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How the European left can take on the hard right

There are flickers of hope in Italy and Spain.

By Georgios Samaras

The gathering storm that has loomed over Europe for years broke dramatically on Monday morning, with gains for hard-right parties across several of the EU’s core nations. Mirroring that, left and green parties have suffered severe setbacks, particularly in Germany, as well as Austria, France and Greece. How did this decline come about? And how will it ever end?

A “snowball effect” is emerging – a phenomenon recently articulated by the political sociologist Matthijs Rooduijn in the context of right-wing politics. The influence of the European hard right has been growing steadily over the past decade, resulting in many centre-right parties adopting and imitating some of their practises. From anti-migration and human rights to culture wars, centre-right parties believed they would attract voters by adopting these measures, while also facilitating a decade of austerity and neoliberal economic reforms. The electorate hasn’t thanked them. Instead, it showed a preference for the authentic over the imitative, pushing the percentages of the hard-right votes to record numbers.

This practice has significantly blurred ideological lines on the right side of the spectrum, exacerbating the left’s challenges. The European left is now grappling not only with internal party politics, characterised by a complete lack of unity, but also with a united front on the right that might soon consolidate at a European level. The ongoing negotiations between the European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) could result in a new and dominant coalition of the right within the European Parliament.

However, there are exceptions to this rule, and certain centre-left parties have succeeded in maintaining their influence in a way that other countries should note. A good example is Elly Schlein’s Democratic Party (PD) in Italy, which has campaigned on issues such as Gaza, the redistribution of wealth between the north and south, and has taken a more assertive stance in opposition to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni‘s crusades against LGBTQ rights and migration.

By gaining four extra seats and increasing its percentage to 24.1 per cent, PD demonstrates how an effective electoral counter is a shift to the left, not reheated centrism. Similarly, the influence of the Spanish party Sumar on Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has revitalised discourse on issues that concern voters, including the energy crisis, inflation, monetary policy and Gaza. Sánchez saved his government last year by shifting in that direction, and similarly retained 20 seats in the European Parliament.

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Conversely, the left has suffered in places where voters no longer trust it. In Greece, the disconnect has only deepened: Yanis Varoufakis with DiEM25, and the New Left led by Alexis Charitsis both failed to secure seats in the new European Parliament last night, while Syriza and Pasok appear more isolated than ever in the centre, their vote stagnating. This failure underscores critical issues including leadership challenges, but most importantly a failure to recognise and interpret the far-right protest vote, which reached levels of support not seen since the collapse of the dictatorship in 1974. Syriza and the broader left are simply tainted, perceived as unreliable due to signing the third bailout programme with the International Monetary Fund in 2015 and forming a coalition with the hard-right Independent Greeks in the same year.

Greece, like Germany, France and Denmark, faces a legacy of neglect within the left. Austerity policy and the inability to address systemic issues have led a significant portion of society to believe they have no answers to contemporary problems, indirectly allowing the hard right to dominate. These results are more than a warning; they herald a rising political tide that is poised to wash away governments and elevate figures in domestic politics, such as Marine Le Pen, who has a chance of doubling down after Emmanuel Macron’s risky snap election decision. Germany could be next.

A successful strategy must counteract the fear and intimidation propagated by both centre-right and hard-right parties in their ideological convergence. In the early 2010s, a significant surge of populist left-wing factions endeavoured to address austerity and challenge the centralised decision-making of the European Union. Despite their earnest left-wing agendas, their efforts fell short. Parties such as Podemos, Syriza and Die Linke have witnessed a decline in both voter connection and electoral influence. To reclaim relevance, these factions must break with the failed past – and embrace a fresh programme suited to the politics of the present.

[See also: Confronting the new Europe]

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