Much Ado About Everything No 33: Europe — Nationalism Revisited

Nationalist populists look set to outperform earlier, already high, expectations in the European Parliament elections.

Introduction: Nationalism rallies

“The pattern is becoming familiar in Europe, where fed-up voters have abandoned the traditional parties of right and left (ask France’s Republicans, or Italy’s Democrats) and opted for a plethora of new groups, some on either extreme of the spectrum, others harder to pin down.”

The Economist, 17 April 2019

Looking forward to the 23-26 May European Parliament elections in particular, my 14 January article asked whether populism would prevail. In this article, I update on the threat which populist nationalist parties increasingly appear to pose across Europe as a whole.

Spain: Nationalism reborn

“Most political leaders accept that Spain is heading for its first-ever coalition government at national level since democracy was restored in 1977…. But it may require a fresh election in the autumn to define its make-up. All will turn on the precise parliamentary arithmetic…”

The Economist, 17 April 2019

It has long been the conventional wisdom that memories of the Franco era, which ended as recently as 1976, had effectively immunised Spain against the risk of ‘right-wing’ nationalism. Even if the general rise of populism/nationalism across Europe over the past decade or so was not sufficient to do so, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) since its launch in 2013 should have banished this theory (even though it took somewhat longer for Germany’s domestic politics to ‘normalise’). Still, the seemingly sudden emergence of the populist/nationalist party [VOX]( (also founded in 2013, in fact) as an electoral force appears to have taken many of the commentariat by surprise.

To be fair, in the period between its launch and the 2 December 2018 regional election in the longstanding PSOE stronghold of Andalusia — when it surprised by taking almost 11% of the vote and winning 12 out of 109 seats in the regional assembly — in 15 significant elections VOX had only once won than than 1% of the vote (the exception being the 2015 Madrid election where it just scraped over the 1% ‘threshold’).

Through this performance, VOX made possible a non-Socialist government in Andalusia for the first time in over three decades, a minority coalition led by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) of which VOX was originally a break-away, which is dependent on VOX support for its majority.

Now, just a few days away from Spain’s 28 April general election (Spain’s third in only a little over three years), VOX finds itself in a similar position nationally. Standing at 11%+/- in most opinion polls, it is forecast to win around 30 of the 350 seats in the lower house, the Congreso de los Diputados.

[Note: 208 of the 266 Senate seats are also up for grabs but with VOX forecast to win as few as zero and no more than eight.]

The rise in support for VOX — whose Catholic conservatism has more in common with the ruling parties in Hungary and Poland than with Italy’s Lega or France’s Rassemblement National — inevitably owes much to swelling concern throughout Europe over illegal immigration. But the party, wearing its fervent nationalist credentials very much on its sleeve, owes significantly more to its hard nationalist line on the still bubbling constitutional crisis over Catalonia, which will certainly bedevil the next government irrespective of its political hue. It follows that VOX looks set to precipitate a three-way split of the non-left-of-centre vote at the expense of PP (20%+/- in opinion polls) in particular but also the centrist Ciudadanos (14%+/-), two other parties which have consistently taken a very firm anti-independence line with Barcelona.

The negative impact of this split in terms of the number of seats each of the three is likely to win will be exacerbated by Spain’s version of the D’Hondt method of proportional representation (also the basis of most of the UK’s system for European Parliament elections — see below), which rewards a united front and punishes division.

Even though VOX poached some formerly left-leaning voters in Andalusia, the main beneficiary of this still stands to be the left-of-centre Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), polling around 30%. Further boosted by the semi-implosion of left-wing Unidos Podemos (12.5%+/-), the outgoing PSOE Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, can therefore reasonably expect to add around 50 seats to his party’s current 84. However, although this would amount to a pretty solid plurality, it would probably still leave PSOE well short of a majority even in coalition with Unidos Podemos (the presence of which in government would almost certainly be a negative for further — and still much needed — structural reform).

This does not necessarily mean that Mr Sánchez will be unable to form a new and stable government; after all, he has just occupied the premier’s office for eight months with only 24% of the seats, after he had led a successful vote of no confidence against the minority PP government which had been in office since the June 2016 general election. But his ability to do so will likely hinge on whether the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, is prepared to go back on his pre-election commitment not to go into coalition with Mr Sánchez.

Alternatively, we may see a PP/Ciudadanos ruling coalition dependent on VOX for its majority. On the face of it, this would almost certainly be more welcome to investors as far as prospects for the economy and economic reform are concerned. But it would just as surely mean a further deepening of the Catalonia crisis with potentially negative consequences for growth in Spain’s economically most important region.

In any case, we are clearly seeing the electoral threat posed by VOX pulling both PP and Ciudadanos rightwards in much the same way as has been evident over the past several years in other EU member states in particular.

All this being said, as The Economist suggests (see above) the most likely outcome on 28 April is (as we saw in December 2015) probably a lower house so divided that another general election will follow in the early autumn. Given the recent history of elections in quick succession, investors should not be especially concerned by this prospect. But, in the medium-term at least, such uncertainty and instability is bad news for both the economy and the resolution of the Catalonia issue. This, in turn, is only likely further to fuel populist sentiment.

