In the run-up to the next European elections (23-26 May 2019), the European political space is divided. Polls suggest that far-right parties are set to double their seats in the European Parliament. The far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) is likely to win 67 seats in the European Parliament. In a survey by the German newspaper Bild, far-right parties are ahead in France, Italy and Poland. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party is poised to win 23% of the vote. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League is on pace to secure 33% of the vote, the Polish Law and Justice party is likely to receive 42%. As right-wing and Eurosceptic parties have made great gains in national elections in multiple European countries in recent years, mainstream right-wing and left-leaning parties are now bracing for a right-wing surge in the European polls.
The surge of the Eurosceptic radical right has led to what is referred to as Europe’s new tripolar political space. A tripolar political space is defined as a political space in which three poles – the left, the center-right, and in this case the radical right – obtain more than 12% of the national vote. The fact that this was the case for over 20 national elections in Western Europe between 2000 and 2015 has changed the face of the political landscape. It has gone hand in hand with the electoral decline of the mainstream parties of the left and the right – the social democrats and Christian democrats. The authors of the paper “Electoral competition in Europe’s new tripolar political space: Class voting for the left, centre-right and radical right” argue that, contrary to the thesis that European societies are marked by “an increasing homogeneity of experiences”, the rise of the radical right has not only shifted electoral competition from a bipolar to a tripolar setting, but has also triggered a process of class voting. This means that the radical right is competing with the center-right for the votes of small business owners, and it’s challenging the left for its votes of the working-class. Meanwhile, the radical right offers a cultural dimension that pits it against both the established left and right. In contrast to the established parties, the radical right strongly opposes immigration, multiculturalism and European integration. It responds to the wish to take back control and the longing for national sovereignty. Austerity measures after 2008, globalization and migration waves have led to the election of populists with the mandate to indeed regain control and put the brakes on Brussels interfering in national politics and on more European integration.
This Euroscepticism has materialized in two forms. One is the U.K. voting to leave the EU. Brexit populists repeatedly voiced the mantra “take back control” in their campaign. However, the fact that the Brexit process is getting messier each day, has led to a counter reaction in other EU member countries. As Caroline de Gruyter has suggested, Brexit is also a warning to all those who have pledged to follow the U.K. in exiting the EU. Although many predicted the implosion of the EU after the British referendum, it has only made Europe “stronger” in the sense that leaving is not regarded as a viable option anymore. And thus, Europe is left with a second and currently vivid form of Euroscepticism, or Eurosceptic Remainers: Eurosceptics that try to take back control within the EU while breaking its rules and playing their own game. The most prominent example last month was Italy joining China in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), after abstaining from a vote on an EU-wide investment-screening mechanism to ensure the security of Europe’s strategic sectors in February. Other examples are Hungary, Poland and Slovakia refusing to adhere to the EU’s requirements to take in their quota of refugees and Austria passing a law to cut child benefit for immigrants from poorer EU countries.
- Euroscepticism is slowing down European integration ambitions. Although it is projected that the traditional governing coalition (center-right European People’s Party and center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) will lose over 100 seats of their current 404, they are likely to retain their first and second-place spots in Parliament. Eurosceptic parties will make great gains: Italian leader Salvini’s anti-migrant and Eurosceptic League party could become the second biggest force in Parliament.
- A divided Europe will be weaker and thus less capable of resisting the interference of superpowers U.S. and China, becoming their plaything in their trade and tech war. The European Union and China announced the start of negotiations to establish commercial relations in 2013, but their progress is very slow. The fact that countries (Italy) are now individually bargaining with China is not conducive to speeding things up.
- The surge of the radical right makes it difficult for Brussels to remain effective in managing external threats such as climate change.