EU flag torn "Another Europe is indeed possible – but a another EU is not". Photo: pxhere

European politics is increasingly fragmented, which poses important challenges but also opportunities for the radical left, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Much of the debate in British politics at the moment revolves around how to interpret the results of the European Parliament elections in the UK.

But, while there is a very specific national debate going on around Brexit and how the two main parties relate to it, it would be foolish not to try to understand UK politics in a wider, European context.

For many commentators, there was a relatively simple story to tell. Like in the UK, the elections across the continent were a test for how broadly Europhile or Eurosceptic the electorate is at this moment.

An example of such an approach is a column by Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian, in which she informs us that there were ‘widespread predictions of a far-right takeover of the European parliament’, but that the real story was the ‘Green and liberal surge’.

There were, of course, no widespread predictions of a far-right takeover of the European Parliament. And, to be honest, there was also no real Green or liberal ‘surge’. This is the kind of Remainer fiction in which the victory of the Brexit Party in the UK was actually a victory for Remain and cause for a renewed push for a second referendum.

As I wrote two weeks ago in an article for Counterfire, no poll was predicting a far-right takeover of the European Parliament, and it sure did not happen. But, as I also suggested two weeks ago, the proportion of people voting for what columnists like Nougayrède see as the Europhile centre actually decreased.

Fracturing and eroding centre

In fact, broadly speaking, there was very little unpredictable about the final results and there was in fact a small fall for the Europhile centre. The combined vote of the centre right (EPP), the centre left (S&D) and the liberal centre (ALDE-R) across Europe was around 58 percent in 2019, which translates into 439 of 751 seats. In 2014, that was arond 63 percent and 471 seats.

The liberal centre gained only because it took from the centre-left and centre-right, as in France, where Macron’s party effectively picked up votes from the collapsing Gaullist and socialist parties, or in Britain, where it became the preferred protest party of disaffected Remain voters who did not feel represented by the Conservatives and Labour.

As I pointed out two weeks ago, moreover, this is the first time that the centre-right and centre-left mustered under half the votes and half the seats. That they now have to broaden out the ‘grand coalition’ ruling Europe to a third centrist party suggests that establishment politics is slowly eroding and fracturing.

Only mild polarisation – largely to the right

Parties to the left, Green or European United Left–Nordic Green Left, together had around 14, roughly the same as last time, with the Green vote up to 9 from just under 7 last time. That certainly saw a significant improvement in seat share, and a rise to the fourth largest grouping in the European Parliament.

But this result hardly a ‘surge’ and it would be facile to bring the Green vote down simply to Europhilia among Green voters. This ignores greater consciousness about the environment and the search for a more principled anti-racist sentiment than that being offered by the parties of the ‘extreme centre’.

It also ignores that much of what the Greens gained, the radical left lost in Europe, often, as in the case of Syriza or Podemos, because of taking pro-EU stances that made them appear much less like a radical left and much more like part of the ruling establishment. A radical left party in Belgium bucked the trend precisely by making its opposition to the EU clear.

Success often came to forces that could present themselves as an anti-establishment – and anti-EU – force. And the right did much more of that than the left. Indeed, it won just under a quarter of the total votes cast.

The right is, however, also fragmented, in three different and not necessarily particularly coherent blocs. The harder and more xenophobic right did relatively better within this new constellation, and won some headline victories in France and Italy.

National variation

And this certainly feeds into the picture of extreme national variation. Sure, the right did well in France and Italy, and also in Poland and Hungary. But the centre-left topped the poll in the Netherlands and in Spain. And, the centre-right topped polls in large countries like Germany and small ones like Croatia.

Though there was a larger turnout it Europe as a whole, at a still low figure of just under 51 percent, this was also unevenly spread, and it was up in 19 countries and down in 9 countries. It was highest in Belgium at 88.47 percent and lowest in Slovakia at 22.74 percent, which is a truly remarkable range.

Moreover, the variation is striking in the sense that the Green and radical left was almost totally absent from the former Soviet bloc, while the right-wing anti-establishment Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group ran in only three countries – the Brexit Party in the UK, the AFD in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy.

No ‘remain and reform’ option on the horizon

The European Union is still a politically diverse, complex and fractured space. In so far as there are uniting forces, it is difficult to see how they represent anything other than the status quo. Only the centre-right and centre-left had representation in almost all countries, and they are failing to muster a majority between them.

This brings us back to the British context, in which there is great discussion about how the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn should respond to its undeniably weak showing in the European Parliamentary elections. Much of the commentary from the likes of Owen Jones and Paul Mason is that Corbynism’s way out of the current predicament is to reinforce its Remainer credentials.

When Labour campaigned for a ‘remain and reform’ position in the referendum, it failed. But it difficult to see how a ‘remain and reform’ programme could really work, given Europe’s political composition. Even a combined centre-left, green and radical left component hardly musters 34-5 percent of the vote.

Yet even that coalition does not have a common programme. Nougayrède, writing in the aforementioned article in the Guardian, admits that the ’death of social democracy by a thousand cuts may ring true for the German SPD or the French Socialists’.

How exactly a coalition could be formed that can muster a majority in the European Parliament, let alone among the Member States, which would be a necessary pre-condition for even hoping to ditch neo-liberal treaties like the Maastricht Treaty, seems like an insoluble conundrum.

Another Europe is possible, but another EU is not

Which is precisely why, even in a European context, it seems difficult to accept the idea that Labour should push for a second referendum, even if it could hope to win one. The EU would be a block to progressive socialist policies. The left can only hope to gain by taking the mantle of the anti-establishment forces and promising to refound Europe on a new basis.

Another Europe is indeed possible – but a another EU is not. And this new Europe can only be built if there is a freedom to implement anti-neoliberal policies, which are impossible in the EU. In other words, a radical break with the EU is necessary in order to re-order Europe. Without taking this premise as a starting point, no left party can hope to triumph.

In that sense Jeremy Corbyn has been right to resist calls for a second referendum. The main thrust for the left in the Labour Party and outside it at this critical juncture is to try to use the utter chaos of the Conservative Party to force a general election on the order paper by calling mass action outside Parliament.

Such a road can open up discussion beyond Brexit, and defeat the right inside and outside the Labour Party, but also open up the possibility of uniting the working class around major political issues like an end to austerity, new investments for green jobs and an anti-racist and anti-war government unlike any before. Such a prospect is worth fighting for.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.