institutional game. We believe that it is only through their contributions that together through the struggle against European institutions, we can forge the European people.

How useful are the estimates of the economic consequences of Brexit?

March 13, 2018

In this blog, Josh De Lyon (LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance) discusses some of the concerns with the economic forecasts of the effects of Brexit and suggests that the available reports are informative of the likely consequences of Brexit. He also provides an insight into how such research should be interpreted, beyond the headline-grabbing figures reported in the news.

On 29 January, a new government impact assessment on the economic effects of Brexit was leaked to Buzzfeed. The report predicted that a “soft” Brexit would restrict economic growth by 2 per cent, while a “hard” Brexit or “no deal” scenario would reduce growth by 8 per cent over a 15-year period. This is broadly in line with almost all other economic predictions of the economic consequences of Brexit. Following the leak of the report, some politicians and commentators were quick to discredit the integrity of such predictions. For example, Steve Baker, an MP and a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU, claimed that these predictions are “always wrong”.

The evidence on the effect of Brexit on the economy is almost unanimous: it predicts that Brexit will cost the UK economy in the region of 1 to 10 per cent of GDP in the long run, with greater costs for a hard Brexit relative to a soft Brexit. The mechanism driving these results is straightforward. The EU currently receives around 43 per cent of UK exports (House of Commons Briefing Paper, 2017). When the UK leaves the EU, barriers to trade will rise, causing trade and therefore GDP to fall. These findings come from HM Treasury (2016), OECD (2016), PWC (2017), NIESR (2016) and Dhingra et al. (2017) among others, in addition to the recently-leaked internal government report. These estimates often account for the benefits of new trade deals with non-EU countries such as the United States, China, and Australia. On top of this, other studies show that Brexit will cause a fall in inward foreign direct investment (FDI) of around 28%, leading to a 3.4% decline in real income (Dhingra et al., 2016).

The exception to these predictions is the study by the group “Economists for Free Trade”, who predict that Brexit will benefit the UK economy (Minford et al., 2018). However, the methodology used in this study has been heavily criticised by many economists and commentators for making wildly unrealistic assumptions, the details of which are discussed in a previous blog post by Dhingra et al. (2017).

So where do the numbers produced in the government impact assessment and other studies come from? The fundamental concept underlying these predictions is known as the “Gravity” model of trade, which predicts that the amount of trade in goods and services that flows between countries will depend on the economic size of each country and the distance between them. Gravity models have been very successful in predicting actual trade flows and are often regarded as one of the great successes of empirical economics (Anderson, 2011). In relation to the UK and the EU, gravity models accurately predict that there should be a high volume of trade between the two bodies. When barriers to trade are wedged in between the UK and EU, as is inevitable with Brexit, trade between the two will become costlier. The volume of trade between the UK and EU is likely to fall and, in some cases, the UK will switch to second-best trade partners. These costs then filter through the economy. This is the simplified mechanism driving the results of the reports discussed above.

It is good practice to critically analyse economic research. Economists themselves spend much of their time providing feedback on the research of others with the aim of improving the quality of the overall body of research. Every study is revised many times to ensure that the conclusions are solid. There are of course limitations with the literature on the economic effects of Brexit. For example, no sovereign country has ever left the EU, so there is no historical evidence to benchmark against the forecasts. Also, it can be difficult to translate the predicted trade effects into an overall welfare effect without adding more economic structure to the model. However, the strength of the prediction that Brexit will, on average, be harmful to the economy comes from the near-unanimous consensus of negative predictions from different types of models based on varying assumptions. Across all scientific fields, results that are reproduced multiple times are considered most reliable and economics is no different in this respect. That being said, economists are often guilty of producing academic research that is not accessible to the public. In the case of Brexit, the methodology of these studies is perhaps still somewhat of a “black box” to those outside of the field, given the relative complexity of the analyses. But the findings of these reports are clear and should be taken seriously: Brexit will reduce trade and investment, therefore directly harming the economy.

