Only one thing is certain about the 2019 elections to the European Parliament: the outcome will be neither free nor fair.
It doesn’t matter how scrupulously the ballots are counted in Stockholm or how equally the time is allocated to parties on Dutch TV. As long as Hungary participates, the parliament elected on 26 May will contain MEPs who owe their seats to the lies, coercion and corruption practised by the government of Viktor Orbán.
The Hungarian prime minister indirectly controls 500 media outlets and influences almost all TV coverage of politics. When there are mass demonstrations against him in Budapest, Hungarian state TV instead shows demonstrations against migrants by Belgian fascists. Orbán has used taxpayers’ money to stage referendums against the non-existent “Soros plan” to flood Europe with refugees, to plaster Budapest with anti-Semitic billboards, and to gain 91 of 106 directly elected seats in Hungary’s parliament.
Orbán, to put it plainly, is using the money of the Hungarian state, itself heavily financed by European grants, not only to influence the election of Hungary’s 24 MEPs but – in a state-funded propaganda and influence campaign – to distort the outcome across Europe.
But the Hungarian case is just part of a wider crisis for Europe’s liberal centrist political elites. Analysis of national opinion polls show the far right is set to surge during the May elections. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is polling at 21 per cent; Italy’s Lega Nord is on 30 per cent. Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), the right-wing populist group in the European Parliament to which both parties are affiliated is expected to win 51 seats, while Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), a Eurosceptic outfit containing Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and an assortment of former Front National and Ukip MEPs, is predicted to win 50.
The authoritarian right will emerge as a pan-European force in the run-up to May. Its agitation has already forced eight European governments to reject the UN’s global compact on migration last month and will, this year, redraw the political map of Europe.
The centre itself is in disarray, and is being pulled inexorably towards the agenda of the far right. Angela Merkel runs a zombie coalition in Berlin, but restive voices within her government want a “conservative revolution”, which would roll back the gains of social liberalism to a pre-1968 condition. In France President Macron’s reform project – a bit less austerity in return for allowing market forces to destroy the living standards of the working class – has run into the barricades of the gilets jaunes.
The European People’s Party (EPP) group, which brings together traditional conservative parties, is itself moving to the right. It still contains Orbán’s Fidesz party, along with Austria’s Österreichische Volkspartei, which governs in coalition with the far right, and Spain’s Partido Popular, whose leading lights cannot bring themselves to stop worshipping at the tomb of Franco.
If the far right wins 100 seats in the new European parliament this year, and the EPP group’s drift to nationalism and xenophobia continues, it is safe to say the projects of integration and social liberalism will be on hold. The idea of “European sovereignty” promoted by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will be dead.
Social democratic parties, meanwhile, are facing a mixture of electoral decline and challenge from both the greens and the left. Only Portugal, where the Socialist Party holds 37 per cent of seats and leads a coalition government with the far left, has bucked the trend. Sweden’s social democrats, down to 28 per cent of the vote in last year’s election, cling precariously to power in a caretaker government. Elsewhere, the typical fate of the classic social democrat parties, for example in Austria and Denmark, is to hover around 25 per cent. In both Germany and Italy, where strong social democracy was a lynchpin of the postwar anti-fascist settlement, support for social democrats has slumped below 20 per cent.
Further to the left you find, in Europe’s mature democracies, left parties and leftish greens competing in the same space. The most successful left parties in Europe are Syriza in Greece, which remains in government and is polling at 25 per cent, and Sinn Fein, which has veered between 14 and 24 per cent since the Brexit crisis began last autumn. Of the other influential parties on the European left, Spain’s Podemos is polling at 16 per cent, but the socialist majority is being eroded both by the conservative Partido Popular and the nascent far-right Vox party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise polls at around 13 per cent, while both Germany’s Linke (Left Party) and the Portuguese Left Bloc poll at around 9 per cent.
The big picture, which will be unmistakable once votes are cast in May, is of a continent being pulled rightwards: by authoritarian nationalist movements, by a millionaire-owned media for whom racism is a money-spinner, and by the information wars waged by Trump and Putin supporters.
And yet, few parties want to dismantle the European project itself. Authoritarian nationalists flirt with the economics of the left when they play to their social conservatism and anti-globalism, but most far-right parties want to deregulate the single market, rather than leave it. In 2017 Hungary itself received €3.23bn more from the EU than it contributed.
A European parliament dominated by the right, however, would find it difficult to work with national governments rejecting both liberalism and ever closer union. The European Council would come to resemble the UN Security Council – paralysed by de facto vetoes. Instead of overriding the petty squabbles between nations, the European Commission would itself become a battleground. Meanwhile, the parliament would become an echo chamber for neo-Nazis.
If this outcome – fragmentation of the council, the commission and the parliament – were accidental it would be one thing. But it is the product of design. It is Vladimir Putin’s express wish that Europe’s geopolitics become “multipolar” – that is, for Europe to become a chessboard over which America, China and Russia fight for influence.
And those who want to tear Europe into spheres of influence have a strong rationale. Of all the world’s economic superpowers, Europe is the one that does not have a cohesive bourgeois class. The US has Wall Street, Big Oil and Silicon Valley; Russia has the siloviki class of politicians with a security services or military background, and the oligarchs; China has the Communist princelings and their huge business empires. The European bourgeoisie has automobiles, an empire of luxury brands and some state-supported banks.
Take, for example, the attitudes taken to artificial intelligence, a technology widely expected to be as influential in the coming decades as the internet has been in the recent past. In its development, America and China will compete as industrial superpowers; Russia, Israel and South Korea will compete as military specialists; Europe’s plan is to have a good long think about it.
In the global economy, the “sovereignty” of Juncker’s catchphrase is conferred not by political agreement but by powerful business elites. Without its own Silicon Valley or oligarchy, Europe currently suffers from a lack of geopolitical clout, especially when it comes to forcing social media giants to stop funnelling hate speech and disinformation into European politics.
What is the solution? It is surely this: for the centre-left and the radical left to seek tactical unity with as many green and liberal parties as possible to defend democracy, suppress fascism and end austerity.
I know what prevents this, because I have discussed the idea personally with the people who could make it happen: it is the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. The technocrats of the centre left cannot think beyond its strictures, which prevent the aggressive growth strategies, state aid and industrial policy practised by the other big economic blocs.
The political struggle, before and after the 2019 elections, is to encourage realism and tactical compromise among all those with an interest in defending the rule of law and the multilateral institutions that underpin it. In the 1930s it was the left that initiated such a compromise, in the form of the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy to oppose fascism. Today, it’s hard to get the leaders of the European radical left to occupy the same room, let alone persuade social democratic politicians to collaborate with them.
There is, however, one wild-card option with a non-negligible chance of happening: Theresa May falls, a second referendum cancels Brexit, Article 50 is revoked, Britain elects new MEPs and a new, left-led British government appoints a commissioner to match its politics. A unilateral cancellation of Brexit would merely leave Britain with all its rights under the status quo: but it would alter the dynamics of Europe.
Because even at 40 per cent of the vote, a new raft of left-affiliated MEPs would shift the balance in the parliament, while a feisty, communicative left commissioner from the fifth-largest economy in the world would tilt the balance there. But I am not promising that a Labour/SNP government could ride to Europe’s rescue. Whatever happens, politics in Brussels and Strasbourg are about to swing to the dark side.
Read all the pieces in our “2019 – the big questions” series: