Prime Minister Theresa May (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address the media at the Chancellery in Berlin, November 2016. Stefan Rousseau/Press Association. All rights reserved. The first round of the French presidential election saw for the first time in history the candidates of the two big political families (the Gaullist centre-right and the socialist centre-left) failing to advance to the second round. Pressured between competitors from the centre and the radical left, the dismal result of the Socialist Party was another confirmation of European social-democracy’s long-standing and much discussed state of crisis.
Little comparable alarmism has been generated about the European centre-right despite Francois Fillon’s failure to make it to the second round. This may be because Fillon’s failure can plausibly be attributed to circumstantial factors. But this explanation underestimates the extent to which the dynamics of the campaign could have challenged Fillon’s neoliberal economics and social traditionalism in a society that, as the election results showed, was not particularly supportive of either.
In fact, I would argue that Fillon’s failure is the latest expression of a crisis of the centre-right that has been building for some time now. It appeared first in 2015 as a crisis of electoral performance, with centre-right parties losing elections in a number of European countries (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Poland). The sense of crisis was mitigated by the fact that in some cases (Ireland, Spain) centre-right parties remained in office due to the fragmentation of the opposition.
But in 2016 the centre-right found itself in the epicentre of seismic electoral results in Anglo-Saxon democracies. Developments there, followed by Fillon’s defeat against the populist Le Pen and the pro-European Macron this year, show that the centre-right is coming up against a full-blown crisis of relevance in a political competition realigned around the juxtaposition between nation-state-centric populism and internationalist social-liberalism.
Since the early-2000s centre-right parties have dominated western politics by combining free-market economics and commitment to the open globalized system with an emphasis on hierarchical social values like law and order. In most European countries centre-right parties have dominated government formation in this period. Since 1999 the European People’s Party is the largest group in the European Parliament. In the US the Republicans have controlled at least one house of Congress for all but four years since 1994. Even in countries with a centre-left consensus, like Canada and Sweden, centre-right parties have stayed in power for extended periods.
The financial crisis of 2008 challenged the economic agenda of the centre-right, but centre-right parties effectively reacted by pushing the message that the solution to the crisis was a consolidation of public finances and structural reforms. As a result, everywhere from the US to the UK to continental Europe, centre-right parties dominated the narrative of the crisis while centre-left parties struggled.
Economic stagnation concealed
Yet the success of centre-right politics for some time after 2008 only concealed the long-term effects of economic stagnation. The crisis made broad segments of western middle classes disenchanted, thus the economic openness and internationalism of the centre-right are now finally beginning to lose their appeal. At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile these features with traditional and hierarchical social values that, in the minds of voters, are more credibly expressed by right-wing populists. In today’s political climate, the centre-right’s once coherent message becomes fraught with contradictions.
Recent developments highlight the new challenges the centre-right faces. The two momentous electoral events of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – emerged from within centre-right parties in the US and UK, where populist insurgencies upended the Republican and Conservative parties’ internationalist elites.
These insurgencies emphasized concerns over immigration. They also put forward a peculiar policy mix of more state economic activism (e.g. in infrastructure development) and less taxes and regulations. The common thread of these policies is the ideal of nation-states ‘taking back control’, especially in economic policy and border control.
Despite its manifold contradictions, this nation-state-centric populism that emerged from within the mainstream centre-right and simultaneously promised to protect people from the external forces of globalization and to ‘leave them alone’ from regulations and redistributive policies at home, has proved electorally potent in Anglo-Saxon democracies.
If for years centre-right parties satisfied the economic and security concerns of a relatively affluent middle class under moderate but steady economic growth, the success of Trump and the impending triumph of Theresa May in the June general election may point to a new winning formula for conservative politics under conditions of economic stagnation and heightened sociocultural insecurity.
This populist mutation of two of the world’s most historical and influential centre-right parties comes at a time when their brethren in Europe see their once potent recipe of pro-market policies, conservative social values and support for European integration slowly but steadily lose its once broad appeal.
