The rise of extreme populism in Europe is coming at the expense of traditional center-right and center-left parties and putting the European Union at risk. But the populist threat could induce a restructuring of European politics that ultimately bolsters the EU’s legitimacy.
WASHINGTON, DC – A year ago, Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory in the French presidential election, and his party’s subsequent success in legislative elections, caused many to breathe a sigh of relief. The rising tide of extremist populism in the West, it seemed, had finally turned. That has turned out not to be the case. But the stunning emergence of a populist majority government in Italy, a founding member of the European Union, does not necessarily spell disaster.
True, populists’ growing strength is threatening traditional center-right and center-left parties and making it very difficult for EU-level governance, in its current form, to function. But what if populist movements’ continued electoral success helps to drive forward a broader political restructuring that ultimately strengthens European democracy?
This reading is reinforced by the experience of Macron himself. Having never held elected office, Macron created a new party centered on himself, with support from both center-left and center-right voters. He seems to have restructured French politics in the process.
Next year’s European Parliament election is likely to reveal more about the potential for such political restructuring. The European Parliament has never generated the same level of interest as other European institutions, such as the Commission, the Council, or even the Court of Justice. European parliamentary debates rarely make it far outside Brussels or Strasbourg, and voter turnout to fill the body’s seats has typically been low. Such facts have long been cited as evidence that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit, with citizens inadequately engaged with European-level governance.
But as a series of crises have hit the EU – affecting most acutely Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy – these dynamics have been changing. Gone are the days when Europeans quietly accepted the EU, despite some complaints. Now, the EU is at the center of domestic political debates, which increasingly include existential questions about the survival of the eurozone and the entire European project.
This means that candidates in next year’s election are unlikely just to focus on domestic issues. While there will be some of that, there is likely also to be, for the first time, extensive discussion about Europe’s future and policies, especially in areas like migration, defense and security, energy and climate, and relations with major powers like the United States and Russia. After all, despite their differences, virtually every country in Europe is currently grappling with the question of how much Europe it wants, how open and optimistic it should be about new forms of technology-enabled globalization, and how much social solidarity is appropriate.
These discussions – and thus the European Parliament that emerges next year – are unlikely to adhere to standard party lines. After all, sticking to traditional political groupings is highly difficult nowadays, as exemplified by Macron’s party – La République En Marche ! – which does not fit neatly into traditional ideological categories. Macron has put out feelers for a pan-European party. Though truly supranational politics in Europe remains uncharted terrain, it makes sense that a strongly pro-EU politician should be one of its pioneers.
Right-wing populists, as nationalist and anti-European as they may be, also seem eager to support one another at the European level, taking advantage of their common platforms on most issues, particularly immigration, cultural identity, and trade. This will be more difficult for the far left, at least in France, which combines traditionally liberal views on immigration with protectionist economic policies that look at lot like those espoused by the populist right.
Of course, the traditional center-right and center-left parties – which have lost a large share of the electorate over the last five years, particularly in Spain, Italy, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany – will try to regain their own footing. The problem is that these parties seem outdated to many younger voters, regardless of their leaders’ age. If they are to succeed, they will need to provide an inspiring new platform that convincingly addresses the issues of the today – all while contending with new political forces.
It is possible, however, that new political forces will in some cases absorb traditional center-right and center-left parties. In France, for example, Macron’s party could absorb the center-right Les Republicains, or it could shift further to the left, with a social solidarity program to accompany the liberal market measures it has already taken. The question is whether the party’s leaders think they can secure a simultaneous victory against Les Republicainsand the center-left Socialists.
Although the details remain unclear, a thorough restructuring of the European political scene – shaped largely by attitudes toward Europe – seems certain. If the European Parliament election next year helps to advance this restructuring, this may end up constituting a large step forward for democracy in Europe.