By Dick Nichols
June 5, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the end, the European establishment parties’ almighty scare campaign about the threat of a far-right surge at the May 26 elections to the European parliament worked out quite nicely for them. True, guarding the power structures of the neoliberal European Union (EU) has become trickier now that the duopoly of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) has ended in a loss of 72 seats[i], but the centre has held—for now.
The liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), supported by French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, partly came to the rescue with its 40 extra Members of the European Parliament (MEPs): that gain made these champions of a federal EU the biggest winner. In addition, although the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) grew by a 21 seats on the back of a rising wave of concern about global warming, its more conservative flank may well be vulnerable to S&D and ALDE pressure not to touch the pillars of EU institutional stability.
In contrast, the Eurosceptic, racist and xenophobic right fell 74 seats short of winning the third of the parliament needed to achieve the qualitative leap in its regressive impact on the European politics that it is already having in Italy (see Daniele Fulvi’s analysis for Green Left Weekly here).
As a whole, the Eurosceptic and far-right camp increased its tally from 155 to 177 seats. Its most racist and xenophobic parliamentary group, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN)[ii] of Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord), France’s Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) and the Alliance for German (AfD)[iii], won an extra 37 seats: its most Eurosceptic wing, the Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), of the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage and the Italian Five Star Movement, increased its tally by 2.
However, these gains were nearly cut in half by the 17-seat loss of the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR), largely the result of the devastation of the UK Conservatives, whom the Brexit crisis boiled down from 19 seats to 4.
This result will not change qualitatively if Brexit eventuates with the disappearance of 73 UK MEPs. In that case the EFDD would suffer most, losing European parliamentary group status, which requires at least 25 MEPs from at least seven member states, and forcing the Five Star Movement to find a new home. However, even if Five Stars joined the group of its ally and rival the Lega Nord, the EANF would not overtake the ALDE as the parliament’s third group.
For that to happen, there would have to be desertions from the ECR and/or the EPP and/or affiliation from presently non-attached MEPs. While not totally excluded, such a scenario does not seem likely before the parliament starts sitting on July 2, especially given the differences among a motley crew of rightists who can agree on scapegoating migrants and refugees but on little else.
At the same time, however, the crisis of EU governability has in no way eased, most of all because the decay of the old duopoly and the rise of the racist right is most advanced in the EU’s core member states—Germany, France and Italy—while the member state where the S&D has most recovered, Spain, faces the massive challenge of the movement for Catalan sovereignty and independence.
It is also important to remember that the far right’s politics of hate now extends far beyond its own frontier, being internalised in the EU’s increasingly cruel anti-refugee and anti-migrant policy, which increasingly resembles the Australian model of boat interceptions and internment camps, preferably set up outside EU borders. This trend has reached its extreme in the case of the social-democratic Danish Socialist Party, whose degree of adaption to the policies of the xenophobic Danish People’s Party is making the latter increasingly unnecessary—on May 26 its vote fell from 26.6% to 10.7%.
Nonetheless, at these elections the liberal and green tides did turn out to be stronger than the far right tide, even creating the fantasy in the S&D that it might just be possible—by adding liberals, greens, social democrats and the far left together—to remove the EPP from the EU’s summit positions.
In the hopeful words of the S&D group president, Udo Bullmann, on May 28: “The European voters have sent a clear signal for change. For the Socialists and Democrats, Frans Timmermans [the Dutch S&D candidate for EU Commission president] is the only candidate capable of building a progressive majority on a clear platform of fighting social inequalities and tackling climate change."
The most striking feature of the election was the leap in turnout. Fears of a far-right surge showed in an unprecedented jump in the participation rate, whose average across all member states rose by 8.33% to 50.94%, the highest level since 1994 and the first upturn in a trend of seemingly permanent decline.
