The European elections: Results and prospects

Last week’s European Parliament elections attracted an increased turnout, reflecting the high stakes in member states where governing parties are facing a crisis of legitimacy, as well as the mobilisation of sections of political and civil society around questions such as the climate emergency, the threat of the far right and the battle over the EU’s future direction.

Overall, the elections produced no clear story, but rather a number of realignments that will result in a more fragmented, finely balanced Parliament and greater instability across the European political system.

The traditional centre-left and centre-right blocs both took a big hit, losing their combined majority for the first time in four decades. The radical right and nationalist parties made significant gains, doing particularly well in Sweden, Poland, Hungary, France and Italy, although they have not experienced the European-wide surge that many pollsters had predicted. The Left, on the other hand, failed to meet its own modest expectations, faring badly in Germany and France while suffering a heavier-than-expected defeat to the right-wing opposition in Greece. Podemos has had disappointing European, regional and local elections, just one month after losing 29 of its 71 seats in the Spanish general election.Solid performances in countries such as Portugal and Cyprus, along with big gains for the Belgian Workers’ Party, were not enough to disguise what has to be seen as a very poor showing for the radical left as a whole. In the Danish national elections a different picture emerged with the Social Democrats forging a victory though with accusations that it is based in part upon the party’s tougher stance on immigration winning back voters back from the far right Danish People’s Party which lost heavily. The Social Democrats are likely to form a government with a left-bloc alliance that will include the eco-socialist Socialist People’s Party who doubled their seats on the green wave and the Marxist Red Green Alliance which maintained 13 of its 14 seats.

For many the big winners were the Greens and the Liberals, who have gained 60 seats to reach a total of 177 seats between them, creating what ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt has described as a ‘new balance of power in the European Parliament’. Some have interpreted their success optimistically as the birth of a new politics, others emphasising the resilience of a pro-EU centre-ground. There is of course a more complicated picture to explain, involving closer attention to national specificities, spatial dynamics, demographic trends and turnout. Here we merely attempt to weigh up the strength of these claims and assess the state of left formations and strategies from this point on.

A new politics or centrist renewal?

Although we have indeed witnessed an electoral #GreenWave across Europe, it would not be unfair to say that this owes much to the emergence of a new consciousness that has benefitted parties with the ‘green’ brand – regardless of their records in government or policy positions in the here and now. There is, at this present moment, no obvious alignment between the centrist Green parties of Europe and the radical current of school strikes and direct action whose radical slogan of ‘system change not climate change’ adequately captures the need for urgent and bold action. Achieving the kind of transformation that is required will therefore largely depend on an escalation of militant grassroots activity, the active intervention of trade unions on a much larger scale than we have seen to date, and the formation of effective red-green alliances at a national and international level.

It could also be argued that the combined forces of centrism have held up quite well, if one factors in the Liberal bloc. Any centrist majority in the Parliament will have to include this grouping, which includes (for now) the Lib Dems in Britain and Macron’s La République En Marche! As Kevin Ovenden has argued, Macron is likely to exploit this as part of an overall – and thus far unsuccessful – strategy ‘to restore French influence in the EU that has waned considerably over the last 25 years’. Crucially, however, the Liberals will not seek to bring about a radical overhaul of the EU’s economic system, despite the lasting impact of austerity and a slowdown in economic growth. Rather, they have shown that they are only too willing to reinforce the economic status quo and borrow the clothes of the right in the interest of political expediency.

Thus, it is a paradox that the circumstances of political fragmentation and extended crisis for traditional parties contain within them the possibility of centrist renewal: a return to Third Way politics with some technocratic Green tinkering or, worse still, further accommodation with the anti-immigrant demands of the right.

The Europeanisation of politics?

It has also been claimed that that the elections are significant for pointing to a ‘Europeanisation’ or ‘transnationalisation’ of politics. This claim has been made most eloquently by David Adler, Policy Coordinator for DiEM25, who identifies the Green Wave, the scrubbing of anti-EU rhetoric by Eurosceptic parties, and closer transnational cooperation between the radical right as evidence of this trend. Although there may be something in this, there are also reasons to be less sanguine.

