Analysis of June’s European elections widely highlighted the rise of far-right parties. But the campaign also capped a much deeper shift: an EU trapped in a mood of decline and able to offer few forward-looking projects other than militarizing its borders.

European Union flags at a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17, 2024. (Simon Wohlfahrt / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Five years seems a long time ago.

When Europe last went to the polls, its politics certainly weren’t healthy. EU-backed austerity blighted lives across the continent, the radical right was rising, and from France’s gilet jaunes protests to Britain’s Brexit crisis, countries were wracked with social conflict.

But there were things to be hopeful about. Popular movements had catapulted new left-wing forces into parliaments. Reacting to an antiestablishment surge, even the citadels of capitalism recognized the need for reform. Critics of billionaire tax avoidance spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, left-leaning industrial strategists advised conservative governments, and — rhetorically at least — tackling the climate emergency was a settled issue across the political spectrum.

Much of this is now lost, and June’s European Parliament results reflect a deep continental malaise. Relatively few seats actually changed hands. But these scores bely seismic shifts. The far right surged in the EU’s two largest economies and scalped a prime minister in its institutional heart.

These parties did not actually win a majority, or anything close to one. But their agenda has seeped across the European body politic, posing serious challenges to left-wingers across the continent.

Four Germans of the Apocalypse

Germany, the imperial core of the EU, was once enviably stable — a country where neoliberal predictability resolutely failed to crumble. That has now reversed. It is the only G7 economy to have shrunk last year, and its dysfunctional political tribes are a canary down a bigger coal mine of European problems.

Far-right parties did not win a majority. But their agenda has seeped across the European body politic.

Take its Social Democrats (SPD), who still today lead the national government. In 2021, UK Labour leader Keir Starmer was advised to emulate SPD leader Olaf Scholz, a symbol of social democratic comeback after decades of right-wing rule.

Now, Scholz’s popularity has plummeted to record lows, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland are the beneficiaries. If “Pasokification” was termed to denote the collapse of austerian social democracy in recessionary Greece, “Scholzification” represents an update to the program.

The victories of Scholz, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, and others at the beginning of the decade were thought to represent a centrist triumph against “populism.” But in Germany, that success came on the back of a broad-front “sandcastle” coalition, with a program so vapid as to be meaningless.

Committed to the same irrational fiscal discipline as Greece’s Pasok before it, Germany’s SPD failed to tackle material discontent and hemorrhaged support. Keir Starmer’s Labour looks set to repeat this error.

The German Greens, meanwhile, were almost single-handedly responsible for the European Green group’s collapse. Their record as a pliant and indistinct junior partner in the Scholz coalition has much to do with this. But there is a bigger lesson here, in the failure of a dull technocratic form of climate politics to convince people of the urgency of a just transition.

At the same time, leftist Die Linke underwent a traumatic split. Sahra Wagenknecht’s splinter, which takes her own name, frames itself as preserving working-class interests against both the far right and a metropolitan liberal left; its opponents charge it with simply pushing a cynical “left” xenophobia. Such clashes between a “conservative” and “liberal” left are not unique to Germany and can be ill-afforded by an already marginal force.

Amid all this, Ursula von der Leyen is returning to Brussels and choosing whether to make overtures to the hard right and the rump Greens as she seeks a new term at the helm of the European Commission.

A scientist turned stateswoman from Germany’s conservative tradition, von der Leyen was always going to attract comparisons to Angela Merkel.

But where Merkel set the temperature across mainland Europe, “VDL” is simply the mercury in the barometer. Where she is tells you where the continent is.

The New Europe

In 2019, when backed for Commission president by neoliberal Emmanuel Macron over her right-wing rivals, von der Leyen stood for a grab bag of issues. For liberals she promised an ambitious Green Deal at the heart of industrial strategy; for conservatives she promised an unprecedented expansion of EU border force Frontex to “protect our way of life.”

