Philippe Pochet, General director ETUI: The results of the recent European elections give us a very complex picture at the EU and national level. The common interpretation is that there was a lower than expected rise of the extreme right and populist parties in Europe and that the green and liberal parties have been the winners. This is true for the Western part of the EU, but in Eastern and Central Europe the situation is different.

In these countries, the Greens get only 3 seats (on a total of almost 200) and so does the radical left (3 seats too). The Socialists & Democrats in Central and Eastern Europe, for their part, have stabilized their share of the vote. Altogether the left counts for 25 % of the vote in that region. Looking more closely at the national level, it is very difficult to make any generalization. Look at the situation in Poland and Spain, for example.

The cleavage theory of Rokkan and Lipset from 1967 can be useful here in trying to put some order and understand the picture by analyzing emerging cleavages. Of the 3 traditional cleavages  – state vs church, centre vs periphery, and owner/capital vs worker –  the last one was the most influential for the trade union movement. Even if a redefinition of the capital/workers cleavage would be possible, with more attention for the ecological question, it would nevertheless be helpful to add 2 additional (new) cleavages to the picture.

A first new cleavage is the opposition between open – closed society. It was clearly part of this election debate.  It can be illustrated by the tensions between the renamed Renew Europe Group and the Identity and Democracy Group. Although intuitively we would take for granted that both are opposed to social policies, this does not quite seem to be the case.  We can observe that some nationalistic parties propagate social messages. At the same time, Emmanuel Macron, who has decided to join with his political movement the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, has a socially inspired discourse, although only at EU level (doing the contrary at national level). If this cleavage is becoming dominant, it could be very challenging for the trade unions.

A second cleavage is the green, post-materialist versus productivist political positioning, which has gained more popularity recently.  For the proponents of post-materialist values, the environmental crisis imposes a completely new paradigm. It challenges the productivist paradigm which centers on the concept of growth. Again, the social orientation of the post-materalist paradigm is not straightforward. It ranges from very socially sensitive to more liberal. The challenge here will be to have an in-depth reflection about what it means concretely for trade unions to operate in this new paradigm. If post-materialism takes the lead, what does this mean for pensions and wages? What could be a trade union agenda in this context? 

In any case, it is only the start of very complex, challenging and strategic debates for the future.

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Header image Alberto Cadas Vidani/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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