I’ve been walking in the mountains of Andalucia for the last week, and staying in a hotel with really poor Internet reception. As a result I wasn’t able to blog, and was barely able even to grasp what had taken place in the European elections until I got back to the UK over the weekend, so forgive these somewhat belated reflections on the results.
What strikes me at first is the discrepancy between what was expected to take place and what actually happened. What little I was able to glean through the endlessly buffering haze of my Andalucian retreat suggested that far-right, populist and anti-immigration parties had made massive gains. But on closer inspection that doesn’t appear to have been the case.
There is no doubt that the results give serious grounds for concern. In France the Front National came first with 25 percent of the vote. In the UK, Ukip – a party that Alex Tsipiras rightly describes as a ‘political monstrosity’ came first. In Denmark, the anti-immigrant People’s Party also came first. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn came third, despite an unparalleled record for racist violence and criminality that has ended up with many of its leaders in jail. In Germany the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) gained one seat, while Jobbik picked up three in Hungary.
The fact that so many people should have voted for parties like these is shameful and alarming. Not only does it suggest a blindness and indifference to Europe’s dark past from voters who have seen far right, anti-immigrant populism as an ‘insurgent’ alternative to austerity and the European project per se, but it points towards a future in which such the politics of exclusion and victimization, of scapegoating ‘aliens’, of closed borders and reactionary hyper-nationalism may acquire a new quasi-mainstream legitimacy.
No one who believes in a different kind of Europe can afford to be complacent about results like this or simply shrug them off as a passing phenomenon. Nevertheless, it could have been worse. ‘Euroskepticism’ and ‘populism’ are broad labels which encompass a wide variety of national contexts and agendas. Nevertheless, it is clear that millions of Europeans have drifted towards the far-right, at least in part, in response to the social consequences of the brutal austerity ‘remedies’ imposed on much of the continent by the EU and/or by national governments.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National has been particularly successful in harvesting such discontent, and draping the Front’s racist politics with a more appealing anti-globalisation, anti-austerity facade in a period in which the French economy has stagnated. Golden Dawn’s ascent would have been inconceivable without the ‘bail out’ imposed on Greece by the troika.
Nevertheless, given the scale of the social disaster that has unfolded in many countries as a result of these policies, the mainstream right and centre-left vote has held up surprisingly well. In Italy, Matteo Renzi’s National Democratic Party got a whopping 41 percent of the vote, while the anti-establishment Five Star movement lost ground. In Holland, Gert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) dropped to fourth place, while the left-liberal D66 party took the lead.
To say that the centre-left has failed to challenge the austerity politics of the last five years would be something of an understatement. But in Greece, Portugal, and Spain, leftwing parties with an anti-austerity programme did extremely well. In Greece, Syriza topped the polls, and in Spain the grassroots Podemos party picked up a remarkable 1.4 million votes, despite being in existence for less than four months.
These gains make it clear that opposition to austerity can direct itself at the governments, financial institutions and systemic failings that have been responsible for the economic crisis, rather than immigrants or the European Union ‘dictatorship’ imagined by Ukip, the Front National et al, and that European politics has spaces for the left as well as the right.
The challenge for the left is to widen those spaces, and develop a European-wide alternative to the neo-liberal model of endless cuts and austerity that the European Union has chosen to implement, with the support of mainsteam right and centre-left governments across the continent.
Such a project would involve not a withdrawal or retreat from Europe, but a new emphasis on the ‘social Europe’ that was also part of the European project. It would be local and national, European and international, borrowing from previous initiatives like European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and the early years of the Greens, from social movements such as the Indignados, and the various pro-migrant struggles and anti-austerity movements that have unfolded across Europe.
Rather than scapegoat migrant workers or seek to reconstruct privileged enclaves of national or European labour, such a left would seek to make immigration work for immigrant-producing countries as well as the countries that receive them, and replace the politics of exclusion and scapegoating with solidarity and the best traditions of the workers movement.
It would lay the basis for the construction of a Europe, which does not regard Europeans the way the EU’s leaders have seen them, as expendable pawns in economic and financial realignments or sacrificail victims of the Euro.
The 2014 European elections suggest that this left still exists. As dangerous as it is, the politics of Ukip and the Front National has yet to acquire an irresistible momentum and its gains are not irreversible. In the case of Ukip, its candidates are so obviously primitive and so intellectually and morally vapid that prolonged exposure to their rank politics may well reveal surprisingly quickly how shallow its anti-establishment claims really are.
Does the UK population really want to carry handguns, as Nigel Farage thinks they should? Does it want compulsory abortion for women with Downs Syndrome children? Or a massive tax break for the rich?
I think not. And I hope that a bit of time watching Farage’s cohorts in local councils and the European Parliament may well make many voters wondering what they actually voted for, and that perhaps a similar outcome might take place in France. Of course, one of the main dangers of the rightwing surge is that mainstream parties may well use the Euro-elections as a justifcation for another populist lurch to the right of their own, particularly as far as immigration is concerned.
That’s why we need a dynamic left that can learn from the gains made by Syriza and Podemos, one that doesn’t wait for the right to fail of its own accord or seek to track its policies for electoral convenience, but which is capable of developing its own alternatives to the Europe that has brought the continent’s skeletons dancing out of the fascist closet, without trashing the entire European project altogether.
The sooner the better.