Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Post-consensus Europe

Some 30 million people voted for right-wing populist parties in EU countries in recent elections. 2018 will continue to test the European project, writes Manal Lotfy

Britons voted to leave the EU

After Britain exiting the European Union, the rapid rise of far-right parties in the old continent and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many Europeans consider 2017 to be a good year. 

Europe overcame the Brexit shock. Its leaders are trying to cope with an unpredictable Trump, mainly by ignoring him. And although far-right parties did gain ground this year in the French and German elections, they did not win. 

So, 2017 was not the catastrophic year that many anticipated and feared. Nonetheless, it was a challenging year with warning signs that could play part in shaping 2018. 

The Catalan independence referendum crisis, the gravest political upheaval in Spain since an attempted coup in 1981, is still looming with both political and economic consequences. It put Europe face to face with a populist challenge that threatens the integrity of Spain and the stability of the EU. It also disrupted Spain’s economic recovery. 

And although the refugee crisis receded in 2017 because of an aggressive approach to halting migration across the Mediterranean from North Africa and a tightening of policies and borders, coping with the arrival of around 1.5 million people has been a struggle. Europe also faces the challenge of alternative migrant passages, such as via Morocco and Yemen. 

Economically, the austerity measures that followed the financial crisis of 2008 are still in place in most European countries, creating high levels of inequality and poverty and feeding anti-establishment sentiments, especially in Italy, France, the UK and Germany. 

Macron making his mark on world stage

ANGER BEATS AGENDA: Because of these challenges, populist far-right and far-left parties managed to attract voters from across the political spectrum in 2017. And although far-right parties did not win elections in major European countries, they increased their share of the vote in 2017. 

The far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the latest right-wing party to make an electoral breakthrough in Europe. It got nearly six million votes, or 12.6 per cent of the popular vote, the biggest ever electoral success for a party that far on the right of the political spectrum in recent German history.

By the calculation of Channel 4 TV in Britain, at least 30 million people voted for broadly similar right-wing populist parties in EU countries in the last five years. The far-right parties’ significant gains were made possible because of anti-immigration rhetoric and austerity measures. 

In many countries in Europe, there has been a significant increase in support for the right-wing over the last two elections. (The exceptions are Italy and Finland, where the Northern League and the Finns party lost votes). 

For example, the far-right National Front party in France increased its share of the vote in the National Assembly. In the first round of the 2017 election, it won 13.2 per cent of the vote. In the second round, it won 8.8 per cent of the vote. 

In the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, won 21.3 per cent in the first round and increased her share of the vote to an unprecedented 33.9 per cent in the second round (ie, 10,638,475 people voted for her brand of politics).

The Freedom Party of Austria also increased its share of the vote to 46.2 per cent in the last election, while the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands won 13.1 per cent of the vote. The Alternative for Germany was not far behind. It won 12.6 per cent of the vote, which complicated German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government.

With its simple answers, vague promises, nationalist slogans and fear campaign, the far-right attracted dissatisfied votes as “Anger beats agenda”. 

Josef Joffe, fellow at the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford in the US, noted that “only 34 per cent of the people who voted for AfD did so with conviction. Twice as many voted that way because of their disappointment with the established parties.”

Merkel casting her vote in September

BAD YEAR FOR SOCIALIST PARTIES: In contrast with far-right parties, 2017 was an exceptionally bad year for socialist parties in Europe. They are losing ground to anti-establishment parties, both coming from the radical-right and radical-left. 

This anti-establishment sentiment, which usually characterises post-crisis political systems, influenced the mainstream parties of Europe in 2017, so much so that the sharp ideological division between left and right receded, paving the way to ideological fluidity as many anti-establishment parties reject the concepts of “left” and “right” when making their appeals to voters. 

In this context, one would be forgiven to hail the UK’s Labour Party performance in the general election of June 2017. It looked like a victory, only it was not. 

It is true that Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn managed to increase its share of MPs in parliament by 21 seats, while the Conservative Party lost 22 seats. But the Labour Party lost the election nonetheless to the uninspiring and divided Conservative Party under the leadership of the uncharismatic Prime Minister Theresa May. However, in comparison to the rest of the social democratic parties in Europe in 2017, it was a good effort. 

