Certainly, this sharp shift to the right has brought a cold wind blowing through Europe. But the crisis alone cannot explain the growth of right-wing forces. The outcome of the 2014 European elections is the provisional peak of a trend in this direction that has been going on already for a decade. In recent years already, in countries such as Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Greece, the political scene has been stirred up by the rise of nationalist, openly xenophobic and even racist political parties. Elsewhere, such as in Switzerland, in Austria, France and Italy, the long-term and continuing presence of these parties in the political life of the country, and their influence on public debate, has had a noticeable effect on the whole society. Sometimes this has reached into the core of the democratic institutions. Then came the European elections – and they brought into the European Parliament approximately a hundred delegates on a spectrum ranging from mildly Eurosceptic to openly fascist. The extreme right is growing stronger and bolder. Without a doubt this represents a slap in the face of the Europe for which the Greens have always fought.
For the composition of the Green Group in the European Parliament, the results from France and Germany – which send the largest national delegations – are especially crucial. And the situation in France, with the alarmingly strong performance of the Front National (FN), additionally merits analysis in view of the role played by the Franco-German axis in European integration.
France: Euroscepticism predominates
On Sunday 25 May, the French electorate sent a shock wave through Europe: 25% for Marine le Pen’s Front National (FN), and 24 delegates to Strasbourg. One third of the 74 French delegates was chosen on the basis of a right-wing programme which combined legitimate disappointment over the mistakes of the national government with a demand for a defence of national identity. In the view of the FN, this is threatened by mass immigration and globalisation. The programme additionally included a firm rejection of the European Union, which in the eyes of the FN is the symbol of a globalised society without frontiers. Confronted by this growing negative viewpoint, pro-European forces (and the government) in France had to swallow massive losses. Both the French Greens and the relatively new centre-right party UDI-Modem, which campaigned on openly pro-European policies, achieved disappointing results. Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), with almost 9% of the vote and 1.7 million voters, was at least able to avoid a historic low. But the system of electoral districts which replaced the national lists system in 2004 disadvantages small parties. This meant that the result, not actually that bad in itself, translated into a heavy loss of 10 seats, meaning the EELV now has only 6 seats left.
Of course, the absence of Dany Cohn-Bendit, a firm favourite of the French media on European political issues but now retired, reduced the media interest in and coverage of the EELV. The French Greens avoided aligning themselves too strongly with Dany’s legacy and instead put together an aggressive campaign which was critical of the current state of the EU. It drew on the European campaign ‘vote green to change Europe’. The opposition to the trade agreement with the USA (TTIP)was helpful in mobilising those in favour of such a change – despite strong competition on this theme from the extreme right and the radical left. In the context of a growing antipathy at national level towards globalisation, it was essential to present European integration as a bulwark against the threats from a globalised world.
Unfortunately, the narrative of the EU as a ‘Trojan horse’ for neoliberal policies threatening the French model was very firmly anchored in the French electorate. Moreover, there was hardly any time left to alter the mood and to tell the story of a Europe that protects and helps us. At only six weeks, the battle was too short, overshadowed by the campaign for the local elections in March and the heavy defeat for the Social Democrats, followed by a change of Prime Ministers and the withdrawal of the Greens from the government. There was hardly space or time in which to get across the message that the Euro has to be saved and that almost all the criticisms made of the EU were due to mistakes at national level for which either Sarkozy or Hollande were responsible. In addition, it was difficult to get a hearing for any view that contradicted the story carried by the mainstream media – that the extreme right were in any event going to win the election with their attacks on a Europe that is ‘too alien‘, meaning too complex and too far away.
Germany: relief, but no respite
Although the German Greens lost three seats, the result was greeted with great relief. And indeed, achieving a two-digit score again after the disastrous Bundestag elections was a good sign. The abolition of the 5 percent threshold, the Ukraine crisis, the CDU’s focus on Chancellor Merkel, and Martin Schulz’s campaign for the Presidency of the Commission – all of this did not make for an easy election campaign for the Greens. But in this fairly unfavourable context the outcome deserves to be seen as satisfactory at least. Since they began, European elections have often borne the burden of being misused for national issues. With their forthright campaign against TTIP, the Greens were able to establish a clear and distinct European profile and to mobilise supporters. Beyond this, they relied on classic Green issues such as climate change and the agricultural transition. The crisis of the Euro played virtually no part in Germany, nor in the German Greens‘ campaign, in contrast to party election campaigns in other European countries.
True, the shift to the right was not so extreme in Germany as in other countries, and the mood not so anti-European as in France. But here too the Eurocritical right-wing party ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD) was able to increase its vote share and to win seats at European level for the first time. Of course, it benefited from the low electoral turnout, which explains a large part of the improvement in its performance compared to the Bundestag elections.
