The centre cannot hold

Leigh Phillips considers what the crumbling of support for mainstream parties means for the fortunes of the left and right in the coming European elections

March 25, 2014 · 11 min read

The candelabras in the mirrored reception chambers of the chancelleries of Europe are all a-tremble at the foreshocks of what ‘thought‑leaders’ believe to be the coming anti‑European earthquake in this May’s European elections. The unremitting decline in support for the EU over the past six years, as charted in Brussels’ citizen surveys, and the ratcheting advance in backing for parties beyond the mainline centrists, leaves EU leaders and commentators convinced that the 2014 elections to the European Parliament will produce the most anti-European house since its democratisation in 1979.

All polls suggest a major leap forward for the eurosceptic right and ‘far-right lite’ – the anti-EU, anti-immigrant politics of the likes of UKIP, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders and France’s ‘moderated’ Front National – and the far left, particularly in the southern European bailout nations. Both are gathered together in the Brussels-consensus mind as just different varieties of the same vulgar ‘populism’ of demagogues leading the ignorant European masses astray, which would be vanquished if citizens were only better informed. Yet in reality the far left’s programme is almost indistinguishable from centrist pre-1980s social democracy.

Brussels: architect of austerity

Today, Brussels is seen in much of the EU periphery as the architect of austerity, enforcing its programme of slashing wages, privatisation and evisceration of social services – ‘internal devaluation’ – through the technocratic undermining of elected governments and steady removal of fiscal decision-making from the realm of democracy. Meanwhile, in much of the north, centred on Germany, an equal and opposite reaction has occurred, where the EU is seen as the instrument through which lazy southern profligacy is rewarded, a leech on ‘their’ tax money.

It is a thoroughly transformed landscape from five years ago, when the leader of Europe’s centre-left parties could crow that they would sail to victory as neoliberalism’s hour had passed in the wake of the global economic crisis. The centre-right could sit pretty, confident that their own polls showed nothing of the sort would happen. And Greens for their part were certain that in a world focused on global warming in the lead up to the Copenhagen UN climate talks, their eco-Keynesian ‘green new deal’ proposals assured that it would in fact be them that went from triumph to triumph.

In the end in 2009, the social democratic representation plunged from an outgoing 217 MEPs to 184 as disillusioned working class voters – more familiar with the reality of social democratic cutbacks than the rhetoric of neo-Keynesianism – stayed at home or went hunting in new pastures. The far left enjoyed a slight uptick, as did the far right. The conservative and liberal vote more or less held steady, declining slightly while the Greens indeed did very well, especially in seat-rich France, ascending to 16.3 per cent from 7.45 per cent of the French vote in the 2004 EU elections and just 1.57 per cent in the 2007 domestic presidential elections. But little fundamental changed really in the parliament’s political composition.

Out of the mainstream

A slight victory for the centre-left Party of European Socialists was projected by one major survey in February. Other polls suggest it remains a toss-up as to whether they or the main moderate conservative grouping in the parliament, the European People’s Party, will hold the largest number of seats after 25 May, with another major poll in March placing both groups on track to score 27 per cent. The febrile political environment in most EU states means that the situation could easily change dramatically between now and the election.

Everyone is agreed that non-mainstream parties are certain to make advances this time, with France’s National Front, UKIP, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and Beppe Grillo’s mash-up of leftist anti-austerity and anti-immigration politics, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), particularly likely to make major breakthroughs.

Alarmingly, the National Front is set to be the outright winner in France, with a projected 20 seats. M5S will likely top the polls in Italy with 24 MEPs. UKIP has hopes of a possible victory in Britain as well; Farage’s blimpish gang were second in the polls, just behind Labour, as Red Pepper went to press. A total of 92 seats are projected by one major poll for the ‘non-aligned’ MEPs. Non-aligned is the term used to describe those MEPs who have not been able to club together with one of the political families in the parliament, which in practice is mostly far-right politicians.

The good news is that nationalist politics by its very nature makes it difficult for MEPs of different nations to work together. People who believe their country to be the greatest nation in the world often get into arguments, and all previous efforts at bringing together the far right in the parliament have foundered. The bad news is that a ‘far-right lite’ club of parties, led by an alliance between Wilders and Le Pen announced last November and taking in their counterparts in Austria, Belgium, Italy and Sweden, is on track to win 38 seats. UKIP, which currently dominates the right-eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) grouping in the chamber, will still not touch this group with a purple-and-yellow barge pole.

The Greens for their part are fighting to mobilise their base so as to hold on to fourth position. Green parties have faired poorly in a number of local contests since the highpoint in 2009, partly because when they’ve entered government they have been associated with austerity polices. In France the Greens are on course to drop from 15 seats down to five, with more moderate declines likely in their stronghold of Germany. They are also confronting a powerful challenge from far-left parties, although they have hopes for fresh breakthroughs in Spain and Hungary, where Greens have traditionally barely registered.