In Germany for example, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) managed to achieve its worst election result in post-war history, winning only 20.5 per cent in September’s general election, which highlighted the trouble faced by social democratic parties in Europe. They have suffered heavy losses in Germany, France, the Netherlands and before that in Spain, Italy and Greece. 

In France, the Socialist Party, in both presidential and the legislative elections, lost ground to both the new anti-establishment party, En Marche, led by Emmanuel Macron and the far-right led by Marine Le Pen. 

In the legislative elections, the French Socialist Party (PS) received only 9.5 per cent of the vote. And for the second time in the last 15 years, the official candidate of the PS was excluded from the presidential election second round. The Labour Party (PvdA) in the Netherlands received only 5.7 per cent in the last election, pointing to an overall picture of declining support for social democrats in Europe.

As David Vittori, from LUISS University in Italy, notices “when dividing the post-Cold War situation into three periods — the post-Maastricht period (1993-2000), the post-euro period (2001-2008) and the post-crisis period (2009-2017) — the social democratic electoral decline is evident, especially in the last period. In the northern and central countries, the decline was steady but irreversible.”

He attributes the reasons behind this decline to the fact that many social democratic parties, particularly those in government, became responsible — or partly responsible — for implementing restrictive EU policies following the financial crisis of 2008, notably in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany. 

“Many social democratic parties are both organisationally and ideologically ill-equipped to provide concrete answers for an increasingly dissatisfied electorate. And if this trend continues, we may well be witnessing the end of the post-Cold War social democracy, as we know it, in Europe,” says Vittori. 

Another reason for the plague of the European left is the changing structure of social classes in the economy. 

“Historically, social democrats rose to power in tandem with a rising working class. Now, this once mighty force is shrinking along with manufacturing as a share of GDP. In the past 50 years, that portion has roughly dropped from 35 per cent to 15 per cent throughout the West. To put it brutally, the reformist left is losing its customer base, and it shows in all recent elections,” says Joffe. 

The post-World War II consensus in Europe is disappearing and the political structure is changing. The free market, democracy, cooperation, equality, prosperity, openness and the welfare state, which all used to be compatible, creating the unique political, economic and social model of Europe, are not compatible anymore. Deep changes are needed now for Europe to address this challenge. 

Catalonians celebrate their new state that could prove disastrous to Spain

BREXIT YEAR: With as many challenges, Europe will face more tests. 2018 is the Brexit negotiation year. So far, the first stage (March 2017-December 2017) dealt with divorce issues (ie, the cost and proceedings of exiting the EU). And 2017 is ending with a rather vague agreement between the EU and the UK regarding exiting conditions. 

From 2018, talks will focus on future trade relations between the UK and the EU, a much tougher subject. By Autumn 2018, Brexit negotiations, if everything goes according to plan, should be in the final stages. By then, the Europeans and the British will know if there will be a deal or no deal. The outcome will affect all of Europe for generations to come. 

The worry is that the British government struggled badly during the first stage of the talks, which are by far the easiest part. The second stage will test the UK’s resolve and preparations, and the EU’s willingness to compromise. 

Without a trade agreement in 2018, the United Kingdom is at risk of crashing out of the EU with potentially dire consequences. So far, the British economy has held up; the fear of recession after Brexit did not materialise, but if the negotiations were to fail, the economy would suffer. 

No deal is also a top concern for the euro zone area going into 2018. 

“Brexit is a challenge and it’s a challenge that is a negative shock certainly for all these economies,” warns Mario Centeno, the incoming Eurogroup chief. 

So, in 2018 everyone in London and Brussels will be holding their breath. 


CHALLENGES AHEAD IN: These challenges can be summarised as follows:

- Germany and France declared they are seeking a more integrated EU in both security and political matters in 2018. Ultimately, the European Union must ask itself whether it wishes to be ambitious for both itself and the stability of a new world order that is emerging.

- The test of the far-right. There are important elections in Europe next year, including the Italian and the Swedish general elections; UK, Belgian and Dutch local elections; and the Czech and Irish presidential elections. All will be closely monitored. 

- UK Brexit progress in 2018, and what kind of Brexit it will be, and what it will mean for Europe and the UK.

- Difficult Russia-Europe relations. Much will depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in March 2018. 

- The Trump factor and the implications of his controversial polices on Europe and the world. Trump will face a huge political test in the US mid-term Congressional elections. A Democratic win could lead to his impeachment. Some in Europe wouldn’t mind that.

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