Even more importantly, the result of the first round of the French election replicates dynamics seen in the UK and the US: a realignment of political competition between right-wing populists who are suspicious of globalization on the one side, and internationalist social-liberals with no interest in conservative social values on the other.
The lesson here for European centre-right parties may be that alignment with either of the poles of the new dimension of competition – nation-state-centric populism or internationalist social-liberalism – is the only escape from political irrelevance. After all the Republican and Conservative parties survived the upheavals of 2016 by visibly distancing themselves from the orthodoxy of market economics and international openness, while a backlash against populism seems to be favouring outspoken liberal internationalists like Emmanuel Macron in Europe.
In some ways the populist mutation of parts of the European centre-right is already under way. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is the most characteristic, and the most extreme, example of this. But the way that, for example, liberal and Christian-democratic parties won the elections in the Netherlands by vocally coopting the anti-immigrant themes of the radical right is another. And some European centre-right parties, once at the forefront of federalist visions of European integration, are today the ones calling most loudly for repatriation of powers from Brussels so that the EU only ‘focuses on the big things’. The tone is more civil, but the logic is not far removed from the calls for return of ‘control’ to the nation-state heard in the US and the UK.
But the centre-right is pulled in the opposite direction as well. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million refugees in 2015 put her in a paradoxical position of relying on the centre-left opposition to push through her refugee policies against loud protestations of the right wing of her own party. And in Greece and Poland centre-right parties are increasingly defining themselves through their opposition to Eurosceptic populist governments, whereby references to more orthodox elements of centre-right ideology like traditional social values are being crowded out from these parties’ priorities.
Thus in many western party systems the emerging competition between populism and internationalism is putting the centre-right under pressure. Italy is a good example of how bad things can get for the centre-right, which is weak and divided between a pro-European centre-left and a populist Eurosceptic opposition front. For centre-right parties the Italian example (and perhaps now the French one) can act as a warning that indecision and failure to take sides in the new dimension of political competition leads inescapably to irrelevance.
Illiberal ideas make for instability
Both paths of mutation of centre-right parties carry consequences for the stability of western party systems in the future. The danger from the centre-right’s populist mutation is that nationalist, populist and potentially illiberal ideas gain a strong foothold in political system and policymaking. As a result, as is currently the case with the US, the UK and Hungary, these ideas can destabilize international and regional institutions where these countries participate.
Despite appearing more benevolent, the centre-right’s social-liberal mutation is no less problematic for western democracies and international politics. Closing ranks around an internationalist, pro-European and anti-populist agenda will keep centre-right parties from playing their traditional role of integrating in representative politics conservative-minded and authoritarian voters. As evidenced in Germany with the rise of AfD after the refugee crisis, the centre-right’s social-liberal mutation can easily expose European party systems to radicalization.
The emerging crisis of the centre-right is qualitatively different to the one of social-democracy, but no less significant. For social-democracy the crisis consists chiefly in its electoral weakening. For the centre-right electoral marginalization is in most countries less an immediate concern than its gradual self-abrogation as a distinct political identity.
Most parties composing the centre-right family today look set to continue being electorally important in the foreseeable future. But the centre-right as a coherent set of ideas and principles about economics, society and international politics is in serious danger of marginalization as political competition in western democracies realigns between closure and openness to the outside world.
The implications of this scenario, if it comes to pass, are sombre. In some cases parties of the centre-right will give up on their role as mainstream outlets for concerns with cultural distinctiveness and social hierarchy in order to act as the internationalist pole opposing populism. In other cases the consolidation of populism in party systems will actually come from within a centre-right mutating towards more nationalism and protectionism. In both cases, the capacity of the centre-right to act as a pillar of centripetal and moderate politics decreases. The impending crisis of the centre-right presages a deepening of the ongoing crisis of western democracy.