Europe’s Left and the Unemployment Crisis

Europe’s Left and the Unemployment Crisis

Europe is suffering from its highest level of unemployment in more than a generation, and European social democrats have been unable to formulate an effective political response.

One in ten of Europe’s workers are without paid work. The number amounts to more than twenty-four million people, and looks set to rise across the continent even if the European economy as a whole starts to grow again next year. The jobs outlook is particularly bleak for the young, those aged eighteen to twenty-five. Recent school leavers and university graduates face a particularly tough time. It is estimated that one in five of them are destined in the immediate future for a life without paid work. In Eastern Europe the jobs crisis is even more acute, with the resulting threat of widespread social and political unrest. Only a handful of smaller West European countries—notably the Netherlands and Denmark—may be able to avoid the worst, but even there unemployment in 2010 will probably reach levels not seen since the Great Depression.

The jobs crisis in Europe may be here for a long time. Those optimists who see mass unemployment as a temporary stage on the road back to a buoyant labor market will be disappointed. Job forecasts from authoritative bodies such as the International Labor Organization, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the European Commission make for grim reading. Whatever happens over the next few years to Europe’s financial markets and its banking system, we are likely to see high levels of joblessness in the “real” economy of goods and services, for a long time to come..

What does massive unemployment mean for democratic politics on the continent? There are dangers of rhetorical hyperbole in likening Europe’s current unemployment crisis to that of the inter-war years. The European Assembly elections last June did not suggest that fascism is on the march after half a century of lying dormant. Only a handful of far right candidates were returned to Strasbourg, and these were confined to a few countries—Hungary, Belgium, and (dismally) the United Kingdom. Efforts to exploit the deepening jobs crisis with appeals to racism and xenophobia proved less successful than might have been expected. Although there is no reason for complacency about the social and economic distress we can expect, current political signs suggest that right-wing populism will remain on the fringes.

Despite this, the European election results were a disaster for mainstream social democracy. The lengthening jobless queues failed to provide any genuine boost for the Left. In most countries, the social democratic parties suffered substantial losses. Only Greece, Denmark, and Sweden defied the trend. Social democratic parties sought to make the continent’s unemployment crisis their main public policy priority, but they failed to reap any obvious electoral dividend. Much of the European electorate remain...