The Communist parties of western Europe were at the apogée of their influence during the immediate post-war years, helped by their links with resistance movements in continental Europe and by the fact that the Soviet Union had been an ally of the West. Since then they have been in long and largely terminal decline, a process accelerated by the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and the break-up of the Soviet empire in central and eastern Europe in 1989-90. The rise of so-called ‘Eurocommunism’ – in which the pursuit of Communist policies was tempered by a willingness to work through democratic institutions and without subservience to Moscow – may be seen in retrospect to have slowed, but not halted, this progressive decline.
Communist parties were unremittingly hostile to the first moves towards European integration. Taking their cue from Moscow, they interpreted the Marshall Plan as American imperialism backed by military-industrial interests and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an instrument of US domination. Communist parties voted against the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Rome in the national parliaments of the Six. For many years, they refused to claim the seats which would otherwise have been assigned to them in the nominated European Parliament. Until the advent of Eurocommunism in the 1970s, Communists remained almost wholly uninvolved in the process of deepening European integration. Soviet support for Communist parties in western Europe during the Cold War era is vividly documented in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, 1999.
Eurocommunism began in Italy and spread to Spain, with pro-Europeanism being one of its distinguishing features. The Italian federalist campaigner, Altiero Spinelli, was one of the first figures to benefit from the reappraisal taking place within the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). The Parti communiste français (PCF) remained loyal to Moscow for longer than the PCI, but was willing to attend a Eurocommunist summit meeting in Madrid in 1977. The division between pragmatists and absolutists also ran through the Greek Communists (who developed both pro- and anti-European wings) and through the Communist group in the European Parliament, although it was not until 1989 that it finally split in two. Thereafter, the Italian and Spanish Communists, together with the smaller branch of the Greek Communists, formed a Eurocommunist group (called the United European Left Group), whilst the French and Portuguese Communists, together with the larger Greek branch, formed a more orthodox group (called the Left Unity Group).
In policy terms, Eurocommunism became increasingly indistinguishable from Socialism, and in the 1984 European elections in Italy the Communists secured a larger share of the votes than the Christian Democrats. Their triumph was short-lived, however, and by 1990 the PCI had itself divided, with the moderate mainstream rebranding itself as the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and its Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) joining the Socialist group two years later. The political group which remains in the Parliament – now called the Confederal Group of the United European Left (GUE), after the Left Unity Group changed its name in 1994 – is essentially a catch-all grouping of ex-Communists and other left-wingers who do not feel at home in either the Socialist or Green groups: it has 34 Members from no fewer than 16 parties in 13 member states. It is the sixth largest of the seven political groups in the Parliament, having been the fourth largest at its peak.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry