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Sleeping with the Enemy

Enda O’Doherty writes: Sorry to bother you, but if you just had three or four minutes to spare I’d like to show you some names to see if you have any reaction – positive or negative – to them. It’s a survey – in connection with this week’s elections for the European Parliament. No, please don’t walk away.

Thank you. It won’t take long really. OK. Here we go. The names: Nico Cué. Nothing? Nothing at all? OK . Let me make a note of that. Jan Zahradil. Yes, Zahradil ... Z-A-H-R-A-D-I-L. No? Ska Keller? No? Bas Eickhout? Yes, that is indeed a person’s name. Nothing? Fine, no problem. Margrethe Vestager? No? Frans Timmermans? Yes, a flicker there, I thought. Did he used to run a wine bar? No, I don’t think so; that was probably a different Timmerman. Manfred Weber? No? OK, let me try this last one ... Guy Verhofstadt ... Yes, that’s it, you have it. That’s him, “little Dutchman” – well he’s Belgian actually – looks like Elton John, doesn’t much like the Brits. That’s him all right. You know him? Wonderful!

Ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections a change in procedure emerged, largely championed by the German social democrat Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament. The idea – that each group in the parliament would nominate a lead candidate, a Spitzenkandidat (the German word stuck), and that the group that won the largest number of seats in the elections would then put forward its Spitzenkandidat for the presidency of the EU – had two chief rationales. First, that citizens voting in different constituencies in different countries would have some sense that they were all participating in the same contest, with the pan-European party groups (EPP, S&D, ALDE etc) each being associated with a particular political orientation and programme and represented in the European public mind by a charismatic, or at least articulate, figure. Second, that the European Parliament, the only directly elected European institution, would press its claim to legitimacy in competition with the European Council (made up of heads of state and ministers and conducting most of its business in private).

The several persons mentioned above ‑ whose names somewhere between none of us and very damned few of us recognise ‑ are in fact 2019’s Spitzenkandidaten: Manfred Weber for the EPP (of which Fine Gael is a member), Frans Timmermans for the Socialists and Democrats (both Labour and the SDLP are members) and Nico Cué for the radical left GUE-NGL (Sinn Féin and independent Luke “Ming” Flanagan). The Greens, with their longstanding aversion to uno duce politics, have two Spitzenkandidaten, Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout, while the liberal democratic ALDE group (Fianna Fáil are members) also plumped for a collective leadership, including current European commissioner Margrethe Vestager and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt.

A few years back enthusiasts for the European Union project could sometimes be heard worrying over the fact (or the perception) that the union to some degree lacked the legitimacy that democratic nation-states seemed to possess: citizens, or most citizens, did not really feel European, as there was in fact no actual European demos (people). In May last year nevertheless, a Eurobarometer poll suggested that 49 per cent of the 27,601 individuals from all twenty-eight EU countries surveyed thought that the Spitzenkandidat process would help them in deciding how to vote in the next European elections. This is rather puzzling. Whatever may be the case in other countries I would be fairly sure you could stand in O’Connell Street in the centre of Dublin to interview passersby and you would be very lucky if one among the first thirty you spoke to could tell you what a Spitzenkandidat is. If the innovation was meant to help in the conjuring up of the hitherto absent European demos, one would have to say it has been an abject failure.

But perhaps – having, at least for the time being, survived the financial crises which some years ago led numerous media Eurosceptics (which is to say Europhobes) to confidently predict the imminent demise not just of the euro but of the whole house of cards, “pro-Europeans” probably now have more to worry about than the rather ethereal notion of the European demos. I am referring of course to the continuing rise of the far right – variously nationalist, xenophobic, libertarian, populist, anti-“Brussels”, Christian or Catholic fundamentalist, anti-Islamic, “white-Europeanist”, anti-liberal, anti-gay, “traditionalist”, anti-feminist, anti-globalist, or some individual selection of political/gestural items from this appealing pick ’n’ mix menu.

The current configuration of seats in the European Parliament features a large bloc of conservatives and Christian Democrats (EPP), a slightly smaller one of social democrats (S&D), a significant body of centrist liberals (ALDE), not negligible groups representing the Greens and the radical left and a number of small groups of largely nationalist or populist orientation, ranging from relatively moderate national conservatives to out-and-out neo-Nazis. Polling forecasts suggest that both the centre-right (EPP) and the centre-left (S&D), who have in the past been inclined to stitch things up between them in the parliament, distributing the plum jobs, will lose fairly heavily in this week’s elections. The far right is predicted to do better, as is the liberal, and very “pro-European”, centre. The radical left, the polls suggest, might be slightly down, and the Greens slightly up.


