If you heard a soft whimpering sound Sunday night, it was likely the sad echoes of Europe's left sobbing into their beers. All across the continent, with only the exception of Greece and Slovakia, Europe's Democratic Socialists were dealt crushing blows in the European Parliament election, whether they were the ruling party or the opposition.
Considering this result has come at a time when a majority of Europeans want to see more state action in the economy and people are reeling with anger against "fat cat capitalists", the result has left Europe's socialists scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. Though there is a mood of public anger across the EU, the ruling conservative governments in Germany, France, Italy and Poland didn't see their parties punished at the polls, in fact some of them even gained seats. On the other hand, the governing socialists in Spain, Hungary and Britain all took a drubbing at the polls. The Party of European Socialists (the block of various centre-left parties in the European Parliament that includes Britain's Labour, France's Socialists and Germany's Social Democrats) lost 20 seats.
I watched the election results while in Berlin this weekend, and I can tell you that even though the Social Democrats knew they weren't going to do great, the sheer margin between them and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats was highly depressing for them, since it now seems certain she will no longer need to ally with them after the general election in Germany in the Fall. Sarkozy's UMP also easily defeated his socialist rivals, gaining 13 seats to put the UMP representation in the European parliament over the French socialist contingent for the first time ever. In Britain Labour received its lowest vote in the history of any UK country-wide election, coming in with a shocking 15.7%. The dismal results may even have the effect of forcing Gordon Brown to call an election, which would almost certainly lead to Labour being ousted from power.
So does this mean Europeans are turning to traditional conservative economic theory to guide them out of the current crisis? Not a chance, say most analysts. The poll result is being attributed more to the chaotic and fractured state Europe's socialists find themselves in today than any kind of ideological shift for the continent. As the Socialists have been in chaos, Europe's centre-right has hijacked the traditional tenants of socialism, co-opting the ideas of the left. Sarkozy suddenly went from being "Sarko l'Americain" to Sarko the French champion against unrestrained Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism. It would seem that Europe is now asking, what is Socialism in Europe in 2009? What is it the socialists represent?
So the coming months will see the socialists regrouping, in each country, and figuring out who they are and what they represent. It's clear they have lost control of the narrative, and they have lost credibility with much of the public. Socialist floor leader Martin Schultz was probably right Sunday night when he called the result "a very sad evening for social democracy in Europe."
*Of course the election was also a big victory for extreem parties, particularly the far-right. But I'll write more on that tomorrow. Oh and yes, the Swedish Pirate Party did win a seat. Arrr, matey!