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European left seeks balance between austerity and responsibility

Leaders of embattled mainstream European left parties met in Madrid on Saturday seeking to regain lost ground as they tried to strike a balance between “suicidal austerity” and financial “responsibility” at a time when debt-racked Greece is trying to renegotiate a bailout deal.

The heads of socialist and social democratic parties, threatened by extreme-right parties on the one hand and radical leftists like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain on the other, tried to strike a tone of compromise particularly with relation to the economy in a bid to make gains in polls.

“We cannot afford to have public deficits and they have to be reduced because we are responsible for our future generations,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on the sidelines of the meeting.

“We need to reduce sovereign debt but we cannot reduce the public debt without growth and employment,” said European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German social democrat.

His position was shared by a majority of those participating in the meeting.

However, Valls also decried the current climate of austerity.

“Austerity for austerity’s sake, punitive politics for the people is leading to rising populism and weakening possibilities to recover growth and competitiveness in our countries,” he said.

Valls was among 40 leaders at the meeting along with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven, who like Valls is struggling to deal with far-right parties that are gaining in strength.

The host of the gathering, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of Spain’s main opposition Socialist Party, faces a threat from the fast-growing left-wing protest party Podemos, which has surged at the polls largely at his party’s expense.

Podemos hopes to build on the success of its close ally Syriza in Greece to win a general election in Spain expected by the end of the year.

The new leftist Greek government, which came to power last month pledging to end deeply unpopular austerity measures and renegotiate the country’s huge debt, had asked for six-month loan assistance until it can submit a new four-year reform blueprint.

Instead, it received a maximum four months in which to reach an agreement, but no money to tide it over in the meantime.

What differentiates the socialists from these parties is “responsibility”, said Iratxe Garcia, the head of the Spanish socialist delegation at the European Parliament.

“There are objectives to maintain. To be able to invest, you must be able to meet payments.”

The left leaders adopted a resolution in which they agreed to work on competitiveness in Europe particularly through a proactive investment policy, labour market flexibility and by battling unemployment especially among younger workers.

The participants also expressed support for a tax on financial transactions and declared that “austerity had not worked”.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez called for an end to “austerity suicide”.

“The European Union is getting less and less united and is more affected by the disease of nationalism,” Gonzalez said.