Cyprus Mail
Opinion

European Union populist breakthrough falters

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez celebrating the result in Spain's general election in Madrid on Sunday

For the second time in a month, a member country of the European Union has NOT voted a populist into power. Could it be that the populist wave has broken?

It would be a good time for that to happen, because elections to the EU’s parliament are next month. The hard-right populist parties that have already proliferated in the 28 member countries were hoping to sweep into a dominant position in the EU parliament as well next month, but maybe the story will be more nuanced.

The Spanish election on Sunday saw the traditional socialist party (PSOE) increase its vote by a quarter under the leadership of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “The future has won and the past has lost,” said Sánchez, who has raised the minimum wage, appointed a female-dominated cabinet and promised to bring in laws defining rape as sex without clear consent during his brief time in power.

That wasn’t the headline on Monday morning, of course. Good news is no news, so the media played up the fact that a particularly nasty party of right-wing populists called Vox has made it into the Spanish parliament for the first time.

Vox is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and promises to “make Spain great again.” It wants to repeal laws against gender violence, and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it actually only got 10 per cent of the votes, and most of those it stole from the Popular Party, the traditional home for nationalist and ultra-conservative voters.

Sánchez will still have a hard time putting a coalition government together – he’s probably going to have to make some deal with the Catalan separatists, which will alienate many other Spaniards – but this is not exactly populism triumphant.

It wasn’t a populist triumph in Slovakia last month either. The neo-fascist candidate, Marian Kotleba, didn’t even make it into the run-off presidential vote. In the second round Zuzana Caputova, a neophyte in politics, beat the candidate of Robert Fico’s ruling Smer-SD Party, which plays by right-wing populist rules and has close links with Viktor Orban’s elective dictatorship in Hungary.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial office in Slovakia, so Fico is still really running the government (although he had to step down as prime minister last year after an investigative journalist looking into links between Slovak politicians and organised crime was shot dead by hired killers). It’s not all roses yet in Slovakia, but spring is in the air.

So what does this tell us about the populist wave in Europe in general, and about the EU parliamentary elections next month in particular? Not as much as you’d like, because ‘Europe’ is a very complicated place.

What we can say is that there is a general rise in nationalism, from Brexit-supporting Britain to a huge surge of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling in Eastern European countries (which have almost no Muslims, or indeed immigrants of any sort). We can also say (although most people won’t admit it) that nationalism on this scale does pose a real threat to the future of the European Union.

The European Union was the great political success story of the latter half of the 20th century. What was once the most war-torn part of the globe, the source of both the world wars, has become the most peaceful, cooperative and democratic region on the planet. It also looks after its citizens, on average, better than almost anywhere else.

Why would they (or at least a lot of them) now be in rebellion against all that? Economic growth has been slower in the past few decades, but they are not poor. The gap between the rich and the rest has been widening, but not nearly as much as it has in the United States or China or Russia. Why risk throwing it all away?

The EU has lost its unifying external threat. It was the menace of an allegedly expansionist Soviet Union that drove the Western European founders of the EU to bury all their old quarrels and come together, but the Soviet Union is long gone and Putin’s Russia is not really a plausible replacement.

Another irritant is the growing pressure of immigration: refugees from wars in the Middle East and from both tyranny and climate change in Africa. The ‘threat’ that immigration poses is greatly exaggerated, but the 28 different governments of the EU have not come up with a coherent and effective policy to deal with it while the populists exploit it with great success.

The right-wing populist group of parties in the European Parliament currently holds 37 seats in the 751-member parliament but the latest opinion polls predict that it will rise to 61 seats in this month’s election. If the United Kingdom is still in the EU at that time, which seems likely, the total could rise to a hundred, but that’s still hardly a landslide.

The concern is not for the immediate future, but for the trend line. The populists have been gaining strength for two decades now, and if that goes on for another five years the EU could just vanish, the way the old Soviet Union did in 1991. So from that point of view, at least, the news from Spain and Slovakia is good news.

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