Attilio Moro analyzes why the failures of neoliberalism are feeding right-wing populism in Europe.
By Attilio Moro
Special to Consortium News
The EU Parliament elections that wrapped up over the weekend may not have been the blowout that some predicted for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. But the champions of the European political establishment were still badly damaged.
In Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU party, weathered the polling, with some slippage. But its main ally, the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, lost nearly half its ground from five years ago. In France, Macron’s centrist grouping lost to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, or RN.
The results reveal a rising political tide buoying rightwing, anti-EU populists: Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini; Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the U.K.’s Brexit Party leader Nigel Farrage.
The trend leaves the partnership of the centrist European People’s Party (with Merkel as its tacit leader) and the Party of European Socialists, or PES, no longer able to run the European Parliament as it has for 40 years. Now they will need the help of external forces.
All of this was predictable.
For too many years the EU political elites have neglected their constituencies. Instead, to please Germany and banking interests, they enforced austerity policies at the expense of lower-income people and employment.
For too many years the EU elites have been prone to support an ultra-liberalist orthodoxy that has been ravaging the welfare state. Meanwhile, they failed to adequately address the social consequences of mass immigration. Unable to forge a common policy, they hypocritically preached human rights while striking deals with Turkey and other Mediterranean countries that provided money to keep migrants in detention camps.
For too many years the EU has been accommodating corporate lobbying and hardly responding to the problem of rising unemployment among young people in southern Europe.
The cardinal question is why voters in the lower-middle classes — marginalized and impoverished by ultra-liberal, right-wing policies— are now voting for right-wing and even extreme right-wing parties? Why not leftist parties, in keeping with the classical logic of political alternatives?
The answer appears to be simple: the European left is not seen as an alternative.
The only big European country where the left (in a very mild version of that term) marked gains is Spain. There the Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez won 33 percent of the vote. But that result mainly reflected public animus towards the corrupt and centrist People’s Party, or PP, which flooded Spanish banks with money just as the “leftist” Democratic Party, or PD, did in Italy.
Italy’s left has more or less disappeared. It has been drowned by the very bourgeois PD, which took 23 percent of the vote, down from 38 percent five years ago.
Mute on Yellow Vests
In France, during the Yellow Vest era, the most impressive social uprising in recent European history, leftist parties merely held ground. Both the longstanding Socialist Party and the new Left Party got 6 percent. Neither one was able to give a political voice to the Gilet Jaunes. Instead, most of the anticapitalistic insurgency was absorbed by Le Pen’s extreme right-wing Rassemblement National (National Rally) or the Greens.
The liberal-democrats of ALDE — the most avowedly pro-business and pro-EU political group in the EU Parliament — managed to win around 15 percent of the vote. This was a clearly alarmed reaction to the prospect of an anti-European populist takeover.
Again, the two traditional leadership groups — the People’s Party and the PES — will no longer be able to run the show on their own and will need new allies. ALDE will be more than happy to help, as will the Greens, under certain conditions.
The populist and right-wing parties of Le Pen, Salvini and Orban will remain in the opposition. But they will have a stronger say in the appointment of the new commissioners in Brussels. And they may continue to capitalize on the further decline of the middle class.
The “mild” PES – which prioritized the defense of Volkswagen over workers’ rights during the past five years — will be pushed to the margin of the new majority. The “harder” European United Left will remain at the margin of the opposition. Both are damned to disappear from the EU Parliament and from European society altogether if they continue to cede monopoly over the social protest movements to the populist and right-wing parties.
Attilio Moro is a veteran Italian journalist who was a correspondent for the daily Il Giorno from New York and worked earlier in both radio (Italia Radio) and TV. He has travelled extensively, covering the first Iraq war, the first elections in Cambodia and South Africa, and has reported from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and several Latin American countries, including Cuba, Ecuador and Argentina. Presently, he is a correspondent on European affairs based in Brussels.
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