The European Left: “TINA” or is there an alternative left?

By Garunya Karunaharamoorthy | 26 May 2014

To quote this document: Garunya Karunaharamoorthy, “The European Left: “TINA” or is there an alternative left?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 26 May 2014,, displayed on 27 September 2022

Thatcher’s TINA-Principle (“There is no alternative”) seems to apply in the European fabric of austerity measures.  Economic refugees, downright cuts in public spending for welfare, health, pension and educational systems are their severe consequences. These are policy issues that traditionally concern the Left that leaves the policy room yet untrodden. How come?   

The European Paradox

Only ten out of twenty eight member states of the Union are currently governed by left parties or left dominated coalitions (The Guardian). The previous European elections in 2009 exposed the European Left (Read: Centre-left) to its poorest election results ever since the first direct parliamentary elections at the European level thirty years ago. Yet, the sparse support for socialism is somewhat enigmatic in the light of the worst crisis since the Great Depression to hit the capitalist economy, which indeed creates an auspicious environment for the Left.  Plus, “the rise of a progressive younger generation, the increase in immigrant generation, the growth of the professional class and the increasing social weight of single and alternative households and growing religious diversity and secularism, combined with the Left traditional among the working class” (Bugaric 2014: 2) should benefit left-wing politics, however, they are not. The European Left still pursues a reactive policy when faced with the current centre-right parties’ “politics of fiscal austerity and balanced budget fundamentalism” (ibid.) without providing a viable alternative, social policy framework. 

Social Europe is still in its infancy. The Left fails to develop it not only due to the impairing constitutional structure of the European Union, which clearly advantages the Right, but more importantly also due to its own lack of alacrity to empower the Union with the necessary competences, thus the ability to upload its social programme at the supranational level.

On Complicity and the 'Smith abroad, Keynes at home' Compromise

In contrast to ideally neutral national constitutions, the founding treaties of the European Union are believed to constitute an ‘economic constitution’ privileging the political ideology of neoliberalism. Although this bias in the European policy framework was not deliberate at the inception, it has been established over time with the continuing and consolidating support of the Left, not least because of its lack of transformative effect while in power or in opposition.   As the Treaties of Rome visibly disentangled the liberal, economic integration from concerns with regard to social protection, the Left supposed to be on the safe side as it chiefly aimed at safeguarding the welfare state and its redistributive policies within the national legal realms only.  Both Christian and Social Democrats envisaged a strongly ‘socially’ regulated capitalism at home and liberal trade arrangements abroad, and hence they were able to reform and reinforce their national welfare systems, especially during the first twenty years of the European Community, remaining a mere customs union.

However, in the aftermath of the stagflation and euro sclerosis of the 80s in particular, the European economic integration has started to interfere clearly with domestic welfare issues. On the basis of a neoliberal consensus of Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand, the Single European Act envisioning the establishment of the Single European Market was adopted. The review of the French socialist economic policies under Mitterrand (promoted by Delors, then President of the Commission) played thereby a crucial role. The newly adopted legislation largely paved the way for the legalisation or even constitutionalisation of the neoliberal bias through active European jurisprudence. The European Court of Justice repeatedly ruled against many national social policy objectives considered as non-tariff barriers to the establishment of the Single Market, particularly by an extensive application of the principle of mutual recognition in the domain of health policy (C-120/95, C-157/99 and more; Boyd, Nickless 2001) and collective labour law (C-144/04, C-341/05 and more; Zeibig 2013). Prioritising fundamental economic freedoms over social rights, the judgements naturally reflect a political (neoliberal) policy choice. By denying it through adopting a rhetoric that de-politicises EU law and economy, the very menace to the welfare states was silenced.

The adoption of the European Monetary Union at a time where ten out of twelve member states were governed by conservatives enabled the further pursuit of the former policy, thus more and more entangling the economic and social integration of Europe.  Member states are thus rendered to ‘semi-sovereign welfare states’ (Bugaric 2014: 18) by reducing their autonomy in social protection policies, yet all the while the Union remains unable to warrant a compensation due to lacking competences. While the Left and Right agreed upon the importance of the single market, social concerns about the extent of regulation or liberalisation of the single market surfaced and divided the two camps diminishing the volume of legislative acts significantly.  Most prominently, the Services Directive proposed by the Barroso Commission was fiercely rejected fearing a negative impact on the high national welfare standards and was only adopted  in a watered down form.

Trials and Travails to the European Left

In the late 1990s, thirteen out of the fifteen member states had social democratic governments, however, this “unique period of strong social democratic hegemony in the EU politics” (Bugaric 2014: 19) let the opportunity pass by to integrate a genuine social agenda into the Treaties owing to substantial diversity of views amidst the European Left. At the Congress of European Socialists in Malmö prior to the Amsterdam Council (1997), the French Prime minister overtly criticized the Union’s neoliberal and monetarist bias while the British Prime minister acknowledged it, albeit refusing categorically any  binding European legislation in the employment and social policy area, thus being perfectly in align with the Eurosceptical Nordic Social Democrats as well as the German conservative Chancellor.   This again reveals that starkly contrary to the accusation of being “vaterlandslose Gesellen” (dt. Fellows without a home country) Bismarck used to ban the social democrats in 1878 on the grounds of ‘unpatriotic internationalism’ (Kundnani 2013), the current European Left lacks a post-national approach in welfare matters. There is rather a tendency to defend the domestic welfare policies or to extend unyieldingly one’s own national model to the EU, disregarding the diversity of welfare state models across Europe.

Responding to the crisis, current European leaders reacted with a chain of instruments, including the European Financial Stability Facility, Euro-Plus Pact, Six-Pack, European Stability Mechanism and Fiscal Treaty. All of them impose strict, punitive rules seeking to discipline (‘irresponsible’) debtor countries. They by-pass their national parliaments, empowering legal and financial technocrats to intervene lawfully in national fiscal policies, thus restricting the national autonomy with regard to their own redistributive policies unprecedentedly. In a painful noticeable way, this emerging Austerity Union deeply consolidates the constitutional bias with no substantial resistance from the Left. In fact, the difference between Left and Right appears to be one of degree rather than kind. “If the Christian Democrats seem to be forcing the rest of the Europe to become more German, the Social Democrats seem to want to help them to become more German.” (Kundnani 2013)

Eventually, the question remains the same. TINA or is there an alternative left?

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe's website 


  • Bugaric, B. (2013), Europe Against the Left ? On the Legal Limits to Progressive Politics, éditions Chandeigne, LEQS Paper No. 61, 2013

  • Kundnani, H. (2013), Can Germany’s Social Democrats Offer an Alternative?, Dissent, Fall 2013
  • Zeibig, N. (2013), 'Questions Of Age Discrimination In Decisions Of The European Court Of Justice', Social Europe, 1st July 2013, accessed on 21.05.2014

  • Boyd, N. (2001), 'Impact of the ECJ judgements on national healthcare delivery – The case of the UK', Eurohealth Vol.7 (4), 2001, 6

  • Nickless, J. (2001), 'Smit/Peerbooms: Clarification of Kohll and Decker?', Eurohealth Vol.7 (4), 2001, 7-10. 

On the internet 

Photo credit : Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston, by Chris Devers on flickr