It has become conventional wisdom about European politics since the double impact of the 2008/9 crash and financial crisis followed by the waves of refugees, that anti-European nationalist populist, xenophobic parties are sweeping all before them. The Brexit vote is cited as irrefutable proof along with the increased votes for parties that claim to defend the nation against immigrants or blame the EU, the Euro and Brussels for all modern ills. However, is European politics really turning hard right? Not quite, answers Denis MacShane, on what was supposed to be Brexit day 1.0. He argues that one lesson of Brexit is a guide of how anti-European politics can do serious damage to a country and its political parties.

The illiberal populists headed by Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leaders of Vox in Spain, the AfD in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria or the Forum of Democracy in the Netherlands are said to be poised to become a dominant axis in a Europe that is turning its back on the Brussels institutions and seeks to dissolve back into a looser aggregation of nation states. According to the European Council of Foreign Relations in a report published in February these nationalist parties can win a third of all seats with 235 MEPs producing a “qualitative change” in the European Parliament (EP) with the ability to block the nomination of the next EU Commission president, prevent Article 7 action against EU member states which flout EU rules and values, stop budget reforms, and nominate rightist populists to a third of all key committee chair and other posts. As Paul Mason wrote in the New Statesman “With nationalist, anti-immigrant populism ascendant, EU politics is about to swing to the dark side”. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian liberal prime minister and head of the ALDE liberal group of EU parties proclaims that Europe faces a “nationalist nightmare” over the next five year term of the European Parliament and so the May elections are the “last chance” to fight populism. Last year for Chatham House Professor Matthew Goodwin wrote: “Nothing can stop the drift to the right” and proclaimed in the Guardian “National populism is unstoppable.”

It is impossible to open comment pages without being told the hard right is taking over. But is this the case? The political hostility to the European Union that arises fears the illiberal right are taking over was exemplified by Hungarian government posters this winter. They had pictures of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the US-Hungarian Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, who are accused to trying to flood Hungary with immigrants. Viktor Orban sees George Soros as a kind of latter-day Elder of the Protocols of Europe stating: “Since George Soros appointed a socialist called Timmermans (Vice President of the EU Commission) as the leader of the pro-immigration troops the fight has become open.” Yet Orban has now been suspended from the European People’s Party, the federation of mainstream centre-right parties in the European Parliament following his incessant attacks on Soros, a Jew, which for many was redolent of 1930s nationalist populism in Central Europe. What Hungarians want more than anything is access to the EU’s core four freedoms of movement – of capital, goods, service and people – and to keep receiving transfer payments. The EU will give Hungary €20.1 billion between 2020-2027. The sum is greater than Hungarian government spending annually in 2018. Orban prods and provokes but can only go so far. According to a February Kantar poll, three times as many Hungarians think membership of the EU is a “good thing” than a “bad thing”.

In Poland, the so-called “European Coalition” of parties opposed to the strident anti-Brussels line of the ruling PiS (Law and Justice)  party are currently on 45 per cent according to opinion polls compared to 40 per cent for PiS. A newcomer on the Polish political scene, Robert Biedroń and his Wiosna (Spring) Party has made an impact. He is gay, 40, and a successful Europhile mayor and stands in contrast to the clericalist nationalist veterans of the Solidarność movement four decades ago. The PiS is now the establishment and rocked by scandals involving property development linked to the party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, and party nominees at the Central Bank. In Slovakia, long under the thumb of the Brussels-bashing illiberal SMER party, the big winner in the first round of presidential elections on 16th March was the pro-European liberal lawyer, Zuzana Čaputová, 45, likely to become Slovakia’s president with a very different style to the much older men of the illiberal right who run Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

European Parliament elections are rarely about Europe despite the hopes of EU boosters that a genuine European demos might emerge from the elections. Turn-out has gone down from 62 per cent in the first EP direct elections in 1979 to 42.6 per cent in 2014. In Poland and Hungary in 2014 only 1 in 4 voters bothered to vote. Often the vote is a protest vote against the national government and has little to with the EU. In 1994, so unpopular was the Conservative government after 15 years in power, the Labour Party scooped up European Parliament seats with the Labour group of MEPs constituting more than 10 per cent of all MEPs. By 2009, the pendulum had swung with UKIP winning as many MEPs as the ruling Labour Party. This surge was consolidated in the EP elections of 2014 when UKIP won most seats and a triumphant Nigel Farage was feted as the coming man in British politics. Professor Matthew Goodwin, the academic chronicler of UKIP,  predicted UKIP would win 4-5 seats in the 2015 general election. This did not happen and in the General Election of 2017 UKIP scored just 1.8 per cent of the vote.

Anti-EU populists can score well – most recently in Dutch regional elections. But the Forum for Democracy headed by the fluent pro-Putin Thierry Baudet only got 12 per cent of the total vote cast and some of those came from the longer established Freedom Party of the flamboyant Geert Wilders who made headlines with similar anti-EU, anti-immigrant populism after 2000. In March 2017, the New Statesman devoted 7 pages to Wilders as the man who would win the 2017 election in the Netherlands. He got 13 per cent.