Looking left

Meanwhile, according to the most recent surveys, a surge in support for parties of the far-left grouping in the parliament, the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE–NGL), sees them set to become the third largest bloc in the chamber, leapfrogging the alliance of liberal parties, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). ALDE is likely to see a sharp drop in support, particularly for its two largest delegations, the UK’s Liberal Democrats and Germany’s Free Democrats.

The left party Syriza is set to top the polls in Greece, while Portugal’s Left Bloc, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands and allied parties elsewhere are also expected to do well. It will be interesting to see the performance in Italy of the recently launched L’Altra Europa con Tsipras (The Other Europe with Tsipras) list, inspired by the leader of Greece’s hugely successful new left party Syriza, Alexis Tsipras. The GUE is the sixth largest political family in the outgoing parliament.

Such developments could potentially block the ability of the centre-left or right to form solid majorities in the house without the centre-left depending on the far left for support – a move social democrats have tended to refuse when similar outcomes have materialised at the national level. A German-style grand coalition is thus the most likely outcome, ensuring a continuance of austerity and a further erosion of social democracy as a political force.

A third-place finish for the GUE would open up new prospects, providing a more powerful platform from which to oppose and expose austerian post-democracy, as well as a great deal more funding for research and outreach. With effective leadership and unity in the chamber, the parliamentary grouping could begin to be more of a key node in connecting the network of anti-austerity resistance movements, unions and groups across Europe, as well as starting to pierce the defeatist assumption that while a European socialism may be nice, it’s fundamentally a fringe idea.

Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras does a better job than most of expressing a left vision for Europe. Speaking to the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto earlier this year, he said: ‘The hegemony of Merkel in Europe will lead to the destruction of the European Union. The reality is that we are the only real pro-European force because we want a change that transforms the EU’s structures in order to return to the values that we share – those of democracy and solidarity . . . Europe will be democratic and social or it will never be. The important thing for the left is to create a broad, open front against austerity. The European Union must have democratic foundations.’

A barricade against austerity

There are dangers for the left, though, in EU-level success. The European Parliament may be the only directly elected of the EU’s three chambers, but it is not a fully democratic body. It has no power of ‘legislative initiative’ – it cannot initiate legislation; it can only amend legislation proposed by the Commission, and only in a certain number of policy areas. All decisions are behind-closed-doors stitch-ups between parliament representatives, the unelected Commission and diplomats from the Council of Ministers – another de facto legislative chamber representing the member states but which meets in secret and to which there are no general elections.

A third-place finish might tempt left MEPs to dissolve themselves into the busy work of the parliament, fighting for committee chairmanships, and the haggling required of backroom deals. To some extent this is warranted, but the primary goal of a newly powerful left should not be to play kingmaker between centre-left and right, but to construct an immovable legislative barricade against austerity and further removal of fiscal policy from democratic control.

The GUE is also somewhat notorious in the chamber for its backbiting, fissiparous nature. What happens in the coming legislative period will depend a great deal on the commitment to unity and sense of responsibility of the personalities that are elected.

For the left of the left to take advantage of this volatile situation, it will require the construction of a unified European alternative outside the chamber as well at a movement and party level. This will involve the construction of a solid, viable alternative economic and political programme, and an end to the petty squabbling that exists internationally and domestically between the different lefts. This is a huge ask.

In the absence of such political maturity, a far-right lite anti‑politics – a sort of ‘Strasserism’ that combines anti-immigrant/anti-Roma politics, euroscepticism and clientalist welfarism – will instead be the main beneficiary of the crumbing of support for mainstream politics.

What are these ‘political families’ in the parliament?

Some 400 million European citizens out of a population of 500 million are eligible to cast ballots. The vote takes place between 22–25 May, with balloting in the largest number of countries on 25 May.

The chamber is divided into groupings or ‘political families’ of roughly like-minded parties from different countries, such as the Party of European Socialists* (bringing together the different centre-left parties) and the European People’s Party (centre-right). But citizens still vote for national parties such as the UK’s Labour Party or Spain’s Partido Popular, not the PES or EPP.

Once elected, the MEPs will arrange themselves into the different political families. Some of the smaller groupings may dissolve or merge depending on the result, but the PES, EPP, ALDE (liberals), GUE-NGL (far left) and Greens will almost certainly remain. Keep an eye out for rearrangements on the anti-federalist, eurosceptic right and far right.

Britain’s Conservatives, for example, historically were members of the EPP, which is in reality more an alliance of euro-federalist Christian Democrats than conservative parties. But in 2009, they broke with the likes of Merkel’s CDU and Sarkozy’s UMP to sit with a handful of Czech and Polish eurosceptic conservatives.

As no ‘European government’ is taken from the chamber, no official governing coalition is formed. Instead, ever-shifting unofficial alliances come together around this or that piece of legislation. A vague left-right split is typically apparent, with the right side of the house’s majority dominating the bulk of the past five years.

With the expected shrinking of the centre-left, right and liberals and advance of non-mainline parties of far left and right, all bets are off this time, but a loose grand coalition between the PES and EPP is the most widely predicted majority formation.

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