In Europe, the Only Choice Is Right or Far-Right

As left-wing parties have collapsed, the sole option remaining for voters is conservatism or right-wing populism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Governor and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer depart after speaking to the media on October 9, 2017 in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian Governor and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer depart after speaking to the media on October 9, 2017 in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As Europe lurches further to the right each time a xenophobic populist party makes electoral gains, a theory has emerged to explain the continent’s political shifts. There is now a widely held view that popular anger is the underlying cause of far-right populism. If that theory were correct, then periods of economic growth should clip populists’ wings and help reinvigorate the traditional parties of the left and right, which uphold the values and institutions that sustain liberal democratic government. In fact, the opposite is happening.

A healthy economic climate in Europe and the United States has proved to be even more auspicious for populism than times of economic crisis, and economic growth has further undermined the left. That’s because politicians have recognized that during periods of economic prosperity, they can bolster their support primarily by resorting to identity politics, rather than focusing on social policies. Right-wing views seem more credible to voters than an altruistic approach. The new political trend, which has engulfed almost all of Europe, is the narrowing of the political spectrum into right and populist right.

The recent election in Hungary, in which the winners were two right-wing parties (Fidesz and Jobbik — one more populist than the other), is merely the latest example. The right vs. populist right division is also present in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Spain, and the Netherlands — and it is currently threatening to become the norm in the most important democracies in the European Union: Italy, France, and Germany.

In Italy’s general election in March, the big winner was the populist Five Star Movement, which is in the process of forming a coalition with the anti-immigration Lega party. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, meanwhile, is on the verge of breaking apart. The Italian left has never been in such dire straits.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has adopted an inverse strategy to Renzi’s. During his 2017 presidential campaign, he created a movement that was populist in form but anti-populist in content. In other words, he defeated populism with its own weapons. Like all populists, he criticized the entire political class, disavowing both the mainstream left and the mainstream right. His vehicle, En Marche!, was not supposed to be a party, but a social movement that would take power from political parties and give it back to the people. Macron promised to replace politicians with ordinary people.

But Macron made a decisive move to the right in his choice of ministers. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, and Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin all come from the right. As Arthur Goldhammer has aptly observed, “if the election had produced a president of the center-right, the government’s program might well have looked identical to Macron’s.” It is hardly surprising that Macron’s economic reforms have a rightward bent. The same is true of his reform of legislation concerning asylum-seekers, which is the most restrictive measure adopted in France in 70 years. The law proposes limiting immigration through an accelerated process of considering asylum applications, extending the detention period for illegal immigrants, and faster deportation procedures.

Macron’s flagship project, a fundamental reform of the eurozone, has been undermined by Germany’s refusal to act. This will inevitably move both Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel further to the right. It seems that no one in Berlin has learned anything from Brexit. The German elite sees Brexit as an opportunity to increase German influence within the EU independent of France, rather than as a threat. The German government will continue its conservative economic policies, guided by the belief that an integrated fiscal policy would result in the financial exploitation of Germany. The fact that Germany is currently exploiting other countries in order to generate a trade surplus (currently 8 percent of its GDP) — thanks to sharing a common currency with poorer countries with lower productivity — has consistently escaped the attention of German voters. But Germany’s behavior is generating a huge imbalance in the EU’s economy and fomenting an anti-EU populist backlash in poorer countries. This state of affairs cannot last indefinitely.

Germany offers a case study of Europe’s sharply limited political landscape — divided between the right and the populist right. Although the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a newcomer to the German parliament (it came third in the most recent elections, with 12.6 percent of the vote), the party is already exerting a significant influence on government policies, much as Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party did in Britain during David Cameron’s years as prime minister. Horst Seehofer, the head of Merkel’s sister party, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), has become the minister of the interior, building, and Heimat — meaning “homeland,” which he added to the name of the ministry. He is trying to emulate AfD in order to avoid losing votes to the upstart party. AfD’s strong showing in Bavaria undermined the CSU’s previously hegemonic position, forcing Seehofer to resign from his post as Bavaria’s minister-president. Now, Seehofer is trying to rebuild his influence by assuming the language and policies of populism.

Following populist models, Seehofer is constantly trying to draw a distinction between himself and his boss, Merkel. Before Merkel was sworn in, Seehofer went to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin just as Merkel was set to meet U.S. President Donald Trump. Like other far-right politicians in Europe, Seehofer is a critic of the sanctions imposed against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. The day after the new government was sworn in, Seehofer announced in the tabloid Bild that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” When Prime Minister Viktor Orban won reelection in Hungary last month, Seehofer and his party ostentatiously congratulated him, calling him “our friend” and calling his policies “civic conservatism.”

It’s worth noting that this “civic conservatism” amounts to oligarchic rule by one party and an elite consisting of Orban’s friends and family, who have attacked independent media, courts, and cultural institutions, and have undermined the independence of nongovernmental organizations. In the run-up to the election, “our friend” Orban resorted to an anti-Semitic campaign directed at George Soros and has now forced Soros’s organizations to shut down their activities in Hungary, just as Putin did in Russia.

The CSU is facing local elections in Bavaria in October, and the party will spend the next few months testing the extent to which it can appropriate populism from the populists as a means of rebuilding its own support. The left, meanwhile, is faced with a tragic choice: non-conformism at the cost of political failure, or conformism at the cost of stagnation. Germany’s former Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz and France’s former Socialist leader Benoît Hamon are examples of the former strategy, which failed miserably at the polls.

Ideologically, the SPD has effectively dissolved into the CDU and now finds itself standing on the sidelines of a competition between the CDU/CSU and AfD. In France, the Socialist Party is in complete disarray. After the Socialists lost 224 seats in last year’s election, Hamon stepped down and took some party activists with him to create a new movement. Another group left to join Macron’s government as ministers. The party that used to rule France was so decimated that it had to sell its Paris headquarters due to a loss of state subsidies.

And in post-communist countries, the new left still cannot take root in the political mainstream, because the region simply remains too conservative. Three decades after the fall of communism, post-communist parties seem incapable of winning any significant support (with the exception of in the Czech Republic).

In his latest research paper, titled “Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right,” the economist Thomas Piketty presents an interesting theory of how we ended up here. Analyzing electoral results in France, Britain, and the United States and comparing them to data on voters’ income and education, he found that in the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing parties drew most of their support from poorer, less-educated voters. Since then, the political left has gradually become associated with well-educated voters, giving rise to a “multiple elite” party system in the past two decades: Highly educated elites now vote for the left, while high-income elites vote for the right. In other words, elites control both the left and the right.

Under these conditions, the working class, which does not feel represented by the left, is giving its support to populist parties, and only the center-right remains to confront them. The European political spectrum has been reduced to the mainstream right and the populist right, with the mainstream gradually evaporating as it absorbs the ideas and rhetoric of the populists.

Slawomir Sierakowski is the founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.