The GUE/NGL group saw its share of seats in the European Parliament decline at the 2019 European elections. Vladimir Bortun argues that a general lack of transnational cooperation between radical left parties was one of the key factors underpinning their disappointing performance.

The 2019 European elections represented a significant electoral step back for radical left parties. Their group in the European Parliament, the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), is set to go from 52 to 38 seats. The other left-of-social-democracy choice in these elections, the Varoufakis-led European Spring list, failed to gain any seat in the several countries where it stood candidates.

This comes a decade after the start of the Eurozone crisis, but despite its effects having not fully played out: EU-wide economic growth is still relatively low, a new financial crisis seems around the corner, unemployment is still high in southern member states, and inequality is decreasing at a slower rate than before 2009. If we add to that the continuous decline of mainstream parties in most countries and the rise of new feminist and environmental movements, the context would overall seem propitious for radical left parties to enhance rather than lose electoral support.

There are, of course, a plethora of factors that might explain the radical left’s modest performance in these elections, from the Greens capitalising upon the growing pro-environmental mood in society to the persistent weakness of the radical left in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the performance of radical left parties was also an expression of their modest transnational cooperation and cohesion.

Despite its self-professed internationalism, this party family has historically lagged behind its main competitors in terms of party cooperation at the EU level. The first radical left EP group was only created in the 1970s and was marred by deep internal divisions between the ‘Eurocommunist’ and ‘orthodox’ currents up until its 1989 demise. While its successor, GUE/NGL, has already outlived it, it remains a rather loose confederation of forces, with comparatively limited degree of convergence with the correspondent Euro-party, the Party of the European Left (PEL).

However, the markedly transnational character of the Eurozone crisis and of its austerity-centred management – which radical left parties have staunchly opposed in what, according to Enrico Calossi, has become their specific difference from social democratic parties – arguably provided the radical left with a favourable context to substantially improve transnational cooperation. Indeed, as Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras put it in a 2013 public meeting in London, ‘We will not be able to achieve our aims without the solidarity and the help of the European Left… Our struggle is the same.’

Nevertheless, that did not prove to be the case. Apart from the period around Syriza’s electoral victory in 2015, the radical left’s transnational cooperation has largely failed to improve over the course of the crisis. No significant, unifying transnational initiative has emerged, while existing structures like the GUE/NGL and PEL have seen, if anything, an accentuation of their internal divisions. This was the focus of my doctoral research, which identified three key reasons for this underachievement.

First, the long-standing obstacle to transnational party cooperation in general also applies to radical left parties – the structural primacy of national politics. For example, while Syriza’s initial victory was met with genuine enthusiasm by other radical left parties across the continent, their main incentive for tightening links with the Greek party was rather pragmatic: to boost their perceived legitimacy in their own national arenas, particularly in those countries that were due to hold elections that same year, such as Spain and Portugal.

Conversely, those same radical left parties started to distance themselves from Syriza once the latter’s U-turn was used against them by their political opponents at home. Indeed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Party in France went as far as walking out of the PEL to avoid any further association with Syriza. The demands of domestic politics prevail, therefore, over those of internationalism and shape the foreign relations of radical left parties. As a prominent figure from the Portuguese Left Bloc suggestively summed it up in one of the interviews I conducted for my research, “we don’t live off international cooperation here – we live on the approval of our people”.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon at the presentation of the new delegation of La France Insoumise to the European Parliament on 6 June 2019, Credit: GUE/NGL (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Second, the transnational cooperation among radical left parties is rather top-down, mostly limited to party leaders, international departments and MEPs. Despite the emphasis that most radical left parties place on the importance of the rank-and-file, the latter do not seem to play a role in their parties’ transnational cooperation. An interviewee from Podemos acknowledged that by stating “we have our militants, but we’re not using them; that’s our main force, the people, but we’re not using it”. Moreover, during the Eurozone crisis, radical left parties did little in terms of linking up and collaborating with transnational trade unions, social movements and activist networks. More generally, as already noted by Colin Crouch and Donatella della Porta, the anti-austerity cause has failed to galvanise much transnational mass mobilisation, somewhat in contrast with the Global Justice Movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the old cleavage on the radical left over the question of the EU has sharpened following the U-turn of the Syriza government in July 2015. While the verdict about the EU’s neoliberal character is pretty unanimous among radical left parties, they have divergent views on how to address that.

Three broad distinct camps can be identified. First, there is the ‘soft Eurosceptic’ majority of PEL’s members, who (still) aim to reform the EU from within and are increasingly open to broader progressive alliances, “from Tsipras to Macron”, to achieve that. Second, there are the ‘hard Eurosceptics’ like the communist parties in Greece and Portugal, who have always called for an immediate exit from the EU, which they see as a hopelessly capitalist and imperialist project. Finally, there are the likes of DiEM25 and Plan B for Europe, who call – albeit in different ways – for a middle ground approach: aiming for a structural reformation of the EU treaties but ready to disobey them unilaterally and, if necessary, to break away from them if the powers to be refuse to make any concessions.

This lack of strategic convergence over the key question of the EU was reflected in the lack of coordination between – and indeed, within – these camps for the 2019 European elections. That somewhat contrasts with the case of the far right, which in an irony of history seems to be more effective at practicing “internationalism” than internationalists themselves.

To conclude, if the radical left wants to become a more relevant actor at the EU level, it has to improve its transnational cooperation, which would have to go beyond parties and also involve trade unions, social movements and activist networks. If anything, the U-turn of the Syriza government four years ago proved, to paraphrase the classics, that fighting for left policies in one country is not possible, at least not in the EU and even less so in the EU periphery. More than that though, a renewal of radical left parties’ transnational cooperation should be centred around a coherent vision for Europe that, rather than aiming to save the status quo from the danger of the far right, would provide a genuine alternative to both.

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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.

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About the author

Vladimir Bortun – University of Portsmouth
Vladimir Bortun is a part-time Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Portsmouth. He was recently awarded his PhD in political science by the University of Portsmouth for a project on transnational cooperation among radical left parties in the EU. His other research interests include the political economy of the Eurozone, core-periphery relations in the EU, post-communist transitions, and circular migration.

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