To understand the results of the European elections, we have to realize one basic thing: the most important, polarizing conflict in the politics of the 2010s is the one between (racist, climate-denying, sexist) nationalism and (open, at least nominally anti-racist and anti-sexist) internationalism. Those parties that have a clear position in this fight won, those that don’t lost.
There are three groups of parties that gained votes and seats: far-right nativists; internationalist liberals (ALDE); Greens. There are three groups of parties that lost heavily: Conservatives; Social Democrats; the Left (GUE/NGL). Why has the left (Social Democrats and GUE/NGL) not profited from increasing polarization? Because we still have not realized that the kind of polarization we experience requires us to have a clear, substantive position on whether or not we are internationalists.
The truth of this proposition can be gauged by looking at the apparent exceptions: the Danish Social Democrats have (like the Austrian Conservatives, who also won) adopted racist nationalism almost wholesale, thereby positioning themselves clearly and performing well electorally. The opposite case are the Dutch Social Democrats, who profited from the strong Europe-wide campaign of Frans Timmermans (common lead candidate of the Party of European Socialists). Timmermans, despite his apparent baggage of being part of the European establishment, made a substantive progressive internationalist case for a social Europe, thereby positioning the Dutch Social Democrats clearly as internationalists, and winning the elections
The left is still heavily hampered by its continued commitment to the national welfare state model of the twentieth century.
In this fight, the left is still heavily hampered by its continued commitment to the national welfare state model of the twentieth century, and by its catering to the fiction of a homogenous, white, male industrial proletariat. The Greens and ALDE are free from these shackles, and therefore profit from the new kind of polarization around nationalism/internationalism: ALDE because it does not have a fundamental problem with neoliberal globalization; the Greens because their signature topics are global in scope. (It must be noted that there is a split among the liberals: there is Guy Verhofstadt’s substantively internationalist positioning for a federal Europe on the one hand, and the German FDP’s attempt at claiming the spot of the somewhat more rational nationalists on the other. As far as I can see, the Verhofstadt position (including En Marche) performed well, while the FDP mould stagnated or lost on the whole.)
There are three strategic lessons:
(1) We must put more pressure than ever on social democratic and left parties to actually, unconditionally come out for a progressive, left internationalism. No more triangulation on this, no more trying to copy the racist right with an anti-immigrant comment here and there. There are already calls for the left to copy the Danish wholesale adoption of racism. This would be not only morally, but also strategically disastrous, even if it does prove electorally successful in the short-term, because it signifies a major shift of the whole political spectrum to the right, which will make any actually progressive politics on every issue (!) impossible. Rather, we must make a substantive case for a social Europe, including measures like a European investment programme (a Green New Deal), a European unemployment insurance, a European living wage. Frans Timmermans shows that this can be successful even in the watered-down, social democratic version his campaign put forward. We cannot rely solely on the Greens to deliver on this, because the left still carries most of the important symbolic weight on economic issues – weight that the Greens, despite the laudable attempts of their left wing(s), still do not carry. This goes even for the Social Democrats – our angry frustration at watching Social Democratic parties destroy themselves is only a sign that we are still, despite all disappointments, hoping for them to finally ditch their neoliberal centrism. Ultimately all left and progressive parties must work together to achieve the fundamental, international transformations we need.
No more trying to copy the racist right with an anti-immigrant comment here and there.
(2) “Anti-fascism” is not a strategically sound way of dealing with the threat from the right. The Greens have won not by talking over and over again about the threat of fascism, grave as it is, but because they seemed the most credible party to substantively deal with the climate crisis. They had a positive vision and message, not solely a negative one repudiating “fascism.” The latter actually strengthens far-right politics by making the whole political debate about them and putting their alleged challenge to the system front and centre, while not offering positive solutions of our own. Wherever the left (Social Democrats and notably also further-left parties) have tried to play this game, they have lost. It’s a game in which progressives, who want to transform the system not defend it, cannot win. It does, however, work for centrists defending the Status Quo, which is why the liberals (see Macron) could in fact profit from this kind of juxtaposition, at the cost of the left.
The far-right… are not trying to dissolve the EU (which is highly unpopular), but to transform it into a racist “Europe of fatherlands”.
(3) Generic “pro-Europeanism” in the mould of (for example) the German Social Democrats (whose main campaign slogan was “#EuropeIsTheAnswer”) is over.
We have finally entered a politics of which Europe we want, not of whether or not any particular nation should be part of it (i.e. the “exit” phantasy). The far-right has understood this for quite some time: they are not trying to dissolve the EU (which is highly unpopular), but to transform it into a racist “Europe of fatherlands” based on the supremacy of white, Christian, straight, male Europeans.
This is what we are up against, and it is actually much worse than a dissolution of the EU: it is a much more realistic outlook, not least because many parts of it are already in place (the racist border regime, lack of political rights for migrants within Europe, neocolonial migration and trade deals) and just need to be woven together more tightly and radicalized. We win this fight not by waving European flags or professing how pro-European we are, but by creating a substantive politics for the kind of Europe we want: a democratic, social, anti-racist Europe for all.
This piece originally appeared in the author's Facebook blog on May 29, 2019.