The May 26 elections to the 751-seat European Parliament are just around the corner, and conservative, liberal and social democratic camps in the European Union (EU) are all sounding the alarm.
Writing for the mainstream European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on May 16, Susi Dennison and Mark Leonard expressed their panic:
“There are seven days to resolve the paradox at the heart of the European project. Support for EU membership is at a record high — two-thirds of Europeans currently believe it is a good thing, the largest share since 1983 — and yet a majority also fears that the EU might collapse.
“The challenge for pro-Europeans is to use this fear of loss to mobilise their silent majority, and to ensure that it is not just anti-system parties that get their say on May 26.”
That might seem overblown, however the alarm of the ECFR’s writers is well-founded. If the polls are right, the cosy duopoly of the conservatives and social-democrats in the chamber — grouped respectively in the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — will vanish on the loss of up to 90 seats.
That result would be partly offset by increased support for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche group is joining at this election. The polls show that these committed European federalists will pick up an extra 35 to 40 seats.
In that case, these three “pro-European” groups — each in their own way supportive of the present neoliberal EU — would have to find a way to reach a deal to elect the incoming EU officeholders.
Any division would hamper the election of the new president of the Commission and of the speaker of parliament and weaken the political authority of the College of Commissioners (the EU ministry).
Openings for ‘antisystem parties’
Studies of the impact of what the ECFR calls “anti-system parties” stress their potential to undermine “the European project” once they win more than a third of the vote on May 26.
They could: slow down the EU’s free trade agenda; block applications of the mechanism for censuring breaches of EU rules and values (such as Hungary’s media laws and Poland’s attack on judicial independence); use their committee presidencies to stymie the adoption of legislation; and exert pressure to defund projects and policies they oppose.
Of more immediate concern, a gain for the far right parties on May 26 would feed into the string of national elections in 2019 and 2020, conveying the message that the wave of disaffection with “Brussels” is on the rise.
But how real is the scenario of a populist spectre haunting European democracy? How much scare-mongering can the mainstream unleash, to frighten people into voting for them in what have always been low turnout elections?
To answer properly requires rejecting ECFR’s lumping of left and green parties in with those of the right. Irrespective of specific coincidences, the left forces in the European Parliament — grouped in the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) — show no pattern of consistent voting with the “anti-European” right. This is especially the case on the key issue of this election — the EU’s policy on migration and refugees.
Here the GUE/NGL and The Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) stand for a more humanitarian policy, in opposition to an EU that is being dragged by Italy’s Matteo Salvini’s and Hungary’s Victor Orbán’s racist and xenophobic right towards crueller and more repressive “border protection” policies.
The GUE/NGL and Green-EFA also support the right of national self-determination of the peoples of Europe without a state, a stance that sets them apart from the EPP, S&D and ALDE and the majority of the Eurosceptic right.
Thus it makes no sense to add GUE/NGL’s (50-55) and Greens-EFA’s (55-60) projected seat haul to that of the right-wing forces, in the name of some “anti-system” bloc.
Can a divided right…
Can the far right win a critical third of the seats on May 26, given that these nationalist, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and Eurosceptic forces have a history of splits and desertions from the three parliamentary groups they inhabit?
They clash on major issues including: exiting the EU or reducing its powers; slashing EU funding (supported by “giver” parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Dutch Forum for Democracy (FvD), but opposed by “takers” like the governing Polish Law and Justice (PiS) and Hungarian Fidesz parties); commitment to NATO or developing ties with Russia (which pitches PiS against the Lega Nord, governing in Italy); and action on global warming (generally supported by the Scandanavian right but not elsewhere).
Leaving aside the most xenophobic affiliate of the EPP (the presently suspended Fidesz), right and far right Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) belong to the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR), Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the European Alliance of People and Nations (EAPN), or are unaffiliated.
The ECR (seemingly the least extreme of the groups) are “Eurorealists” who reject “the ideology of supranationalism without limits, and the extreme position that the European Union be abolished”.
The ECR’s two main affiliates are the UK conservatives and PiS. Other major members are the anti-immigrant Belgian New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), Sweden Democrats, Danish People’s Party, Forum for Democracy (Netherlands) and Brothers of Italy.
Given the departure of the Tories with Brexit, a desertion of ECR affiliates and individual MEPs into some other group after May 26 cannot be excluded.
For its part, the EFDD combines a dribble of disaffected MEPs from other groups, with the Italian Five Star Movement (in government with the Lega Nord) and former MEPs of the United Kingdom Independence Party who now represent Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
This unstable amalgam is even more likely to come apart with Brexit than the ECR, especially as Five Star Movement MEPs have already been rebuffed in an attempt to join ALDE.
…unite behind Salvini?
This is the context in which Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has set up the EAPN, as a weapon for forcing unity upon the fragmented right.
The EAPN began life as the European Parliament’s smallest group, the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). Its core is made up of Salvini’s Lega Nord, Marine Le Pen’s French National Front (now National Rally), Geert Wilder’s Dutch Party of Freedom (PVV) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
The latest polls give the group more than double their initial 37 MEPs, mainly due to Salvini’s successes in “stopping the boats” of refugees in the Mediterranean.
That sort of advance, especially if backed by a victory of Le Pen over Macron in France on May 26, would put pressure on the ECR, EFDD, Fidesz and (presently ungrouped) far right forces such as Vox (Spain) and Golden Dawn (Greece) to throw in their lot with the EAPN.
The immediate objective would be for Salvini’s group to replace ALDE as the parliament’s third largest force. The main glue that would hold the show together would be the chance to extend Salvini’s anti-migrant policy.
Salvini brought his EAPN mates to a rally in Milan on May 18. He said: “We are living a historical moment — the liberation of our countries from Brussels. We have to leave Merkel, Soros and Islam behind…
“The policy of open ports caused more than 15,000 deaths and disappeared in the Mediterranean. But our policy is saving lives. Say that with pride tomorrow when we go to mass.”
Clearly, the possible consolidation of most of the far right around the EAPN represents a very serious threat. Its stress on building the EU as a “Europe of nations” presages a fortress Europe equipped to conduct a heightened war on immigrants and refugees.
Salvini’s anti-elite demagogy disguises a practice favourable to the corporate establishment, as a recent report by the Corporate Europe Observatory spells out. It also masks the reality that, as the far right becomes potentially more influential within the EU they also back away from demanding the EU exit referenda, which most of them were campaigning for as recently as 2016 — before the shambles of Brexit. Now the stress is on getting far right policy implemented inside the EU.
What is the state of the left and green alternatives to this threat? While no polls are showing a big jump in support for the left GUE/NGL and Greens-EFA groups, there should be some positive changes in their composition ahead.
The GUE/NGL should for the first time gain a presence in Belgium (the Workers Party of Belgium) and Slovenia (The Left). It should also gain an extra MEP in Germany (The Left), Denmark (Red-Green Alliance), Portugal (Left Bloc) and Sweden (Left Party), as well as four extra seats in France (France Unbowed).
The question is whether these gains will be negated by losses, probable in Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic and possible in Ireland and the Netherlands.
The Greens face a similar situation, but with a greater chance of achieving a net gain of three or four seats, based on winning more MEPs in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
The presence of these MEPs will continue to be a challenge to the EPP’s, S&D’s and ALDE’s fake “either-us-or-the-far-right” message.
That challenge will be stronger if, as seems likely, both Catalan ex-president Carles Puigdemont and jailed ex-vice-president Oriol Junqueras are also elected, and will guarantee that Catalonia’s struggle for self-determination remains at the heart of the struggle for a European vision different to both Macron’s and Salvini’s.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Written with valuable help from Duroyan Fertl.]