A European Union Of Populists?

Readers of Aftonbladet unfamiliar with recent political developments were greeted by a shocking opinion piece on January 31st. Penned by the leader of Sweden-Democrats (SD), who advocated “Swexit” for years, the article presented his “long-term vision” for the EU – an organization he now claimed had both its advantages and disadvantages.

This course correction was by far not the only one. The wind of change is sweeping across the right-wing, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, nationalist, and authoritarian-leaning parties across the whole EU. These are the parties on the Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist (TAN) side of the GAL-TAN classification. But, why the sudden change of heart?

For the first time ever, these right-wing parties see a chance to take over. At the least they aim to gain a firm foothold in the European Parliament (EP) and influence political decision-making from there, remaking the  EU in their image.

Long consigned to outsider status, their ambitions are now running high: Eurosceptic parties are now governing in Italy (both coalition partners), have constitutional majority in Hungary, simple majority in Poland, are a junior coalition partner in Austria, Bulgaria and Finland, and provide supply-and-confidence to the sitting government in Denmark – and this is a non-exhaustive list.

If we remember the institutional structure of the EU, this means that they are also represented in the Council of Ministers and the European Council, and can shape or influence the EU agenda.

Furthermore, we get this picture only if we completely exclude extra-governmental TAN-parties who at least command around 10-20% of the national vote and are projected to grow further in the 2019 EP elections.

This newfound optimism stems from a string of electoral successes within and outside of Europe (not least in the USA and Brazil) and translates into attempts of coalition building across borders. For the first time, TAN-parties see a chance to truly take over the EU. Ideas vary wildly of how this can be done. A new large grouping of Eurosceptics around “Italo-Polish axis”? A far-right Franco-German Friendship? A closer partnership between Conservatives in European People’s Party (EPP) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)? A new political force such as “The Movement” trying to replicate the successes of American populist recipe of Steve Bannon?

It is populist issues that dominate the political conversation and sometimes even the agenda. Other parties are thereby forced into reactive and defensive positions, responding to political developments, instead of shaping them.Image: Flickr.

To be fair, neither of these parties nor groupings form one coherent political unit. Some, like Hungarian Fidesz, try to be mainstream by sticking with EPP Group in the EP, despite recent suspension. Others, like SD prefer the softly-Eurosceptic ECR. But even fully committed Eurosceptics cannot agree to sit in a single group, currently split between Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF).

Moreover, the prospect of TAN-parties forming a majority in the EP is extremely unlikely, even though  they are in a very good position to deny a majority to the ruling EPP and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) for the first time.

Thus, have we overestimated the threat these parties represent? Not in the slightest.

For the first time in EU history, a member state is leaving it. Decades of finger pointing and blaming the EU for national problems have finally paid off for the UKIP and the Eurosceptic Conservatives, to the extent that they managed to radicalize a majority of British population in 2016.

So, in a way, haven’t the TAN-parties already won?

They thrive on the politics of division. Instead of shying away from them like the established parties, they feed off the thorniest and most sensitive issues. It is their key issues that dominate the political conversation and sometimes even the agenda. Other parties are thereby forced into reactive and defensive positions, responding to political developments, instead of shaping them. The issues that they actively discuss are legitimate but often exaggerated and distorted. Whether it is immigration and refugees, contributions to the EU budget and redistribution policies, or EU involvement in national affairs, they capitalize on divisions.

TAN-parties have saturated national politics by influencing those ruling parties that most often make up EPP and S&D on the European level. In Denmark, for example, the politics have devolved into the competition about which party has the stricter immigration policies, center-left Social Democrats or center-right Venstre (actually a Liberal party).

In Sweden, ruling Social-Democrats were forced into a U-turn and went to the 2018 elections on a platform that more restrictive on immigration than policy proposals from some of the opposition parties. TAN-parties, despite their authoritarian tendencies, are radical but not extremist. They mostly do not advocate political violence to overthrow sitting governments, or physically attack their political opponents, but rather aim to win power through the ballot box. However, that does not make them any less dangerous. Just remember the 1930s.

When leaders like Matteo Salvini insist that they believe in the EU and proclaim themselves to be its saviour, or when Marine Le Pen expresses readiness to welcome the UK back to the reformed EU, you know that something has gone very, very wrong.

The battle for the European future is now and the stakes are higher than ever.

Demna Janelidze

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