As the European ruling classes feared, the Euro elections have confirmed the turmoil that exists throughout the continent. If there is one trend then it is one of unstable change.
This was reflected in some countries in a surge for Green parties, helped by the recent popular movements demanding action against climate change, and on the opposite side a growth of right-wing nationalist and far-right parties.
In country after country traditional ruling parties suffered massive losses, as did a number of the new formations that have sprung up in recent years. Of course in many ways the most striking result was the six-week-old Brexit party coming top of the polls in Britain while the ‘governing’ Conservatives came fifth with 9.1% of the vote, the lowest share in their over two-hundred-year history.
At bottom the election revealed the deep mistrust and alienation from ruling parties and official institutions. This is not simply the result of the European Union’s fundamentally bureaucratic pro-big business policies, but also many Europeans’ bitter experience of stagnant or falling living standards since the economic crisis that began in 2007-08.
Already that has caused upheavals in countries like France, where the former traditional ruling parties have crumbled, and Italy where completely new parties are currently governing.
In many countries the initial reaction to the crisis was resistance to the ruling classes’ attempt to make the working and middle classes pay the price of the most serious economic recession since the 1930s. This resistance took different forms ranging from demonstrations, strikes, social struggles, and the growth of often new parties on the left which at least promised to stop austerity and to take some action against the super-rich.
However, in most cases these parties did not carry out what they said, or implied, they would do, and in a number of countries the consequences were seen in these elections. The most shameful and spectacular case was that of Syriza in Greece which came into government in early 2015 promising to end austerity, but which, within a matter of months, capitulated.
The Syriza leaders implemented cruel austerity measures despite themselves organising a referendum in July 2015 in which a majority of Greeks said ‘No’ to the austerity demanded by the EU leadership. One result of this capitulation was that Syriza gained just over 26% of the vote on May 26, compared with the over 36% it won in the two 2015 general elections. The conservative New Democracy party topped the polls.
A similar outcome was seen in Spain where Podemos, founded at the start of 2014 from the Indignados movement that began in 2011, scored 20.6% in the first general election it contested in December 2015. However, the leadership’s lack of a clear socialist policy, and increasing willingness to work with the pro-capitalist leadership of the Spanish social-democratic PSOE, has since dented its support. Podemos, in alliance with the United Left, won just 10.1% in this election, half its 2015 score.
Partly this reflected a surge in support for PSOE which won 32.8%, sharply up from the 23% it gained in 2014 and also up compared to April’s general election. In Germany support for Die Linke, the Left Party, dropped for similar reasons.
In many countries right-wing nationalists and the far right have stepped in to try to take advantage of this situation, using populist slogans and soundbites. These right-wing demagogic opponents of the EU have been helped by the fact that most leaders of European trade unions and ‘left’ parties support the EU, either as part of their general pro-capitalist policies, or because they mistakenly think the EU’s existence is a step away from nationalism and maintains a peaceful Europe.
This is the background to these elections seeing in a number of countries a strengthening of the far right, with Salvini and the Lega in Italy scoring 34.3% of the vote and topping the poll, as did Marine Le Pen’s ‘Rassemblement National’ (the renamed National Front) when it beat President Macron’s En Marche to the top spot.
In some countries, such as Denmark, far-right parties did not do well. In the Netherlands, while Geert Wilders’ PVV lost all its four MEPs, the new right party, Forum for Democracy, won three. Significantly in the simultaneous Belgian general election the right-wing nationalist New Flemish Alliance, which has been in government, saw a sharp drop in its support in the Flemish region as the far-right Vlamms Belang more than doubled its vote to 18.5%.
However, Belgium also saw a polarisation to the left with the former Maoist (and now in reality ‘soft’ left) Workers Party (PTB/Pvda) winning 12 seats in the national parliament, with 8.6% of the vote, more than half of the combined vote of Belgium’s two language-based ‘socialist’ parties. But the votes for parties like the PTB/Pvda are unstable. In the neighbouring Netherlands the PTB/Pvda’s ally, the ‘Socialist’ Party, saw its vote drop from 9.6% to 3.2%, while the Green Left’s vote rose to 10.9%.
Unfortunately the Socialist Party in Ireland also suffered a setback as its vote in the Dublin seat dropped to 4,967 (1.36%), compared to 29,953 five years ago, and 50,510 (12.4%) in 2009, when Joe Higgins won a Euro seat.
This polarisation was seen in many countries, often accompanied by a higher voter turnout. Thus in Austria the governmental crisis sparked off by the Ibizagate video saw all the major parties enjoy a rise in the number of actual votes they won even if their percentages did not increase.
These elections mean a period of uncertainty in many countries, starting in Britain. But Britain is not alone. The big drops in votes for the German ruling parties raise the question of whether the coalition there will continue until 2021. The German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) suffered its worst percentage vote, 15.8%, since the 1887 election when it was still an illegal party.
Some capitalist commentators have been relieved that, in France, Macron’s party was a narrow second behind Le Pen’s. But the fact remains that the French president’s own party was only supported by 22.4%, roughly the same percentage that backed him in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
Macron has no solid base, something seen in the continuing strength of the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests. While the French left had a poor result – Mélenchon’s ‘France Insoumise’ gained just 6.3% – there is still a potentially explosive social situation which can result in further movements.
These elections, particularly as they generally had a low participation rate – for example, 50.1% in France – do not show the full picture. They are snapshots of a moving situation, and in this case snapshots of just a part of the whole picture.
In a number of countries the votes for the Greens did represent a search for an alternative, particularly by the young and the middle class. However, many of those looking to the Greens today will be disappointed by them tomorrow.
In Germany they have no problem forming coalitions with Merkel’s pro-capitalist party and previously helped Schröder’s right-wing SPD government carry through neoliberal austerity measures. Most Green leaders see themselves as working within, rather than challenging, capitalism.
What is clear is that growing numbers in Europe are rejecting the old order, whether it is in their own countries or in the shape of the EU. There is a developing mood that the system is rigged against ordinary people, that their views and welfare are ignored as the rich get richer, along with growing opposition to what is rightly seen as rule from above, whether it be governments or big corporations.
This is an explosive mixture which does not just herald movements within countries but also clashes between competing nations. The EU will not simply remain a single united bloc. The rival capitalist classes have their own agendas, and other capitalist world powers, whether it be the US, China or Russia, will also intervene in pursuit of their own interests.
Against this background the Euro elections offer both positive possibilities and a warning. Positively they showed again how the old order is being questioned and that there is a search for an alternative. Negatively it showed that unless the workers’ and socialist movement can offer an alternative, and seriously struggle for it, then reaction will seek to exploit the situation to build support.