Dispatch

How European Politics Is Fracturing

Sunday’s vote shows that mainstream centrist parties are losing their traditional constituencies as voters hunger for new voices.

Two workers paint the European Union flag on the side of a building in Paris on May 23.
Two workers paint the European Union flag on the side of a building in Paris on May 23. Joel SagetAFP/Getty Images

BREMEN, Germany—The middle-aged man in the bright pink sweatshirt held the microphone up to his mouth, looked over the mostly gray-haired audience, and began rapping about Europe. “Europa ist die Antwort! Europa ist die Antwort!” he shouted between rapid-fire verses. (Europe is the answer! Europe is the answer!)

It was the warm-up act for an all-star cast of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was desperately trying to court the youth vote in Bremen ahead of contentious state elections. But the smattering of tepid applause he received from the crowd of several hundred mostly older onlookers, skilled as he was, foreshadowed what was to come.

The Bremen elections coincided with the separate European parliamentary elections that took place on Sunday. Both resulted in serious setbacks for the Social Democrats, but they weren’t alone in their sorrows. Beyond Bremen and across Europe, many top centrist parties lost big or barely clung to power, while smaller parties representing the far-right, environmentalists, and free market liberals made significant gains.

“The trend is that the traditional political constituencies are just falling away in Europe,” said Sudha David-Wilp, an expert on European politics with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. And in many ways Bremen—an economically struggling industrial city in Germany’s northwest—is a microcosm for the fracturing of Europe’s political landscape amid a wave of social upheaval and political change.

The European elections saw gains for smaller parties as the two big-tent centrist parties failed to reach a majority for the first time. Collectively, pro-European forces won out, albeit spread across a smattering of political factions. Far-right parties placed first over centrist ones in France and Italy, while support for Green parties surged to second or third place in Germany, France, Ireland, and Finland.

Many European voters struggle to understand how the Parliament fits into the European Union’s complex structure, but it plays an important role. It approves the EU’s massive budget and top positions and influences EU policies on trade agreements, environmental policies, and economic regulations—all issues that could be harder to tackle with a more fractured Parliament.

Bremen, the smallest of Germany’s 16 regional states, is a historic bastion of support for the SPD. “Bremen is not one of the strongholds, Bremen is the stronghold of the Social Democrats,” Udo Bullmann, a balding and smiley SPD member of the European Parliament, told Foreign Policy at the rally. Bruised and battered from a slow decline in support over decades, the SPD badly needed a win there. But in the end, it didn’t come.

For the first time in more than 70 years, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) overtook the SPD in Bremen, a historic blow to what was once one of Europe’s strongest and most stable centrist parties.

The lukewarm reception given the Bremen rapper, rallying the crowd for heavy hitters like SPD leader Andrea Nahles, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and German Finance Minister Olaf Schulz, was only the latest sign that traditional centrist parties can no longer deliver the message many voters want to hear.

The decline of these parties has prompted endless rounds of political soul-searching and clumsy attempts to court new and younger voters. Few parties, not least the SPD, have figured out how to reverse their decline.

While Bremen was a clear-cut blow to the SPD, it’s more difficult to divine more straightforward conclusions from the EU elections—the world’s second-largest exercise in democracy after India’s elections, with more than 400 million eligible voters in 28 EU countries. 

Voter turnout increased in nearly all EU countries but to just over 50 percent overall. The two big-tent centrist parties—the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which includes Germany’s SPD—barely clung to power, and no parties emerged with a decisive mandate. Far-right parties across Europe gained votes, most notably in France and Italy, but not as many votes as many expected. The environmentally focused Green parties surged in Western European countries, particularly in Germany, but hardly made a dent in the east and south. The center-left parties in Spain and the Netherlands had strong showings, even as the SPD faced historic losses.

One SPD politician, a member of Germany’s national parliament, offered a frank assessment of the problems his and other mainstream parties face, whether in the Bremen or EU elections: They have fewer young and charismatic leaders to replace older party hands, who seem reluctant to leave the stage. Traditional voting bases like trade unions are waning as manufacturing jobs die out, giving way to a more digitalized and service-based economy. Many voters seem fed up by how grand coalitions made up of center-right and center-left parties muddled through political crises, from the eurozone financial crisis to the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to addressing climate change.

Nearly all parties across Europe save for the far-right ones put forward get-out-the-vote campaigns centered on pro-EU platforms. (After the messy and drawn-out Brexit saga in the United Kingdom, even far-right parties have tamped down their push to exit the EU.) Many of the smaller parties ran on platforms of change and fresh ideas.

Svenja Hahn, a 29-year-old European Parliament candidate for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Germany’s smaller liberal free market party, suggested the long-standing duopoly of center-right and center-left coalitions was growing stale, giving the FDP a window of opportunity. She hoped the rise of smaller pro-European parties would “bring some fresh winds” to the system.

All the while, far-right parties are taking root in Brussels, Berlin, and other European capitals with sizable minorities. Corina Stratulat, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre, believes that far-right parties are here to stay as long as centrist parties struggle to find ways to win back disaffected voters.

“They try to fill in a gap that has been widening between citizens and elites, and we haven’t closed that gap,” she said. “We don’t even know if it’s possible to close that gap.”

Their impact on the European Parliament is difficult to predict. In the past, the hodgepodge of smaller far-right parties has either failed to form lasting and coherent voting blocs or simply not tried.

In the European elections, with 751 seats, provisional results show that the EPP is expected to keep its plurality with 177 seats, while losing 40 seats. The S&D is expected to keep 149 of its 186 seats, while the Greens will grow from 52 to 69 seats and the free market liberal group ALDE will grow from 68 to 107 seats. Collectively, the patchwork of far-right and anti-EU parties, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit Party, will comprise about a quarter of the Parliament.

In Germany, the SPD’s losses in the European elections were particularly painful: Provisional results show it received only 15.8 percent of the vote—almost half of what it got in the 2014 EU parliamentary vote—which translates into 16 seats in the European Parliament. The Greens received 20.5 percent of the vote, giving it 21 seats, while the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, received 28.9 percent of the vote—down more than 6 percent from 2014—giving it 29 seats.

The CDU is also struggling as its longtime leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, prepares to retire. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, has landed herself in hot water after suggesting debates on regulations about online political discussions during elections, drawing accusations of pushing censorship. The comments came after a German YouTube star posted a video criticizing the CDU that went viral.

Many SPD members blame their party’s waning popularity on coalition governments with the CDU, an on-and-off trend for decades. The system has led Germany to forge stable governments that broker pragmatic compromises, but the SPD’s partnership with the CDU has muddled its platform, making it difficult for voters to distinguish where the center-right stops and the center-left begins.

“There’s been a struggle on the left to define what it is doing, what its platform is,” said Jannes, a lanky and energetic 20-year-old SPD supporter, who donned a blue hoodie with the EU flag on it. One of the few young people in the crowd in Bremen, Jannes was hopeful the SPD could return to its roots and begin replenishing its stock of loyal voters with younger people. “I am hoping [the SPD] can continue to change,” he said.

For now, many centrist politicians in Germany have at least diagnosed the problem, even as they struggle to find a cure.

Bullmann, between mingling with the crowd in Bremen for handshakes and selfies, struck an upbeat tone for the SPD and its traditional platform of strengthening social safety nets and defending the working class. But he appeared to acknowledge the deeply rooted problems.

“We will … try step by step to rebuild trust, to come forward with progressive policies so we can convince again our supporters that this is the right choice,” he said. “You cannot inherit your majorities anymore. You have to win them again.”

Reporting was conducted with travel and accommodation support from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung). 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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