The Hundred and Two Ways

VIENNA: Across Europe the “third way” debate has become the only political game in town, the only hint at new directions in a rather confused multitude of trends and ideas. The recent paper signed by Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, entitled Europe: The Third Way (Die neue Mitte) begins with a bold statement: “Social democrats are in government in almost all the countries of the Union. Social democracy has found new acceptance—but only because, while retaining its traditional values, it has begun in a credible way to renew its ideas and modernize its programs. It has also found new acceptance because it stands not only for social justice but also for economic dynamism and the unleashing of creativity and innovation.”

It was perhaps unfortunate that this document was published a week before the recent European elections. Not only is it said to have created a certain amount of confusion, above all among German Social Democrats, but the European elections, whatever their shortcomings and limitations, allow us to check the statement of fact that “social democracy has found new acceptance.” The result of this check is telling. In six of fifteen EU countries, Social Democratic Parties had 20% or less of the vote (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands), in two others (France, Luxemburg) 22% or 23%. In five further countries the vote for Social Democratic Parties was between 26& and 33% (Germany, Greece, Britain, Austria and Sweden). In Spain 35% voted for the democratic Socialists, and in Portugal 43%. In only four countries were Social Democrats relatively the strongest party, and this includes France where the fragmentation of the Right meant that Jospin’s Socialists (in themselves hardly unified) were strongest with 22%.

It is tempting to examine the real strength of the Social Democrats in European governments (where changes are imminent in Belgium and Luxemburg), for they had twice the present proportion of the popular vote twenty years ago. Social Democrats are distinctly minority parties in most European countries. Even in Britain, Blair’s deceptively large parliamentary majority is based on 43% of the popular vote. In terms of electoral analysis the real trend is towards non-traditional parties, many of which did not exist twenty years ago. In most European countries their vote adds up to more than the Social Democratic vote. In truth, voters are confused and uncertain, pulled hither and yon. It is hard to discern any real trend towards a new crystallization of electoral views.