Alexandru Filip looks at the European election results and finds the populist wave was not as big as expected. He argues that gains by progressive parties should not be overlooked.
The fallout of the European elections is upon us. The votes have been tallied, heartbreak and sorrow have befallen most mainstream parties, and the far-right, liberal, and green parties have celebrated.
In the lead-up to the elections, a common theme across the continent was the fear of right-wing populist success and how to face the problem of the far-right’s growing appeal. While traditional centre right and centre left parties lost dearly across the board, the picture is more nuanced on the other points along the political spectrum.
In many countries, the populist right did not gain much compared to the last elections: Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) lost 1.5 percent compared to the 2014 elections; Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party won 4.9 percent more than UKIP did five years ago; The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) received more votes than they did in the 2014 elections, but gained far less than was forecast based on regional and local outcomes (and vote intention polls) throughout 2017 and 2018; the Dutch Freedom Party PVV lost almost 10 percent; ‘The Finns Party’ remained stable, while the Danish People’s party lost around 15 percent.
The Other Winners: Progressives
Progressive parties such as the liberals and Greens gained just as much throughout western Europe. In Germany and Finland, they established themselves as the second-largest parties, ahead of the Social Democrats. In France, President Macron’s party came in second place, 1 percent behind the RN, and gaining just as many seats. The Greens came in third, while the traditional parties of French politics—the Gaullists and Socialists—came in fourth and sixth, respectively (the far-left La France Insoumise outdid the latter).
The picture is also interesting in the UK: yes Nigel Farage’s Brexit party gained the most seats, but pro-European parties scored particularly well. It would seem that the vote tallies were split across ‘hard Brexit’ (Brexit Party), ‘remain’ (Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and Greens) and ‘undecided/soft Brexit’ (Conservatives and Labour). The latter two traditional parties were outdone not just by the Brexit Party, but also by the Liberal Democrats (19 percent), who took everyone by surprise when they came in second. Even the pro-remain Green party (12 percent) outscored the Conservatives.
In Germany, immediately after the elections, the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) announced they would consider positioning the party more strongly on environmental issues and climate change in an effort to placate voters. Their take-away from the elections was that people defected to the Greens based on environmental issues. That is the wrong lesson.
Climate change is an important issue, but it is not the only one. More accurately, a cocktail of issues, including immigration, attitudes towards minorities, views of European integration, nationalism, and others combine to form the non-economic issues of the electoral horse race. Moreover, while the bulk of former left-wing, social democratic voters do defect to the Greens and far left, some also defect to the far right on cultural issues.
The electorate did not all of a sudden start fearing climate change, nor has climate change-induced damage risen exponentially compared to five years ago. What has changed is that the Greens have positioned themselves as the progressive, pro-European, social-liberal opposites to the far-right populists.
The Centre Parties’ Mistakes
This positioning was recognised by the far-right AfD, whose campaign posters included the quote “Grün ärgern? Blau wählen” which would translate to ‘Do you want to upset the Greens? Vote blue’ (the AfD colour). Parties like the AfD and the Greens are taking clear, distinct positions on the post-materialist, non-economic issues such as climate, immigration, minorities, and regional integration (we can call them ‘cultural’ issues), which runs perpendicular to the traditional economic axis of politics.
The old ‘Volksparteien’ are hesitant to position themselves clearly on the cultural issues because they fear alienating segments of their own constituencies—for example, in Britain both the Conservatives and Labour have been hesitant to identify as supporting ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. What they do not realise is that those voters seem to have already made up their mind. Much of the defection from the SPD to the Greens is due to voters who are aligned in principle with the SPD, but are unhappy with the fact that it seems—just like the Christian Democratic Union—fossilised and immobile, sitting on the fence, without taking stronger stances on a range of issues.
In the UK as well, Labour and the Conservative Party will have to take clearer stances on Brexit, since it seems that question is the driving force right now, as evidenced by the strong showing of the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The two major parties will have to adopt clearer positions on Brexit, and accept losing some voters who do not align with said positions if they wish to prevent further defection and win back Brexiteers flocking to Nigel Farage or remainers moving to the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
If Social Democrats and Conservatives in Europe wish to stem the bleeding, they need to get off the fence.
Alexandru Filip is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Hertie School of Governance.