Mainstream political parties are expected to lose votes to eurosceptics in many European countries at next year’s European elections. To counter this, parties should address the root causes of populism and formulate real solutions, Massimo D’Alema told EurActiv in an interview.
Massimo D’Alema is the president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), the socialist political foundation at European level. He led two successive governments as Italian prime minister from 1998 to 2000. He spoke to EurActiv’s Laurens Cerulus.
The past week, we have seen a debate on how the eurosceptic parties will perform in the next elections, and how much we should worry. What is your assessment?
I believe the situation in Europe is worrying, indeed. Not only in Italy but in many European countries we see the euroscepticism spreading. Marine Le Pen could come to present the largest party in France, according to polls. This all might change in the coming months, but it’s certainly very worrying.
I think that we must scrutinize the reasons why these anti-European feelings are growing. In my opinion, they represent the other face of the crisis: the reality of Brussels, which is a bureaucratic or technocratic power that is not transparent.
The only way to counter such euroscepticism isn’t to defend Europe as it now exists; the socialist slogan in this campaign should be: “We want to change Europe”. We should aim to change it in its core – we are not defending the current form of the EU.
An often heard critique is that governing parties are – on the contrary – not defending the policies they sustain on a European level. And change happens slowly on a European level. Is it credible to distance yourselves from the EU completely?
I don’t think that’s true. At the moment, we are not able to change European policies. We need to see a return of socialist parties to the European Council. But changing the balance of power in the Council is difficult, because of the German government; because of [German chancellor] Angela Merkel. The most powerful country in Europe is defending the austerity approach – and only this approach – which, I’m convinced, is a disaster for Europe.
The point is that it is not true that socialists and conservatives agree on Europe. But at this time, we have to accept the conservative majority – that’s democracy.
This will not change in the elections for the European Parliament, though.
Changing the Council is a long process because it depends on national elections. But the situation is changing. The left is gaining in Czech Republic, in Slovenia, Slovakia. Personally, I believe that the power in the European Union also needs to shift from Council to the European Commission; the Commission should become a real government based on the legitimacy of Parliament.
You mention yourself that a true change will happen more slowly. Is there a risk that campaigns will “organise the disappointment in advance”, as Council President Herman Van Rompuy has said in the past?
I think we need to clearly put forward our ideas; our vision for Europe. Of course, whether we can deliver afterwards depends on the results.
What I mean by that is that we’re going to present our candidate for the Commission presidency, which is Martin Schulz. If the socialists can form a majority – perhaps on the left side, together with the Greens and others – we can give the Parliament’s support to a progressive candidate.
Populist parties seem to succeed in connecting with the popular vote – the ‘little man’ – which used to be something the socialists made a claim to. Is this rise of populism also a failure of socialism?
I believe it is not a new trend that poor people, badly informed people who don’t read newspapers and are distant to politics; that these people are easily attracted by populists.
How can mainstream parties reach that part of society, then?
Well, on the one hand we want a more democratic Europe; on the other we want to work on growth, employment and social justice. I believe that socialist parties specifically should put their social ideas front and centre. Without a strong social programme and image, it is very difficult to convince the working class across Europe – which is our electorate, traditionally.
I can understand the reason why populism exists, but it is not the solution. People voted for [Beppe] Grillo because he promised to change Italian politics. But he is doing nothing; he is not playing any political role. His plan is to worsen the situation: the worse it gets, the better for his movement. They don’t work to improve a country.
In next May’s elections, we may see a rise in the voter turnout, that has dropped consistently since the first direct elections of the European Parliament in 1979. It is likely, though, that people who usually don’t vote, will now vote for parties with an anti-European stance. Is there a danger in ignoring what these parties are saying?
We cannot ignore what the eurosceptics are saying. We must take it into account. But the problem is how to answer to their arguments; how to offer an answer. I believe politics should provide solutions – otherwise, it becomes propaganda.
So we need solutions, and that includes technical solutions: a debt reduction fund in order to face the sovereign debt crisis; a European industrial strategy; more money for youth unemployment; a minimum wage in Germany and in other countries; and so on.
This is our duty as traditional political parties. Populists don’t offer such answers.