One can understand the desire of journalists to big up and make exciting the arrival of new rightist parties but so far the performance does not match the promise of the headlines.   In an important regional election in Switzerland in March 2019, in the most populous Swiss canton of Zurich, the anti-EU, nationalist Swiss Peoples’ Party (SVP) lost seats while the Green Liberal Party which is committed to a much closer EU-Swiss relationship was the election night winner. 15 years ago the SVP were the insurgents becoming Switzerland’s biggest party with a fondue of hostility to immigration, the EU, and Swiss identity themes. But now the SVP are part of the establishment. 26 per cent of the Swiss population are EU immigrants. So when the SVP won a referendum in 2014 to ban immigration from the EU, there was an outcry from employers and public services which depend on EU workers. The referendum decision was shelved by the Swiss Parliament with some tightening of internal labour market rules so the Switzerland would remain in conformity with EU freedom of movement obligations for access to the Single Market.

The Swiss and Danish elections are useful pointers in something often forgotten in the claim that the hard right are poised to take over the European Parliament. The EP like the governance of most EU member states – but not the UK – is based on compromise coalitions that can accommodate many different parties without a single dominant ideology prevailing. The main populist parties in Europe 1945-1980 were big communist parties in France and Italy and after 1975 they were influential in Spain, Greece and Portugal. They were hostile to European economic integration which they saw as putting open market capitalism in the driving seat. In the first direct EP elections in 1979 communists had more seats than liberals but had little influence. Today’s rightist populist may face the same fate.

Yet the last thing today’s rightist populists Hungary’s right-wing populists in Central-East Europe want is to quit the EU – the main source of  Polish, Hungarian or Czech economic modernisation. It is the Brexit effect. Everyone looks with shock and awe at what Brexit hostility to Europe has done to politics, the economy and public finances in Britain – even before the UK has left Europe – and knows to promote such ideas in their domestic politics is a guaranteed vote-loser. Brexit destroyed David Cameron and is now obliging Theresa May to leave office. Not even the most anti-EU populist wants to unleash similar passions in their own countries. Antisemitism has surfaced in the Yellow Vest movement in France where Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and a leading French intellectual and member of the French Academy, Alain Finkielkraut was attacked in the streets of Paris as a “filthy Jew” by a Yellow Vest activist. Yet the more Marine Le Pen and other rightists encourage the Yellow Vests, the more an ugly political extremism emerges that turns off mainstream voters. Since December President Macron has climbed in opinion polls. French voters may dislike his style and agree with some of the Yellow Vest economic and social demands but they are not going to back openly racist and anti-Jewish politics.

In addition, while it is perfectly fair to note that the era of 20th century dominance by broad-based centre-left and centre-right parties is over the new populist parties that have emerged are not automatically rightist. Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke, and in many of its policies, Italy’s Five Star Movement are leftist wanting more taxes, more state control, more public spending, or a universal basic income. The Liberals are being over-taken by single-issue populist Greens who attract young voters for whom global warming, the destruction of the environment and dislike of the Davos elites of traditional political leaders are growing themes. The French Socialist Party took a hammering after François Hollande refused to run for a second term thus opening the way to Macron’s victory. Yet according to Giles Finchelstein, director of the main French left think-tank, the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, there is a wide and deep reservoir of “sympathisants” for the socialist tradition in France who can emerge to vote socialist in May. The French socialists have chosen to work with the new social-ecologist intellectual Raphael Glucksman, who does not have a party card, who will head their list for the European Parliament election with another popular ecologist as No 2 on the list. As a result the socialists in France are doing better in the polls for the EP vote than at the beginning of the year.

In his letter published in 28 EU capitals Macron argued for a “Social Shield” for European workers and unions and tougher controls on immigration combined with a crackdown on the foreign money flowing in from the US and Russia to back xenophobic interference in democratic elections, including of course in the Brexit plebiscite. His concept of a Europe that protects rather than a Europe that exposes the poor to the excesses of finance capitalism places Macron closer to the intelligent centre-left rather than the racist right or enthusiasts for ultra-liberal Davosman capitalism.

Take away hate of immigrants and the clear renunciation by Macron, Merkel, and Juncker of any super-state European project and there is less and less point in voting for extremist nationalist populist parties. Estimates made by number crunchers in the European Parliament and based on national opinion polls show 513 seats out 705 going to established centre-right, centre-left, liberal, green and left parties. Up to 50 MEPs would sit as independents, single issue or regional candidates not aligning with any party group. The remainder would be a fissiparous assortment of rightist authoritarian and populist parties but without any connecting links that could create a cohesive political force to shift the European Parliament as far to the right as Professor Matthew Goodwin or Paul Mason have predicted. The rightists are split between three different political groups with some very clear differences on issues like Putin, white supremacism, gays, the Catholic Church and the Atlantic Alliance.

To be sure, there will be a shake up of some of the old cosy corridor EP wheeler dealers and that is no bad thing. But if there is one lesson of Brexit that has been absorbed across the EU political spectrum it is that the dark politics of the plebiscite itself and the way Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have handled Brexit since July 2016 constitute an easy-to-read guide of how anti-European politics can do serious damage to a country and its political parties

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by DAVID HOLTSome rights reserved.

Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe. In January 2015 his book Brexit: How Britain Will leave Europe (IB Tauris) predicted the outcome of the referendum in June 2016.

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