These two particular issues continued competing for salience. A European Council on Foreign Relations study before the recent election split voters into two “tribes” — those who prioritized climate change and those who prioritized migration control. The latter won out. By spring this year, von der Leyen’s commission was raiding its Green Deal budget for migration control and its other new priority — rearmament.

European border enforcement was once a bashful tilt at an EU military role; “civilian troops . . . carrying weapons,” as disgraced Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri (now an MEP for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National) put it. It was undertaken in part because right-wingers supported more militarized borders but found military integration untenable. That has begun to shift.

EU ambassadors at their annual retreat this year were presented with a book describing how the continent can chart a “silent revolution” from being a “union of values to a union of power.”

One of the bloc’s most prominent court historians, Luuk van Middelaar, has called for Europe to awaken as a “Eurasian power” or face a “century of humiliation” on the scale of nineteenth-century China.

These clarion calls for superpower status from across the EU establishment are finding their expression in militarism. States still will not give up their armies to Brussels, but from Germany to the UK to the Baltics, they are obsessing about arms and conscription.

Rather than an EU army, the compromise is an EU military-industrial complex with ever-larger funds, while potentially continuing to expand EU military commitments. Previous dreams of using the power of centralized investment to improve lives has instead been grimly reanimated in the form of weapons factories; something Europe’s arms lobby has dreamed of for decades.

In short, European competitiveness is to be rebuilt on the backs of pumping out arms to the meat-grinder of the Donbass front or raining air strikes on Gaza.

And these two wars on Europe’s frontier also represent the rise and fall of its credibility. In February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU defended the principle of state sovereignty, and in a unique moment of compassion, opened its doors to Ukrainian refugees.

Two years later, its neighborhood commissioner attempts to strip aid from suffering Gazans, its politicians at worst endorse and at best permit a nine-month terror campaign that stands accused of genocide in the International Court of Justice, and its arms flow into the war.

And all the while European militarism gets ever more Strangelovian; with commentators salivating for a nuclear “Eurobomb” with the red button interrailing between capitals.

This militarism is the fissile core of a dangerous new foreign policy. The EU’s support for murderous Libyan militias to deter refugees and migrants was once a uniquely shameful policy. Now it is commonplace. Just before the election, reports emerged of EU complicity in operations to dump tens of thousands of mostly black people to face danger or even death in North African deserts. New border deals have been struck with Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Mauritania, and more.

Europe’s proponents once saw the EU as a moderating, calming third force between the behemoths to its west and east. It now risks devolving into little more than a racket.

This is a wider crude and cynical strategy. Development funding is granted to countries on Europe’s periphery; and who could seriously argue with supporting fragile economies? But this also shores up the position of authoritarian governments and comes with strings attached.

These governments are funded to prevent migration by any means necessary, theoretically insulating Europe from the world’s conflicts and environmental emergencies (including those it fuels).

In the process, Europe also gains access to fossil fuels and strategic resources from Libyan oil to East Mediterranean natural gas. As a bonus, migration, surveillance, and “security” deals provide additional spillover markets for its tech-military-industrial complex.

This strategy is billed as keeping Europeans safe. But such dangerous and short-termist thinking only increases instability for all.

Does an Alternative Still Exist?

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni was one of the election’s winners. Her European Parliament grouping is not part of the majority, but nor does it need to be. She has forged a hard-right pivot from attempting to shatter Europe to attempting to capture it.

For delivering hard-liners to the European project, she has been rewarded. Von der Leyen flies her around the world to help sign foreign policy deals. Much of her policy agenda seeps into mainstream center-right agendas.

And days before the election, an op-ed in the left-liberal Guardian urged Macron to unite with Meloni — a woman elected at the head of a party founded to preserve the legacy of Benito Mussolini — to “save Europe.”

What happened? The EU was never a truly egalitarian project and prioritized market rule above democracy. But it was once a liberal project whose advocates believed it could set a “new standard of civilization” based on peaceful cooperation, human rights, and the very rules-based international system that its leaders now casually undermine.

