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The European Left Needs a Vision of the Future

Miguel Urbán
Todd Chretien

The European Union remains steeped in crisis, and yet the challenge from the radical left looks weaker than ever. Popular discontent doesn’t automatically lead to positive change: it has to be galvanized around a realistic alternative.

Students transport an inflated globe and a flag of the European Union through the streets during a "Fridays for Future" protest for urgent climate action on May 24, 2019 in Muenster, northwestern Germany. Guido Kirchner / AFP / Getty

1. The Crisis of Legitimacy of the European Union

It is clear today that the European Union is suffering from a growing loss of legitimacy among social sectors all across Europe. It is ever costlier to be associated with supposed European values such as democracy, progress, wellbeing, and human rights. We are witnessing an organic crisis in the full Gramscian sense of the term — that is, both a consequence and a cause of the post–Maastricht Treaty model. This model has been nothing more than a neoliberal straitjacket, a lethal combination of austerity, free trade, predatory debt, and precarious and poorly paid labor making up the DNA of contemporary financialized capitalism.

Institutional Europe has tried to contain this crisis of legitimacy and governability by granting cosmetic reforms, in the hope of lending a certain mantle of liberal-democratic credibility that it otherwise lacks. The EU governance framework can thus be renewed in five-year cycles, coinciding with European parliamentary elections. This makes it possible to try to obscure the image of a bureaucratic apparatus, hierarchically structuring a balance of power between states aligned along the hegemonic Berlin-Paris axis.

2. Citizen Dissatisfaction and the Rebound of Voter Turnout 

The European Union’s crisis of legitimacy has manifested itself in election after election through rising abstention rates. They provide a sign of the growing dissatisfaction with institutional Europe among its citizens. This tendency was reversed in the most recent elections on May 26 when voter turnout reached 50.5 percent, an outcome celebrated with great fanfare by Brussels as a relegitimization of the system.

Once we dismiss the Eurocrats’ own euphoria, these turnout rates can be seen as an effect of the coincidence of local and/or regional elections with the European-wide contest. The Spanish example shows how the electoral calendar boosted participation in the European elections to 64.3 percent, more than ten points higher than the previous elections in 2014. At the other extreme, we see our Portuguese neighbor wasn’t able to surpass 31.4 percent voter participation, breaking the record for the lowest turnout for the whole European Union.

3. The Breakdown of Bipartisan Rule

Perhaps the biggest news from these past elections is the breakdown of bipartisan rule, or at least its domination of parliament. The European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) failed for the first time in the history of the European Parliament to gain an absolute majority. The EPP managed to win the elections with almost 180 seats, but it lost forty-one seats and 5 percent of the vote compared to its total in 2014. For its part, S&D came in second once again, electing 145 deputies, down 45 seats and 6 percent of the vote compared to 2014.

These results seem to confirm a consistent tendency of our time, that is, the crisis of the traditional parties that have held power since World War II. Furthermore, this does not appear localized to one country, but constitutes a European-wide phenomenon. It is a symptom of the intensifying implosion of the extreme center that governed Europe as a grand coalition and, among other factors, is generating an increasing fragmentation of the electoral arena.

All this notwithstanding, it appears that we are still in the initial phase of a European-wide reconfiguration of the political, economic, and cultural spheres that has only just begun.

4. New Political Alliances in Europe

The breakdown of bipartisan hegemony will not necessarily lead to instability at the level of EU neoliberal governance; or at least it will be contained, as has become habitual in EU institutions in recent years thanks to the liberals as well as the Greens who constitute a large bloc in Brussels. These latter two groups grew the most in the elections, dividing up the third- and fourth-largest number of seats in the EU parliament. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) promoted French president Emmanuel Macron’s “European Renaissance” proposals. They managed to double their vote and increased their number of deputies from 67 in 2014 to 109. For their part, the Greens’ support grew by 30 percent, giving them 69 MEPs, up 19 from 2014.

The growth of the Greens and the liberals, on top of the breakdown in bipartisan hegemony, opens up a scenario for the creation of a new coalition to govern Europe. This will be reflected most palpably in the election of the new European Commission and, most important of all, its president.

5. The First Woman President of the European Commission?

Traditionally, candidates from the EPP (Manfred Weber) and the S&D (Frans Timmermans) would be the favorites to assume the presidency of the Commission. But at a moment when the two chief formations have lost their absolute majority, this logic is collapsing. If Weber, a German, thought that the EPP’s victory would lead him to the presidency, he was wrong. Instead, a bona fide Game of Thrones has broken out in the European Union.