What is perhaps less clear is precisely how these estimates should be interpreted. Each analysis considers a pair of hypothetical situations. The first is where the UK leaves the EU and terms of the agreement are explicitly stated as the assumptions of the model. For example, a hard Brexit scenario might assume that the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union and trades according to WTO terms. Importantly, each analysis is very open about the type of agreement that is being estimated. The second situation is the counterfactual, whereby the UK does not leave the EU and the economy evolves as it would have done in the absence of Brexit. By estimating the economic differences between the two situations, the causal effect of Brexit can be isolated. That is, the estimates do not predict the future level of GDP in the economy. Instead, they isolate the causal effect of Brexit on the economy. In other words, it does not say “the UK economy will grow by x per cent after Brexit” but instead “as a direct result of Brexit, the growth of the UK economy will be x per cent different to how it would otherwise have been”.

Public Domain

It is impossible to predict the exact economic effect of a change as complex as Brexit. We will never directly observe the economic effect of Brexit because the economy is shaped by a wide variety of factors, many of which are unrelated to Brexit. In fact, further economic analysis will be necessary in years to come to identify the impact of Brexit after the event.

But this certainly does not mean that the forecasts are useless – they can, and should, be used to guide policy. There are many cases where the work of economists has helped to shape government policy for the better. A good example is the introduction of the national minimum wage in April 1999, which has been shown to have successfully raised wages without significantly harming employment. The Institute for Government reported in 2010 that the minimum wage was most frequently cited among members of the UK Political Studies Association as the most successful policy intervention since 1980. The introduction of the minimum wage followed the recommendation of many economists, including those on the Low Pay Commission, who recommend the level of the minimum wage.

One of the key policy prescriptions from the research on the economic effects of Brexit is that a hard Brexit scenario is considerably costlier to the economy than a soft Brexit scenario. Another example comes from the work of Dhingra, Machin and Overman (2017) who show how the economic effect of Brexit will vary across the UK, with some areas to be hit significantly harder than others.

Governments must consider a whole set of objectives when setting policy, of which the economy is just one. Likewise, voters will have considered many factors that go beyond economic issues when casting their vote in the referendum on June 23rd, 2016. But given the magnitude of the decision of the UK to exit the EU, it is essential to have a solid idea of how this will affect the economy and UK citizens. Hopefully, the research agenda discussed here is being considered as part of the overall policy-setting process for the UK’s separation from the EU.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor of the LSE. 

Josh De Lyon is a research assistant in CEP’s trade programme.

EUROPP – What happened to Europe’s left?

— Read on

Only a handful of European states are currently governed by left-wing governments, and several of the traditionally largest left-wing parties, such as the Socialist Party in France, have experienced substantial drops in support. Jan Rovny argues that while many commentators have linked the left’s decline to the late-2000s financial crisis, the weakening of Europe’s left reflects deep structural and technological changes that have reshaped European society, leaving left-wing parties out in the cold.

Last year was an ‘annus horribilis’ for the European left. In Austria, France, and the Czech Republic, the left lost its governing position, and the same might occur in Italy in a few weeks. Today, only Portugal, Greece, Sweden, Slovakia, and Malta are governed by the left. The 2017 collapse was precipitous. The Dutch Workers’ party went from roughly 25% to 6%; the French Socialist Party went from roughly 30% to 7%. The Czech Social Democrats went from 20% to 7%. And the Czech Communist party saw its worst result in its almost 100-year history.

It may be tempting to connect the failure of the European left to the recent economic recession. It was during this recession or its aftermath that many left-wing governments (in Britain, Spain, Denmark) lost their mandates. Undeniably, the recession with its massive social cost caused much electoral instability, and opened a political door to various populist challengers. It would be, however, naive to suggest that the economic crisis was anything other than a catalyst. It was an accelerator that speeded up the onset of consequences of a structural development that we have been witnessing for at least three decades.

The weakening of the political left has been long in the making. It has been largely caused by deep structural and technological change that has altered the face of European societies, changed the economic patterns of the continent, and given a renewed vigour to politics of identity. In this process, traditional left-wing parties have lost not only the grasp of their main political narrative, they have lost much of their traditional electorates. These electorates did not so much ‘switch’ away from the left, they have rather disappeared as a comprehensible social group.

What was left behind?

Let us start at the beginning by asking what was the European left in its heyday. The defining characteristic of the post-war European left (which was distinct from the eastern European left of the time) was the democratic fight for the rights of working people. Shortly after the Second World War, most of the mainstream European left rejected Communism, and accepted a democratic path towards the emancipation and support of the working class. During the golden age of post-war development, the left participated in the construction of European welfare regimes, and where it has been most successful – in Scandinavia – it built up universalistic, egalitarian, and predominantly tax-funded and state-run systems of welfare provision.

