19 April 2019

Europe’s tribes


Next month’s European elections will be one of the stranger moments in British political history. Britons will cast their votes in a poll we weren’t suppose to have to send representatives to an organisation we were supposed to have left. Those MEPs could serve for a few months, for five years — or never take their seats.

To make matters weirder, a party that didn’t exist a few weeks ago is, if the latest YouGov poll is to believed, in the lead. Whether or not they win, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party look set to amass a huge number of votes in a poll that, even more so than everything else in British politics at the moment, will be little more than a proxy rerun of the 2016 referendum.

All of this appears to fit very neatly into the big story we have told ourselves about politics in the West in recent years: of populists and liberals squaring off, and of the grand realignment that means the new dividing line is between ‘open’ and ‘closed’.

Yet new polling in 14 EU countries (excluding the UK) from the European Council on Foreign Relations suggests that, on the continent at least, politicians and pundits who subscribe to this view are fighting yesterday’s war.

Contrary to the received wisdom, their polling finds that the European elections will not represent a descent into a newfound tribalism, or the replacement of the old left-right split with ‘globalists’ vs ‘nationalists’.

In fact, the ECFR’s polling ‘reveals that the defining feature of the political landscape is volatility: voters have not yet made up their minds. And there are no fewer than 97 million of these confused and undecided voters.’ Some 70 per cent of those who have a preference say they may yet change their minds.

In other words, the battle lines between Europe’s political tribes are not nearly as clearly drawn as most people think. The undecided swing voters are not just a narrow slice in the middle, but the overwhelmingly majority.

Interestingly, the ECFR argues that the best way to think about Europe’s voters is not as two opposing rabbles, but as four groups. There are the “system believers”, who have few qualms with the status quo both on a national and international level. There are those who have given up on politics on both a national and supranational level, typified by France’s gilets jaunes. There are the pro-European left behind, who think Brussels is the answer to national political systems they have lost faith in. And there are nationalist Eurosceptics who want a return to self-governing member states.

These groups make up 24 per cent, 38 per cent, 24 per cent and 14 per cent of the electorate, respectively — though of course their numbers vary considerably by country. Not unreasonably, 61 per cent of Greeks think the system is broken both in Athens and Brussels. The equivalent figure in France is a whopping 69 per cent in France. In Romania, 64 per cent think their own politics is broken but the EU is the answer to their domestic woes. Denmark is the only country where contented “system believers” make up a majority.

In other words, European voters are better understood in terms of how happy they are with the status quo — and who they blame for its failures.

The implication is that while there is undoubtedly an alarming amount of political frustration across Europe — a frustration that the EU has only made worse with its intransigence — it isn’t a single coherent movement in the way that the leaders of both the populist and liberal camps want you to believe.

The likes of Steve Bannon on one side, and Guy Verhofstadt on the other, see themselves as generals in an epochal ideological clash. But both of them, in their own ways, are wrong about a continent whose discontents are a lot less organised, and a lot less homogeneous, than they would like to believe.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.