emmanuel macron Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images

Europe Could Miss Its Opportunity for Political Realignment

Will the continent’s voters be offered the opportunity to decide on the key challenges their societies are facing, or will tactical maneuvering obfuscate the choices and permit the continued dominance of traditional politics? The nine months between now and the election of the next European Parliament will provide the answer.

PARIS – “There are two sides at the moment in Europe. One is led by Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries that want to protect their borders.” This is how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described the European political landscape during his August meeting with the Lega party’s Matteo Salvini, the strongman in the Italian government. “If they want to see me as their main opponent, they are right,” French President Emmanuel Macron instantly replied.

Both Orbán and Macron seem to think that the European Parliament election in 2019 will bring about a political realignment. But will it? Will the continent’s voters be presented with a choice between a closed and an open society? The answer to this question – which is central to the future of Europe and its citizens’ trust in democracy – is far from certain.

Europe’s political landscape offers a peculiar combination of idiosyncrasy and commonality. On one hand, it illustrates the maxim that “all politics is local”: parties are deeply rooted in national traditions, and pan-European groupings are only loose, non-influential federations. On the other hand, political spillovers are strong and waves of change regularly cross borders, reaching the entire continent.

European politics has long been structured along a left-right divide. From the first popular election to the European parliament in 1979, until the latest one in 2014, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) jointly received between one-half and two-thirds of the vote (with the rest going to centrists, the Greens, the radical left, and, increasingly, a new breed of Euroskeptic parties). For 40 years, the two dominant players have governed Europe through a grand coalition of sorts.

In more than a handful of countries, however, this divide no longer characterizes the political scene. In Poland, Hungary, and most of Central Europe, the key confrontation is between illiberal nationalists and pro-European liberals. In France, the choice in 2017 was not between left and right, but between Macron, the champion of openness (whose campaign I advised), and Marine Le Pen, his exact opposite. And in Italy, both center-right and center-left forces have been marginalized by two new anti-system parties with roots in the far right and the far left.

Indeed, today’s most divisive issues – economic openness, Europe, and immigration – do not pit the center left and the center right against each other. Both camps have embraced globalization, although they may have different views about how to manage its consequences. Both have also been active, if reluctant, participants in European integration. And while their attitudes toward immigration differ, in Western Europe both have accepted it as a fact. Choosing between left and right does not enable citizens to uphold or reject the open economy and the open society. Both groupings actually seem clueless when it comes to empowering disenfranchised working-class citizens, whereas the proponents of identity politics offer at least the guise of a response.

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True, the left-right cleavage remains salient in many countries. It also structures the debate on domestic issues such as income distribution and the role of the state, as well as on some of tomorrow’s major challenges, such as global taxation or the future of work. But as British politics vividly illustrates, this does not apply to currently dominant issues: the Tories and Labour are the only protagonists, yet both agonize over the choice that really matters – how to manage Brexit.

For next year’s European Parliament election to bring greater clarity on the issues that matter for Europe, new camps would need to be formed. Despite cracks on both sides, this is unlikely to happen.

The left has largely split between a (much weakened) moderate wing and a radical, partly anti-European tendency. The question now is if the dikes that separate the latter from the nationalist right will be breached. The Italian governing coalition hints at such a scenario, while the increasingly anti-immigration stance of Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke (The Left) and fiercely anti-European diatribes by Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) suggest that some radical leftists would rather lose their souls than the working class. But even if the dikes are being undermined, they haven’t been breached.

On the right, the EPP, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has refused to draw a red line and tell an increasingly nationalist, illiberal, anti-Muslim, and even anti-Semitic Orbán that he has crossed it. Unapologetically, Orbán now claims that he is the true heir of Helmut Kohl and represents the core of the EPP. In a speech in June, he set himself the task of taking the party back to its Christian roots. As a result, the EPP will go to the election as an odd coalition comprising advocates of Europe and nationalists, liberals and illiberals, and supporters of diversity and proponents of Christian identity.

For the old structures to unravel, a strong voice for Europe and openness should emerge. There has been much speculation that Macron would play this role. But obstacles have appeared. Domestic reforms and the strengthening of a political base at home are more than enough to occupy a man who gained power without the support of a party. His eurozone reform efforts have been frustrated by the delayed formation of the German coalition and the loss of Italy as a partner. Moreover, the asylum battle that Merkel has courageously fought is being lost: two years after claiming that Germany was strong enough to open its borders, she suffered a severe electoral setback, followed by tensions within her coalition and retreat on the European front. This prevents the would-be champions of openness from speaking up clearly on a defining issue. The key question now is whether Macron can still hope to disrupt European politics, or must acknowledge the dominance of the powers that be and settle on an alliance.

As things stand, the chances seem high that the May 2019 election will end in a series of obscure, highly tactical fights. This would be bad for democracy because citizens deserve to be offered clear options on central issues ; and it would further undermine the European Union’s legitimacy just when the EU needs to redefine itself. The next nine months will decide if this grim scenario can still be prevented.

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