Europe’s Center Has Held, but at What Cost?

Has the center held in Europe? The obvious answer would seem to be yes. As has been widely noted, parties on the extremes lost ground in Germany’s election this weekend compared to 2017. And across Europe, far-right and anti-establishment parties similarly seem to be receding in electoral and political relevance. But in other ways, the picture is less heartening, as the impact those parties have had on political discourse has mainstreamed a brand of anti-immigrant, identity-based closure that calls into question Europe’s purpose and meaning, both at home and abroad.

First the good news. The election results in Germany marked a reversal for both the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and the far-left Die Linke, or The Left, parties. The AfD saw its vote share drop from the 12.6 percent of its 2017 breakthrough to just over 10 percent this time. Die Linke fared even worse, with its voter support dropping almost by half, from 9.2 percent to just over 5 percent. The clear beneficiaries of their decline were the parties of the broad center, particularly the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens, but also the liberal Free Democratic Party, or FDP.

That mirrors a regional trend since 2017, in which far-right parties have seen the inroads they made at the height of the 2015 European refugee crisis erode. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom underperformed in the country’s 2017 general elections and subsequently lost even more ground in this year’s voting. In Italy, Matteo Salvini has maneuvered himself and his League party from being the country’s leading political force in 2018 to near-irrelevance after he withdrew from a coalition government in 2019 in a failed bid to force snap elections. And in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party was booted from the governing coalition after an internal scandal in 2019 and hemorrhaged voters in subsequent snap elections.

In France, the picture is more mixed. Far-right standard-bearer Marine Le Pen could very well win the first round of next year’s presidential election. And though her National Rally party suffered disappointing defeats in recent regional elections, it would possibly be the leading opposition party if France had a proportional representation system. Nevertheless, her chances of improving her score in the second-round runoff enough to win the presidency next year remain remote.

Europe’s anti-establishment parties have suffered a similar fate. Most prominent among them is Italy’s Five Star Movement, which finished second in Italy’s 2018 election, behind Salvini’s League, but is now reportedly on the verge of imploding ahead of next year’s election. In Spain, too, Podemos saw its electoral support in 2019 crater from its peak in 2016, and polling suggests it has tapered off further since then.

Going by electoral results, then, clearly the further Europe moves away from both the trough of its 2010 debt crisis and austerity cures, and the peak of the 2015 refugee crisis, the weaker the electoral appeal of extreme and anti-establishment parties on the far right and left has grown. That’s understandable, given that the spike in migration in 2015—as well as the wave of terrorist attacks in France, Germany and elsewhere that coincided with it—perfectly fit the narrative of existential danger and apocalyptic doom the parties of the far right, in particular, traffic in.

The mainstreaming of the far right’s anti-immigrant plank is a predictable impact of extremist parties on democratic politics.

But scratch the surface and the picture portrayed by these electoral trends is less reassuring. To begin with, in some cases where support for the leading far-right party or political leader has declined, like Italy and the Netherlands, it has migrated to newly emerging alternatives. In others, like Austria, far-right voters simply migrated to mainstream conservative, right-wing parties.

This latter phenomenon underscores the degree to which these conservative, center-right parties across Europe have embraced the far right’s positions on its core policy preoccupations—immigration and identity—metamorphosizing into a new breed of “hard-right” parties. In Austria, the Freedom Party’s collapse resulted in what amounted to a hostile takeover of its support base by the conservative People’s Party of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. In Denmark, the then-ruling center-right government led by the Venstre party enacted a controversial “ghetto law” in 2018 that imposed intrusive and exceptional laws regulating daily life in majority-immigrant neighborhoods. In France, too, the center-right Republicans have flirted with and at times openly embraced Marine Le Pen’s style of identity-based, anti-immigrant politics, in an effort to woo back voters on its right flank.

But the trend is not limited to France’s right. Having already coopted much of the center-right, French President Emmanuel Macron has in the past few years sought to fend off what he perceives as his real threat—Le Pen—by adopting a tough-on-crime, but also tough-on-Islam approach. The latter is part of a complicated and divisive debate in France over its universalist approach to identity and fierce defense of secularism. But it is brimming with overtones that are clearly meant to appeal to a hard-right electorate whose votes are now the object of a three-way competition.

A similar phenomenon is on display elsewhere in Europe among the center-left and social democratic parties that have marked a comeback since their nadir in the middle of the last decade. Their reversal of fortune is in part due to the natural pendulum swings of electoral politics in Europe and elsewhere. But it is also due to a similar adoption of the far right’s hard line on immigration. In Denmark, it is the center-left government led by the Social Democrats that enacted a law allowing authorities to process asylum seekers outside of the country. Sweden’s Social Democrat-led government similarly passed a law in July hardening its immigration policy for refugees.

This mainstreaming of the far-right anti-immigrant plank is a predictable impact of extremist parties on democratic politics, as William M. Downs explained in an in-depth WPR article back in 2013. Unsurprisingly, it is also visible on the EU level, where “safe third country” agreements are the preferred approach for outsourcing the bloc’s immigration policy to other countries. Combine that with the walls going up at the EU’s land borders with Turkey and the heightened maritime interdiction of refugees in the Mediterranean, and the emergence of Fortress Europe seems to be more a fait accompli than a looming risk.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of a darkening international climate, in which a contested and competitive form of interconnectedness is taking shape, one that replaces the perhaps utopian but nonetheless more hopeful vision of globalization that was prevalent in the 2000s. Europe is beginning to wake up to the implications of that shift, and calls for European strategic autonomy and sovereignty are already being framed as the initial expressions of a “Europe First” moment. Hans Kundnani has argued that the European project has taken a civilizational turn that belies its claims to cosmopolitanism.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” William Butler Yeats’ familiar lines are often trotted out as a political metaphor, but the poem from which they are drawn was altogether broader in its sense of societal foreboding, in which the “blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” It’s hard not to feel we’re on the verge of something similar today, in Europe but also more broadly. The center has held, perhaps, but only in the most nominal of ways, and at the cost of losing its innocence.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter @Judah_Grunstein.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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