Will EU leaders have the courage and vision to build critical mass for open societies facing common, even civilizational, challenges?
The European Parliament elections delivered a sharp blow to the two formerly dominant groups, the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), winning 178 and 149 seats, respectively. Even added together at 327 seats (43.5%), the two “people’s party” groupings have nearly 50 seats fewer than the 376 required to form a majority in the 751 seat Parliament, and to elect the next Commission President.
The elections’ main gainers fall into two broad camps, – the closed society national populists vs. the open society liberals and greens – though under each umbrella, there are fundamental differences. The choice of the next Commission President – and the direction of the European Union as a liberal democratic project – depends on the alignments to follow. The future of the EU and much more depend heavily on which camp ultimately defines the Union’s direction. The continental and global situation demand the assemblage of a broad civic and social liberal, open society front.
The first of these factions received the most attention and angst in the run-up to the elections as fears of the conservative, inward looking nationalists, often with tight clerical links, seek continued public and social austerity in spite of their purported populist base support. The major gains seen by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s European Alliance of People and Nations, which also includes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, doubled its seats to 71. While Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party made a huge splash in the UK, together with Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star movement it only increased its group (formerly Europeans for Freedom and Direct Democracy) representation marginally, to 44 seats. European Conservatives and Reformists actually lost ground, despite a strong showing by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, due to the implosion of the British Conservative Party. But collectively, these groups won 174, or 23.1%, of the seats. Unfortunately, the illiberal and nativist instincts of several EPP members – notably the “mutually suspended” Fidesz of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković – in fact also fall on this darker side of European political worldviews, so all together they actually represent more than a quarter of the total MEPs.
The second group of parties represent a worldview in support of open, liberal, inclusive societies; ALDE (plus French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA) won just slightly more – 177 seats, or 23.6% of the seats. Add to this many (but far from all) of the further left-leaning European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) group (which lost ground, owing heavily to Syriza’s poor showing in Greece), and this possible alignment constitutes more than a quarter of the seats. Some of the independents would fall clearly into one or the other camp as well.
In between are the EPP and S&D, though the instincts of more S&D member parties are unambiguously with the latter camp, as are a majority of EPP member parties, despite the self-seeking straddling. But no party group is without its illiberal and/or blatantly corrupt problem members, as evidenced by the S&D Romanian Socialists and ALDE’s ANO of Andřej Babiš. This makes the challenge at hand all the more messy than the usual “simple” cut and paste of coalition-building.
It is clear that the differentiations within each group are significant. But fidelity to the EU’s foundational principles, if not operating system, is clearly much higher among liberals and greens of all stripes. Therefore this must be the winning side.
A Perfect Storm
There is no roadmap for implementing these election results; this is a truly unprecedented situation for the EU. It coincides with an historical shift in the democratic world toward closed societies, fear, resentment, and, underlying and driving it all, ever-wider economic inequality. Further, the unfolding climate emergency – the greatest collective existential challenge to humanity as a whole – has come into ever clearer focus.
Building consensus in these circumstances requires vision and leadership; member state heads of government cannot meekly “follow” or “respect” these results. What follows will be a judgment call – either bold and forward-looking, or weak and parochial. The odds are unfortunately on the side of the latter, though this does not have to be the inevitable outcome.
The election results in the UK – and how they were achieved – demonstrate the overarching dynamic, despite the zombie juggernaut toward a “damn the consequences” hard Brexit new Prime Minister. Disunity among the unequivocal open society forces allowed those peddling simple messages of fear and spite to define the narrative, despite being substantially weaker in terms of popular policy support. Despite calls from several quarters, including DPC, to unite pro-Europe forces behind a common agenda and narrative, the most consistent and simple message was that of Nigel Farage and his built-to-purpose Brexit Party, which assembled nearly one-third (>32%) of the electorate and trounced the Conservatives and Labour, both of which had muddled, complicated messages. With nearly 36% of the vote, the disparate parties which were unequivocal in standing against Brexit (in order of seats – the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland) got an equal number of seats (29), despite a considerable advantage in votes. And that leaves aside the other built-to-purpose vehicle of the EP election, Change UK, made of Labour and Tory defectors which failed to gain any seats at all. Labour was punished by many who voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election, given the party rank and file’s support to remain. It is to be presumed at least a decent proportion of them still voted for the party. Yet despite this correlation of forces, the hard Brexiteers are dominant in the narrative. These results make a hard Brexit all the more possible, despite there being a mandate for neither a hard Brexit or remaining in the fold.
Overall, the proportion supporting national populist options in most of Europe fell in the 25%-40% continuum; similar to US President Donald Trump’s unmovable base support. Only in Hungary and Italy did such parties/coalitions win an absolute majority of votes in this election. Such parties cannot control the agenda unless they maintain and build their momentum, and in the short-term this is only possible with the collaboration – active or through acquiescence – of the EPP and others.
Now is not the time for those Europeans who hold foundational values dear, who recognize the corrosive effect of social atomization and inequality, and appreciate the magnitude of the climate threat to remain separated based on ideological quibbles. These challenges must be confronted as a common endeavor, however difficult the effort to develop and simply articulate an agenda might be. Otherwise, the momentum will remain with the bad faith right-wing elites committed to ignoring the collective and positive action needed to reduce any of these threats. There is now a five-year window to shore-up the EU’s foundations and rapidly build a new European consensus – back to the first principles of the Union – in the face of the unexpected reactionary challenges which have snowballed since 2016. And as Chancellor Merkel has rightly stated, it must do this at a time when not only Moscow is an adversary, but Beijing and Washington as well.
