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Leo Panitch: Despite gains in Greece and Spain, left parties face serious setbacks overall

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

There is over 10 percent unemployment in Europe, over 20 percent in countries like Greece and Spain. Youth unemployment in these countries are at a soaring 50 percent. Real wages have fallen in nearly all countries of Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and in some of the Northwestern European nations as well.

And yet, in the European parliamentary elections this week, we saw a rise in the right-wing parties, notably in France (National Front Party). And also in Denmark and Netherlands the right made crucial gains.

Here to discuss all of this is Professor Leo Panitch. Leo Panitch is the Canadian Research Chair in Political Economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University. He is the author of the U.K. Deutcher book prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.

So, Leo, thanks for joining us.

LEO PANITCH, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here, Sharmini, although it’s a somber topic we’re going to be discussing.

PERIES: So, Leo, what does this rise in the right-wing parties mean for Europe?

PANITCH: Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news, and, obviously, the bad news you’ve already referred to, and that is the National Front’s coming in first, although we need to bear in mind these aren’t securing majority of the voters in France and the U.K. party, the United Kingdom Independent Party, which is an anti-immigrant party, coming first in Britain.

The good news is that in the south, where the crisis has been most severe, where people, as you said, suffer the greatest unemployment, the worst effects of austerity as imposed by the European Central Bank and the E.U. and the IMF, you see that the left did best, did very well. In Greece, SYRIZA came in first with as convincing or more convincing a vote than the National Front in France. And in Spain, two left-wing parties, one of them directly growing out of the street protests that engulfed the Spanish cities a few years ago, did very well, garnered some 20 percent of the vote between them, while the mainstream parties all suffered.

So it isn’t a uniformly bleak perspective from the position of progressives, but it’s a very serious one.

PERIES: Leo, regardless of whether it was the left or the right, the job at hand, in terms of dealing with the situation of unemployment, you know, deteriorating economic conditions in almost–across Europe, if you look at the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development reports, you will see a low-growth and protracted high levels of unemployment predicted for Europe. How would the European Parliament deal with these issues?

PANITCH: The European Parliament is not a powerful body. And one shouldn’t look upon these elections as very significant in terms of what the European Parliament itself would do. The democratic deficit in Europe is notorious and is part of the reason why the legitimacy of Europe is, in light of this crisis–and I must say, even before the crisis, if you remember, the widespread rejection of a new European constitution before the crisis hit–it’s one of the reasons that people are so disaffected with Europe. So one shouldn’t imagine that the outcome of this is that the right is now in control in Europe, the far right is now in control in Europe. It’s not. This is namely a measure of discontent in the particular European nation states.

What the crisis has showed and what this vote confirms is that the fulcrum of Europe remains the individual nation states within Europe and not some super-national state. That said, the power of Germany over other states, the power of the German central bank over the European Central Bank and its autonomy from any democratic control, that is what the issue is.

PERIES: Okay. So, Leo, what you’re really saying is that the power is really not with the European Parliament, but really with the European Commission, where the economic policy is really made.

PANITCH: Yes, but not even the European Commission, which is, of course, a famous bureaucracy in being distant from a accountability to any electoral process. But what this crisis has showed is that the Council of Ministers is the real power, that is, the leaders of the individual nation states, rather than the E.U. bureaucracy in particular. And, of course, the European Central Bank, and above all the German central bank that is so influential on the European Central Bank are particularly important. But that is reflective of the extent to which central banks are autonomous of electoral control anywhere.

So, again, what we’re really seeing is that the center of political importance in Europe are individual nation states. And then the more powerful nation states, above all Germany, are the ones that determine the fate of the peripheral and the weaker nation states.

PERIES: And, Leo, so what does this mean in terms of, you know, countries like Spain and Greece that are really struggling to–.

PANITCH: Well, I think it shows you that people are getting the sense or understanding that it’s not the case that there is some super-national state that determines their fate. People are getting the sense that although their mainstream governments may have told them that, that they believe that they can effectively assert control over their nation states. Now, that’s happening in terms of the insistence of controlling their nation states from the right and identifying their nation states as being that of the dominant nationality, above all the French or the English against the newcomers, the immigrants, the marginals, etc., etc.

On the other hand, the progressive people, the people who were looking for egalitarian and more democratic solutions are also trying to look to their nation states to establish an autonomy from global capitalism and from the vehicles of global capitalism, the political vehicles of it, which are the large nation states of Europe and the agencies like the IMF, the European Central Bank, and so on.

PERIES: Leo, the left in Greece and Spain did very well in these parliamentary elections. What do you think will come of them?

PANITCH: I think this indicates in Greece that there’s a very good chance that SYRIZA will indeed form the government of Greece in the next election, and it may hasten when that election will come. This will frighten the powers that be in the Northern European countries. It will frighten international bond markets. It will frighten the United States. And it’s not impossible that because the left also did well in Spain, the fear that the capitalist powers have had that kicking a SYRIZA-led Greece out of the Euro or even out of the E.U. would lead to a bandwagon effect that might lead to the unraveling in Europe of capitalist globalization, the reintroduction of capital controls, the assertion of popular power, democratic power over investment, and so on, they may, I think, be a little bit more [incompr.] to play hardball, because indeed what happened in Spain indicates that the response to the crisis is not uniformly one to the further right. It can be, especially where the crisis is most severe, to the democratic far left. And in that sense I think it could have a good effect.

I think it’s very important [incompr.] even despite this vote, that people who are progressives, who are on the left, not take fright that we are about to see fascism conquer Europe. That is not immediately, by any means, on the cards. We need to remember that the vast majority of people did not vote for these far-right parties anywhere. Even in Greece, only 10 percent did, as opposed to almost 30 percent for SYRIZA.

I think what how well the left in Greece and Spain did [incompr.] is that it’s not inevitable that the far right is going to conquer Europe, that we are seeing a new fascism. If that were the case, we would indeed have to form a united front of everyone to the left of the fascists. And that would mean that we couldn’t put forward radical solutions to this terrible crisis. And if we don’t put forward radical solutions, then it will be the radical solutions of the right that will succeed.

Greece and Spain show that you can put forward radical solutions and still win votes. That has to be done through a party that has imagination, creativity, is democratic, is embroiled in the social movements as SYRIZA and Podemos in Spain have been. But it shows that it can be done. And we shouldn’t let this frighten ourselves into a position of tailing behind the socialist democracies’ embrace of neoliberalism. That has been a disaster, and it’s been the kind of disaster that can only lead to the further power of the right if we all followed in their footsteps.

PERIES: Very good. Leo, thank you for joining us.

PANITCH: Very happy to talk to you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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