As a result, S&D’s Timmermans called for a progressive alliance to shut out the EPP, while Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Macron met in Paris, presumably to concretize a social-liberal alliance between the parties of the S&D, the liberals, and the Greens. This alliance was concretized in the campaign itself and symbolized by the presence of socialists such as Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa at a campaign rally for Macron’s European Renaissance in Strasbourg, bringing together all the main liberal parties. If Macron’s preferred candidate has been the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, publicly praised for his role in the negotiations with London, it seems that Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s current Competition Commissioner, may be able to count on more support to become the next Commission president. Thus, the end of the two great political families’ hegemony may leave us with a new president being appointed in the style of the Danish TV political drama Borgen, in which Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of a small centrist party, rides an unruly coalition to power.

Spanish prime minister Sánchez’s role in all of this is not insignificant. We must remember that the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) are the largest S&D party in the European Parliament and that Spain is, perhaps, the most important country governed by socialists in all of Europe. Thus, the PSOE bloc will be decisive in the gestation of any alliance with the liberals — and it is from this point of view that we should understand his trip to Paris. Sánchez’s visit sends a clear message in favor of a European alliance stretching from Macron to Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

This alliance would not only pursue a new grand coalition — making no change with respect to neoliberal austerity and the EU’s security imperatives — but would also assert Sánchez’s role in dividing up the most important posts in the next European Commission. However, this European alliance would also surely be reflected in Spain’s own politics, in the aftermath of that country’s general election on April 28 and the ongoing debate over potential governmental deals. An alliance with the liberals in Europe could open a path to its reproduction in multiple regions and cities in Spain, and — who knows? — maybe even in the central government.

6. Germany Always Wins

Gary Lineker, one of the best center forwards for England in the 1980s, once said “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” This can be read as a metaphor for the EU, especially the “Germany always wins” part. So, the question is: what might Germany win if Weber drops out as a candidate for the European Commission?

To make out German chancellor Angela Merkel’s real game, we have to go back a year to Luis de Guindos’s election as vice president of the European Central Bank (ECB). Guindos’s rise was one piece of a strategy far more complex and important than giving a friend of Spain’s then-prime minister Mariano Rajoy a plum seat on the bank’s board. It formed part of a web of mutual interests that extended beyond control of any specific institution to the effective control of Europe’s administration. With this appointment, Merkel opened the way to securing the election of Jens Weidmann — the current president of Germany’s Bundesbank, and known as a neoliberal hawk — to the presidency of the ECB, a critical component of neoliberal European governance. And as a consequence of its quantitative easing policy, the ECB has probably become the most important EU institution, and its increased power is shielded by its supposed “autonomy.” This is all the truer given the potential for a recession in Germany.

Weber’s candidacy for the European Commission on behalf of the EPP reflects the unsteady equilibrium inside the coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Weber’s (Bavarian) Christian Social Union. Weber’s candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission pacified the Christian-Democratic alliance in Germany but cut Weber out from the presidency of the ECB. To add more fuel to the fire, Weber has not refrained from criticizing Merkel and her government. In the middle of the electoral campaign, Weber promised that, if he were elected president of the Commission, he would put on hold the Nord Stream 2 Russo-German pipeline, a controversial project supported by Merkel in the face of opposition from various EU partners. The more than possible defeat of Weber will reopen the possibilities of Germany vying for the presidency of the ECB. In short, we face the umpteenth example of swapping chairs and contestants behind closed doors, without any democratic control. It is yet another example of the shadow government operating in the EU.

7. Tensions in the European People’s Party Group

Weber’s candidacy has exacerbated contradictions in the heart of the EPP parliamentary group, among both its more moderate wing, which has criticized the group’s xenophobic statements, and its extreme right, led by Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who has openly reiterated his support for Weber. An open conflict with his Fidesz party might be the single biggest concern within the EPP, and not without reason. After all, Orbán’s party only trails the Germans in the number of deputies belonging to the group. In May’s elections, Fidesz won 52 percent of the vote in Hungary, winning an additional seat compared to 2014.

Fidesz has been suspended from leadership positions within the EPP since last March. This is an electoral maneuver intended to demonstrate that a hard line is being taken against constant attacks against the rule of law in Hungary, even while Orbán’s party is kept within the EPP family. And while the EPP has the difficult task of isolating Fidesz in order to lure liberal support for Weber’s candidacy, they run the risk of Orbán joining Italy’s hard-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen in a new parliamentary group that aims to bring together the extreme right across Europe, further weakening the EPP’s ranks.

8. The Far Right Fails to Advance, But Continues to Grow

Europe’s far right harvested bittersweet results on May 26. On the one hand, it increased its representation to almost 25 percent of the European Parliament. Yet it fell short of the numbers needed to form a minority bloc with the weight that far-right figures had hoped for in terms of EU decision-making. This failure was met with jubilation in Brussels, but a more sober reading of the far right’s results leads us to the conclusion that is nothing to celebrate and indeed much to concern us.

