The real story in the European elections

The European Parliament elections saw a number of smaller parties with broadly Eurosceptic or anti-establishment platforms do well across Europe. Jonathan White writes that while this has been dismissed by some commentators as a victory for ‘populists and extremists’, the elections represent a more fundamental shift in European politics. He notes that these parties have substantial differences and display a left-right divide in terms of their ideology. He argues that a more democratic Europe requires recognising the differences among these parties and accepting the limitations of the technocratic approach currently pursued by the EU’s institutions.


For two decades after the Cold War, observers of European democracy talked of the end of left-right politics. Ideological convergence seemed the dominant trend in parliaments and publics alike. This week’s European Parliament election results are one piece of evidence to suggest something different has occurred. After six years of social and economic upheaval, a more polarised Europe is evident, one whose divisions retain some of the familiar features of the left-right opposition.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, Credit: GUE-NGL (CC-BY-NC-ND-SA-3.0)

The elections have been widely narrated as the triumph of ‘anti-establishment’ parties – or asThe Economist likes to call them, ‘populists and extremists’. Such categories mask major differences. Though dissent is the common denominator, the questions raised by the Front NationalUKIP and the Danish People’s Partysharply diverge from those posed by SYRIZA,Podemos, the Dutch Socialists and the Portuguese Left Bloc, to name just some of the parties successful in these elections. How they articulate the causes of economic stress is essentially different.

On the one side, the analysis of economic hardship has tended to focus on the moral failings of outsider groups. Be it immigrants, welfare dependants, lazy southerners, greedy bankers, mindless bureaucrats or the political class, someone somewhere is behaving badly. These accounts are stories of transgression – of offences against morality and common sense. On the other side, the origins of hardship lie rather in the failure of a template. A critique of adhesion forms the basis of such accounts – be it adhesion to an erroneous doctrine (neoliberalism, austerity) or to an unworkable economic system (capitalism, growth-led development). Seen from this angle, the politics of UKIP and SYRIZA could hardly be more contrasting.

Such differences express a left-right division. Historically, suggest political thinkers, this division has centred on attitudes to inequality, with the left defined by its inclination to seek the rectification of inequality and the Right by its scepticism on grounds of feasibility or desirability. In the twentieth century, this distinction often overlapped with diverging attitudes towards the institutions of state and market. If we take these elements to be at the core of the left-right divide, today’s disagreements are consistent with it.

Accounts of economic hardship centred on transgression tend towards underwriting the order whose standards they claim have been violated: these positions generally display a fairly sympathetic view of the market (even if there is concern at how certain groups have ‘distorted’ it) and a quite limited concern with inequality (extending at most to the thought that certain inequalities are ‘excessive’). Accounts centred on adhesion to problematic doctrines and practices by contrast generally place the pre-crisis order in question, including the market economy and the inequalities systematically generated by it.

Europe’s ‘populists and extremists’ thus come in markedly different left-right hues. Still, in one important respect it is true they are alike. They talk an avowedly ethical language. However questionable some of their interpretations, a focus on values is unmistakeable. They decry injustice, call for fairness, and harness a sense of outrage.

This contrasts with the dry mode of reasoning that prevails in contemporary political discourse. When governing politicians, central bankers, IMF officials and media commentators discuss the economic crisis, it is often as a technical problem. Phrases such as ‘quantitative easing’, ‘debt restructuring’ and the like present themselves as value-neutral solutions aimed at repairing the functioning of a system. Austerity programmes have been widely promoted in this technical, data-driven fashion. While ethical positions are certainly implicit – advocates of austerity typically display an indifference to social inequality consistent with a rightist orientation – it is in the form of rational calculus that these arguments are advanced.

Many of the casualties in these most recent European elections have been parties associated too closely with this technical mode of politics. This applies to the governing austerity parties of several Mediterranean countries, liberal parties such as the German FDP and British Lib Dems, and many other mainstream parties of the centre-right and centre-left. The success of anti-establishment parties of one kind or another, with their insistence on questions of justice and fairness, is evidence of widespread public disaffection with the politics of expertise. Low rates of participation – just 13 per cent in Slovakia – are testament to the same.

But it is this technical mode of politics that remains entrenched in Europe’s wider institutional machinery. It dominates the decision-making of the European Council, European Central Bank and European Commission, and will continue to be well represented in the Parliament itself. Recent institutional innovations such as the European Semester, in which national budgets are submitted to the Commission for prior approval, seem destined to embed further the politics of expertise.

If then these elections illuminate an increasingly polarised political landscape, marked by the rise of left-wing parties in addition to the well-documented successes on the right, it remains to be seen how far these divisions will impinge on decision-making. Avowedly ethical discourses of left and right continue to find themselves politically marginal in much of Europe, and are easily lumped together and dismissed as ‘populists and extremists’ by the louder voices of politics, business and media.

A more democratic Europe requires not only distinguishing these left- and right-wing formations, so that to criticise some is not to criticise all, but weakening the institutional dominance of a technical mode of politics that obscures its own ethical basis.

Article by Jonathan White – LSE
Jonathan White is Associate Professor (Reader) in European Politics at the London School of Economics.

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