The highest increase (between 13.31% and 21.85%) was in those countries where alarm at the threat of the far right is most marked or where conflict between the national government and the European institutions has been most intense, namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Germany and the Spanish state. It was lowest, indeed negative, in Ireland, Portugal, Malta and Luxemburg (between -1.45% and -3.14%), where there is no far-right presence in the national parliament.
The increase was also uneven in class terms, with observers reporting that the higher turnout was more visible in middle-class and wealthier suburbs and towns across Europe, but with little sign of mobilisation in working-class and poorer areas, where the sentiment of the irrelevance of the EU to people’s day-to-day problems remains strong.
If confirmed, this trend could help explain why the anti-far right and pro-environment impulse overwhelmingly got expressed in an increased vote for Greens and liberals, at the expense in nearly all countries of affiliates of the United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) parliamentary group, and why the GUE/NGL affiliates that did best were those which have a clear red-green profile.
The main trends
A member-state by member-state summary of the main voting trends follows. Leftward and rightward movements are not mutually exclusive, and increased left-right polarisation at the expense of the EPP and S&D should be noted state by state. Also, results are final in only 15 of the EU’s 28 member states, with provisional results declared in 12 and a recount that could take up to a month under way in the Ireland. The parties with a chance of taking the last seat being decided (Ireland South) are Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the Greens.
1. Eurosceptic, racist and xenophobic right (ECR, EPDD and EAPN)
The 37-seat gain of the EAPN—formerly the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF)—was concentrated in Italy (23), France (7) and Germany (4), with the anti-immigration “libertarians” of the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) and the Belgian ultra-xenophobic Flemish Interest (VB) scoring the group’s only other multi-seat gains (2 each). Its other win was in Estonia (1), where the heavily nationalist Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), part of the country’s governing coalition, entered the European Parliament for the first time.
The biggest loss for the EANP was in the Netherlands where Islamophobe Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) lost all four of its MEPs. The two seats of the Eurosceptic Polish Congress of the New Right (KNP) also disappeared, along with the one of the four seats of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ): this was the result of its leader and Austrian vice-president Heinz-Christian Strache being secretly filmed in an Ibiza hotel soliciting funds for his party in exchange for granting contracts to Russian businesses.
The gains of the EFDD were concentrated in the UK, where the Brexit Party obtained 11 more seats than its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). However, this gain was almost completely offset by the desertion to the EANC of the AfD and the disappearance at this poll of 6 French nationalists, along with one Czech and one Lithuanian nationalist—9 seats lost that left the EFDD with a 2-seat gain.
As for the ECR group, in addition to its 15-seat loss in the UK it also lost 6 seats of miscellaneous rightists in Germany and 3 seats in Denmark, where the vote of the islamophobic Danish People’s Party (DF) more than halved, as well as experiencing single-seat losses in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia and Greece.
The ECR was saved from worse disaster by a 7-seat advance in Poland by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS), a three-seat gain for the ultra-neoliberal Democracy Forum (FvD) in the Netherlands, a two-seat gain for the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic and single-seat gains in Sweden, Bulgaria and Latvia.
It remains to be seen in what group, if any, the presently unattached far right MEPs will eventually settle. These include: Greek Solution, chauvinists for whom the name “Macedonia” can only refer to Greek entities; the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn; Jobbik, the “defender of Hungarian values”; the anti-Roma and homophobic Kotleba – People's Party Our Slovakia; and the Spanish-chauvinist neo-Francoist Vox.
The main focus of reaction against far-right Euroscepticism was the ALDE group, with its biggest gains registered in the countries where the threat to the European Union—taken by many to embody “European values”—is strongest, beginning with the drama of Brexit.
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats’ vote tripled to 19.76% and its seat tally went from 1 to 16; in France Macron’s En Marche went from 7 seats to 21; in Romania the two ALDE affiliates, reflecting the anti-corruption protests against the ruling Socialist Party, went from 1 seat to 10; in Germany, the two ALDE affiliates, the Free Democrats and Free Voters, together lifted its seat tally by three; in the Czech Republic, the ANO movement of millionaire Andrej Babiš went from four seats to six and in Hungary the new Momentum Movement, directed against the government of Viktor Urbán, has appeared in the European Parliament for the first time with two seats.
