EU: Far-right election triumph proves need for urgent austerity rethink, say unions

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Trade union are expressing serious concerns about the rise of far-right parties following the European Parliament elections on Sunday 25 May.

They have cast the blame on the way European leaders and institutions have handled the economic crisis and are calling for change of direction which will put growth, jobs and social protection at the heart of EU policy.

“The voters have sent a warning to all mainstream and governing parties,” said Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), in a press statement.

“European citizens are fed up with unemployment, austerity and falling living standards.

“For citizens the crisis is not over. Saving the euro was a start. But the real challenge is to get Europe’s 26 million unemployed back to work.”

Nathalie Gamiochipi from the French trade union, Confédération Générale des Travailleurs (CGT), agrees, describing the election results as “extremely worrying”.

In France, the Front National (FN) collected the majority of votes on Sunday, although unionists insist it only represents 11 per cent of registered voters.

“This is not really a vote of approval of the FN’s policies, but rather a message of rejection of the current austerity policies.

"The government in France has been sanctioned twice in a row, at the municipal and at the European elections, and not only did the government not take a new path, it reaffirmed its austerity measures by announcing billions of euros of fresh cuts,” she said.

 

‘No real alternatives’

“We see a real trivialisation of racism and xenophobic discourse coupled with social problems that the FN is leaning on.

“They surf on a wave of despair without offering real alternatives on issues such as the distribution of wealth, “she told Equal Times following a CGT post-election strategy meeting.

A similar analysis could be heard from the British trade unions after the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made significant gains in the elections.

"The coalition government has caused much of its own electoral misfortune by pursuing blind austerity and causing a cost of living crisis, further alienating working people by aiming directly at their rights – both in the UK and in Europe,” said Elena Crasta, a senior policy officer at Brussels office of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Despite showing signs of economic recovery, unemployment and precarious working conditions remain widespread in the UK, she warns.

"The TUC has been warning against the rise in xenophobia for a while. Unemployment and zero-hours jobs mean that the benefits of a timid recovery are not being felt by most people.

"And insecurity leads people to cast protest votes, even though that means voting for parties whose policies won’t address the real problems they face,” Crasta added.

In Denmark, where the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DPP) triumphed on Sunday , the Landsorganisationen i Danmark (the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions , or LO) expressed concern that the outcome would negatively impact Danish workers and blamed social dumping and “discussion about welfare services across borders” as some of the causes of concern for the Danish voters.

 

Adopting ‘their language’

Most, if not all, of these parties campaigned on socio-economic issues and took advantage of the social despair instilled by a never-ending economic crisis.

As a result, some European mainstream parties have adopted the language of fringe parties to push for deeper changes in the EU.

Matteo Renzi, the new Italian prime minister whose centre-left Democratic Party managed to score a historic high of 40.8 per cent of the vote in a traditionally divided Italian left, has called for a reform of the EU fiscal compact to exclude expenditure on infrastructure and capital investments from the calculations for debt and deficit targets, a move warmly welcomed by the Italian trade unions.

Fausto Durante, who heads the Europe section at the Italian union Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), told Equal Times that for Renzi – who is otherwise “not a big friend of trade unions” – this election was an opportunity to underline his commitment to a new relationship with the EU.

“Europe has to change its policies, austerity is not working and treaties should be changed if needed,” says Durante.

“This is the key explanation as to why workers and trade union members voted for his party. Europe needs to tackle the economic and social crisis now.”

This message also resonated in Greece where the radical left party Syriza, led by European Commissioner candidate Alexis Tsipras, won a resounding victory over the over the conservative New Democracy party led by prime minister Antonis Samaras.

However the extreme-right Golden Dawn party won nearly 10 per cent of the vote.

Tsipras’ party has now pledged to fight against austerity, and to stimulate productive investments in jobs and growth inside the European Parliament, where he is expected to often join forces with the traditional social-democratic parties.