Socialism and Social Democracy

For several decades after 1945, Socialists and Social Democrats were less committed than Christian Democrats or Liberals to the concept of European integration. When the Treaty of Paris, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was laid before the national parliaments of the Six in 1952, the Italian Socialists and German Social Democrats opposed it, whilst the Belgian Socialists abstained. Five years later, the French and Italian Socialists abstained when the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC), was put to the vote, and the German Social Democrats expressed serious reservations. None of these parties were in power at the time: they saw the new Europe being defined and built by their political rivals and they were suspicious of the liberalising logic of some of its key policies, notably the common market, customs union and competition policy.

The fears voiced by the trade unions in Britain, when the Labour government declined to join the ECSC, were echoed in many mainstream Socialist circles in continental Europe throughout the 1950s. To the left of the Socialists, moreover, the Communists, who were an important political force in post-war France and Italy, were even more strongly opposed to European integration, which they saw as sponsored by the United States and rooted in the Atlantic Alliance. As a result, few Socialist politicians played a prominent part in the Community institutions in their early years – with the notable exception of the Belgian foreign minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, who not only signed the Treaty of Rome, but vigorously opposed the relentless intergovernmentalism of French President Charles de Gaulle. As Vice-President of the new European Commission, the Dutch Socialist, Sicco Mansholt, also played a key role in introducing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

From the mid-1960s onwards, Socialist and Social Democrat parties began to align in a more consistently pro-European direction. They were assisted by the unifying effect of the and the personal commitment to Europe of some of the new centre-left leaders coming to the fore, notably François Mitterrand in France and Willy Brandt in Germany. As Socialist parties began to enter power in many countries for the first time in a generation, they found it easier to reconcile themselves to Community policies and institutions. In the European Parliament, the Socialist group also emerged as the largest political group in 1975, a position it was to maintain until 1999. The reconciliation with Europe took longer in some countries than in others: for example, the British Labour party, among the largest Socialist parties in Europe, boycotted the Parliament for the first two and a half years of British membership (in 1973-75) and reverted for a while to opposing membership of the Community altogether (1979-83).

Paradoxically, given their traditionally weaker commitment to European integration for its own sake, the Socialists were able to draw on a longer and live­lier tradition of cross-frontier cooperation between national political parties in Europe than existed on the centre-right. The competing traditions of Christian Democracy, Conservatism, Liberalism and Gaullism had divided the centre and centre-right – creating a complex pattern of alignments in different countries and often awkward relations at European level – whereas the notion that class interests cut across those of the nation had long informed Socialist thinking and (by the 1980s) resulted in most member states having a single, large Socialist or Social Democratic party.

The development of a more pro-European Socialist movement in western Europe was reflected in its increasingly degree of common organisation at supranational level. The ‘liaison bureau’ for Socialist parties within the European Community, first created in January 1957 (as an off-shoot of the Socialist International), became the Confederation of Socialist Parties in the EC in April 1974, and this in turn evolved into a European political party, the Party of European Socialists (PES), in November 1992. There was a growing concern on the part of the centre-right about the implications of this situation: many of the various strands began working together for the first time in the European Democrat Union (EDU), founded in 1978, and a decade later, the European People’s Party (EPP), founded in 1976, began to emerge as a catch-all forum on the centre-right.

The tenure of Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995 proved an important catalyst in promoting the sense of a common pro-European agenda on the left. Whilst Delors did much to convince Socialists of the merits of completing the single market and progressing towards Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), they in turn demanded a price for that support – which he was both willing and able to give – in the form of proposals to promote a ‘Social Europe’, with stronger employment rights enacted at European level, as well as a greater degree of cohesion between the richer and poorer member states. At the same time, the decline of the traditional working class, the weakening of Communist parties and the rise of the Greens – who first secured election to the European Parliament in 1984 – meant that concerns on the left began to evolve in an increasingly post-industrial direction. Socialists and Greens together pushed for greater EU-level action to protect the environment, safeguard minority and consumer rights, and reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – priorities to which the Commission was, in general, happy to respond.

Ironically, whilst these trends made it easier for the perspectives of the EU institutions and Socialist parties to converge, they also involved a gradual contraction in the latter’s electoral base. During the 1990s and 2000s, the percentage share of the vote commanded by many Socialist parties in western Europe declined, as they were challenged on three fronts at once: some disaffected lower working-class support shifted to new populist parties on the radical right, some ‘liberal’ middle-class support moved to the Greens, and the continuing process of the embourgeoisement of the upper working class pushed some of the latter towards parties of the centre and centre-right. Within the EU institutions, the fact that Poland, the largest of the central and eastern European entrants in 2004-07, had no substantial Socialist party meant that the relative position of the PES was weakened. In the European Parliament, the Socialists’ share of seats fell by a third, from almost 38 per cent at the June 1989 European elections to just over 25 per cent in June 2009.

Although the Party of European Socialists remains the title of the Socialists’ pan-European political party, the PES Group in the Parliament renamed itself the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group) in July 2009, seemingly as a concession to some of its Italian members, who wished to distance themselves from the word ‘Socialist’.

Further reading: Kevin Featherstone, Socialist Parties and European Integration: a Comparative History, 1988; Richard T. Griffiths (editor), Socialist Parties and the Question of Europe in the 1950s, 1993; Simon Hix and Urs Lesse, Shaping a Vision: A History of the Party of European Socialists 1957-2002, 2002.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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