Promises of progressive reforms within the EU will ring hollow, with the hard right set to gain from polarisation. The left here can challenge this trend, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
As Britain nears probably its final European Parliament election before Brexit, the media is interpreting the vote as a proxy referendum. The appearance of the Brexit Party and its spectacular rise in the polls is seen as a slap in the face for the main parties for failing to deliver on the referendum result in 2016.
The election in Britain is hardly idiosyncratic, since most votes in each country will reflect national discussions more than European debates. Nevertheless, the debate in Britain is very different, and yet we hardly know what the rest of the continent is discussing as this going almost unreported on in Britain.
Eurosceptic newspapers are in any case unlikely to pay much attention to Europe, but the apparently Europhile newspapers like the Guardian or the Independent are not really producing noteworthy reports or analyses.
This is likely because the election is hardly promising for anyone trying to argue that Britain should remain and reform. This article will try shed light on the electoral process in the European Union, but also explain what it means for Britain.
The European Parliament elections in Europe
We are nearing the ninth parliamentary election since the first direct elections to the European Parliament, held in 1979. They will be held over several days, 23-26 May, and will produce a new European Parliament for a period of five years.
The results are unlikely to lead to massive change. That is partly on account of the lack of real power resting with the European Parliament. Even after some treaty changes in 2009, the European Parliament still only elects the Head of the European Commission and approves the Commission itself, shares budgetary power with the European Council, and has no legislative initiative (which rests with the Commission).
Perhaps it is also for that reason that few take European Parliament elections seriously. At the last European Parliament election in 2014, only around 42.5 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out. The motivations of voters are also likely to vary significantly across the continent, with European Parliament elections often being seen as opportunities to send a message to national governments.
Nevertheless, the same pattern we have seen over and over in national elections recently will likely be reflected at the forthcoming European Parliament elections. This means that the mainstream parties will see a slight drop in support, while the right and left poles will see a slight increase. In other words, we will see a further erosion of the neoliberal ‘extreme centre’ as voters signal anger over the general state of affairs in their countries.
The slow erosion of the ‘extreme centre’
There are no opinion polls at the level of the European Parliament elections, but most projections suggest that the centre-right European People’s Party will once again form the largest group, albeit with fewer MEPs than before (around 175-185 in 2019 in comparison with 221 in 2014).
The second largest group, as last time, will likely be the centre-left Party of European Socialists (with 145-160 seats in 2019 in comparison with 191 seats in 2014).
That means that neither group will be able to form a majority in a parliament with 751 members (which is to drop to 705 when the UK leaves). More strikingly, they may be unable to do so even when their votes are combined. This would be an astonishing development.
It is very likely that these two groups would be able to form a majority, and nominate the President of the European Commission, in alliance with the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group. This is the kind of group in the European Parliament that the Liberal Democrats represent in the UK, and it is likely to have the support of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The centrist ALDE is likely to see a rise in its representation, unlike the centre-right and centre-left, with anywhere up to 100 seats in 2019 in comparison with 70 in 2014. If this does indeed transpire, it could ensure a majority for the “extreme centre” on a reduced majority of anywhere between 420 and 450 seats, in comparison with the current 471.
The poles gain weight
The polarisation we have seen across the European continent in national elections will likely be reproduced at the European Parliament election, with the radical right and radical left gaining. At the moment, however, the radical right’s performance is more likely to make headlines.
This is partly because the unification of right wing forces in two parliamentary groups will strengthen their representation overall more than that of the left-leaning forces. The European Conservatives and Reformists look set on repeating their strong performance: they could attain between 60 and 80 seats in 2019, in line the 2014 result of 70.
The more extreme Europe of Nations and Freedom is however likely to gain significantly, going up from its current 37 to between 60 and 80. This jump will likely make up for losses experienced by the right-wing Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, more than half of whose MPs last time came from UKIP. Though the Brexit Party will likely do well, with the UK leaving, the EFDD is unlikely to be a potent group.
By contrast, the European United Left–Nordic Green Left is likely to win around 50 seats, as in 2014, while the Greens will likely see a moderate increase in their seats from around 50 to around 60.