George Soros, it seems, has a diagnosis of the ills that assail us: “The party system of individual [European] states reflects the divisions that mattered in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the conflict between capital and labour. But the cleavage that matters most today is between pro- and anti-European forces.” The cleavage between pro- and anti-European forces may matter quite a lot, but the notion that the conflict between capital and labour is a relic of a bygone age could be a rather shortsighted one – unless of course one believes that this conflict has finally, and quite satisfactorily, been resolved in favour of capital. That there are many working people and their families who are on the sharp and bitter side of this division ‑ to whom not many politicians currently appear to be offering a realistic hope of better times ‑ is surely one of the reasons for the rise of those populist anti-European forces that George Soros so strongly opposes.

In an interesting and well-researched recent article in the Financial Times (May 16th), Alex Barber traced the origins of the pan-European centre-right organisation the EPP (European People’s Party) back to its origins in 1976 but more particularly to the definitive stamp that then German chancellor Helmut Kohl put on it more than twenty years later at a meeting in Bonn in 1998. Kohl’s big idea was that the EPP had to be – as the German Christian Democrats had been from the postwar era – a “big tent” organisation which would offer a home to the entire spectrum of right-wing opinion and anchor it to constitutional politics and a broadly centrist programme. Thus one might recuperate political elements that had once looked favourably on more radical-right, and less democratic, paths. (Something similar had happened in postwar France: the Christian Democratic movement that emerged in 1944, the MRP or Mouvement Républicain Populaire, was known on the left as the Machine à Ramasser les Pétainistes, the mechanism for scooping up [and cleansing] wartime collaborators. The same party, it should be said, also gave Europe the visionary Robert Schuman, one of the pères fondateurs of the European Economic Community.)

The EPP, in its heyday, was a formidable force, Barber writes. Inside a decade, “its representation around the EU summit table grew from two of 15 leaders to 16 of 27 in 2012”, enabling it to “[precook] positions on treaties, bailouts and assorted EU disputes”. Much of this was achieved not by spectacular electoral success but by an aggressive campaign of mergers and acquisitions. Among the acquired assets were Silvio Berlusconi’s populist right-wing Forza Italia and various central and eastern European groups, including the new party of a young Hungarian liberal reformer, one Viktor Orbán.

Things now, however, are no longer quite so good for the EPP. As support for the traditional parties of both centre-right and centre-left has eroded, it finds itself with fewer party representatives (just nine prime ministers out of twenty-eight) at European Council meetings, and also with very considerable headaches arising from increasingly vigorous competition on its right flank. Most recently this has crystallised around the party’s conflict with the recalcitrant Orbán, whose party rails against immigrants, targets its bête noire George Soros with lightly coded antisemitic slurs, concentrates media power among its cronies and – in a nice neo-McCarthyist touch – complains that the EU is setting out to “liquidate Christian culture”.

In March this year, the EPP, after a great deal of speculation about where Orbán’s rather brazen contempt for the liberal values the group officially espouses might lead, suspended his party, Fidesz. The whole affair was a little reminiscent of a scene in the headmaster’s study, with a rather pompous but ineffectual headmaster and a particularly cocky and insolent pupil. The EPP presidency said immediately afterwards that it had taken appropriate action over its Hungarian member’s controversial stances and Orbán and Fidesz were now on probation and would be closely watched in the future. Orbán for his part lost no time in telling the media that he would be monitoring the EPP and its policy orientations and would fairly soon decide if he wanted, in the longer term, to have anything more to do with them. Just who was judging who?

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who was present at the important EPP meeting with Helmut Kohl in Bonn in 1998, told the Financial Times: “They should have taken a firm line from the beginning. It is obvious they underestimate Orban. They thought they could manipulate him. Now I know Orban and he is a bloody smart fellow. He was better at manipulating them.”

How will the soft line taken on Fidesz (a position apparently particularly championed by Angela Merkel’s successor as German Christian Democratic leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer) work for the EPP, or for the European centre-right in general? In Alex Barker’s analysis, the unwillingness to expel the party derived to a considerable extent from the sympathy of many group members for the tough line Orbán had taken (in contrast to Merkel) at the time of the Syrian migration crisis (though his opposition to immigration does not stem from his country’s inability to deal with sudden large population influxes: it is absolute, and based on a felt imperative to keep Hungary a white and Christian nation).


