The rise of the far-right has forced serious questions about the future of the EU, but the progressive resurgence could polarize European politics.
The recent political crisis in Italy is one part of a broader resurgence of right-wing populism in Europe. After a brief hiatus following the defeats of France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom in early 2017, a string of recent electoral victories in Eastern and Southern Europe has produced populist governments in Austria, Hungary, Italy, and the Czech Republic. This trend indicates that the defeat of right-wing populism last year was only a temporary setback, and once again it’s forcing serious questions about the future of the EU. As Eastern Europe begins to shift further towards the far-right, there are early indications in parts of Western Europe that left-wing progressivism is experiencing its own revival.
In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has faced incredible difficulty in her attempts to forge a compromise between the various competing attitudes towards Brexit within her power circle, most prominently from the Conservative pro-Brexit hardliners and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—the party that supports her government. As May continues to face a barrage of crises in the near-impossible task of achieving a Brexit deal that satisfies everyone, the public is gradually losing confidence in her party’s ability to lead the country forward.
The Conservative Party’s declining public support was made evident at both the 2017 general election and the recent local elections. At the general election, Labour—led by staunch progressive Jeremy Corbyn—performed remarkably well, winning an additional 30 seats in Parliament and coming within striking distance of forming a government. Moreover, at the local elections in May 2018, Labour experienced a similarly huge swing, winning an additional 79 seats on local councils. All of these gains were made at the expense of the Conservative Party, which lost its majority in Parliament and saw a major reduction in its share of local councilors.
The prospects of a forthcoming Labour-led government are now high. Although the party is unlikely to secure a majority in the present political climate, it can earn enough support from a collection of left-leaning and nationalist parties to form a coalition government. This is especially true if the Conservatives are unable to move the Brexit negotiations to a more stable position in the coming weeks and months, which could completely erode both Parliament’s and the public’s faith in the present government. A Labour-led coalition would empower the UK’s largest progressive party and put Jeremy Corbyn in as Prime Minister, dramatically shifting British politics to the left as a result.
In Ireland, a recently stabilized political climate now appears to be on the verge of collapsing. The agreement that has propped up the right-leaning Fine Gael government since late 2016 is set to expire in October, and while Fianna Fail—Ireland’s second largest party—could renew the deal, there’s a general feeling it will force a new election instead.
This election will be significant because the prospects for Sinn Fein—Ireland’s most progressive party and currently the third largest in the Irish Parliament—are at an historic high. Although both of the country’s largest parties have publicly refused to entertain the thought of a governing agreement with Sinn Fein, the latest opinion polls suggest that its share of the vote might prove too large to ignore, forcing one of the two largest parties to meaningfully explore this possibility. This is especially true for Fianna Fail, whose historical antecedents and ideological inclinations align closely with Sinn Fein’s, but who’s also been craving a return to power since its historic defeat in 2011. If Fianna Fail discovers that its best chance of returning to power lies in a deal with Sinn Fein—an outcome which several leading members of Fianna Fail have publicly supported—it might realistically eschew past reservations and reach an agreement with its present rival.
This would place Ireland’s most progressive party into a position of power for the first time in nearly a century, and although Sinn Fein would still only be the junior partner, the norms of governing agreements in the parliamentary system would force Fianna Fail to adopt aspects of Sinn Fein’s more progressive agenda, moving Irish politics considerably further to the left.
While these trends have not been replicated to the same degree elsewhere, there are still positive signs for the progressive left coming from other parts of Western Europe. It was Le Pen who dominated headlines in the lead-up to the 2017 French presidential election, but the far-left candidate Luc Melenchon performed remarkably well, and he has seen his popular support increase in the year-and-a-half since. Similarly, Geert Wilders and his far-right Party for Freedom drew international attention to the Netherlands in 2017, but impressive performances by a slew of progressive parties at the 2017 legislative elections all but silenced Wilders’ party, and recent opinion polls suggest that the progressive GroenLinks party is now the country’s second-most popular, trailing only the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The prospects for the left in France and the Netherlands are not quite as high as they are in Ireland and the UK, and substantial changes must first occur before progressives are in a position to take power in either country. Still, the rising popularity of the left on the Continent portends well for those parties/candidates, and these trends should be viewed as part of a wider ideological shift.
There is now a realistic possibility that progressive governments will emerge in Ireland and the UK by early 2019, and France and the Netherlands appear to be following closely behind. The fact that this broader shift to the left is occurring in three of the countries that helped herald the resurgence of the right in 2016 represents a backlash by their respective national populations against moves in that direction, and one might surmise that the resurgence of the left is itself a reaction to that experienced by the right earlier. Whatever the underlying causes, the emergence of progressive governments would be a momentous departure for European politics because it would mean the formation of a nascent left-wing progressive bloc in Western Europe in an era in which right-wing populism has become a political norm. It would also indicate that Europeans no longer agree on the fundamental principles on which to build their shared future, a development that would effectively end the decades-long process of continuous integration which has underlay the entire European project since the beginning. It is impossible to say with certainty if other national populations will move in similar directions, but it is clear that this present age of political radicalism is beginning to polarize Europe in a way unseen since the Cold War, a political realignment that will fundamentally shape the coming debates about the future of Europe itself.