A sense of democratic emergency is lurking in Europe. Although hardly unexpected, the European elections, which favored anti-European, rightwing parties across several countries, have elicited reactions of indignation and dismay from the political establishment. German chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the results as “alarming” and “regrettable,” while the recently nominated French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, described them as a “political earthquake.”
In the mainstream press, there has been widespread allusion to the potential threat of a “fascist revival” sweeping across Europe, as a reaction to the ongoing crisis, with numerous analysis likening the current situation to Weimar Germany.
These kinds of analyses help the mainstream opinion’s conscience, drawing a line between the “reasonable,” “respectable” part of Europe that voted for the traditional parties, and the “dangerous” and “irrational” part that chose vent its frustration through a protest vote. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, they urge all those who think of themselves as belonging to the first camp to put aside their political differences and form a common front against the impending threat of a European relapse into barbarism.
This is, after all, a strategy that was already pursued, with some success, after the first major electoral breakthrough of an anti-establishment, “populist” party during the 2002 French Presidential elections, when far-right Front National’s candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had obtained more votes than the socialist contender. A national outburst of self-righteous indignation followed the result, generating a collective ralliement (unity) behind Jacques Chirac at the second turn of the elections.
The fact that, twelve years down the line, the Front National (FN) seems to have not only strengthened its position nationally, but also been joined by a whole series of other anti-establishment parties across Europe, suggests that a different kind of analysis—and political response—is called for.
To be sure, the principal cause for concern is hard to contest: in almost all European countries anti-establishment parties are on the rise.
France, Denmark and the United Kingdom are probably the most spectacular cases, with the Marine Le Pen’s FN, Morten Messerschmidt’s Danish People’s Party and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party all scoring highest in their national competitions, gaining over a quarter of the votes in each country. Very good results were also obtained by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands: although neither did quite as well as expected, Grillo’s is still the second-largest party in Italy with 21% of the votes, and Wilders’ the third in the Netherlands with a 13% share. Finally, the 9% obtained by Germany’s Alternative for Germany is seen as a major success, given that this was the party’s second electoral showing.
These results need to be situated alongside another overall tendency, with which they are closely connected: the consolidation of governmental alliances based “grand coalitions” between mainstream left- and right-leaning parties in an increasing number of European countries, as well as at the European parliament level.
In Germany, for instance, the Christian Democratic Union’s loss of around 5% of the vote share relative to the most recent municipal elections has made it even more dependent on its coalition with the Social Democratic Party. Similarly, in Italy and the Netherlands, despite the relative under-performance of the “populist” movements mentioned above, the more mainstream parties remain tied to grand coalitions to achieve stable majorities. In France, the FN’s latest success implies that at the next presidential elections the winning candidate will almost certainly have to rely on a combination of votes from the country’s mainstream socialist and (post-)Gaullist parties, as Chirac had to do in 2002.
But although the political establishment is keen to present its challengers as “right-wing extremists”, this is a description that the parties in question insistently reject. This is, for example, a key axis of demarcation between Marine Le Pen and her father, the previous leader of the FN: she insists that her party is neither left- nor right-wing, but rather the only true inheritor of the republican values of nationalism, laïcité (secularism) and self-determination.
Similarly, both Beppe Grillo in Italy and Nigel Farage in the UK insist that their parties are neither left- nor right-wing but rather stand for the values of national sovereignty and democracy. Indeed, the “protest parties” that appear to have done worse in this round of elections are those that have been less adamant to mark their distance from extreme right-wing discourse, such as Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Finns Party in Finland.
If there is a single overarching tendency to emerge from the European polls it is therefore not the widely taunted “revival of fascism,” but rather a withering of the traditional “left versus right” distinction amongst political parties, coupled with a realignment along new political lines. This could be described as the emergence of a new axis of political opposition, between technocracy and populism.
The ‘”technocrats” are the members of the traditional political parties, appealing to reason and common sense in order to justify a perpetuation of the current European framework and policies. The “populists” are the anti-establishment movements appealing to nationalist sentiment and a generalized sense of disenfranchisement, calling for a radical rejection of the whole system.
Indeed, a distillation of this overall tendency can be observed at the level of the European Parliament. In the light of the results, the Parliament will only be able to get its way if the two principal parties represented within it—the right-leaning European People’s Party and the left-leaning European Social Democratic Party—agree to support the same candidate as President of the European Commission, a key role in determining Europe’s economic policies. This opens the way to new line of opposition between a governing coalition encompassing both the latter, and an alternative bloc formed by the heterogeneous set of anti-establishment and nationalist parties now represented within it.
Compared to the vaunted threat of fascism, this might seem like good news. However, upon reflection, there is reason to believe that a Europe in which the main opposition axis is between technocracy and populism might prove even more disconcerting. If Europe were really confronted by the threat of a fascist revival, it would be clear what we should do: set aside all residual political differences and rally in support of existing institutions, as the members of the establishment now urge us to do.
If, however, the rising tide of “populism” proves to be connected with the convergence of mainstream political parties in their support to the European ‘technocratic’ model, the true argument may be between a pro-European technocracy and an anti-European populism. And by shifting the conversation to pro or against Europe, no space is left for a constructive political debate over what kind of Europe is to be desired in the future.