The President of the next European Commission must understand that these challenges – defending while improving a rules-based and more equitable liberal democratic order, broadening the sense of societal investment in that system, and jointly confronting and successfully managing the climate emergency – can only be addressed successfully together, like a three-legged stool. The first test is the most proximate: a supermajority of MEP votes is required not only to select Jean-Claude Juncker’s successor, but to seek to ensure and maintain the initiative and support for such a vision. Without that, neither reducing growing inequality nor building the societal consensus to tackle the climate threat are feasible.
Inequality driven by unbalanced austerity – and in the same vein, the resulting sense of social atomization and lack of sense of common purpose – have bred and fed the fear, angst and downward mobility which have in turn made exclusionary identitarianism a political force in the democratic world. Europe, while still more egalitarian than North America, has not been immune to this. Self-dealing political entrepreneurs like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Matteo Salvini, Beppe Grillo, and others have acted as aggregators, conjuring constituencies from those who hitherto identified as mainstream, yet who felt increasingly excluded. They draw upon, as well as intentionally feed, insecurity and fear, making rage and permanent political campaigning their modus operandi. The end of the Cold War and dissipation of sense of common threat and endeavor led to a drift of consumption, acquisition (often through debt, both public and private), and waste, as well as anomie and lack of community. On the Western side of the former iron curtain, “the end of history” was heralded by a blithe triumphalism accompanied by debt-fuelled consumerism and social atomization. On the eastern side of the divide, the understandable giddiness accompanying the end of isolation not only fed pent-up demand, but also fuelled institutional corruption, kleptocracy, and dissolution of the bonds of social solidarity forged in the struggle against authoritarian rule. The lack of rule of law not only fuelled social discontent, but allowed states to become captured outright.
Last but certainly not least, the climate emergency threatens not just democratic rule and economic justice (though it does both); it threatens civilization as we know it. It is not coincidental that this period of human history saw the greatest contribution toward greenhouse emissions. The most positive signal since the recent surge of national, exclusionary populism in the democratic world has been the rise of youth-driven activism to paint the climate emergency in the stark colors that a single Swedish high school student began just over a year ago. Greta Thunberg is the proactive exemplar of moral leadership in Europe today. And the movement she inspired recognizes the links among these three challenges more innately than any of their elders in the political firmament.
While those whose priorities are climate change and economic justice might rate the threat to liberal democratic equality under the law less pressing, those who hold these values dear do form the broadest pool in the European population and electorate. In fact, only from this base, and through consensus-building democratic process and rules, can coherent and strategic responses to the other threats be pursued. And it is no coincidence that the national populists offer no solutions to either economic inequality or the climate threat other than walls of separation, scapegoating, and denial of basic science and fact in order to create a dark, murky, truth-free polity more susceptible to manipulation and acquiescence.
Knowing the stakes and expressing them credibly is the launchpad for addressing these challenges squarely and collectively. The first step is getting the right President at the helm.
While the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber has stated he would not collaborate with the national populists, his personal credibility on this score is deeply tarnished. National populism and far-right ideology is not clubbable; his cowardice regarding Fidesz demonstrates he lacks the moral fiber to lead. Nor has he demonstrated vision or leadership, despite his group’s larger showing. That leaves ALDE’s Margrethe Vestager and S&D’s Frans Timmermans as potential leaders for the challenges depicted above.
To begin this process, there needs to be a convergence among liberals, social democrats, and greens in Europe. Both the buoyant Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the bloodied French President Emmanuel Macron need to align, as they appear to be doing. But even in this case, among them they have only 326 seats – well below a simple majority, let alone the substantial one required to steer the realignment and renewal of the EU required. Therefore, this will most of all be a test for Chancellor Angela Merkel – it will be the most decisive decision of her political career.
In the past, Merkel has shown that when faced with the need to make a decision, her own instincts tend to be correct. In 2011, she made clear to Serbia that its EU membership aspirations depended on coming to accommodation with independent Kosovo; she continues to hold this line in the EU, almost alone publicly. With greater bravery, she accepted over a million refugees from Syria and throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa, and aroused the ire of major trading partner China by granting asylum to Hong Kong democracy activists. Since 2016, she has demonstrated the greatest clarity of vision among EU leaders about the challenge that Donald Trump and his co-optation of the Republican Party portend for Europe and liberal democracy.
Her parochial political instincts, as well as her party apparat, will counsel her to play it safe in helping steer the course of the next Commission, beginning with the election of the President. She should reject such counsel, since the scale of the threats demands clarity and willingness to synthesize a new direction. Her call may well prove decisive for the future of the EU, and the maintenance of a vital liberal democratic pole in the world. Her decision as to what direction she calls on the EPP to take will be pivotal. If, as her statements to date have indicated, she believes that the EU must align to face the challenges posed internally, externally, and globally, she must follow these convictions to help catalyse a civic, open society supermajority. Then the question will be how much of the EPP such a decision could command.
Finally, the players supporting open and liberal societies must reflect on why they are on the defensive regarding values after almost three decades of presuming that not only the battle, but the war, was won. Progressive messaging is always harder to sell and encapsulate in a slogan (or a tweet) than regressive simplicity; “blood and soil” is visceral and simple, and resonates with the fears of change and dislocation upon which national populists thrive. Civic and social liberals must not only confirm their foundational values, and bridge intra-faction divides, but also explain why these principles will in fact lead to better outcomes related to socio-economic inequality, and traditional and environmental security.
The lines are now drawn. The final element of her legacy in Europe will be one of either moral bravery or limp entropy – with all the consequences. The former will make her the queen- or kingmaker in a leadership decision which ought to demonstrate bold common cause in the face of adversity, and a sense of dedicated purposed as once normally only sees in war. To fail to meet this still surmountable challenge would be the equivalent of appeasement in the face of civilizational challenge.