Ignore the hype. The far-right ‘gravediggers’ of Europe aren’t as successful as they seem
Most voters supported parties that do not want to leave the EU or the Euro even if they have criticisms of Brussels. The future is brighter than we allow ourselves to think
So what happened to the great right-wing populist surge that was meant to conquer Europe and wrest control of the European parliament from the staid old parties of the right, left, and centre that have been running the show for years?
For months we have been regaled with tales from academics, think tanks and journalists of how a new alliance of hard right anti-EU parties would be the big winners in the European parliament elections. There was talk of up to one third of all MEPs coming from anti-EU nationalist parties and leaders like Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and far-right AfD and FPÖ politicians using the newfound influence to block European parliament business. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, it was claimed, would disrupt the EU’s political mechanisms.
The actual results show something very different. There have been surges of voters looking elsewhere but not to the populist right, or so-called Team Bannon. Trump’s former aid has been wandering around Europe for two years with a great deal of American right wing money trying to create an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, anti-Brussels network. He hasn’t done as well as he would have hoped.
While Matteo Salvini came top in Italy, the surprise was the return of the centre-left Partido Democratico. Salvini’s Lega outpointed the 5 Star movement and will encourage Salvini to go for an early election and rid himself of his flaky eccentric coalition partners. Meanwhile, the Italian economy looks increasingly shaky as Salvini’s endless populist promises all require more and more borrowing and do nothing to modernise the Italian economy.
In France, Marine Le Pen came in neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron despite the French president’s unpopularity and the Gilet Jaunes street protests which Len Pen backed. She did worse than her showing in the 2017 presidential election and seems to have hit a ceiling of around 23 per cent of votes. The French Greens did well as they did in Germany where they are now the second biggest party.
Hard right anti-EU parties like Germany’s AfD or the scandal hit Freedom Party in Austria made no breakthrough. Geert Wilders, the flamboyant Dutch anti-EU populist who featured in the front row of the Milan photo call of the pre-poll gathering of anti-immigrant populist leaders flamed out and his party lost all their MEPs.
The big winner in the Netherlands was the Labour Party which outpointed the ruling centre-right party and the liberals. In Spain and Portugal, the socialists won most seats and in Greece, the centre-right New Democracy beat Syriza.
In Poland and Hungary, the well-rooted PiS and Fidesz parties won. They have quarrels with Brussels, but the Hungarian strong-man, Viktor Orban, remains close to the EPP centre-right federation and Poland’s development minister called for a bigger EU budget during the campaign – hardly the language of Euroscepticism.
In Britain, Nigel Farage won most seats. But he only won 4 per cent more votes than in 2014. The clearly identified anti-Brexit or Remain parties won 40.4 per cent of all votes and the unambiguous hard Brexit parties led by Farage won 34.9 per cent. Add in the 14.4 per cent Labour vote which was mainly anti-Brexit and there is a clear majority for staying in the EU in contrast to the 52-48 per cent Leave vote of 2016.
The big win for the moderate anti-Brexit Alliance party in Northern Ireland over the anti-EU DUP hard line unionists is further evidence that the UK as a whole is becoming less certain about Brexit.
The Greens are now far bigger in the European parliament than the hard-right. As with national politics in Europe this century there is now more fragmentation. The old 20th century political duopoly of centre-right and centre-left with a small slice for liberal parties is done. Identity politics – identity with the nation, with white Christianity, with the need to save the planet – has become as important as class or social category politics.
The label populist can be applied to greens, Scottish nationalists, and leftist parties like Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany or Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise in France. Left populist parties performed poorly but leftist populism is here to stay along with its right-wing variant.
For business and banks, the new European political geography may need new navigation tools. The turn-out in the election was 50 per cent – the highest in 25 years. Most voters supported parties that do not want to leave the EU or the Euro even if they have criticisms of Brussels. For the gravediggers of Europe it was a bad result.
Denis MacShane is the the UK’s former minister of Europe. His new book ‘Brexeternity. The Fate of Britain’ will be published later this year