In this construction, the parties of the left have primarily leaned on a significant and relatively homogenous group of working class electorates. These electorates were since the late 19th century defined by a strong sense of group belonging, or ‘class consciousness’. This consciousness was constructed from the cradle and lasted to the grave. It was passed on from parents to children, and cultivated by a plethora of party-associated organisations, such as daycare centres, sports clubs, choral societies, women’s clubs, and others. Together with workers’ unions organising the work on factory floors, and later in offices, these organisations helped construct a working-class subculture that permeated the social as well as the political, and that ensured the electoral stability of the European left.

Seymour Martin Lipset suggested that the greatest achievement of the left had been the lifting of the working class away from authoritarianism and towards cosmopolitanism espoused by left-wing intellectuals. Indeed, the general success of the left in capturing and ‘educating’ the lower social strata profoundly shaped European party systems. In western Europe, the political left has been uniformly and continuously associated with progressive policies not only in the economic domain, but also in non-economic matters such as the environment, women’s rights, and (slowly and shyly) the rights of minorities – both ethnic and sexual.

Somewhat paradoxically, the left’s success precipitated its own demise in a dialectic fashion. First, the emancipation of the working class – primarily the extension of access to higher education – changed the working class and its dependence on left-wing subcultures and organisations. Second, the left’s enabling of the search for rights allowed younger generations to seek personal liberation from traditional hierarchies, including those of the left.

From proletariat to ‘precariat’

Having lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, the home of the Volvo, I eagerly visited the Volvo factory, looking forward to meeting the contemporary proletariat. What did I see? Halls and halls of conveyor belts shuffling skeletons that would become fancy SUVs in about an hour, while silver robotic arms added various parts to them. And the working class? I saw precious few of them. They were mostly young women, sitting on comfortable chairs surrounded by computer screens and keyboards, listening to their iPods… I later learned that these workers earn as much as Swedish university professors (that means – a lot).

The traditional working class as we imagine it from the times of Henry Ford does not exist anymore. Most of the workers at Volvo with their above-average pay, comfort and job security can hardly be considered as such. Today’s working class is much less visible, and much more atomised. Today’s working class are the masses of unskilled service workers who predominantly cook, clean or drive. Often, their jobs are short-term or part-time, and low-paying. These people do not come into contact with each other nearly as much as the traditional factory-floor workers did. They are more often than not from diverse minority backgrounds, and thus are separated by cultural boundaries. In short, these people have significantly reduced ability to organise, and they do not. As my research with Allison Rovny shows, their political belonging is weak, and – in the absence of a formative subculture – it is malleable.

The extension of access to higher education has increased the individual ability of people to process more complex information and make their own choices. As education also brings better jobs, this process has created more cognitively and financially independent citizens. The 1968 generation opted for more socially liberal and less hierarchical politics, forming new social movements and later political parties that espoused left-wing economics, but that were defined by their social and cultural openness.

In the context of the changing working class and the developing political supply, the traditional left parties became parties of the new middle class – primarily of the increasing numbers of white-collar state employees. In doing so, the traditional left responded to the Green challenge by adopting more environmental and generally socially liberal profiles, but also it slowly but surely abandoned the new ‘precariat’ – the new service working classes and those in poor or irregular employment. Politically pulled by social-liberalism (of the ‘new’ left), and by economic moderation to the centre (preferred by a new group of urban white-collar workers and ‘yuppies’), the traditional left opened a political breach – a gaping political vacuum around those seeking economic protection, and a certain cultural traditionalism. The salience of this left and traditionalist political space, vacated by the mainstream left parties, would be boosted by another important structural development – the growth of transnational exchange.

Transnational transformations

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a symbolic milestone, opening not just communist eastern Europe, but the entire developed world up to increased international exchange. My ongoing research with Gary Marks, Liesbet Hooghe and David Attewell shows that the three decades since have witnessed significant liberalisation of international trade, expressed in the formation of the WTO, and in the deepening of European integration, which has always practically centred around the free flow of goods, capital and people. The opening of European borders, as well as various conflicts on Europe’s doorstep and beyond, further increased migration into and within Europe.

