Perplexed European centre-right flirts with hardliner partners

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Welcome back. Mainstream centre-right political parties have lost power in some of Europe’s largest countries – France, Germany, Poland and Spain. The ruling Conservative Party in the UK seems to be following the same path. Is it not an exaggeration to talk about the crisis that is gripping the moderate European right? I’m on

A favorite topic of political commentary is the long-term decline of European social democracy and the moderate left. I posted my own thoughts on this last year.

But the truth is that mainstream centre-right parties are also struggling. The German Christian Democrats not only lost the 2021 Bundestag elections, but recorded the worst result in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. France’s Les Républicains were humiliated in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

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Since January 2020, Spain has been ruled by a coalition of the radical socialist left. Civic Platform, Poland’s moderate right-wing party, lost power to conservative nationalists in 2015 and has been inactive ever since. And for months now, the British Conservatives have been trailing the Labor opposition by around 20 percentage points in the polls.

The troubles of the centre-right have not been entirely overlooked. There have been two particularly good analyzes over the past year: this article by Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser for the UK on the Changing Europe website and, most recently, this essay by Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman.

In the same way that social democracy’s woes stem in part from the collapse of the industrial working class and trade unions, long-term social and cultural changes help explain the difficulties of the moderate right.

Trapped between the progressive center and the hard right

On the one hand, the development of a well-educated, progressive-minded middle class with post-material values ​​has put the center-right at risk of losing voters – especially young people – to the liberal centre, the Greens or the moderate left.

On the other hand, the emergence of multiculturalism, immigration and closer integration with the EU as politically controversial topics has fueled the rise of far-right nationalist and populist parties.

The choice faced by mainstream centre-right politicians, then, is how far to align their appeal with the progressive center or how far to play football with the far right.

Michael Benhamou, a French moderate-right thinker, is among those calling for a firm rejection of the far-right and advocating the formation of a new coalition party Christian Democrats, environmentalists and immigrant communities.

But it seems to me that the trend is moving, if anywhere, in the opposite direction – influenced to some extent by the drift of the US Republican Party towards the harsh politics of the far right.

Most of Europe’s centre-right seem increasingly inclined to court or copy the far right. They either steal some of their ideological garb, or form formal coalitions with them, or make informal arrangements to govern with their support.

The German CDU softer than the Tories or Les Républicains

Two good examples of moderates trying to blunt the appeal of the far right by borrowing their rhetoric and politics are the British Tories and the French Republicans. The electoral threat from the (mainly English nationalist) UK Independence Party and its successors explains why the Conservatives morphed into a Brexit party, with a particularly strong stance on issues such as illegal migration.

As for Les Républicains, they took a sharp right turn in December, electing Eric Ciotti as their leader, whose views on Islam, migration and the EU bring him closer to the French far right than to the Gaullist conservative tradition of his own party.

In a milder form, we see a similar move to the right in the German CDU under Friedrich Merz. He was elected party leader a year ago, partly as a reaction to Angela Merkel’s centrist instincts and her penchant for governing in coalition with the Social Democrats.

However, the CDU is still a recognizable mainstream centre-right party. This was highlighted last month when the party leadership voted to expel Hans-Georg Maassen, the former head of Germany’s internal intelligence service, because of his racist views.

Coalitions with the extreme right

Formal government coalitions involving the far right were once unthinkable in Europe, but not anymore. Overall, they didn’t work well – but still, we can expect more of them in the future.

Since 2000, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has had two terms in government, the second of which ran from 2017 to 2019, ending in a scandal-ridden party that suffered a heavy defeat in the national elections. The party fared relatively poorly last weekend in the state elections in Carinthia, a southern Austrian region that has been something of a stronghold of the FPÖ.

However, the broader fortunes of the party have been revived in recent years. Unlike in Germany, where there are still strong taboos prohibiting the far-right Alternative for Germany party from being near the government, it is conceivable that the FPÖ will one day share power again in Vienna.

Austria is no exception. The far-right nationalist Ekre party was part of the Estonian government from 2019 to 2021, when it tarnished the golden image of the Baltic state as a model of post-communist liberal democracy. Ekre lost several seats in last weekend’s Estonian elections, but still finished second, the best result in its history.

All eyes on Spain

Later this year, the country to be monitored will be Spain. After December’s national elections, it is possible that the far-right Vox party will enter government for the first time since the fall of Francoism in the 1970s.

Vox would be the junior partner of the mainstream centre-right People’s Party, which already rules with them in the Castile-León region north of Madrid. One of the hallmarks of Spanish politics is the way Catalan separatism helped fragment the once largely two-party system and gave Vox the opportunity to formulate a crude version of Spanish nationalism rooted in the Castilian tradition of centralized rule.

Finally, in Sweden we see a different kind of far-right accommodation. There, the centre-right Moderate party formed a government with the support of the far-right Sweden Democrats, giving them no ministries but giving them some influence over immigration and law and order policy.

A political earthquake in the European Parliament?

What conclusions can we draw from these various developments on the European right? First, while there used to be a French style sanitary cordon or in the German style Brandmauer (firewall) against any cooperation between moderate democratic parties and the extreme right, now that wall is falling apart.

Secondly, it reflects to some extent the general fragmentation of European political party systems, with few parties of the moderate right currently having any hope of winning elections by themselves with large majorities.

Third, these trends could culminate in a political earthquake in the EU after next year’s European Parliament elections. For 40 years, the main pan-European party groups of the center-right and center-left controlled the legislature – but slowly, as they lost seats in each five-year election, their collective grip on power weakened.

If next year’s elections accelerate this trend, what will the centre-right European People’s Party do? Will he stick with his familiar centre-left partners, or will he ally himself with more right-wing parties such as Vox, the Sweden Democrats, the Italian Brothers (who lead a coalition government in Rome) and Poland’s Law and Justice party?

Such a step would pose a risk to EU integration as we know it today. But an emerging pattern of cooperation between the centre-right and the far-right across Europe suggests that this is no longer out of the question.

More on that

The Brutal Collapse of France’s Les Républicains – Commentary by Solenn de Royer for Parisian newspaper Le Monde

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