In the first place, the far right received the most votes in three out of four of the most powerful countries (for which more European Parliament seats are reserved): France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, which will continue to be represented in the European Parliament until Brexit is resolved. At the same time, the far right’s results show its growth throughout the continent, gaining seats for the first time in countries such as Spain, which had previously never elected a far-right MEP. Indeed, in this country the far right’s results are ever more impressive — they have recognizable media personalities, and their organizations are gaining traction in more and more regions.

Beyond the dominant countries in Europe (Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy) where the far right scored exceptional results, it is also important to examine the Visegrad Group of countries to the East. Poland’s Law and Justice Party took seven seats and 45.3 percent of the vote, while Orbán’s Fidesz party won an extra seat and collected more than 50 percent of the vote, tripling its closest competitor’s score. We should also underline the regional elections in Belgium held in parallel with the European elections where the ultraright Flemish supporters of Vlaams Belang tripled their vote, coming second overall.

The far right’s main problem is its continued dispersion among various parliamentary groups. Throughout the campaign, Salvini tried to woo the European far right, accompanying Orbán to Hungary’s border fences or showing off his strength at a meeting in Milan where he gathered the majority of the leading right-wing extremists. But everything suggests that the European far right’s atomization will continue, at least until the mystery of Brexit is solved and a reconfiguration can develop within the European Parliament.

9. Brexit Again

Brexit continues to cast a shadow over the present and future politics of the EU. Great Britain participated in the European elections at the last minute after a new extension, but stalemated negotiations have struck down Conservative prime minister Theresa May and, to a certain extent, the most stable political system of the continent. The European elections were seen as a referendum on the possibility of convening a second Brexit referendum. Unsurprisingly, the winner was Nigel Farage and his two-month-old Brexit Party, which won the elections with 32 percent of the vote, five more seats than UKIP won in 2014. The Conservatives only managed 8.9 percent and were surpassed by the Greens (11 percent) and the Liberal Democrats (19 percent), while Labour came in at 13 percent; all in all, yet another example of the decomposition of the traditional political camps. These results, compounding the United Kingdom’s institutional and governmental crisis, suggests that far from seeing the light at the end of the Brexit tunnel, we are entering a labyrinth that may remain a permanent source of tension in the EU.

10. Fridays for Future and the Greens’ Electoral Impulse

The Friday before the European elections, the Fridays for Future movement called a new student strike in 1,600 cities across Europe in an attempt to insert its climate emergency message into the election campaign. This movement — started by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg — has over the course of a few months become one of the ecological movement’s main mobilizations. In countries such as Sweden, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, strikes and protests every Friday have continued on a massive scale for months, winning unprecedented gains in several places.

The analysis of the electoral results allows us to see that in the central countries of the European Union, precisely where the Fridays for Future mobilizations take place, a significant part of the citizenry, principally the youth, wanted climate change to be a prominent part of the political agenda. Indeed, they wanted it to replace other issues that were supposedly meant to be the big mobilizers, such as migration and security. This spurred spectacular results for the Greens: while in 2014 they won fifty seats, this time they won sixty-nine seats, and since the vote other new MEPs have joined their ranks. In Germany, with 20.5 percent, they placed second, finishing ahead of the Social Democrats. In France, they came third with twelve seats, seven more than five years ago. In Belgium they won three representatives and 15 percent of the vote.

If the Fridays for Future mobilizations do not decline after the summer break, it seems the struggle against climate change and for a new energy model may, once and for all, become the big issue for this new parliament.

So Where Is the Left Going?

The Friday before the European elections, the Fridays for Future movement called a new student strike in 1,600 cities across Europe in an attempt to insert its climate emergency message into the election campaign. This movement — started by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg — has over the course of a few months become one of the ecological movement’s main mobilizations. In countries such as Sweden, Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, and Switzerland, strikes and protests every Friday have continued on a massive scale for months, winning unprecedented gains in several places.

The analysis of the electoral results allows us to see that in the central countries of the EU, precisely where the Fridays for Future mobilizations take place, a significant part of the citizenry, principally the youth, wanted climate change to be a prominent part of the political agenda. Indeed, they wanted it to replace other issues that were supposedly meant to be the big mobilizers, such as migration and security. This spurred spectacular results for the Greens: while in 2014 they won fifty seats, this time they won sixty-nine seats, and since the vote other new MEPs have joined their ranks. In Germany, with 20.5 percent, they placed second, finishing ahead of the Social Democrats. In France, they came third with twelve seats, seven more than five years ago. In Belgium they won three representatives and 15 percent of the vote.

If the Fridays for Future mobilizations do not decline after the summer break, it seems the struggle against climate change and for a new energy model may, once and for all, become the big issue for this new parliament.