Nevertheless the outcome, and the swing of votes away from all the other parties to the AfD, shows that a proportion of the German population shares their anti-European position. It is certain that the discourse over the Euro crisis, conducted by conservatives too, the tale of the ‘idle South’ which is rescued by the ‘hardworking Germans‘, played a not inconsiderable part in this. On this issue the Greens have to recognise and acknowledge that the alternative crisis narrative has failed to take hold in Germany – the view that the sole responsibility for the crisis did not lie with the countries afflicted, but that it was also brought about by overly lenient regulation of financial markets and banks. That the massive public debts in the crisis countries arose in large part from the rescue of the banks. And that many German actors were also ‘rescued’ by means of tax revenues raised in the crisis countries, and/or that Germany in particular has profited from the crisis. The task of explaining Europe better – especially the complex interlinked nature of the crisis – and of re-establishing trust in European integration remains to be completed. Without losing sight meanwhile of green ideas for better EU policies.
The shared green challenge of creating a politically more integrated Europe requires a renewed shared understanding. France’s partners have to understand that the country has become the new ‘sick man’ of Europe. It is here that the concerns of the northern societies, who fear a Europe in which the rich countries pay for the poor ones, come together with the concerns of the southern societies, who feel abandoned and put under pressure by their partners as they sink into recession and poverty. To put it succinctly, the French are just as scared of paying for Greece as they are of becoming the new Greece. The situation in France has to be handled carefully. If France stumbles, then the entire European project is in danger. The German Greens need to be pushing the government forwards so that the division of Europe can finally be overcome, rather than allowing it to perpetuate that division through a one-sided policy of austerity.
The Greens’ electoral results from a pan-European perspective
A crucial factor determining the overall strength of the Green group in the European Parliament is the fact that its two largest delegations, the French and the Germans, both lost seats. Apart from this, the outcome of the elections looks relatively positive for the Greens. In some countries, Green parties still in their infancy were able to win seats for the first time, for example the Spanish Greens (EQUO), the Hungarian Green Party (LMP) and the Croatian Greens (OraH). Moreover, the new Hungarian party PM managed to get a delegate sent to join the Green parliamentary group. Because of this, and because they also gained some non-attached delegates such as Igor Soltes from Slovenia, the parliamentary group is now more regionally diverse than it was before. For the first time ever there are now also Green delegates from the ‘new’ EU member states. Many delegations, such as the Austrians and the Swedes, have gained additional seats. But the other side of the coin must be acknowledged too. Neither the Greek nor the Portuguese Greens managed to regain representation in the European Parliament. And both the Czech and the Irish Greens narrowly failed to win representation for the first time.
Many observers agree that this has been one of the most European election campaigns for the Greens. Instead of purely national campaigns running alongside each other there was a genuine European campaign, the elements of which were employed everywhere in Europe. This involved not only the poster and online campaign run by the European Green Party (EGP), or the very thoroughly conducted process of drawing up a European election programme, but also and especially the two leading candidates, who for the first time were decided on by the EGP in the ‘Green Primary’, the preliminary direct election. The smaller member parties of the EGP benefited particularly from the joint European campaign. In the pan-European debates the Greens were perceived as a clear alternative, in terms of both policy content and personalities, against the ‘more of the same’ represented by Juncker and Schulz. There was progress, too, towards the oft-invoked European public sphere. Media coverage of the leading candidates was pan-European, and in social media it was possible for the first time to speak of a genuinely European culture of debate.
However, as regards power relations within the European Parliament, these positive aspects of the election are of hardly any consequence. The progressive majority that had successfully come together over several different issues during the previous legislature, made up of Social Democrats, Greens, leftists and liberals, was lost. We can expect to see closer cooperation within the ‘grand coalition’, which is de facto the only constellation that provides a genuine majority. For the conservatives have also lost their majority. So the Green Group has been stabilised by the election outcome, but will probably have less influence in the new Parliament.
This year’s European elections may represent a turning point in the power relations between the Parliament and the Council of the EU. Whereas recent years have been marked by a creeping transfer of power from the EU Commission and the Parliament to the European Council, the members of the EU Parliament now have a chance to strengthen their position. If, that is, they win the power struggle over the next President of the Commission. If they did, the next European elections would take place under different auspices: nobody would make fun of the idea of leading EU candidates any more, but instead there would be genuine competition between the European parliamentary families to put forward the strongest candidates. And that would be bad for the back rooms of Brussels, but good for European democracy.
Nobody – and that includes Great Britain – was able to pretend that these elections were a purely national affair. In that sense, the Greens even have reason to be grateful to the Eurosceptics: in the wake of the crisis, they helped to ensure that these European elections became a debate about Europe – and about the kind of Europe we want, and how to get there. To judge by the division of seats in the current Parliament, the debate is not over. But at least the progressive forces openly supporting an integrated Europe now know where they stand. It certainly won’t be easy to win back the support of all those voters who have lost faith in the promise of shared freedom and prosperity for which Europe stood. But at least it is clear now where the front line runs, and the work is worthwhile. The Greens have a particular responsibility here as THE pro-European political force. Let’s get to work!
This article was originally published by the Heinrich Böll Stifting.