The rise of transnationalism – of extensive cross-border flows of goods, services, money and people – is firstly an economic phenomenon. It replaces domestic products and labourers with cheaper foreign alternatives. Transnationalism thus divides society into those who, while happily consuming cheaper products, earn their income in either sheltered (public) or internationally competitive sectors on the one hand, and those, on the other hand, whose livelihood is threatened by foreign competition in the form of imported products, and imported labourers. Transnationalism thus creates economic winners and losers, who are increasingly keenly aware of their status in our globalised societies.

Transnationalism is, however, also a cultural phenomenon. While the privileged enjoy cross-border travel for business and pleasure on an unparalleled scale, they gain experiences, learn languages, build friendships and, on occasion, have found families across borders and cultures; those with limited financial, and educational means live in a world defined by national boundaries, customs, and language. The inflow of culturally distinct migrants into urban centres furthers this alienation. This opens a cultural chasm between the transnational cosmopolitans, concentrating in larger cities that increasingly embrace pluri-culturalism, and national traditionalists mostly present in smaller, peripheral localities, fearful of immigrants, and sceptical of their immigrant-accepting cosmopolitan co-nationals.

Transnationalism redefines the political space by dissociating economic progressivism from socio-cultural openness. Transnationalism associates cosmopolitanism with open economic exchange on the one side, and national traditionalism with economic protectionism on the other. In doing so, transnationalism effectively shatters the old electoral coalition of the left. The naturally protectionist workers are pulled away from the naturally cosmopolitan intellectuals. This brings us back to the great political void, to the question of who will represent the new ‘precariat’, seeking economic protection, and cultural traditionalism. Transnationalism also increases the salience of populist anti-elitism, as rural traditionalists feel unrepresented by, shunned by, and distinct from the largely urban, cosmopolitan elite. The populist call to the ‘common man’, is a call of economic and cultural protection against the transformations of transnationalism.

The left out

In shifting its focus to the new middle classes, the left let the new ‘precariat’ fall towards nationalist protectionism, where it became fertile ground for the populist radical right. The populist radical right has been around for a good while. First, as an anti-tax, anti-welfare critique of the left, but later, with the dawn of transnationalism, it tapped into the sensitive issue of immigration with game-changing vigour. Attracting a wide coalition of economic interests through its blurry economic proposals, as my earlier research shows, the radical right married its traditional petit bourgeois electorate to swaths of the new ‘precariat’, and outperformed the left as the dominant political voice of the contemporary working classes.

The transformation of the left, however, offers opportunities for diverse political entrepreneurs. As my forthcoming work with Jonathan Polk, as well as with Bruno Palier and Allison Rovny demonstrates, in countries that experienced particularly drastic economic downturn during the economic recession, such as Greece and Spain, and where the ‘precariat’ consequently includes many young and educated citizens, the populist challengers are mostly radical left parties that call for a return to true – economically interventionist, and culturally liberal – left-wing politics. In other places, populists eschewing comprehensible political labels gain electoral support largely through the votes of the ‘precarious’ left-behind.

The transformation of the proletariat into the ‘precariat’, together with the dawn of transnationalism, have reframed the political field. Post-war politics saw economic interests – primarily the extent and contours of the welfare state – as the dominant political contest that subsumed or largely ignored other, non-economic divides. The new politics of transnationalism promises to be a politics of identity, with the cleaving lines defined by ethno-national labels, as well as by the distinction between large urban centres and the rural periphery. As my work with Gary Marks, Liesbet Hooghe and David Attewell suggests, these divides may be as deep, sticky and formative, as were the traditional class lines of the 20th century. While these divides are as economically rooted, as they are cultural, the new political entrepreneurs will find it easier to frame their narratives in identity-based terms. We should thus expect to see economic issues couched in non-economic discourses of national and local identity.

This competition frame is foreign to traditional left-wing parties, whose identity was always rooted in economic class. They are facing a struggle to adapt to this changing dimensional structure. Recent presidential elections in France as well as in the Czech Republic demonstrate the shift, as both countries saw a leftish authoritarian opposed by a centrist liberal in the second round, while the traditional left imploded. Interestingly, in the context of this new political competition, the west resembles the east, and the mainstream left everywhere is left out in the cold.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: © European Union 2013 – European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


About the author

Jan Rovny – Sciences Po, Paris
Jan Rovny is an Assistant Professor at Sciences Po.