They say a week is a long time in politics. The last year has been a political lifetime for the EU. Moreover, it has been a cataclysm for the Social Democratic left that has been so instrumental in delivering stability and some predictability at the heart of Brussels.
Just under eighteen months ago the former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, was riding high in German opinion polls. His objective, kicking out Angela Merkel and ascending to the job of German Chancellor, was looking like it might succeed. In France, the Socialist Party, although behind in the polls, were seeking to unite the centre left, against Macron’s perceived one-man band, and create a platform to make a good challenge in the legislative elections. And in Italy, Renzi’s Democrats were in the running to lead the next coalition Government.
What happened? Shultz has been consigned to political oblivion and the SPD is struggling to keep up with the populist anti-immigrant AfD in polling. The French Socialists got roundly trounced twice, failing to make it to the second round of the Presidential election – eventually coming fifth, and then losing 286 seats in the legislative elections. And then we have the Italian Democrats, who managed to come in behind a comedian, a party previously best known for its abject disdain for the South of Italy and a convicted criminal.
The threat to the Social Democratic movement in Europe is centred on the perception of its raison d’etre. What does it now stand for and why should people vote for parties that have failed to adapt to modern issues and talk honestly about challenges to the lives and happiness of citizens. It matters not that Social Democrats think they are talking about these issues. The results bear out the fact that they are not communicating in a way that voters either understand, or with policies they are willing to accept or believe.
Somewhat instructive is the fact that although the decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany was made by the Conservative Chancellor, it is the centre left that is taking the greater part of the political punishment, with voters crossing the floor to the AfD. This speaks to greater dissatisfaction with the mainstream left.
Seemingly divergent to this is France. Although Macron’s ascent is also rooted in a new anti-establishment politics, his apparent fearlessness in championing policies he actually appears to believe in won him votes in the election, and now fierce opposition in Government. Such is the lot of a French President.
What does all this mean for the post Brexit future of the European Union?
The main centre left group in the European Parliament, the S&D, currently has 189 members from across twenty-eight member states. Three of the largest delegations come from France, Germany and Italy. All three delegations are looking like they will lose numbers in the next elections. You then also have the issue of losing 20 Labour MEPs to Brexit. And then the fact that some political leaders, less tied to old alliances, are now shying away from a group they might once had adhered to.
Such a shift raises questions over long-term alliances and stability on the European Council. Seven of its current members states are led by centre left led-Government’s but after highly divisive elections in Italy, Hungary and Slovenia there are set to be a further five major national elections this year alone. More change could soon be coming.
Cui Bono – who benefits? In the short term, the ability to organise and whip votes will be key, with the likely benefactors being the Centre Right. However, the German CDU has its own problems, the Dutch General Election saw the Governing VVD Party lose eight seats and les Republicains didn’t fair too well in France last summer either, so expect that to be limited.
Look instead to outsider parties. When considering France, the UK is obsessed with le Pen, but look also to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical leftist offering. This year in the Netherlands the Green Left increased their parliamentary numbers from four to fourteen. And in Germany, Die Linke have today announced that they’re launching a Bernie Sanders-type populist movement, Aufstehen (Stand-Up). Populism isn’t just coming from the right, but also the left. The Nordic Green Left group could well increase substantially in size.
However the European cookie crumbles, left or right, it is highly likely that parties less in line with European Social Democratic consensus politics will break through next May. This will bring new challenges, but also opportunities of how to interact with Brussels after 2019, established ideas and policies are likely to go by the wayside and new agendas driven.
As the UK’s biggest trading partner, whoever runs the Brussels machine will help shape the UK-EU relations for years to come. We should all take heed of the political maelstrom and plan accordingly.
Daniel Paterson is former Head of Communications to Vicky Ford and Senior International Trade Counsel at Barndoor Strategy