Progressive Alliance comes to Berlin to fight populism | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.03.2017
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Progressive Alliance comes to Berlin to fight populism

Germany's SPD is convening major center-left figures from around the world to discuss how to combat the rise of populist nationalism. Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz called for a new, fairer globalization.

The fight-back against populist nationalism around the world starts here.

That was the message at the Progressive Alliance convention, which gathered at the Social Democratic Party (SPD) headquarters in Berlin on Sunday and Monday.

The convention brought together over a hundred major center-left figures from across Europe - including Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa - as well as representatives from the US Democratic party, the Indian National Congress, and the Socialist Party of Uruguay.

The speeches and panel debates were hosted by a galvanizing figure in Germany's SPD - Martin Schulz - whose surprise announcement as the party's chancellor-candidate in this September's German election has re-energized the Social Democrats and brought them their highest poll ratings in a decade.

The Progressive Alliance is a network of over 130 political socialist and social democratic parties and organizations around the world, established in Leipzig in 2013 by the initiative of the German SPD.

Revolution against liberalism

In his speech on Monday morning, Schulz quoted British historian Timothy Garton Ash, who recently described the current political climate - defined by the 2016 Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency - as "a global counterrevolution against liberalism."

Schulz identified globalization and its attendant inequalities as one of the root causes of this trend, arguing that an epoch of unbridled financial markets had allowed too much pressure on social and ecological standards. Meanwhile, nationalist movements had found it too easy to point fingers at the immigrants and refugees that have arrived in Europe in the past year as scapegoats.

As a solution, he called for the creation of a "new globalization ... through the creation of social justice and overcoming poverty. That means we need accountability and transparency obligations for companies along the supply chains, the extension of social security systems, and the introduction of wages that can guarantee a standard of living."

"We have to make clear that shutting ourselves away is no solution, because no wall can ever be high enough to permanently protect us from global problems," the candidate added. "We must prove through practical action that we want to make our basic values and principles the standard of a new globalization."

The speech was in keeping with Schulz's campaign agenda so far that has seen the SPD seek to "correct" the Agenda 2010 labor market reforms introduced by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and which weakened Germany's welfare state.

Schulz's moment

Ulrike Guerot, founder and director of the European Democracy Lab in Berlin, suggested that social democracy had caught a new moment. "It's pretty timely what (the Progressive Alliance) is doing," she told DW. "There is a swingback from the neoliberal agenda, and the progressives are surfing on it."

Andrea Binder, fellow at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), agreed. "There's a bit of momentum coming to the social democratic movement - the question has been: Where has the left been in the last 10 to 15 years in the fallout from globalization?" she said.

This could, Binder argued, represent a fundamental shift in how social democrats see themselves. Whereas in the 1990s, there was an understanding in the center-left that "only if you buy into the neoliberal ideology can you be in government."

"Now there seems to be this historical moment when a traditional social democratic narrative seems to have more resonance with the people, but we have a lack of political personnel who can make it happen, because they've all been complicit in the liberalization," she said.

Deutschland Tagung der Progressive Alliance in Berlin Gruppenfoto (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber)

The world's leading social democrats came together in Berlin on Monday

But Schulz, as former president of the European Parliament, is no revolutionary - and he has to strike a careful balance in Germany if he is to make headway in the polls. "He needs to win the center, but he wants to have a different agenda, so it will be interesting in Germany to see what you can do in the middle - telling the middle that policy must change," said Guerot.

Also, Germany is in a unique position because it weathered the European financial crisis and has so far been spared the rise of nationalism seen in the rest of Europe. But, Guerot says, Chancellor Angela Merkel shouldn't feel too complacent about that: "The problem is this stability affected the others," she said. "And now you see the rise of instability elsewhere - because the German stability came at a price, it's just not us who pays the price."

A fairer globalization

The new debate has, some say, finally swept aside the notion that globalization is wholly good - that it can feed both economic growth and tax revenues. "There's this tension between globalization and a nation-state as the basic locus of decision-making," she added. "But there is a possibility of combining open trade with open societies and social justice, but certainly not if the free force of the market is the only decision-making mechanism."

"Globalization is not a natural force that descends upon us - it's something that we've made, and we can make it in a different way if we want to," she said. This, in many ways, is already happening. One example Binder cited was banking: German banks have often come under international pressure to liberalize, "but that's a policy that German society - voters, government, whatever - have decided to resist to a considerable degree, which made the sector much more resilient to the financial crisis than fully open banking sectors."

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