ALDE’s Danish affiliates, the ruling Liberals and the Radical Liberals, lifted their seat haul by two, as did its Slovak affiliate, Together-Civic Democracy. The liberals also picked up an extra seat in Ireland, Luxemburg and Slovenia.
ALDE’s worst loss was in Belgium, where it has been in government and its Flemish and francophone affiliates each lost a seat. It also experienced single-seat losses in Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
3. The Greens
The Greens represented a more progressive rejection of ultra-nationalism than ALDE, and reflected, too, the rising concern in Europe about global warming. The Green vote doubled to 20.5% in Germany, as the Greens replaced the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the second largest contingent of German MEPs, with 21 seats (up 10). The other big gains for the Greens took place in France (an extra six seats for Ecology Europe-The Greens), and the UK (up four seats). The Greens’ member-state affiliates had single seat gains in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands.
The only Green losses were in Sweden (2 seats) and Austria, Croatia and Hungary (one seat each).
Parties belonging to the European Free Alliance of nations without a state, the Green group’s parliamentary partner, increased their seat tally from 11 to 12, with the Scottish Nationalist Party increasing its representation from two to three.
4. The EPP
The EPP’s retreat took place on a broad front, in 16 of the 28 EU member states. Its biggest losses were in France (from 20 seats to 8), Italy (from 12 seats to 7), Spain (17 seats to 12) and Germany (from 34 seats to 29). Other multi-seat losses for the EPP took place in the UK, the Czech Republic and Latvia (2 apiece), with single-seat losses in Croatia, Estonia, Luxemburg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. EPP affiliates are, or have been until recently, in government in most of these states.
By the same token, the few countries in which the local EPP affiliate increased their seat tally are those where they have been in opposition: Greece (up 3), Sweden (up 2) and Cyprus and Romania (up 1 each).
Austria (up 2) is a special case because of the scandal of former governing partner, the FPÖ, as is Hungary (up 1) where the ruling Fidesz party, presently suspended from the EPP for flouting EU directives, continues to thrive with its anti-immigrant, little-Hungary-against-the-bastards-in-Brussels demagogy.
5. The S&D
Social-democrat losses largely paralleled those of the EPP, with the group’s biggest losses taking place in the core EU countries: Italy (from 31 to 19), Germany (27 to 16), the UK (18 to 10) and France (12 to 5). The Czech Social Democratic Party lost all 4 of its MEPs while in Romania the ruling Social Democratic Party, facing waves of anti-corruption protests since 2017, fell from 13 seats to 8. The single-seat losses to S&D affiliates also took place in countries where the social democracy is or has recently been in government—Belgium, Slovakia and Sweden.
Affiliates of the S&D group registered multi-seat gains in the Netherlands (from 3 to 6), the Spanish state (from 13 to 20) and Poland, results that went against the general trend. The 20-seat detachment of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) now becomes the biggest in the S&D group and is discussed in a separate article on the meaning of this European election for Spanish state politics.
In the case of the Netherlands, the media is talking of a “Timmermanns effect” due to the S&D candidate’s capacity to sound like Europe’s best champion of democratic rights, sustainability and “the future”. In a survey by the broadcaster NOS, 48% of those voting for the Labour Party (PdvA) gave Timmermanns as the main reason for their support.
In Poland, the gain was entirely due to the new party Wiosna (Spring) joining the S&D group. Progressive on social and democratic rights and the environment and committed to “bringing the EU closer to the people”, Wiosna has arisen in reaction to the authoritarian polices of the ruling PiS.
With the exception of Malta, the other single-seat gains for the S&D group—in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia—all corresponded to situations of opposition to conservative governments.