Meanwhile, it is reasonable to assume that VOX will also poll at around 11% in the 23-26 May elections for the European Parliament (EP), adding further to the weight of nationalists in the incoming assembly.

Finland: Nationalism resurgent

“…after the national election on April 14th, [the Finns] have given up their claim to have solved the problem of far-right populism. The Finns Party, an anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic party previously known in English as the True Finns, surged in the final weeks and took 17.5% of the vote, just a whisker behind the winning Social Democrats at 17.7%. The Social Democrats will probably now form a centre-left government, but as in so much of Europe, the far right’s strength will make things complicated.”

The Economist, 17 April 2019

Even if the overall pattern today is not dissimilar to Spain’s, Finland’s story is very different. The Finns (Perussuomalaiset in Finnish — formerly the ‘True Finns’) entered into government as a member of the three-party right-of-centre coalition which was formed after the 2015 election. However, a 2017 government crisis led to the party splitting and the rump of the Finns moving into opposition. The rest, rebranded as ‘Blue Reform’, remained in government but lost all its seats in 14 April general election.

Still, the Finns were only polling at around 8% late last year — until, that is, the Oulu child sexual exploitation scandal (involving immigrants grooming under-age girls) broke. On the back of this, the Finns surged into second place in this month’s election. The party can reasonably be expected to repeat this success in the 23-26 May EP elections (at minimum retaining the two seats it won in the 2014 EP elections) even though it looks very unlikely to be part of the next Finnish government, which will likely be led by the centre-left Suomen sosialidemokraattinen puolue (Social Democratic Party) and include the third-placed centre-right Kansallinen Kokoomus (National Coalition).

[Note: The formal process of coalition negotiation is due to start on 26 April, with the aim of reaching a conclusion before the end of May (not least because Finland takes over the rotating EU Presidency on 1 July).]

Estonia: Nationalism rewarded

“Last week, across the Gulf of Finland in Estonia, the ruling Centre Party broke its campaign vow and cut a coalition deal that included the far-right EKRE party. The centrist Reform party, which finished first in the election in March but lost its chance to form a government, was furious. Still, as Finland shows, marriages with populists seldom last.”

The Economist, 17 April 2019

The big winner in Estonia’s 3 March general election was undoubtedly the conservative nationalist Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond (EKRE), which increased its presence in the 101-member legislature from the seven seats it won in 2015 to 19, taking 17.8% of the vote. Nevertheless, for reasons reflected in the quote from The Economist at the start of this section, it is still something of a surprise that it has finished up in a coalition government led by the centrist (albeit somewhat populist) Eesti Keskerakond (the third member of which is the conservative Isamaa).

This being said, recent opinion polling suggests that support for EKRE may have slid since the election; so it remains to be seen whether it will achieve the same success in the European Parliament election. Nevertheless, the party is still enjoying much more support than it it did at the time of the 2014 EP elections when it failed to win any seats.

United Kingdom: Nationalism rebranded

“A survey found 40 per cent of [Conservative councillors] will back [Nigel Farage’s] new party in the European Elections next month.”

Aletha Adu, The Sun, 21 April 2019

On 12 April, when former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (pictured above with fellow Brexit member Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of the Conservative Party ‘ultra’, Jacob Rees-Mogg) launched his new Brexit Party, Alex Morales and Tim Ross of Bloomberg wrote as follows:

“[Mr] Farage, 55, has been a thorn in the side of the ruling Conservative Party since former Prime Minister David Cameron took office in 2010. His brand of uncompromising euroskepticism tempted senior Tory politicians to defect to UKIP, which shocked the political establishment in 2014 by winning the popular vote in the European Parliament elections of that year.”

If the UK does indeed hold EP elections on 23 May (which, as I have opined previously, I believe to be more likely than not), the Conservative carnage at the hands of Mr Farage promises to be even worse than it was in 2014 when UKIP, under his leadership, won 24 of the UK’s 73 seats, with the Conservatives winning just 19.

Last December, Mr Farage stepped away from UKIP, claiming that it had become extremist and taking 13 fellow MEPs with him. He continued:

“The [UKIP] brand has now been so damaged, so tarnished, that it is not able to pick up and won't be able to pick up the political opportunity that is there staring it in the face.”

So far, opinion polls are supporting the smartness of his rebrand. A YouGov poll published less than a week after the Party’s launch put it at 27%, while UKIP languished at just 7%. To be fair, other early polls have the Labour Party ahead, with projected seats in the 20s, and percentage support for the Brexit Party ‘only’ in the teens; but even this puts Mr Farage’s new vehicle, support for which appears to be continuing to surge, around 10pp ahead of UKIP.

[Note: The 2 May local elections will not, unfortunately, give us a better idea of the true level of support for the Brexit Party as it does not have candidates standing. But we should get a good idea of just how dismal the Conservatives’ prospects are if the UK does indeed vote again on 23 May.]