Europe’s proponents saw the EU standing as a moderating, calming third force between the behemoths to its west and east, while bringing more countries into shared prosperity. It now risks devolving into little more than a racket.

The supine nature of Europe’s centrist parties has not helped. Hard-right successes in this election may well prompt further rightward shifts, as already signaled by Austrian leader Karl Nehammer. Perhaps that might work to prevent some right-wing parties from being consumed by the cuckoos in their nest. But as comprehensive research showed earlier this year, it is kryptonite for Europe’s center left.

There are always, however, green shoots. The Nordic states saw progressive gains and largely held back a hard-right challenge. Italy’s center-left Democratic Party under its left-leaning leader Elly Schlein, beat its way into a surprisingly strong second place. From climate to Gaza, Spain’s center left/left coalition has shown more moral leadership than their peers, and has, too, resisted a protracted right-wing onslaught.

Meanwhile, the more radical left group in the European Parliament only lost one net seat. MEPs may have little institutional power, but the group at least provides a platform from which the ideas of movements across countries can be synthesized and disseminated, and the grim direction of EU policy challenged.

This group has gained new talents forged in the pitched battles of the past years. They include French Palestinian Rima Hassan, a former refugee, activist, and jurist who successfully fought off a vitriolic smear campaign waged by centrists and the far right alike during her campaign. They include Italian local mayor Mimmo Lucano and German climate scientist Carola Rackete, arrested and persecuted by the Italian right for rescuing and resettling refugees.

The current issues faced are not “European” as such and will largely be resolved locally, nationally, or globally. But the European superstructure remains intact, deeply undemocratic, and in the hands of those using it to internationalize austerity, militarism, and division. European-level popular demands are therefore needed.

The current issues faced are not ‘European’ as such and will largely be resolved locally, nationally, or globally.

The pandemic-era promise of uniting for the common good was never realized. The rich got richer while the proceeds of subsequent growth were unevenly distributed, and the EU now seeks to return to the bad old ways of austerity budgets — an approach that must be resisted.

Parties that claim to represent a popular interest can no longer simply take advantage of low borrowing rates to expand investment. Instead, they must find ways to effectively confront the levers of ownership and power.

This means concrete plans for how Europe’s considerable capacity for strategic investment and regulation can be used to redistribute wealth, improve lives, and labor standards across the board, reviving flagging economies with socially and environmentally just investment.

Economic weaknesses are increasingly fueled by climate and nature crises, which are having crippling impacts on Europe and the Mediterranean region.

A European and Mediterranean-wide strategy for protecting lives and livelihoods from extreme weather and its multiplying impacts is needed.

Popular backing for ambitious climate action must be driven forward in the face of an increasingly aggressive polluters’ lobby and far right that seek to replicate the far right’s tactics on EU migration policy over climate.

A linked key piece of the puzzle is ending Europe’s war on migration (which has manifestly failed even on its own terms), and replacing it with humane and rational policy.

In addition to harming and killing countless people, the current approach has fueled the far right; enabled widespread surveillance and police overreach; entrenched corporate power; fostered disregard for human rights and international law; and allowed governments to scapegoat migration for the immiseration of Europe’s working classes under austerity.

The “security threat” narrative used over migration has now expanded. Exploding militarism at home, alongside the return of both more local wars and great-power clashes internationally, is making it more difficult to argue for resources to be put into places of genuine need. But the political battle for butter over guns cannot be avoided.

Europe’s neocolonial superpower ambitions rest on a platform of migration control, resource extraction, and militarization that must be checked. But the bloc could lead globally in other ways.

European diplomatic clout and investment ability could instead be used internationally to promote peace, social and economic rights, a just transition, solutions to our many shared crises, and prosperity for all.

Such moral leadership requires a gargantuan push against current dynamics is needed, but the moment demands nothing less.

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