In recent weeks much attention has focused on the emerging policy of UK’s new International Trade Department, with Secretary of State Liam Fox’s recent speech setting a clear preference for the UK moving towards WTO rules, resulting in the response from former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that this approach to so called “free trade” was “delusional”  . Liam Fox’s comments on the future of the EU after the UK leaves have been equally controversial. In an interview with the Spectator, quoted in the Telegraph  , he warned Europe, and the Eurozone in particular, that its future was seriously at risk:
“The EU’s architecture is beginning to peel away. It’s going to sacrifice at least one generation of young Europeans on the altar of the single currency, and you can only rip out the social fabric from so much of Europe before it starts imploding”.
There are many reasons why this statement is controversial – diplomatically offensive, politically naïve certainly , also an inaccurate description of the situation in many Eurozone countries. But the interesting part of this statement is that it echoes some comments being made within the EU itself, particularly by those of a social democratic allegiance, about the way in which policy needs to change in the EU itself. Rather than look to the UK Conservatives for guidance, though Germany’s SPD is in fact looking to Scotland for inspiration on how to tackle populist sentiment through a focus on core social democratic values.
The UK is not the only country where the national social democratic party is struggling to recover from an electoral hammerblow. The removal from office of Spanish socialist leader Pedro Sanchez this week  after serious losses in regional elections has deepened divisions on the left in Spain on how to respond to what now seems to be the certain third term in office of the right wing PP Government led by Manuel Rajoy. In the last year centre left parties have lost 11 out of 12 national elections in the EU and in a number of countries such as Ireland Greece and Poland centre left parties are polling in single figures.
In Austria, a country where since the second world war power has in effect been shared through permanent coalitions between the centre right and centre left, the establishment is struggling to deal with the massive growth of the right wing populist FPO party which nearly won the Presidency in 2016 before the second round elections were annulled because of mistakes in counting postal votes (the election has been reset for 2 December this year). Social Democrat Chancellor Christian Kern, a highly regarded former CEO of Austrian Railways and a strong supporter of German Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy, has been vocal in recent weeks calling for a radical change in the way in which the centre left position themselves in the debate over the future of the EU. In a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine  he lamented the fact that EU citizens had lost faith in the ability of Europe to deliver economic and social prosperity and called for a new European agenda for the future, including how to create more growth and jobs and ensure access to economic well-being. In particular he stressed the importance of making Europe into a project that has the support of all and does not just serve as a model of the elites, with the aim of preventing the rise of right-wing populism from tearing apart European unity from within?
Kern’s analysis focused on the way in which neoliberal apologists and conservative politicians have sought, with some success, to reframe the financial and economic crisis as a crisis of the European welfare state, thus fanning insecurity and concern about migration and refugees. He called instead for a strong focus on economic investment ( including a doubling or more of the Juncker investment plan) and innovation to recreate dynamism and growth in Europe. He also praised the European Commission for its work to tackle the worst abuses of tax competition by governments and multinationals and for a greater focus at European and national level on demonstrating fairness in the way the political system works for ordinary people.
It is striking that this approach echoes the analysis by Michael Broeling, international officer of the German Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (political foundation), who visited Scotland before the May 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. In an article in the Suddeutsche Zeitung on 15 May entitled “Social Democrats, look to Scotland”  . Broening suggests that Labour’s poor result in May 2016 did not reflect the overall performance of the centre left in Scotland. The SNP, which won nearly 50% of the vote, was clearly in the vanguard of social democratic parties in Europe and was one of the few which was succeeding in delivering success at the ballot box. His view was that the SNP had clearly established its distance from the prevailing market liberal philosophy by delivering in its previous two terms on promises such as resisting infrastructure and health service privatisation and promoting social inclusion. He looked positively on manifesto commitments such as action on climate change, delivering on the living wage and developing childcare. He highlighted in particular the inclusive approach to civic nationalism  and Scotland’s welcoming approach to migration and refugees, contrasting with the position in other parts of the UK and Europe. Overall he believed that the pragmatic approach being shown by
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave hope to those elsewhere in Europe that a centre left alternative to right wing populism can deliver electoral success.
4. http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/f-a-z-exklusiv-oesterreich-fordert-mehr-investitionen-in-der-eu-14430705.html Republished in an English translation by David Gow in Social Europe https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/09/europe-must-become-fair-again/
6. See Sir Neil McCormick’s “Questioning Sovereignty: Law, State, and Nation in the European Commonwealth (Law, State, and Practical Reason)” OUP 2002