Europe’s political centre struggles to address the right

Are some of Europe’s longstanding centrist parties compromising too much in the wake of a surge to the right? Adriano Marchese looks at recent changes in European politics and what lies ahead this year. 

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January 5, 2018
Right-wing protestors demonstrate in Berlin, Germany, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Confronted by the growing popularity of Euroskeptic and anti-establishment movements over the past several years, Europe’s traditional mainstream parties are trying to tweak their message to slow the hemorrhaging of their support and regain some of the ground they’ve lost. But their efforts to embrace some far-right rhetoric or to oppose it head on appear to be doing little to turn back the tide in their favour. 

Some centrist parties, like Switzerland’s Social Democrats and Austria’s Social Democratic Party, have adopted populist rhetoric and have given up on their longstanding platforms of further integration with the European Union.

Others, like the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, have further entrenched their liberal platforms of inclusivity and have even sought to expand their liberal agenda. At a time when Europe’s social democratic parties are struggling for survival, this centrist stance has failed to resonate as strongly with voters. For the SPD, the cost was over five percent of the national vote in the federal elections of October 2017.

A common thread among these traditional parties — and their reactions over the past year or so — is their refusal to directly confront the root causes of the issues that have pushed many towards populist alternatives. “There won’t be a resolution in the short run because there hasn’t been a resolute confrontation to these far-right ideas,” said Simon Usherwood, who focuses on Euroskeptic and anti-EU movements at the University of Surrey in the UK. “Certainly not with a strong opposing world view.” 

Social democratic parties that previously enjoyed more or less consistent success in past decades are now up against a growing portion of the electorate that feels left out, disenfranchised and disconnected.

Centrist politicians are still winning elections in Europe — Emmanuel Macron’s party won a majority in France, and though negotiations are ongoing, in Germany a grand coalition is likely to form the structure the next government.

But the far-right has hardly been routed. In much of Western Europe, support for right-leaning populist parties like France’s Front National continue to hover between 15 and 20 percent; in Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, they poll as high as 50 percent.

“Those are pretty stark numbers,” said Martin Eiermann, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a UK think tank. “Yet people still underestimate the extent to which the European political landscape has been transformed in the past twelve months.”

In the European Parliament, mainstream centrist parties still dominate. Populists have focused on a handful of visceral issues: the woes of mass immigration, the decline of national identity and a European Union where technocrats are stifling the freedom of European citizens. These narratives have an insidious effect on policy makers, forcing them to reconsider and even halt steps toward greater integration.   

A meek response

“The surge of the far-right is now leading the discourses on immigration, nationalism, patriotism,” said Eiermann. Social democratic parties have a hard time speaking this language. On issues like the role of government and its duty to protect the domestic population and domestic interests, much of the battleground has been ceded to the right.

Adopting the populist narrative has been easier for traditionally right-of-centre parties. One dramatic example is the victory of the conservative Austrian People’s Party in October’s legislative elections. Its success was in no small part due to the adoption of populist stances on key social issues.

Parties further to the left have been forced to go head to head with the populists, in the process ditching some of their long-held principles.

For example, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) in Austria began its campaign in early 2017 by focusing on pensions, welfare and other social programs, and polls indicated that its voters were still responding favourably. “But migration was such a dominating issue that it was pushed onto the agenda from the far right, and then from the centre-right as well,” said Eiermann. “They were basically forced to defend existing immigration policies instead.” 

The SPÖ then lost support largely to the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). “They’ve managed to impose the rhetoric and the set of issues on the rest of the parliamentary and partisan spectrum,” said Eiermann. “The conservative party has more or less embraced populist positions on immigration.”

The about-turn did not do the SPÖ much good on voting day, when it was overwhelmed by a coalition of right and far-right parties.

“I think we see two things,” said Usherwood. “There’s an attempt to close the space down between populist rhetoric by taking on some of the ideas in a softer guise. On the other side, you see attempts to try and claim the opposite end of the spectrum and being openly enthusiastic about integration.” 