Setbacks for the radical left
The biggest proportional setback on May 26 was experienced by the GUE/NGL, which lost a quarter of its MEPs. It suffered multi-seat losses in Spain (5), Italy (3), the Czech Republic (2), Germany (2) and the Netherlands (2) and a single-seat loss (to date) in Ireland, with single-seat gains in Belgium and France as the only positives. Anticipated advances in Slovenia, Denmark and France all failed to materialise. Particularly painful was the loss of the two seats of the Dutch Socialist Party, in all likelihood victims of the “Timmermanns effect”.
The only countries where the vote of GUE/NGL affiliates increased over their 2014 result were Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and France. However, in France the vote was got divided fruitlessly between France Unbowed and the French Communist Party. In Denmark, the decision of the Red-Green Alliance to contest this European election in its own name for the first time—and not only give support to the People’s Movement Against the E—led to a combined vote of the two candidacies of 9.21%. This was an increase of 1.1% from 2014, but insufficient to get two MEPs instead of one elected.
Easily the best result for the GUE/NGL belonged to the Portuguese Left Bloc, which doubled its vote to 9.82% and its seats from 1 to 2, coming in third behind the Socialist Party and Social-Democratic Party (the local EPP affiliate). Nonetheless, this gain was more than offset by the loss in support for the United Democratic Coalition—bringing together the Portuguese Communist Party and the Greens—whose vote fell from 13.71% to 6.88% (3 seats to 2).
One bright spot for the GUE/NGL on May 26 was that the entry of the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB) into the European Parliament with one seat was accompanied by its ten-seat advance in the Belgian federal parliament. This gain partially offset the 15-seat surge of the far-right, ultra-nationalist Flemish Interest.
The GUE/NGL may still grow slightly if presently non-attached MEPs decide to join it: the most likely candidates would be the two Irish MEPs for Independents4Change.
The disappointing result of the GUE/NGL affiliates in this European election is producing a rush to judgment about their failures. However, the fading (for now) of the economic crisis and the broadly defensive mood in the face of the advance of the xenophobic, ultra-nationalist and racist right wing was always going to offer greater opportunities to those forces with a simple program of defending “Europe” than to those with proposals for radically reworking the EU along democratic, socially just and environmentally sustainable lines. Against a backdrop of far-right denialism about climate change, sadism towards refugees and hate-speech against LGBTI communities and national minorities, even the neoliberal enthusiasts of ALDE started to look good.
Establishing what was really possible for the radical left in this conjuncture and how much better it might have been able to do requires close analysis of the election results at the level of the EU’s member states, the politics of which often overshadow “European” issues. It will be especially important to establish the reasons for the degree of abstention in the working-class and poor communities.
One last cautious observation: among the GUE/NGL affiliates that survived best on May 26 were those whose political culture has enabled them to best integrate “the red” of social justice and “the green” of ecological survival—the Danish Red-Green Alliance, the Portuguese Left Bloc and the Workers Party of Belgium.
Over the years this has given them the capacity to speak confidently to the quite different audiences the radical left must engage with if it is to win the battle for hearts and minds against liberals, social democrats and right-wing Greens. Those GUE/NGL parties who didn’t do so well on May 26 might gain from a dispassionate study of these parties’ work.
Improving the performance of the radical left is a matter of growing urgency. Barbarism has been held at bay this time, but the neoliberal policies of the EU “centre” must continue to drive hundreds of thousands into the arms of the far right—unless the socialist alternative is built in time.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. Aninitial version of this article has appeared on its web site.
[i] Figures as of May 31 on the Politico website. The official European Parliament results, which differ, are from May 29.
[ii] This is the reconfiguration, announced by Salvini, of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF), by which name the European Parliament website continues to refer to it.
[iii] The European parliament web site still lists the AfD as an affiliate of the EFDD. The Politico site lists it as an affiliate of the EANP, as does the Europe Electssite. This is why the three sites give different figures for gains by the EANP and the EFDD on May 26.