28 May 2019

A liberal revival means Europe’s populists have a fight on their hands

By Garvan Walshe

As the results came in on Sunday night, the crowd  of 20- and 30- somethings in Budapest began to cheer, as though to the beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock you”,  “Momentum! Momentum! Momentum!”

Hungary’s new liberal party defied the polls to win two seats and almost a tenth of the vote in the European elections.

Anna Julia Donath, who as number two on the list, had not expected to get through, was ecstatic and in shock. Together with Katalin Cseh she’s part of a liberal, pro-European surge that in Hungary includes four more MEPs from the centrist DK, and a range of parties across the continent. Germany’s Greens won 21 seats, almost as many as Angela Merkel’s CDU. Sweden’s Centre Party and Slovakia’s Progressive Coalition put in a strong performance.

In France, Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche managed a respectable 22 seats despite an error-strewn campaign, and the greens obtained 12 MEPs. In Spain both a modernised centre-left PSOE and the centre-right Ciudadanos gained eight seats. In Romania, the prime minister had been forced out, and is on his way to jail to serve a sentence for corruption after losing his appeal.

The same story can be told in terms of Europe’s parliamentary groups. The Greens are up 19 and liberals up 42. Italian nationalist Salvini’s new group, which incorporates Marine Le Pen’s party, may be up 22, but the European Conservatives and Reformists (a group that includes the far-right Sweden Democrats and the Polish populists of Law and Justice) lost 18. Another alliance, that currently includes Italy’s 5 Star movement and the Brexit party, went up by 6 but the single-issue nature of NIgel Farage’s party and the 5 Star’s anti-politicians won’t make a coherent bloc.

Since Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 few have resisted describing national populists’ electoral success as a wave: powerful, mysterious and ultimately unstoppable, this metaphor has played to their propaganda. Populism was the future, and we’d better get used to it.

This is not to say that national populists are everywhere in retreat. Law and Justice drew enough of the nationalist electorate behind itself to open up a lead of seven versus its main opponents. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega obtained 34 per cent of the vote, and of course Viktor Orban’s Fidesz took 13 out of Hungary’s 21 seats.

Yet, Spain’s loud and much-touted Vox fell to six per cent of the vote. Romania’s once dominant PSD has probably been pushed into third place, and the AFD did well only in its deindustrialised East German strongholds. The extreme left suffered in Greece, Spain, France (Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise got just 6 per cent and Britain, where Corbyn’s Labour lost half its seats, came sixth in Edinburgh and whose only silver lining was that it did better than Britain’s Brexit-addled Conservatives.

Though the main centre-left and centre-right parties have lost seats, they’re now losing them in both directions, not just to populists. In truth, Europe is continuing its political realignment away from the social conflict between capital and labour that characterised 20th century industrial society, and towards once centred on a rather different question: do we face the world — its dangers and opportunites — together, or should we put up a wall to protect ourselves from it?

The issue is movement across borders to the traditional four: of people, goods, capital, services, as well as a fifth, the effects of climate change. That is driving young people, who will bear the brunt of global warming, towards green parties, and away from everyone else.

It sets up a new debate about the EU’s future. After the failure of the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005, and reinforced by Britain’s brooding sceptical presence, the energy seeped out of the European project. It busied itself with managing crises: the financial crisis, the migrant crisis and the British crisis. All these allowed what we might call the populist demagogue crisis to fester.

Orban, Salvini and Kaczynski followed British Eurosceptics in casting “Brussels” as an enemy but couldn’t rise to being principled opponents of European integration. Instead they used the EU’s tiredness as a foil for their attacks on domestic courts and independent media at home while taking EU taxpayers’ money.

These elections mark the emergence of a new pan-European drive for “more Europe”: European budgets and tax policy to go with the eurozone; European border control to go with Schengen; European defence procurement; turning European trade into an instrument of climate policy; and the first stirrings of a debate about an “army of Europeans.”

This agenda will run into opposition, and not only from nationalists opposed to it in general; Irish pacifists, Dutch tax-optimisers, Polish coal-miners and German bond-holders will object to specifics. But these elections show that the public don’t only want a return to the nation state. Other voters, at least as numerous, and definitely younger, want to move even further away from it than the EU already has.

Instead of a national populist breakthrough, these elections put further integration back at the heart of European politics.  The decade of crisis management is over; the struggle to define Europe’s future has begun.

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.