The European right is in retreat

·6 min read
European politicians.
European politicians. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

For several years after the 2008 financial crisis, it seemed that any brand of European lefty party, from socialist to milquetoast liberal, was on the road to extinction. Center-right or even far-right parties dominated elections from the Nordics to Hungary. The one high-profile success on the left, Greece's Syriza, was mercilessly crushed by European Union technocrats in 2015.

But today, conservative parties are struggling and the broad left is showing signs of strength across Europe. It's a tentative sign that the far-right extremism fueled by the 2008 economic crisis is running into its limits.

In Germany, for instance, recent elections saw the center-right Union party alliance (CDU/CSU) turn in the worst performance since its founding in 1949, with just 24 percent of the vote and 196 seats in the Bundestag — beaten outright by center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which got 26 percent and 206 seats, their best performance since 2002. The Green Party had its best-ever result at 15 percent, while the centrist Liberals increased slightly to 12 percent. Further out parties lost on both sides — the far-right Alternative for Germany fell two points to 10 percent, while the Left Party had its worst showing since it was founded in 2007, not even reaching 5 percent.

Coalition talks are underway, but it is reportedly likely that there will be a "stop light" coalition between the SPD, the Greens, and the Liberals. If true, that would mean the first non-conservative German chancellor since Angela Merkel first won in 2005.

In Norway, by contrast, recent elections saw a decisive defeat of the incumbent conservative coalition, but while the center-left Labor Party got the most votes (at 26 percent), it actually lost one percentage point of support compared to 2017. The real change was collapse on the right and a rise of alternatives: the Conservative Party lost five points and nine seats, and the far-right, anti-immigrant Progress Party lost four points and six seats. Meanwhile, the Centre Party (a euroskeptic agrarian party) gained three points and nine seats; the Socialist Left Party gained two points and three seats; and the far-left Red Party gained three points and seven seats.

Coalition talks between Labor and the left parties broke down over disagreements over oil, climate, and taxes, and presently Labor leader Jonas Gahr Støre has formed a minority government with the Centre Party. But he will need other parties' support to pass any laws, and will no doubt be governing with one eye looking over his left shoulder.

The story in Norway is broadly similar to the 2019 elections in Denmark and Finland, when the ruling center-right coalitions were defeated thanks to a surge of support for various center-left and socialist parties. Conservatives are now out of government in every Nordic country.

Other elections complicate the story somewhat. In the Czech Republic the right-wing blowhard Prime Minister Andrej Babis recently lost narrowly against a coalition of center-left and center-right parties. Babis — who explicitly modeled himself on Donald Trump to the point of producing his own trucker hat with a slogan of "Strong Czechia" — tried to win by whipping up deranged anti-immigrant xenophobia, but his feckless governance and manifest corruption helped bring him down. It was more support for democracy in general and a reaction against a spectacularly crooked far-right demagogue than a surge for the center-left Pirate Party that finished him. Nevertheless, it still counts as a move away from the right.

All these countries have their own national peculiarities, and of course I am no expert. But one can still point to two developments that have undoubtedly had a powerful effect in every European country: the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. As I have previously written, after the financial crisis, Europe suffered under hegemonic austerity politics that created an economic lost decade. The U.S. did quite badly after the crisis economically, but Europe did far, far worse — the eurozone grew about half as much as America, and countries like Greece and Spain suffered a Great Depression-scale catastrophe. That was fuel for the far right: One study of over 800 elections found that after such a crisis, far-right parties surge in popularity by 30 percent. "After a crisis, voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners," write authors Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch. Studies of Greece and the U.K. found austerity directly causes increases in right-wing sentiment.

However, the pandemic seems to have cracked the austerian consensus. Countries were simply forced to borrow and spend hugely to keep their economies on ice during the pandemic, and later the European Union created a giant investment and stimulus fund to help kick-start economic recovery. Now, despite some early snags in vaccine distribution, Europe's superior welfare states have allowed every Western European country to far surpass the U.S. in vaccination, and most of Eastern Europe is catching up fast.

After 2008, a crisis afflicting all of Europe was catastrophically mishandled, and problems were unfairly pinned on helpless scapegoats like Greece. The result was economic disaster, political chaos, and a rise in right-wing extremism. But in 2020, a similarly-broad crisis was approached with a reasonable amount of continent-wide solidarity. Every country in the E.U. got at least modest help, helping to discredit the nationalist xenophobia of right-wing parties.

As compared to 2016, when the appalling economic performance of the eurozone helped fuel the Brexit vote, today E.U. membership is looking like a much more appealing proposition (as Britain suffers from terrible supply problems no less).

Now, this is not any kind of socialist electoral wave. Most of the victorious parties are moderate social democrats at most — parties supporting modest investment, job creation, and welfare policies rather than aggressive reforms. Still, as Danish socialist politician Pelle Dragsted explains, the Nordics (long the heartland of democratic socialism) have seen a resurgence of genuine left-wing parties. That may prove influential beyond their borders, as it has in the past.

It remains to be seen whether conservative forces can regroup. Upcoming elections in France (where a far-right fanatic is surging in popularity), Poland (where former president Donald Tusk is gearing up to fight the ruling far-right Law and Justice Party), and Hungary (where virtually the entire political spectrum has united against right-wing quasi-dictator Viktor Orbán) will test the proposition.

Let us hope that the mistakes of 2008-12 can be undone, European democracy can be revitalized, and the continent can get the economic recovery it should have gotten 12 years ago.

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