Europe's coming anti-liberal empire

Inside the anti-liberal plot to capture the European Parliament

A protester.
(Image credit: Illustrated | FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

For those who support the European Union, the good news of recent months has been that Brexit is unfolding so disastrously in the U.K. that the temptation of some to bolt from the bloc has faded across the continent. But the bad news is that those who despise the bureaucrats in Brussels may have found a new strategy to advance their aims — and one that has a much greater chance of succeeding.

Instead of fighting the EU, the anti-liberals now hope to capture it.

The first big push to make that happen will take place from May 23 to May 26, when elections for the European Parliament will be held across 28 member countries. The idea is simple: Parties that oppose the neoliberal policies of the EU aim to forge a right-wing popular front — and perhaps even a truly big-tent anti-liberal movement that includes both right- and left-wing populist parties — that can win a large block (and maybe even a plurality) of seats in the legislative body.

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The rudiments of such transpartisan anti-liberal coalitions already exist, with some of them holding political power. Italy is governed by a coalition of a far-right anti-immigrant party (La Lega) and an upstart anti-liberal-populist party (Five Star). In Hungary, Viktor Orbán's explicitly anti-liberal Fidesz holds a solid majority, but the country's second most popular party (Jobbik) is even further right. Austria's chancellor is a member of the conservative People's Party, but its vice-chancellor is a member of the far-right Freedom Party.

Those countries and some others (Poland, the Czech Republic) are already poised to send large anti-liberal delegations to the European Parliament. But what if the anti-liberal right begins to make common cause with the anti-liberal left against the neoliberal governing class of the EU?

There are ideological and practical political reasons why this is likely to happen — and some signs that it has already begun. This doesn't make sense to many political analysts and actors whose sensibilities were formed in the crucible of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, when the distinction between left and right seemed stark and obvious.

But over the past two decades, the institutional left and right have converged across Europe, with differences between them becoming miniscule. A long list of policies has been championed by both sides, just as a long list of other options (some quite popular with voters) has been preemptively ruled out of consideration. It's been an era of nearly homogenous elite consensus — on immigration and refugees (follow humanitarian imperatives that demand acceptance of all comers), on crime (don't talk about it), and on economic policy (austerity is the only responsible option). The anti-liberal left has long opposed some of these policies; the anti-liberal right has stood against others. Over the past few years, both have begun to gain considerable electoral traction under the banner of populism.

Might the two brands of populism successfully merge? Or at least put aside their differences to work more closely in common cause against the neoliberal center? It wouldn't take much for the trend to accelerate.

Consider the morass dragging down politics in the U.K. One reason why implementing Brexit has been so fraught is that the country is sharply divided on whether to leave the EU. But the bigger reason is that the U.K.'s two largest parties — the Conservative Party and the Labour Party — are themselves internally divided on the question. Support for and opposition to bolting the EU cuts across the political left and right, with country and region far more salient variables in determining voter views on Brexit. England is solidly in favor of leaving the EU. Scotland strongly wants to remain. People who live in or near London overwhelmingly want to stay in the bloc, while the countryside prefers the nation to go its own way. These preferences tend to be true regardless of which party a voter supports.

The U.K. will continue to suffer from gridlock so long as cleavages between the major parties fail to reflect cleavages in the population at large. If a party emerged to champion a consistent anti-liberal position, it would likely do quite well and would have a decent shot of winning a plurality of votes.

A similar dynamic can be seen at work in France. As Mark Lilla recently reported in a cogent essay for The New York Review of Books, a new anti-liberal right is taking shape in France, but it cannot be accurately described as a throwback to fascism. At least some of its supporters combine nationalist commitments with opposition to abortion, a severe pro-family critique of free-market capitalism, and strong support for environmental regulations to combat climate change. This mélange of traditionally right- and left-wing positions points toward a form of politics that transcends many of the disagreements that have defined politics throughout the West in the postwar period.

The shockingly volatile gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests, which have destabilized France for the past two-and-a-half months while spawning parallel movements in numerous other countries in Europe and around the world, is broadly consistent with this ideological trend. Some of the protesters consider themselves on the right; others place themselves on the left. Sometimes the two sides even clash with each other in the street. But they nonetheless share a broad-based hostility to the neoliberal policies of the past several decades that they blame for their own rapidly declining standards of living. The gilets jaunes protests show that a transpartisan — and transnational — anti-liberal movement is coalescing across Europe.

That doesn't mean that it will prove to be popular or unified enough to seize a majority of the seats in the European parliament this spring. But it does mean that these various anti-liberal currents are likely to become and remain a potent, and unnerving, political force for years to come.

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