Current manoeuvrings on the far right suggest that a “reaching out” process might be under way. Italy’s ferociously ambitious deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini invited a number of ideological comrades from across Europe to Milan last weekend. The most important guests were Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, but there were representatives of many more minor far-right parties too. One unfortunate absentee was Harald Vilimsky, the standardbearer in the European elections of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which on the previous day had been kicked out of the Austrian government after the release of a video showing its leader (the deputy prime minister) conspiring to barter political influence (public works contracts, media ownership) in Austria for illicit funding for his party with a woman he apparently understood to be the niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov.

In its dealings with the far right, Europe’s centre right has a number of options. It can invite them into government, as the ÖVP’s Sebastian Kurz did with the FPÖ in Austria. It can accept their parliamentary support from outside government, as the conservative-liberal Venstre has done in Denmark, or it can refuse such a dependency as smaller elements of the Swedish centre-right (Liberals and Centre Party) did after last year’s general election, making a right-far-right arrangement impossible. In opposition, it can defend an open society or it can attempt to combat the success of the extremists by moving its own policies sharply to the right. But such a manoeuvre is not guaranteed to work. In fact it proved a disaster for the Spanish Popular Party, which lost sixty-nine of its 135 seats in last month’s election. The same strategy has been employed by Les Républicains (the Gaullist tendency) in France, but the party is currently running at 12 to 14 per cent in European election opinion polls, as compared with the 20 per cent that its candidate scored in the 2017 presidential election (first round).

It has been correctly pointed out that the European far right is diverse: some elements are anti-globalist and protectionist, while others are libertarian enthusiasts for “free” markets; some are Catholic traditionalists while others have no problem with diversity of lifestyles and sexual orientations; some are particularly friendly to Putin and Russia, while others, like the parties in Poland and Sweden, are not. Some, one might admit, are not entirely unrespectable while others are quite simply neo-Nazis. This diversity could prove a barrier to one large far-right group being formed but some analysts suggest that this is not what Salvini, in particular, is interested in. His unbelievably brazen antics in Milan, brandishing a rosary and invoking the patron saints of Europe (not Adenauer, Schuman and de Gasperi but SS Benedict, Bridget and Catherine), have been interpreted as an appeal to both the more traditionalist Catholic elements among the European far right (in Spain, Poland, Hungary and Austria) and a signal to those elements in the mainstream right who are cool on racial or religious diversity or sexual freedoms. It might also work well in wooing new right-wing allies at home if his current coalition with M5S falls apart.

Not for the first time, Salvini’s impudence in donning the mantle of Christian civilisation earned him a slap on the wrist from senior elements in the Catholic church (though he may not mind this). Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin said: “It is always dangerous to invoke God on one’s own behalf. Party politics divides people. God, on the other hand, is for everyone.” Bishop Domenico Magavero said: “Whoever stands with him [Salvini] cannot call himself a Christian, since he has violated the commandment of love”, a reference primarily to the Lega leader's many deliberately coarse and macho remarks about immigrants crossing from Africa.  

It might not be such a bad result for Europe if the EPP were to lose its pre-eminence after this week’s European elections. Its ambiguity and pusillanimity in dealing with Orbán’s challenges to liberalism, humanitarianism and the rule of law are certainly a black mark against it and other working coalitions are possible, involving the left, the Greens, the liberals and perhaps those sections of the centre-right which do not want to play footsie with the extremists. In one sense perhaps George Soros is right: the energy, such as it is, in these elections is at the poles, with the nationalists on one side and the European federalists on the other. But the greatest concentration of federalists is currently to be found not on the left but in the liberal centre.

After the enforced departure from government of the FPÖ in Austria Chancellor Sebastian Kurz confided to the public that he had for a long time been exasperated by its leaders’ attacks on democracy and the media and the scurrilous actions of other party members – Nazi poems, racist proposals, insults addressed to various minorities. Now, with the deputy prime minister telling someone he assumed to be a wealthy Russian that he could advise on how to circumvent state law on party funding and help the people she represented to buy a mass circulation newspaper, Mr Kurz says he has had enough. One might think more highly of him if he’d had enough before now. If you play ball with politicians whose everyday currency is dirt you well may end up yourself with shit on your hands. Let us hope that Kurz’s party does not emerge from the debacle entirely undamaged. In the meantime, perhaps the political rivals of the far right might think of vigorously attacking their positions rather than trying to slyly imitate or remodel them. Figures like Salvini, God knows, provide a large enough target.

In the shorter rather than the longer term many people involved in politics across Europe are going to have to decide if, in the venerable tag “centre-right”, the first element is simply there for decoration.

Image: On the march: Wilders, Salvini and Le Pen celebrating the new internationalist nationalism.
Brass neck: Matteo Salvini, rosary in left hand, points to his greatest supporter.
Sources: Financial Times, Le Monde

23/5/2019