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The Green Wave: EU Elections Reveal Cultural Clash

In last month’s EU elections, green parties surged for the first time ever. Long derided as “single-issue” parties, they emerged from backbencher obscurity, in some countries taking second place. This unprecedented green success came at the expense of the center-left, as well as the socialist “old left,” which in some countries, such as Germany, nearly collapsed. Greens finished in second place in Germany, and third place in Ireland, France, and Finland. They even finished ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party in the UK. Political winds are changing, and a new European politics may be struggling to be born.

The Center Cannot Hold

For much of the 20th century, the European electorate had been fractured along economic lines. Left-of-center parties—such as the UK’s Labour Party or the socialists throughout Scandinavia—relied on labor interests, such as working-class trade unions, for support, while right-of center parties drew their votes from the more fiscally conservative middle classes. 

But in recent years, European politics have been dealinging from class divisions, towards divisions within culture and identity. Take Brexit, for instance: neither the governing Conservative Party nor the opposition Labour Party have coherent party positions on the matter. Both parties’ membership runs the gamut from hard-Brexiteers to Remainers who back a “People’s Vote” to possibly reverse Brexit altogether. The lines which traditionally separated the two major parties—the Conservatives largely representing the landowning middle- and upper-classes while Labour advocated for the working class and pensioners—simply did not map to the overbearing political issue in the contemporary United Kingdom: the question of Brexit. Instead, new lines have been drawn in the UK: the more traditionally-reminded Leave camp, and the mostly cosmopolitan Remain camp.

Such party instability is now common throughout Europe. “Old left” parties, such as the UK’s Labour or Germany’s Social Democrats, are haemorrhaging support from their traditional base. As globalization continues to erode blue collar job prospects throughout the postindustrial West, traditional bastions of labor power—and leftist politics—such as trade unions are being weakened in kind. With this trend, working-class voting blocs throughout Europe are leaving the old left in droves, often supporting anti-immigration and neo-traditional rightist populist parties instead. In response to this, many old left parties have frantically adopted anti-EU and anti-immigrant policy planks, alienating many of their younger, urban supporters in the process.

Meanwhile, some center-right parties have been nearly decimated by the fragmentation of their traditional base, as their traditionally-minded supporters split off to the populist camp, while their more cosmopolitan faction tends towards unequivocally pro-EU centrist parties. In the UK, for example, the Conservative Party finished in a stunning fifth place behind the Brexit Party, the pro-EU centrist Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the Greens.

A True Opposition?

The rise of far-right populists in Europe over the last few years has captivated the media as the likes of Viktor Orbán peddle ethnic nationalism, and the Kafkaesque listlessness of Brexit continues its tortured march. But now, there are signs of a new development in European politics: the rise of a true opposition to the far right seen in the greens.

Nowhere was this more on display than in Germany, where the Greens surged to a stunning second place, netting over 20% of the vote. Support for the first-place party, the reigning centrist Christian Democrats, fell by around six points, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ticked upwards from 7% in 2014, to 11%. Caught between the pincer of a Green surge and a populist emergence, the Social Democratic Party cratered from a strong second place to a distant third place, their vote share nearly halved.

In the run-up to the election, Green party leadership confronted the AfD much more directly than any other party. On the national stage, prominent Greens explicitly called out AfD politicians for racism and Islamophobia in speeches to parliament and on their website, whereas the Social Democrats attempted to appease conservative voters by adopting stricter immigration policies. What’s more, the Greens criticized the Social Democrats for taking insufficient action on climate change, loudly endorsing the school climate strike campaign of teen activist Greta Thunberg. As a result, the Social Democrats bled support from younger, liberal, cosmopolitan urbanites defecting to the Greens, while they failed to reverse the drift of their traditional working-class bloc to the AfD. 

The result was political realignment: though Germany’s peculiarly indigenous centrist consensus continued its (albeit weakened) reign, the main rift in German politics is increasingly cultural, rather than economic. It is no longer a fight between redistributionist socialists or pro-market liberals; rather it is a clash between cosmopolitans and traditionalists.

A Danish Counterfactual

As Germany’s neighbor to the north proves, however, all is not lost for the old left. Danish politics, too, had been gripped by the immigration debate spurred by the 2015 migration crisis. And in 2014, the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP) had surged to a commanding first place in the Danish EU elections, scoring 27% of the vote. However, this cycle the DPP’s support collapsed to 11%, a fourth-place showing. What happened?

What did not work for the Social Democrats in Germany worked for mainstream political parties in Denmark, both centrist and leftist. Mainstream parties adopted more restrictive immigration policies, and voters listened: the centrist Venstre party jumped from third place to first, and the Social Democrats maintained a close second. Denmark did witness a moderate green surge, but their Greens only slightly improved on their vote share—coming a distant third ahead of the DPP—and did so not at the expense of the liberal center, nor the old left. 

Soon after, the far-right’s woes would continue. On June 5th, Danish voters ushered the Social Democrats into power in their national elections, and gave the liberal Venstre party a surprisingly strong, close second-place performance. The DPP, meanwhile, collapsed from a second-place position of 21% of the vote to a mere 9%, nearly at the level of radical centrist and green parties.

Looking Ahead

The Danish national elections provide an intriguing chaser to the events of last month’s EU elections. Two European giants, the UK and Germany, are undergoing torturous political realignments centered on the tectonic fights of the day: Remain vs. Leave, cosmopolitanism vs. traditionalism, liberal pan-Europeanism vs. nationalist Euroscepticism. Denmark, meanwhile, simply witnessed its pro-EU political establishment as adopting more conservative stances to reflect shifting views on immigration, thus deflating the DPP by denying them a monopoly on the question of migration (a strategy favored by the likes of David Frum ‘82). Why this rightward tack did not work for the German Social Democrats is an open question, but it seems to have worked fascinatingly well for the Danes. The question becomes, then, whether Denmark is an outlier in a surging sea of green, or if it is the green surge itself that is an aberration.