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European Socialist leader sees danger in austerity

Europe’s social democrats need to recognise the consequences of imposing austerity on their own voters. Support is declining, or at best stagnating, as parties fail to offer an inspiring alternative to spending cuts.

But there is evidence in Brussels that some are taking this seriously.

In some measured comments, Hannes Swoboda MEP, the leader of the mainstream Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, has criticised the Troika while urging Greece’s PASOK to open discussions with Syriza.

Speaking ahead of a European Parliament debate on Cyprus, he said,

His criticism of the Troika seems to be based on their mandate. Other reports state that he sees the IMF as the main problem within the Troika but when attacking EU Commissioner Olli Rehn for his handling of the Cyprus bailout, he also says Rehn should assume greater control, arguing,

The resistance he identifies is real and growing but it is down to the conditions imposed rather than the accountability of those carrying it out (though few would see the Commission as a model of accountability).

But just a year away from the European elections, Swoboda is signaling to Europe’s social democrats that opposition and anger towards austerity cannot be ignored.

The rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy prevented the election of Bersani’s uninspiring Democrats, while the French Socialists and Irish Labour Party have suffered poor parliamentary by-election results. Germany’s Social Democrats remain 15% behind Merkel’s Christian Democrats in polls.

Add to that mass demonstrations in Cyprus against terms of the Troika’s latest bailout, as have taken place in Greece, and Swoboda’s statements this week represent some recognition of the  wide gap between social democrats and a growing revolt against austerity.

This may be motivated by what appears now to be the long-term impact of PASOK’s decision to impose crippling austerity on the poorest in Greece – the party’s historic supporters – and Swoboda has urged its members to begin negotiations with the anti-austerity Syriza, to whom many voters have transferred.

PASOK are in dire straits. Having imposed five punishing austerity packages between February 2010 and February 2012 – the final one under a caretaker government as the PASOK parliamentary group disintegrated, they have collapsed from winning 44% in the 2009 election to only 12% in June 2012.

Syriza, with their clear opposition to the Troika bailout and the austerity it imposed and Alexis Tsipras’s refusal to be deterred by neo-liberal scaremongering regarding Euro membership, leapfrogged PASOK to become the leading force on the left.

Since then things have got worse for PASOK.

Another poll, conducted by another company and published on 15th March, put Syriza on 29.5% with New Democracy on 28.5%. PASOK were on 7.5%.

Referring to the situation in Greece, he was reported as saying PASOK ‘must change’ and,

This represents a public recognition by Swoboda that within Greece, Syriza are now the mainstream party of the left. Whatever attempts are made to paint Syriza as an extremist force, PASOK’s credibility with the working class has been damaged, perhaps irreperably. Nearly a year following their reversal of electoral fortunes, the gap has widened.

It is understandable that he would hope for a rapprochment between the forces of the left that would rehabilitate his sister party – he in fact says I think that the future left has to be drawn from PASOK, the Democratic Left and Syriza’ . But PASOK are in no position to initiate such talks whilst they support an austerity government.

Through their principled opposition to austerity, Syriza are in the driving seat and it is they who social democrats across Europe can learn from.

This article first appeared on Next Generation Labour.

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