In Europe, the centre faces a strengthened far right—which it helped create

23 June 2024
Jordan Humphreys
An election campaign poster for the Social Democratic Party of Germany in Hamburg, defaced by a supporter of the far-right Alternative for Germany PHOTO: DPA

Has the political centre held off the far right, or are the fascists surging?

According to Britain’s Economist magazine, a weekly diary of establishment opinion, the “political centre has been dented but it still holds”. Yet parties of the centre lost to the far right in the continent’s biggest countries. In Germany, the centre-left Social Democratic Party, which leads the ruling coalition federally, came in third place—behind both the right-wing Christian Democrats and the far-right Alternative for Germany. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition received less than half the vote of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.

Contrary to the Economist’s take, the results confirm that the overall trajectory of European politics has shifted decisively to the right.

To start with, the political “centre” has become more right wing, more authoritarian, more racist and more anti-worker in recent years.

When Macron was elected in 2017, he was presented as a liberal statesman who would modernise the country and stop the advance of Le Pen’s fascists. In the seven years since, the French president has ruled by decree, unleashed the riot police on striking workers and protesters, and banned demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine. Despite being a secular liberal, Macron has flirted with conservative Catholic identity politics, telling a conference of bishops in 2018 that striking workers were motivated by an anti-Christian “nihilism”.

Macron has denounced “Islamo-leftism”, threatened to ban environmental groups that he claims support “violence against property”, made it illegal for French citizens to post social media videos of police, and frozen the bank accounts of pro-Palestine charities. Finally, despite years of protest and strikes, in April 2023 he did what previous centre-left and centre-right governments had failed to do and raised the pension age from 62 to 64.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Le Pen has continued to grow in popularity.

When a coalition government of the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party was formed in Germany three years ago, there was hope that it would take the country in a more progressive direction. But in office, the coalition has expanded the German military, increased the number of refugee deportations and positioned the German government as the most hardline supporter of Israel in the world. Faced with a cost-of-living crisis, the German government has ruled out any serious measures to combat poverty. No wonder the Social Democrats were punished by voters.

The decline of the German Greens, who lost nine seats and whose Europe-wide bloc declined, is also notable.

The centre-right Christian Democrats did well in the European elections, but they have shed what remained of former leader Angela Merkel’s soft conservatism and espoused increasingly far-right-sounding anti-migrant rhetoric. As in many countries, the centre-right in Germany has radicalised in the era of Trump. The latest expression of this is the leader of the Bavarian Social Union, the more right-wing coalition partner of the Christian Democrats, flagging that he is open to working with the Alternative for Germany in the future.

Across Europe, the centre has driven things further to the right. In February, a meeting of economy ministers passed the New Migration and Asylum Pact, increasing the ability of EU countries to deport refugees and asylum seekers, including children.

Another important expression of the shift to the right is the incorporation of sections of the far right into the centre itself. This is most notable with Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. After the initial shock of this far-right figure winning government, there has been a substantial softening towards her by the political centre.

For her part, Meloni has been willing to break with other sections of the far right by stridently supporting NATO, military aid to Ukraine and the project of European political and economic integration. She has formed her own bloc in the European parliament, separate from that of the French far right and hostile to the more openly fascistic parties such as Alternative for Germany. Despite Meloni’s vile views on LGBTI rights, abortion and migration, her distancing efforts led one Guardian columnist to go so far as to ask: “Macron and Meloni appear poles apart—but what if they joined forces to save Europe?”

Sometimes the differentiation of the European far right is presented in a positive light— a sign that sections of the far right are moderating. But current developments should be treated with alarm, not complacency.

To start with, the public shifts of leaders such as Meloni are an expression of the fact that far-right parties in several countries are within striking distance of forming government. Second, there is more overlap than is commonly thought between the policies of the far right and the centre in Europe. Finally, the space is being opened for even more hardline far-right groups to gain a following—as has occurred with Eric Zemmour in France and the Lega in Italy. It was particularly shocking to see the Alternative for Germany do so well despite becoming more and more openly fascist in recent years.

The centre has created a Europe of appalling inequalities, rampant racism, violent policing and hard borders ruled over by an extravagantly wealthy elite. This is the not-so-secret key to the rise of the far right.

European far-right parties drift along with the right-wing flow of European politics and while positioning themselves against the grain of European elites. As they do, the centre squirms and adapts to the far right’s electoral gains and increasingly extreme policies, taking a hard stand against them only on issues such as support for NATO and the European Union, which are core to the interests of the European capitalist class.

Missing is a resurgent socialist left that could fight the centre and expose the fake populism of the far right. This seems further away than ever. Outside of France, the parties of the left went backwards in country after country. Long gone are the days when the threat to the European centre seemed to be Podemos and Syriza, the occupation of city squares and general strikes against austerity. Emblematic in this regard is Die Linke, the German left-wing party, which has fallen apart after years of collaboration with centre parties and a recent split.

France at least has a more recent history of social protest. The EU election results led to sizeable demonstrations against Le Pen. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of left-wing party France Unbowed, increased his vote and has formed an electoral alliance with the Socialist Party and the Greens to challenge both Macron and Le Pen in the upcoming French elections. But questions abound about the political expediency of an alliance with parties such as the Socialists, which ran a neoliberal centre government that attacked workers and helped Le Pen grow in the first place, let alone the Greens.

Key to breaking the right-wing trajectory of European politics will be a renewal of grassroots struggles by workers, students and the oppressed against not just the far right but the centrist political set-up that has made fascism respectable again.

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