Don’t leave internationalism to the nationalists

Elly Schlein MEP says a European green and progressive front is the real alternative to nationalism and neoliberalism

The European Elections in May 2019 were expected to be of crucial importance for the future of the European Union. The results constitute pictures with different shades depending on the different European countries, containing important lessons for European progressive forces.

First of all, with regard to the balance of power inside the European Parliament, no major surprises arose, considering what was expected during the months preceding the vote. The main European political families faced a downsizing in numbers: the European People’s Party (EPP) went from 216 seats won in 2014 to 179, while the Social Democrats (S&D) have witnessed a smaller decrease than forecast, going from 191 seats to 153.

Secondly, an important point to emphasize is how the eurosceptics, nationalists and far-right forces remain a minority within the European parliament. At the same time, however, the rhetoric of some political actors and observers in Brussels, according to which the eurosceptic wave would have been stopped, is far from realistic. That is clear if we look at the eurosceptic and extreme right parties’ results at the national level: eurosceptics and far-right parties are unfortunately the first force in the United Kingdom (Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party), in Italy (Salvini’s Northern League), in France (the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen), in Poland (where PiS scored 45.38%) and in Hungary (where Orban’s party, Fidesz, got over 50% of the votes).

Negotiations are underway in Brussels to try to form a political majority within the Parliament, which will drive the internal agenda for the next five years. In this regard, it is important to underline how for the first time since the first European legislature (1979) the votes of the EPP and or S&D alone will no longer be enough to form a majority. This implies that the Liberals (who significantly increased their seats from 69 to 106 MEPs) will be pivotal, gaining a solid majority of 438 deputies (where 376 are needed).

A third and very significant element emerging from the European vote is the result obtained by the European Greens, who increased from 52 to 76 MEPs and unexpectedly turned out to be the second party in Germany (where, at the time of writing, they are even forecast as the first party, according to the latest polls, overtaking Angela Merkel’s CDU). Furthermore, the Greens came second in Finland and were the third party in France and Ireland. In all these countries the Greens have been able to benefit from the extraordinary mobilization undertaken by many students all over Europe for the global strike for climate led by Greta Thunberg. This very positive result could bring the European Greens to join the majority and a consequent strengthening of the already solid political line of the European Parliament on environmental issues. Moreover, in this case, the pro-European majority inside the Parliament would be even broader, further strengthening the position of the only European institution elected directly by European citizens.

As we know, however, within the European Parliament different majorities can also be built on different issues. In this sense, a fourth significant point is that the progressive and liberal forces together get very close to the absolute majority even without the votes of the EPP. This could lead to the creation of even more progressive alliances inside the EP and to major achievements on certain issues. The hypothesis of a majority made of EPP, Conservatives, Nationalist and far-right forces seems less likely (and obviously scary) as it would control lower numbers than those previously mentioned (not to mention the huge political contradictions that would emerge in such a coalition). The fact, however, that these forces have become the first party in different countries will certainly affect the debate within the Council, the institution where the European governments are represented. They sit in some influential governments but will also threaten the governments in power where they managed to become the first party.

Another element is the record voter turnout in the European elections. This is a positive fact and shows how a process of ‘Europeanization’ of the debate is slowly taking place among European citizens. In some countries we have also witnessed during the campaign a polarization of the debate around the European Union. In these cases forces with a clearer, unambiguous, positive or negative position on the EU – such as the Greens or the Liberals or the eurosceptics – ended up increasing their consensus.

The first difficult test for the newly elected European parliament will be the election of the next president of the European Commission. In this respect, the progressive camp is not in the healthiest shape, but some important lessons can be drawn from this vote. Firstly, socialists win where they build their vision of the future on strong progressive issues, decent jobs, fair taxation and redistribution of wealth and opportunities, and put the social issues at the very core of their agenda. This was, for example, the case in Spain, where the PSOE achieved an excellent result.

The most important point, however, is that it seems that the progressive camp is paradoxically leaving ‘internationalism’ to the nationalists. This requires deeper reflection. Salvini closed the electoral campaign in Milan alongside Marine Le Pen and some of the main leaders of the extreme right-wing nationalist forces from all over Europe. The ‘International of nationalists’ is full of contradictions, and yet all its members manage to reinforce each other with a rhetoric made of hatred, walls and intolerance, practiced at the same time in different countries of the Union.

Why does Orban’s wall reinforce Trump’s one as well as Salvini’s ‘closed ports’, while the fight against inequalities successfully carried out by the Portuguese left-wing government does not strengthen in the same way other progressive forces in Europe? We must react to that ‘International of hatred’ with a European ecological and progressive front, a front that finds its strength from the battles we already share when mobilizing in European cities as well as inside the national and European institutions. A front capable of working more tightly across the borders, putting at the centre of its agenda a concrete and valid alternative that responds to the main challenges that will define our common future, such as the fight against inequalities, the dignity of work, climate change (in this regard Corbyn made a significant move in launching the call by declaring a climate emergency, and I hope that many will follow his example in other countries), as well as migration, European solidarity, social and tax justice against tax evasion and avoidance by big companies.

The ‘International of nationalists’ wins where it manages to take advantage of the real and concrete worries and struggles of ever-wider spheres of European society. It does so by indicating easy scapegoats for complex and profound problems: the ‘others’, the migrants, the LGBTI community, emancipated women.

This was particularly clear in Italy, where Salvini’s anti-migrant rhetoric (as if it was the core problem of the country) managed to increase his party’s vote to 34%, despite his open flirting with the extreme right in a country with a strong anti-fascist Constitution. It is up to us on the other side of the barricade, with all our strength, across Europe, to point out the contradictions of that front and to move the focus from downwards to upwards by highlighting the continuous growth of inequalities and the real culprits of this crisis – such as the multinationals that every year evade and elude taxation for an estimated sum of up to 1000 billion euros across the EU, literally stealing our future. There is a security demand across European societies, but it is a demand for social security, for a better perspective for the future.

The European Union and the new European Parliament are at a critical crossroads. The real challenge was not the May 2019 elections and will not be a duel between pro-Europeans and nationalists, as many leaders and media present it. It would be too easy for some of those politically responsible for this crisis to hide themselves among the pro-Europeans and act as if nothing had happened.

The truth is the blindness and inability of the European establishment to address globalization and avoid rising inequalities and social and environmental injustice that produces the fertile ground for an authoritarian and nationalist alternative that claims to ‘take back control’ by closure. We need to fill that third space, to build an alternative both to the disastrous economic and social policies of austerity that have worsened the living conditions of the many, and defeat the unrealistic idea that in our interconnected world we would be better off within national borders rather than working internationally on the transformation of our societies.

All the challenges for future new generations are European and global and cannot be solved only at a national level. That’s why we need to face them together, across borders, with a common European and international front that fights for social and environmental justice, keeping at the centre the human being and fundamental rights. This is a front that can respond both to the lies of nationalism and to the mistakes of neoliberalism.

I also hope, as a friend and lover of the UK, that there will be a way to reconsider Brexit – for example with a new people’s vote – because I’m convinced we’ll be stronger together in this Union, with all its shortcomings and mistakes, we can still change and make it best tool we have to face such breathtaking challenges and deliver concrete answers to our citizens.

Elly Schlein

Elly Schlein is an Italian Possibile independent left MEP.