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Greater fragmentation, a weaker centre and polarisation – what produced the new European Parliament?

With notable exceptions, the left did badly in the EU elections. Why? There are no easy answers, writes KEVIN OVENDEN

THE European elections confirmed the crisis of the European political systems. It predates the 2008 crash but was accelerated by it.

There isn’t a single “European electorate” but an agglomeration of 28 national political realities. The European Parliament lacks anything like the power of national legislatures.

That’s why though turnout was up in 20 countries and hit a 20-year high, it still fell far short (with most working-class voters abstaining) of a national election — except in Belgium where there was a general election.

Nevertheless, it’s possible carefully to identify some trends. And the political fracturing of the parliament is going to create problems for the European institutions.

That is just when a series of fraught issues loom — from appointing a new Commission president, through deciding the next five-year budget, to managing national tensions as the EU’s economy slows within a straitjacket of imposed fiscal austerity.

For the first time in 40 years the two big blocs of the social democratic centre left and Christian democratic centre right do not between them command a majority in the 751-seat assembly.

That has been a mechanism both for horse-trading to fill the plethora of posts in Brussels and, given a high level of convergence between the two, a source of stability and consensus.

It has also provided a veneer for the Franco-German axis which is the historic centre of the EU and which, through their own national social democratic and centre-right parties, could informally dominate the groups.

That has broken down. A centre majority will now have to include the Liberal grouping, which made gains in the election thanks mainly to Emmanuel Macron’s party (it did not exist at the last election five years ago) and to the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

It may even have to include the Greens, who made significant gains in some countries: Germany (where they came second), France (third), Ireland and Britain (though in the unique circumstances of the election here).

The loss of the European equivalent of the two-party system that dominated most countries until the last decade is already amplifying tensions.

There is a clash between Macron and Angela Merkel over the appointment of the next president of the European Commission. She wants Manfred Weber from her own Christian Democratic party. Merkel cites the agreement by the parliament that the “lead candidate” of the biggest parliamentary group should get the position.

But the council of heads of EU governments has not formally adopted that protocol.

Macron says the lack of a majority without the Liberals he’s allied with means another candidate should be chosen.

Behind the spat is a growing confrontation between France and Germany. With Merkel on her way out (perhaps soon), Macron has tried to restore French influence in the EU that has waned considerably over the last 25 years.

He has sought modest changes to the rules governing the eurozone and a significant budget that may be used to offset how the single currency has created strong recessionary pressures in the south of Europe — and to some extent France — to the benefit of German export industry.

It is not some anti-neoliberal policy. He is trying to drive through massive public-sector job cuts, welfare “reform” and privatisations at home.

It is to try to restore French capitalist interests as an equal partner with those of Germany.

Intransigence from Berlin and its close northern European allies has stymied his proposals. In the new political constellation he hopes to revive his France First efforts.

Whatever happens over the post of commission president the tensions between France and Germany will not go away and the ballast of the old stable European Parliament has gone.

Macron is floating the cover of a “progressive alliance” with the Spanish social democrats, who managed to top the poll on Sunday.

But Macron’s party did not win in France. Marine Le Pen’s fascists did. She also did five years ago.

Her poor performance in the second round of the French presidential election and in the National Assembly elections in 2017 led much of the European liberal commentariat to predict that Macron would slay not only Le Pen but “populism” across Europe as a whole.

His plummeting popularity, the yellow vests insurgency and now coming second to Le Pen ought to have put paid to that delusion.

Much more than Le Pen, Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega made a frightening advance on Sunday. Five years ago it took 6 per cent. Last year it was polling 17 per cent. On Sunday it took 34 per cent.

He is now looking to reorganise the radical and far right in Europe, which sits in three blocs in the European Parliament.

In governing coalition, Salvini has outstripped the anti-establishment “neither left nor right” Five Star Movement.

His far-right formation, which includes fascists, has eclipsed the traditional centre right. There is a similar pattern in France and in some of the eastern states of Germany.

It underscores the long-term decline of the post-war centre right in many countries and the splintering of a singular right wing pole into the kind of range of formations — from national liberal to outright fascist — that characterised the inter-war period.

It is not a uniform process. And nor is the rise of the far right. It fell back in, for example, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece and Germany (compared with recent elections).

But overall it made gains, as did the national-conservatives in eastern Europe. So “the centre held?” Not quite — it came at the price of its own fracturing.

The Greens when in government — from Ireland to Germany — have proved impeccably centrist.

Many giving them a vote under the impetus of school student walkouts and militant actions for “system change not climate change” are not, however, looking to carbon taxes on working people or governing with the big business parties of Fine Gael in Ireland or the CDU in Germany.

Nor do the Green parties — with a loose composite support at these elections — have the social weight the centre left had when it sold the Blairite snake oil across Europe 25 years ago.

What then of the radical left? Overall, they were not good results — though with important exceptions. The Left Bloc in Portugal and the big breakthrough by the Workers Party in Belgium, in both French and Dutch speaking areas, and in the regional, national and European parliaments.

Die Linke lost votes heavily in the east, picked up in the west but on a higher turnout than five years ago went from 7.4 to 5.5 per cent.

Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise took 6.3 per cent — about the same as in 2014 but less than a third of the vote share in 2017 when he nearly made it into the second round of the presidential election.

There are bad answers floating around as to how the left of the labour movement in Europe can restore its support and insurgency.

Former German SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel puts the first. He argues that the left should adopt a more strongly anti-migrant position coupled with a modest welfarist economics. Incredibly he holds up Austria as a positive example. There the social democrats are in coalition with the fascists of the FPO in the Burgenland region.

But aside from the moral and political capitulation, the SPD in Germany has already done this. It has lost votes to the Greens and to the far right AfD.

A second recipe is that the left should position itself as essentially left liberal, not fundamentally challenging the system of the 1 per cent and downplaying class antagonism in favour of a US-style culture war.

But that is exactly what led Hillary Clinton to lose in 2016. It is also the “post-class” thinking that attended the birth of Blairism, which accelerated the crisis of post-war labour movement politics.

While on the ground in many areas Die Linke is actively involved in social struggles and raising radical demands, its European election slogan of “for a more social Europe” was barely distinguishable from the centre left and Greens.

In a truly tragic piece, the social democratic commentator Paul Mason combined both nostrums with a recipe for Labour to be a pro-EU party but balanced by offering people in “ex-industrial towns” a strong dose of patriotism, national security, and law and order.

A third answer is somehow to transcend left and right and try to claim an ambiguous “anti-establishment” position. That is what Podemos did in Spain with highly theorised strategies of seeking to unite the people against the elite behind “empty signifiers.”

It went backwards on Sunday, as did La France Insoumise — which having been the leading left force two years ago further abandoned talk of left and right, and pursued the Podemos strategy instead.

Melenchon chose the “empty signifier” of slapping Macron as the election theme. In the absence of positive, left content — including over opposing the neoliberal EU institutions — Le Pen could be seen as the vehicle for punching the president.

There are several bad answers and no easy ones.

But good answers will have to come from returning to a radical and insurgent approach that fuses bitterness at the base of society with radical socialist positions — on an insurgent, class basis.

For isn’t that how the labour movement was created in the first place?

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