Social democratic parties across Europe are now paying the electoral price for their uncritical embrace of globalisation in the 1990s. Then, responsible politics was equated with adaptation to the demands of global markets. As Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder put it in their much-quoted The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte pamphlet: ‘Social Democrats must accommodate the growing demands for flexibility’.
This refrain was accepted as ‘pragmatic realism’ and was quickly adopted by most social democratic parties that governed Europe in the late 1990s. Thus, as Dani Rodrik recalled here, the centre-left was complicit in pointing globalisation in a neoliberal direction. Crucially, social democratic parties in government were happy to support the launch of the euro without ever questioning its ordoliberal governance rules and to sign up to further depoliticization of public policy whereby technocratic institutions gained control over areas of policy that thus far had been subject to democratic scrutiny.
But by treating globalisation as a force of nature that could not be controlled, social democratic parties contributed to the rise of inequality, to the erosion of the welfare state and social protection that had characterised the European social model, to the creation of a new social class, the working poor. Both New Labour’s tax credits programme and the SPD’s Agenda 2010 were predicated on the idea that greater economic competition implied lower wages and weaker social protection. Ultimately, they contributed to the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crisis, from which most European economies have not yet fully recovered.