Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. 

PARIS — Reports of the death of the European left are greatly exaggerated. 

After a decade in which socialist and social democratic parties and policies were in retreat across much of the Continent, Europe’s center-left is now enjoying something of a renaissance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Norway’s Labor Party topped the polls in this month’s general election, defeating a center-right administration that included anti-immigration populists. This completes a clean sweep of social democratic parties heading governments in Nordic countries — even if some have had to abandon their traditional welcome mat and adopt restrictive policies on migration and asylum to assuage their voters. 

The left also governs in Spain and Portugal; while in Italy, the center-left Democratic Party is one of the main forces backing Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Most importantly, left-wing parties are headed toward a dramatic comeback in Germany — Europe’s biggest and most populous nation — after 16 years of conservative-led governments under Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

To be sure, this revival of the left is far from universal. 

The French left looks as divided and moribund as it was at the end of Socialist President François Hollande’s lackluster term in 2017. After a decade out of power, the British Labour Party still trails the ruling Conservatives in opinion polls, and the Dutch Labour Party remains comatose, having failed to regain any lost ground in this year’s general election. Polls also suggest radical far-right parties may surge to power when Italians next go to the polls, by 2023 at the latest. 

Regardless, there is an undeniable resurrection of the European left. And there are several reasons for this, even at a time when the traditional left-wing electorate of unionized industrial workers and public employees is still dwindling, sectarian differences abound and the intelligentsia is increasingly fragmented. 

Firstly, after a decade or more of center-right-dominated rule, the natural swing of the political pendulum in European democracies is certainly one factor. Voters tire of the same old faces and want change. 

Yet beyond the periodic alternation of power, progressive ideas are, once again, in the ascendancy on both sides of the Atlantic. The victory of U.S. President Joe Biden and his embrace of causes such as climate change and tax justice, as well as the ambitious scale of his post-COVID economic recovery program, are among its other major drivers. 

All of a sudden, European leaders seemed more timid than the U.S. in making corporations pay their fair share of tax, tackling climate change, waiving vaccine patents to help poorer countries or deploying massive public investment to retool the economy. 

Moreover, the defeat of right-wing populist U.S. President Donald Trump boosted the self-confidence of center-left political forces in Europe, dealing a setback to anti-immigration nationalist parties that had made inroads among working class voters in Europe.

Finally, after more than a decade of austerity and the rollback of the state and of public services, the COVID-19 pandemic brought forth demands for a stronger, more protective state, better public health care and increased government spending to cushion the dramatic economic impact of lockdowns. 

Center-right governments in Europe were just as quick to sign furlough and economic stimulus checks as left-wing administrations. But with public spending and borrowing back in fashion, the quest for a more proactive state has relegitimized the left and put conservative advocates of small-state frugality and deregulation on the defensive. 

Across the developed world, the pandemic has also focused attention on the plight of front-line workers, such as nurses, care givers, delivery workers, cleaners and supermarket cashiers — positions that are often poorly paid, with long and difficult hours and precarious employment contracts.  

The cry for greater social justice and benefits in these key sectors has also helped propel left-wing parties campaigning for higher minimum wages, more public housing and employment rights for gig and platform workers.  

Meanwhile, growing public awareness regarding the urgency of the fight against climate change and adapting to a greener, digital economy has boosted support in many countries for Green parties, the natural allies of the left. 

That’s one of the reasons why the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz’s call for a higher minimum wage and more investment in modernizing public services, and the Greens’ campaign for massive government spending to transform industry and transport for a carbon-neutral future, are likely to propel them to power in next Sunday’s general election. 

GERMANY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

The center-left has sometimes struggled to reconcile the ideology of its supporters with the realities of governing. In previous elections, many European social democratic parties were punished at the ballot box after embracing neoliberal policies, such as Germany’s Hartz IV labor law reforms, financial deregulation in the U.K. or fiscal austerity in southern Europe, leading to the rise of more radical leftist and far-right opposition forces. 

The left is also yet to surmount the rifts in its big-tent coalition between supporters and opponents of globalization and of the EU, as well as with those who embrace radical positions on topics like immigration, multiculturalism and basic universal income that helped consign it to the wilderness to begin with. Furthermore, woke-ism has the potential to distract progressives into self-destructive battles over gender, race and the denial of free speech to those deemed politically incorrect.

And yet, while these arguments are still being made, moderate Socialists, such as Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa and his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, have managed to implement pragmatic social democratic policies, retaining the support of allies to their left and the confidence of financial markets. The SPD’s Scholz seems cut from the same cloth. 

COVID-19 has changed the terms of the debate and shifted the battle lines. In the drive to “build back better,” voters in many countries are changing priorities — putting public spending ahead of tax cuts or debt reduction, public health care ahead of private medicine and public investment ahead of laissez-faire.

Provided the center-left can build an enduring partnership with the Green movement and tame the radicals and populists in its own ranks, it is well placed to reap the electoral benefits.