But parties that have stuck with progressive liberalism and Western economics have fared even worse. Until recently, every one of Switzerland’s national parties pledged to join the European Union as a full member. “Closer ties with the EU was the aim of our politics,” said Flavia Kleiner, a young leader of the grassroots Libero Movement in Switzerland.

Yet the swift rise of the far-right Swiss People’s Party has put an end to the country’s EU ambitions. “Now even the social democrats took it out of their party platforms,” said Kleiner.

A Pyrrhic victory

It may seem a consolation that populist leaders have, with one or two exceptions, been defeated or kept away from governing positions.

Macron, the self-styled anti-establishment but pro-EU candidate, won the French presidency against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) formed a government with a centre-right coalition, while Geert Wilders’s populist Party for Freedom (PVV) came second. 

Yet recent victories for centrists came at great cost to the traditional platforms of their parties. Recalling Rutte’s thinly-veiled directive to immigrants, ‘Act normal, or go away,’ Kleiner said: “Rutte calls himself a liberal but he gave up so many liberal principles and values to win a majority over Wilders. In the long run, it’s really negative for the whole liberal agenda.”

Usherwood added: “Populism is partly an expression of dislocation and disempowerment. People feel left behind with changes in society, in the economy, politics and traditional institutions.” 

By compromising their values, the mainstream parties risk undermining the credibility of their platforms and the institutions that they uphold. “The weakening of trust in public institutions and public people means that there is a lot more scope to vocalize and act on their discontent,” said Usherwood. 

The refugee crisis remains an especially easy target for populist groups. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, responsible for an open door policy that allowed by some counts over a million refugees and asylum seekers into Europe in 2015, has retreated from her stance. Now Europeans are watching how she — or the next leader of Germany — deals with the contentious issue of family reunification, which could potentially bring thousands more migrants into Europe.

This has proven the sharpest thorn in her side as she seeks coalition partners to form a new government. Other parties have become leery of backing a candidate with unpopular immigration policies.

“More broadly, the effects of populism on the European Union have been more about what doesn’t happen than any tangible changes to policy,” said Usherwood. For Macron, who campaigned earlier this year for a stronger European Union, this means putting on hold his dream of deeper integration, a European finance minister and a pan-eurozone budget.

Whether we like them or not

The problem across Europe may be that mainstream parties are unwilling to engage their populist and Euroskeptic opposition in meaningful debate on the touchiest issues. “The mainstream continues to view them more as objects of ridicule than legitimate expressions of popular discontent,” said Usherwood. “The tendency has been to ignore or marginalize them.”

But this avoidance may only serve to further polarize the population.

Every country in Europe has some element of discontent with the union or with the traditional political parties. Brexit has brought to the surface the real resentment toward current political culture and now presents an opportunity for the European Union to reconcile the different voices across the continent.  

Italy will be the next litmus test of the strength of populism’s appeal in a major European country, with its elections this March. The Lega Nord, Italy’s xenophobic and separatist party, has seen greater success outside its traditional Lombard and Veneto regions. Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle, or Five Star Movement, a more centrist-leaning populist party, looks likely to dethrone the Democratic Party’s majority, and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is looking to make a come back with his right-wing Forza Italia party.

Yet pro-European Union politicians refuse to acknowledge the broader implications of populism on the rest of continent. “The view in the EU is that Brexit is a British problem,” noted Usherwood. “All the while they refuse to recognize that all the things that contributed to the referendum results are found in all the other countries as well.” 

“Where you will see some movement this year is more member states saying that they think the EU is doing more than enough as it is,” said Usherwood. For many European countries, 2018 will be a year of adjustment and setting expectations, as governments interact with an invigorated far-right presence in their parliaments. How well they placate the demands of the electorate that voted for these parties will dictate how loudly their voices resonate after that.