Though the parliamentary arithmetic suggests relatively mild polarisation, the popular vote is a better register. The ‘extreme centre’ would gain just over half of all votes cast (down from just over sixty in 2014), the radical right combined just under a quarter (up from around 11 percent in 2014), and the combined left just over 15 percent (compared with approximately 12.5 percent last time).
And the headline results are likely to be significant. Whereas a major headline from 2014 was Tsipras’s (at the time radical left) Syriza topping the poll in Greece, it is very likely that a series of hard-right parties will top the poll in some of Europe’s major countries, like in France and Italy. Much of central and eastern Europe, too, will have moved right.
Where is Europe going?
None of this means that the EU is in imminent danger of collapse, but the foundations of politics-as-usual are certainly ever more precarious. If, before, the centre-right and centre-left had more than half the votes between them, this is no longer the case now, since they gain little above forty per cent together.
To rule, they need the support of a third centrist party. And to rely on three to get the support of what used to suffice with just two parties is suggestive of a fracturing political landscape. Of course, as mentioned, European Parliament elections have a low turnout, but this trend is visible in almost all the national elections in Europe recently, where the centre is slowly losing ground.
The gains of the hard right will be somewhat exaggerated by the media, though there is no hiding from the fact that the right have made recent advances, following Donald Trump’s election in the United States.
Nonetheless, we should be aware the right also splits three ways in the European Parliament, but their divisions are even more significant. Many on the right in northern Europe disagree politically with the right in the southern parts of the continent. For example, Germany’s AfD is running with Italy’s League, but the former criticised the latter’s big spending budget.
While this means that the right does not agree on many ways in which it would refashion the EU, its breakthrough is likely to move parts of the “extreme centre” to the right on issues like Islamophobia, racism and migration. The EU will simply not become more Muslim-friendly, more tolerant or more open to migrants. It is likely to become more of a fortress to the outside, and re-inforce national borders on the inside.
Judging by the policies of countries in which right-wing parties attain or share power, like Italy, Hungary, Austria or Poland, workplace rights will suffer, legislation detrimental to women’s rights will be advanced, and it is highly likely that even more extreme right wing forces will gain ground in national politics across the continent. Governments like those in France will fear that they will soon fall to the hard right at the next general election.
Where lies hope for the left?
None of this is to say that the left is doomed. But it is clear that across the continent, it seems to have made less headway than the right since 2014, when all the talk was of Tsipras’s challenge to the mainstream left.
Therein lies the rub. When faced with the choice of challenging the status quo and breaking with the European Union, on the one hand, or accepting the status quo and European Union in the hope of reform down the line, Tsipras chose the latter.
And even if Greeks still prefer Tsipras to the formerly dominant centre-right, and even if Spaniards recently turned out to return a soft centre-left government, the truth is that that kind of politics is not inspiring the increasing numbers of disenfranchised people across Europe.
That has left a space for the right to falsely present itself as an anti-establishment force and win support. Clearly, it has picked up a certain amount of momentum. Nonetheless, nowhere has it actually delivered on promises of change, and the right remains divided across the continent.
With the ‘extreme centre’ hardly offering any ideas of a way forward, the possibility remains for the left to take up the mantle of change, of stopping the hard right and of delivering for the exploited and oppressed in society.
The left must show it can do this across borders. But it must also accept that delivering change starts at the national level. The left simply cannot force changes at the level of the European Union, as it is too small and its forces are developing unevenly. To speak of 2024 or 2029 as a horizon of change at the level of the European Union is to condemn any hope of change now or in the near future.
And herein comes the rub. In Britain we have the chance of electing the most left-wing Prime Minister in the country’s history relatively soon. No one can believe that Theresa May will survive the drubbing that is coming the way of the Tory party on 23 May. A general election is a real possibility.
Instead of fighting for a referendum to remain tied to a neoliberal and increasingly right-wing European Union, the left in the UK, whether it is in or out of the Labour Party, should be doing all it can to hasten the coming of a general election and creating a fighting atmosphere from below which can make radical change possible. That in itself would strengthen the left across Europe.
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