It is hardly surprising then that alarm bells are ringing not only in the Conservative camp (see, eg, the quote at the start of this section) but also in Labour Party ranks, with Deputy Leader Tom Watson again defying Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarmness over a second plebiscite by arguing that the party needs to differentiate itself from the Brexit Party through outright support for such to minimise the risk of being pushed into second place.

[Note: Despite polls suggesting that 80% of Labour Party members support a second referendum, there is a legitimate tactical reason why some of its MPs are arguing to the contrary at this time, ie avoiding crossing what seems to be a genuine ‘red line’ for Prime Minister Theresa May which would lead to Labour getting blamed for the collapse of the two-party talks, which resume this week. The crunch point for Labour may come when the party’s national executive, packed with Corbynistas, approves the manifesto on 30 April.]

In fact, Mr Watson’s concerns could turn out to be somewhat overdone in that the variation of the D’Hondt method of PR employed for EP elections in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland which uses a single transferable vote system) is, as previously noted, tough on smaller parties. The Brexit Party still stands to do well but will likely fall short in terms of seat numbers relative to its percentage of the vote (with UKIP likely to fare worse still).

However, it is the pro-EU parties who should be hit hardest by the size problem. Among the three of them — ie the LibDems, Green Party and Change UK — they will probably attract something over 20% of the vote. But the rejection of the LibDem’s proposed electoral alliance by the other two (who appear not to understand the intricacies of this particular version of PR) means that the Remainers collectively stand to finish up with far fewer seats (ie seven, all to the LibDems, as opposed to 16, according to an analysis done by the Financial Times) than a joint platform would bring them. Whether the Vote For Your Future campaign, launched last week, will persuade a critical mass of the 33% of the electorate aged between 18 and 30 not registered to vote (as opposed to just 4% of the over-65s) to step up remains to be seen.

One way or the other, the Conservatives look to be in for a hiding, which is only likely to add to the pressure on Mrs May to quit in time for a new leader to be installed before the party conference at the end of September, even without her managing to security majority parliamentary support for a deal of some sort.

The Netherlands: Nationalism reformed

For many years the right-wing Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders has been the leading anti-EU party in the Netherlands. However, poll position is now held by the conservative and eurosceptic Forum voor Democratie (FvD). The FvD is currently comfortably ahead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD), 28% to 22%, and around 20pp ahead of the PVV.

It is certainly the case that the FvD is more moderate in its stance on the EU than the PVV is. But it is still looking to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the EP, which has among its existing ranks the likes of the Finns and Poland’s ruling PiS, as well as the UK’s Conservative Party.

Conclusions: Nationalism unrestrained?

“History goes in cycles. This is more than a confrontation between right and left. It is the confrontation between the elite and the people.”

Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, September 2018

Assuming the UK does indeed participate in the EP elections, the agreed reduction (by 46 out of 751 seats) in the number of MEPs and redistribution of 27 seats will be delayed until such time as Brexit actually takes place, at which point all 73 UK MEPs will step down immediately.

The vast majority of projections over the likely strength of the groups in the incoming parliament have not taken a possible UK presence into account. So the following list of averages (which omits two left groups and non-aligned MEPs) should be viewed with some caution:

  • European People’s Party (EPP): 175-190;
  • Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D): 135-155;
  • Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe (ALDE): 70-100 (depending on whether President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche joins);
  • *European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR): 50-70;
  • *Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy (EFDD): 30-40;
  • *Europe of Nations & Freedom (ENF): 60-75.

The asterisked (*) groups are all to a greater or lesser extent eurosceptic. Add to this a projected 35-40 far-right MEPs not aligned with any group and the total of eurosceptic/europhobic MEPs exceeds, based on these projections, the likely total of EPP MEPs.

This being said:

  • Even though the long-established pattern of a combined EPP/S&P majority looks to be out of reach, add ALDE and there should still be a solid majority in the centre;
  • History tells us that it is very unlikely that the eurosceptic blocks will be able to exercise consistent solidarity — even within each block.

As far as the second point is concerned, I continue to agree with Vivienne Walt writing about the leader of Italy’s Lega, which stands to be one of the biggest winners next month, inTime last September as follows:

“The right-wing leader’s ambitions extend far beyond his country, however — and that’s what is sending jitters through Europe. Many see him as the leader most capable of piecing together a large group of populist, nationalist parties in Europe, one that crosses national boundaries in the name of nationalism.”

One way or the other, though, we can reasonably assume that it is going to be significantly more difficult for the incoming EP to conduct its business — starting, perhaps most notably, with the appointment of the new College of Commissioners due to take office on 1 November. This will not only not be good for Europe generally, it will likely also fuel more euroscepticism and, therefore, threaten a further rise in populist nationalism which, in the absence of a persuasive ‘antidote’, could lead to some dramatic outcomes in the 2021/22 national election cycle.

Alastair Newton