Rethinking Europe

The Europeanization of the Anti-Europeans

The big prize being eyed by the anti-European and xenophobic parties are the elections to the European Parliament next May.

EU Parliament. (Credit: Botond Horvath - Shutterstock.com)

Takeaways


  • In order to thwart the further development of the EU, the anti-Europeans are actually Europeanizing their efforts. At first blush, this may seem paradoxical, but from their vantage point it is only logical.
  • Anti-European parties want to build on the negative mood that prevails in many EU countries and turn that voter-level frustration into the source of their parties’ success and increased power.
  • Rather than relying on country-level spoiler actions, anti-European parties want to paralyze the European Parliament as best they can after the May 2019 elections.
  • As scattered as the European right-wing parties currently still present themselves, they are definitely contaminating the political discourse throughout much of Europe.
  • At a time of profound social and economic uncertainty, anti-European parties are successful in dictating the political agenda.

They are gaining ground in general elections. The most recent stride forwards occurred in Sweden. In the national elections held there, the right-wing Sweden Democrats increased their share of the vote from 12% to 17.6%, cementing their place as the country’s third largest party.

But the big prize being eyed by the anti-European and xenophobic parties (the two phenomena go hand-in-hand) are the elections to the European Parliament next May.

They even boast of strong support by a leading U.S. Eurosceptic, Steve Bannon. His strategy helped ensure victory for Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Shunted in Washington by now, Bannon now wants to extend his nefarious electoral techniques, along with the U.S. President’s impulsive political leanings, to the right-wing European parties.

The spoiler method

In order to thwart the further development of the EU, the anti-Europeans are actually Europeanizing their efforts. At first blush, this may seem paradoxical, but from their vantage point, it is only logical.

They want to build on the negative mood that prevails in many, if not all EU countries and turn that voter-level frustration into the source of their parties’ success and increased power.

Rather than relying on country-level spoiler actions, as they have done in the past (witness the PiS party in Poland and Viktor Orban in Hungary), they want to paralyze the European Parliament as best they can after the May 2019 elections.

Not a single bloc

Although the plethora of right-wing parties in EU countries share goals and causes, they do not constitute a single bloc.

The Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán might have formed an alliance, described by some as a Trojan horse, with his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini. However, their parties belong to different groupings in the European Parliament.

Hungary’s Fidesz party is (still) a member of the European People’s Party (EPP). If that does not change, this will have consequences when posts are shared out after the May elections. For example, to be elected president of the European Commission, German MEP Manfred Weber will need a strong EPP and any other support.

Meanwhile, the Italian Lega party belongs to EFD, Europe of Freedom and Democracy, and there are others. The French National Rally (formerly known as the National Front) is proposing to assemble a “new majority” in the European Parliament, or at least a sufficiently strong minority to block further moves towards European integration.

The political glue that holds most of these parties together is above all but not exclusively to be found in the area of immigration.

Salvini meanwhile is talking about a “league of Legas.” Whatever happens there is the real prospect of new political constellations.

Aside from a deep-seated anti-immigration attitude, these parties also unite in their desire to insist on far more national sovereignty.

Contaminating the political landscape in Europe

As scattered as the European right-wing parties currently still present themselves, they are definitely contaminating the political discourse throughout much of Europe.

As a matter of fact, at a time of profound social and economic uncertainty, they are successful in dictating the political agenda.

The anti-immigration stance that characterizes them has spread to a significant part of the moderate right (and has even reached at least significant parts of quite a few social democratic parties in Europe).

Even true left-wing parties have not been immune: Witness the launch in Germany of the Aufstehen (“Rise Up”) movement, with its anti-immigration stance. This effort, spearheaded by the controversial, but politically very gifted Sahra Wagenkencht, reflects the German far left’s attempt to halt the rise of the right-wing Alliance for Germany (AfD).

This is of particular importance in the former East Germany where the party has its political roots.

EU countries still favoring immigration

According to a recent Pew Center survey, people in Western Europe who see immigrants as benefiting rather than harming their economies remain in the majority: 61% in the case of Spain, 72% in Sweden, 66% in Germany and 54% in France. (Significantly, the only European country to deviate from the rule, as in other cases, is Italy, with 45%).

But these numbers are far from being set in stone. They are volatile for the simple reason that hammering on immigration is a predictable reaction among the middle and working classes to their loss of status and power.

Moreover, the defense of one’s identity matters and, if handled badly, can have dangerous political consequences. As Francis Fukuyama warns in his latest book, identity politics has the power to break democracy.

The European Parliament elections in May 2019 look set to be a crucial political event, possibly the most European elections ever.

If the supporters of the plethora of right-wing parties in EU countries mobilize in greater numbers than those who, with no great enthusiasm, support furthering, or at least maintaining, European integration, this would have grave consequences for further progress in the EU.

As it stands, the voting system works in the favor of right-wing parties. In contrast to national elections, European elections tend to be fought more on proportional systems (which mitigate the first-past-the post effects that favor the biggest parties) as well as on the basis of national lists (and not on the basis of individual voting districts). In addition, the percentage thresholds to obtain seats in parliament are quite low.

It will not be easy to wrest control of the agenda away from them, but an attempt must nevertheless be made with attractive and reassuring proposals. These should address the problems mentioned above, the lasting effects of the crisis that began in 2007-08, with the ensuing disruption to social and cultural structures, and the current economic landscape, which is less rosy than expected.

Left unaddressed, the EU and its member states are liable to emerge weakened in their values, institutions and policies. Of course, the fact that no sufficient response has been put forth at the European level over the course of an entire decade does not augur well for it to happen in time.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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