First of all, it is clear that not everyone invested in ‘European’ politics to the same degree. Voter turnout at a national level varied from 22.74% in Slovakia to 88.74% in Belgium, where voting is compulsory; in the UK the figure was just under 37%, despite the elections being billed as an effective second referendum on EU membership. Overall, turnout was still much lower than is normal in a national election, which reflects the lack of a European demos and the fact that the European Parliament has very limited powers or relevance compared with a national legislature. Significantly, it the working classes abstained in large numbers.

Second, it may be the case that some Eurosceptic parties have temporarily ceased to talk openly about an exit from the EU, and that pro-EU parties won 75% of the vote, however it is less certain that this marks what Adler has described as a ‘fortification of the EU’. For instance, having emerged from the election with a strengthened mandate, Salvini has entered into another dispute with the European Commission over the Italian government’s budget. The Commission has triggered disciplinary action but Salvini has vowed not to back down, knowing that a confrontation with Brussels would certainly yield big gains for Lega in a fresh general election.

Salvini is not about to drag Italy out of the EU. But as Thomas Fazi and Adam Tooze have both argued, the Commission’s handling of the Italian case points to deepening contradictions which threaten the long-term survival of the eurozone and EU. Likewise, in France the marginal victory of Marine La Pen’s National Rally party is likely to signal the adoption of a more explicitly ‘France first’ strategy by Macron, with the result of increasing conflict at the EU’s core. Rather than one decisive rupture, it is possible that the EU will continue to sink deeper into multiple crises and suffer what Fazi has termed a ‘slow-motion implosion’.

Thirdly, the election produced no obvious mandate for the transnational ‘Remain and reform’ agenda advocated by some sections of the left. DiEM25’s programme received very little support, except in Varoufakis’ native Greece where they now intend to contest the upcoming national elections. Arguably it remains the case that the DiEM25 project consists of ‘nothing more than a series of demands, with no clear idea of how they are to be actualised’. Similarly, the social-democratic coupling of a ‘progressivist’ culture war politics with calls for return to ‘social Europe’ failed to attract significant support.

Finally, even if we are to suppose that the implicit endorsement of a Green New Deal represents an advance towards ‘a paneuropean movement dedicated to a single progressive policy agenda for all Europeans’, there remains no obvious route for securing its implementation at that level. For transnational socialist or green politics to mean anything in concrete terms will require:

strong and active movements at the local and national level. There is no abstract global fight against crisis and neoliberalism. Social struggles are internationalized only when local and national movements realize the need for coordination across borders in order to strengthen the fight against international and well-coordinated counter-forces. But international coordination presupposes that there is something to coordinate.

The reality is that these conditions do not yet exist, but must be built from the ground up and plugged into the new ‘green’ consciousness. The threat of a good example in a core European country such as Britain may assist in this task, although the likelihood of a radical Labour government has shrunk considerably in recent months.

The state and future direction of left politics

For the radical left, the failure to mobilise its base will have provoked a lot a soul-searching. The mass abstention of the working-classes not only helps to explain the Left’s reversal in the European Parliament but also its heavy losses in states such as the Republic of Ireland, where Sinn Féin and the Trotskyist left both lost half of their local council seats.

Messaging, it seems, was also important, with the electorate favouring those with unambiguous policy positions and punishing those who attempted to ‘triangulate’ between opposite poles or transcend the divisions between left and right. Ovenden rightly notes that the Podemos strategy of uniting people behind ‘empty signifiers’ has not only backfired on Iglesias’ party but also on Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, which saw its share of the vote reduced to just 6.5%. In particular it is the failure of the left to successfully mobilise around a simple, positive and radical message that appears to have cost it dearly. This is crucial in an era where a party without an organised structure or membership base can win an election, simply by virtue of having a gimmick and an effective social media strategy.

But, above all, the future for the left lies in the revitalisation of a class-based socialist politics as radical as the time requires – a politics that roots itself in the organised labour movement, connects with the Green movement and organises around the interests of those ‘who have the greatest incentive to upturn the economic order’.

by Stevie Nolan & Seán Byers, TradeMark Belfast

Originally published on 7 June 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.