A Small Sigh of Relief – The aftermath of Europe’s Elections

Rise of Fascism - Credit : Peter Price

Patrick Costello and Glyn Ford on the shift to the far right and implications for progressive politics

June’s European Elections were marginally less wretched than forecast, but there were lots of straws being desperately clutched on the left in a vain attempt to rose-tint reality. True there were glimmers of hope in Scandinavia with the far-right under-performing in Finland, Sweden and Denmark; in the latter the left Socialist People’s Party even finished top. Apart from Denmark, Elly Schlein – a Chartist contributor – and leader of the Democratic Party confounded her Italian critics by not only holding the line, but finishing a solid second to Giorgia Meloni, gaining two extra MEPs in the bargain (from nineteen to twenty-one). In France Raphaël Glucksmann seemingly oversaw the Socialist Party’s dead cat bounce when they doubled their seats from seven to fourteen and only failed by a fraction of a percent to overtake Macron on the left to take second place. In the Netherlands, the red/green alliance led by Franz Timmermans confounded the polling by doing better than Geert Wilders’ far right PVV but only because Wilders’ voters turned out less in the European poll than they did in the national one.

All in all, these were thin chinks of light in the electoral gloom shadowing the remaining twenty plus Member States. Donald Tusk’s much acclaimed “victory” in Poland over the hard-right Law and Justice Party – who lost first place by less than 1% – was all smoke and mirrors as the far-right Confederation almost tripled its vote to 12%.

The results in Germany and France were the heart of darkness. Scholz and his traffic light coalition were humiliated and the far right AfD gained six seats despite Le Pen’s rejection of working with the AfD after their lead candidate had stated that not all SS members were criminals.  Only Macron’s plight was worse. His call for a snap election in France makes little sense. The least worst result is a hung National Assembly, with Le Pen as the largest party. Then her proxy, Jordan Bardella, will be handed what Macron intends as the poison chalice of power designed to take the shine off Le Pen’s presidential ambitions, all the while under his long leash and his ability, as the inexperienced Bardella founders, to dodge disaster and box in Le Pen with fresh elections. Genius or madness? We’ll only finally know in 2027 with France’s next Presidential elections. The only silver lining could be how well the new Popular Front of the left does. If the four parties hold together and scores a strong second place, it could provide the platform in 2027 for denying Le Pen the Presidency, though they will need to find a Presidential candidate, who is not Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to unite behind to achieve it. 

So what do the results mean for the EU? Von der Leyen will be, after the early hiccup, the candidate for President of the Commission by the European Council where her EPP party dominate (twelve out of twenty-seven). Then she needs to present her policy programme and win confirmation by secret ballot in the European Parliament (EP) with an absolute majority of MEPs in favour. This will not be easy: five years ago, with a bigger centrist majority than now, she squeaked home by nine votes.  This time, the support of the three big pro-European groups of centre-right (EPP), liberals (RENEW) and Socialists (S&D) will be necessary, but not sufficient. In a secret ballot she can expect to lose a minimum of 10-15% of these members. Therefore, the political programme that she presents will have to cater to the priorities of these three groups, but also appeal more widely to either Green MEPs or to a large block of the hard right ECR group that includes Georgia Meloni’s MEPs. 

The Socialists have made it clear from early on in the election campaign and in its aftermath that they will not be part of any majority that includes the hard right, let alone the far right ID. As the second group in the new EP their votes give them a de facto veto. This must push Von Der Leyen towards a political programme that brings the Greens on board, and which will protect at least some of the Socialist’s core policies including the green transition and the protection of European democracy. It will be walking a tightrope: the more her programme takes on a green tinge, the more she risks losing votes from the substantial block of EPP Members (including its President Manfred Weber) in favour of the same weakening of the green transition that Rishi Sunak has presided over in the UK. They may resist anything but token concessions to the Greens, and continue their push for the continuation and strengthening of the anti-migration policies of the last years.

In the end it looks likely that Von der Leyen will negotiate a Commission work programme that reflects the numbers to include a Green Social Deal, enhanced social policy and “fair” trade. The problem the S&D faces is not the Commission’s delivery on the deal, but rather its implementation in the Parliament. Even before June’s right pivot the EP’s hard right with renegade EPP MEPs was able to gut the Commission’s proposed Nature Restoration Law to the point there was little left save the title. Now, while there is no feasible Right majority to “govern” there is a negative one to obstruct and frustrate. Both within the EPP and Renew there will be those that want to renege in order to pander to farm, petrol and psephology. So whatever the formal coalition arrangements to elect the President of the Commission, the day-to-day votes on amendments to legislation will be more vulnerable to the collusion of sections of the EPP and the far right. 

Their pro-active influence will depend on how effectively the far right parties are able to put aside their differences in order to unite into one or two large political groups that will then have a greater say in managing the business of the Parliament and a greater chance of influencing legislation rather than being, as they have been in the past, an annoying but manageable blocking minority. How influential they become will also depend on how much informal coordination goes on between parts of the EPP and the far right on specific pieces of policy and legislative amendments. 

Two other international factors will play a possibly determinant role in how strong the shift to the right in European policy becomes over the next five years. If Trump wins the US Presidential election the European far right will have a powerful supporter across the Atlantic. If more national elections hand the far right governmental power, as they look likely to do in Austria this year, and could do in France in 2027, their influence will more than match that of the Socialists in the Council of Ministers, the other institutional half of Europe’s law-making body.

What is to be done? The S&D – and the Greens – must demand a written compact with the EPP and Renew that incorporates their minimum demands. The EP is not like any national parliament in that party discipline is so much weaker, with national delegations waving conscience clauses like crosses before a vampire, but a deal on paper will do more to keep them honest than any “gentleman’s agreement”. The very fact that this time around the EU’s Socialist Leaders have opted to take the Presidency of the Council – almost certainly for António Costa, former Portuguese Prime Minister – rather than for a fourth consecutive time take the more important post of High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy – the de facto EU Foreign Minister post, left this time for the Liberal hawk in Estonian PM Kaja Kallas or possibly the less belligerent Belgian PM Alexander de Croo – may be a blessing in disguise. Yet the EPP attempt to limit Costa to only a two and half year term demonstrated just how duplicitous they will be. With no senior socialist serving in the Commission, it will give them room to manoeuvre allowing the S&D to go into “opposition” if further betrayed by the EPP either in Berlaymont or in the EP Chamber.

At national level, socialists, greens and left parties should be seeking to put aside their differences to shore up popular front coalitions and programmes and present real alternative visions to national electorates that can beat both the siren songs of the far-right and those who cling to more of the same, defending an unacceptable and crumbling status quo as the only alternative. 

The collective sigh of relief around Brussels was almost audible after the 9 June election results, as the mainstream parties managed, just, to cling onto a majority in the new Parliament. Pause for celebration, rather than cause. Unless something dramatic changes this will be a chronicle of a death foretold. For the left, it will be necessary to fight harder to stand still, let alone advance. The battle must be swiftly joined. The unintended consequences of Brexit continue to haunt the UK and EU. If we had still been a member, with no EPP member party in the UK, the Socialists would then have run the EPP a close second as biggest European political group. The EU would be sailing on a different tack. Instead, Labour will face across the Channel a EU whose politics are completely out of kilter with ours for the next five years. 

Glyn Ford was an MEP for over 20 years and leader of the Labour Group. His latest book is Riding Two Horse, Spokesman.
Patrick Costello is a Brussels based writer who served as an EU official for 27 years.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.