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Welcome back. Mainstream centre-right political parties are out of power in some of Europe’s biggest countries — France, Germany, Poland and Spain. The UK’s ruling Conservative party seems set to go the same way. Is it an exaggeration to speak of a crisis gripping the moderate European right? I’m at [email protected].
A favourite topic of political commentary is the long-term decline of European social democracy and the moderate left. I chipped in last year with my own thoughts on that.
But the truth is that mainstream centre-right parties are in difficulty, too. Germany’s Christian Democrats not only lost the 2021 Bundestag elections but recorded their worst result in the Federal Republic’s history. France’s Les Républicains were humiliated in last year’s presidential and legislative elections.
A Socialist-radical left coalition has governed Spain since January 2020. Civic Platform, Poland’s moderate right party, lost power to conservative nationalists in 2015 and has been out of office ever since. And for months the British Conservatives have been trailing the Labour opposition in opinion polls by about 20 percentage points.
The troubles of the centre-right have not been entirely overlooked. Over the past year or so, two especially good analyses have appeared: this article by Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser for the UK in a Changing Europe website, and, more recently, this essay by Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman.
In the same way that the woes of social democracy are traceable partly to the decline of the industrial working class and trade unions, so long-term social and cultural changes help to account for the difficulties of the moderate right.
Caught between progressive middle and hard right
On one hand, the growth of a well-educated, progressive-minded middle class with post-material values has put the centre-right at risk of losing voters — especially younger people — to the liberal centre, Greens or moderate left.
On the other hand, the emergence of multiculturalism, immigration and closer EU integration as politically controversial topics has fuelled the rise of hardline nationalist and populist parties at the rightwing end of the spectrum.
The choice facing mainstream centre-right politicians is therefore how far to tailor their appeal to the progressive centre, or how far to play footsie with the hard right.
Michael Benhamou, a French thinker on the moderate right, is among those calling for a clear-cut rejection of the hard right and advocating a new coalition grouping Christian Democrats, environmentalists and immigrant communities.
But it seems to me that the trend is going, if anywhere, in the opposite direction — influenced, to some extent, by the drift of the US Republican party towards abrasive hard-right politics.
Much of the European centre-right appears increasingly willing to court or copy the hard right. They either steal some of their ideological clothes, or go into formal coalitions with them, or make informal arrangements to govern with their support.
German CDU milder than Tories or Les Républicains
Two good examples of moderates trying to blunt the appeal of the hard right by borrowing their rhetoric and policies are the British Tories and the French Républicains. The electoral threat of the (mostly English nationalist) UK Independence party and its successors explains why the Conservatives evolved into a party of Brexit, with a particularly strident line on issues such as irregular migration.
As for Les Républicains, they veered sharply to the right in December by electing as their leader Eric Ciotti, whose views on Islam, migration and the EU place him closer to the French far right than to his own party’s Gaullist conservative tradition.
In milder form, we see a similar rightward movement in Germany’s CDU under Friedrich Merz. He was elected party leader a year ago partly in reaction to Angela Merkel’s centrist instincts and predilection for ruling in coalition with the Social Democrats.
However, the CDU is still recognisably a mainstream centre-right party. This was underlined last month when the party leadership voted to expel Hans-Georg Maassen, former head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, on account of what they consider his racist views.
Coalitions with the far right
Formal government coalitions involving the extreme right were once unthinkable in Europe, but no longer. In general, they have not worked well — but even so, we can expect more of them in the future.
Since 2000, the far-right Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) has had two spells in government, the second of which lasted from 2017 to 2019 and ended with the party engulfed in scandal and suffering a heavy national election defeat. The party fared relatively poorly last weekend in state elections in Carinthia, the southern Austrian region that used to be something of a stronghold for the FPÖ.
However, the party’s broader fortunes have revived in recent years. Unlike in Germany, where there are still strong taboos against letting the hard-right Alternative for Germany party anywhere near government, it is perfectly imaginable that the FPÖ will one day share power again in Vienna.
Austria is no outlier. The far-right nationalist Ekre party was part of Estonia’s government from 2019 to 2021, during which time it tarnished the Baltic state’s golden image as a model of post-communist liberal democracy. Ekre lost a couple of seats in last weekend’s Estonian elections, but it still finished second, its best-ever result.
All eyes on Spain
Later this year, the country to watch will be Spain. After national elections expected in December, it is possible that, for the first time since the end of Francoism in the 1970s, a hard-right party, Vox, will enter the government.
Vox would be a junior partner to the mainstream centre-right People’s party, which already governs with it in the region of Castile-León, north of Madrid. One distinctive feature of Spanish politics is the way that Catalan separatism has helped to fragment a once largely two-party system, and given Vox an opportunity to articulate a harsh version of Spanish nationalism grounded in the Castilian tradition of centralised rule.
Finally, we see in Sweden another type of accommodation of the hard right. There, the centre-right Moderate party formed a government with the support of the hard-right Sweden Democrats, giving them no ministries but allowing them some influence over immigration and law and order policies.
A political earthquake at the European parliament?
What conclusions can we draw from these various developments on the European right? First, whereas there once used to be a French-style cordon sanitaire or a German-style Brandmauer (firewall) against any co-operation between moderate democratic parties and the hard right, now that wall is crumbling to bits.
Second, this reflects to some extent the general fragmentation of European political party systems, such that few parties of the moderate right now have any hope of winning elections with large majorities on their own.
Third, these trends could culminate in a political earthquake in the EU after next year’s European parliament elections. For 40 years, the main pan-European party groups of the centre-right and centre-left have controlled the legislature — but slowly, as they have lost seats in each five-yearly election, their joint grip on power has been loosening.
If next year’s elections accelerate this trend, what will the centre-right European People’s party do? Will it stick with its familiar centre-left partners, or will it align itself with parties further to the right such as Vox, the Sweden Democrats, the Brothers of Italy (which leads the coalition government in Rome) and Poland’s Law and Justice party?
Such a step would be fraught with risks for EU integration as we have known it up to the present day. But the emerging pattern of centre-right co-operation with the hard right across Europe suggests that is no longer out of the question.
The brutal decline of France’s Les Républicains — a commentary by Solenn de Royer for the Paris newspaper Le Monde
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