Why Europe’s Progressives Shouldn’t Mourn The EU’s Latest Election

A poster on a van in front of the European Commission ahead of the Parliament vote CREDIT: AP PHOTO/YVES LOGGHE
A poster on a van in front of the European Commission ahead of the Parliament vote CREDIT: AP PHOTO/YVES LOGGHE

Much of the media coverage of last weekend’s European Parliament elections read like obituaries, focusing as they have on the rise of an anti-European populism and the political uncertainty this has created across the continent.

On the right, the most notable developments are in France and the UK, where the National Front (NF) and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) both won the largest share of the vote. On the left, the growing strength of a harder, anti-European left can be discerned across the South, with their hopes being carried by the victory of Greece’s Syrizia Party. The electoral successes of these groups have caused what many commentators have termed a political “earthquake”. While upsetting both progressives and conservatives, it seems that national progressive leaders have come under the most pressure.  In France, National Front Leader Marine Le Pen has called on President Francois Hollande to resign — sparking an emergency cabinet meeting. In the UK, Ed Miliband was being pressured both to match the Conservative Party’s pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership — presumably in order to prevent Labour further hemorrhaging working class support — and to change the Party’s economic strategy heading into the 2015 parliamentary elections. And in Ireland and Spain, Eamon Gilmore and Alfredo Rubalcaba have already resigned.  At the European level, the picture is not much brighter. Once again, the conservative European Peoples Party constitutes the largest group within the parliament. This will place enormous pressure on the European Council to accept their candidate for President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker. If this happens, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains the dominate force in European Council meetings, then one can effectively argue that conservatives preside over all three branches of governance in the European Union. So, is all lost for progressive politics in Europe? Perhaps not. On closer inspection, here’s a few reasons why a new generation of progressive leaders might provide a silver lining: 1. Progressives had a stronger showing that you’d think.


Despite the relative poor performance of the progressive movement as a whole, the two strongest results came from modernizing progressives in office, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Romania’s Victor Ponta. Renzi and Ponta are, coincidentally, the two youngest prime ministers in office. In Italy, the Democratic Party received over 40 percent of the vote, while in Romania, the Social Democrats gained over 37 percent. These are historically unprecedented levels of support, even more impressive given they were attained by incumbents . Progressives considering how best to respond to the populist wave, then, are likely better served examining the positive lessons from these experiences rather than debating how best to mimic their new populist opponents. 2. The vote could show other leaders the need for an aggressive economic agenda at home — one that sends a hopeful, positive, value-driven vision. Since taking office just over a year ago, Ponta has pursued an aggressive modernization agenda, but one that also seeks to make the economy work for all, rather than the few at the top. As a result, Romanian growth rates are also now the highest in the European Union, with World Bank estimates as high as 3.0 percent for 2014. Similarly, Renzi has begun to drive through radical change in Italy. In the three short months he has been in government, his tax breaks for the poorest Italians, his reforms to the labour markets and measures to re-ignite small businesses have seen the economy bounce back and government borrowing rates fall. Progressives across Europe would do well to learn from their example. 3. Politics could take on a new, more open face among progressives as a result. In his victory during the Democratic Party primaries, Renzi’s campaign was characterized by the sophisticated use of social media and online campaigning to reach beyond traditional voter groups. Since taking office, this trend has continued, with Renzi appointing a prominent progressive blogger — Filipo Sensi — as his director of communications. Ponta, too, has sought to build new structures to extend the parties appeal. Only last month, Ponta launched a new political forum within the Social Democratic Party, led by Ana Birchall, with the specific goal of generate new policy ideas and new ways of engaging the public. When I asked him what explained his success this weekend, he was clear: “we have created a 21st century party.”


Other leaders can — and should — seize the opportunity to build new progressive coalitions within the electorate based on the model the Italian and Romanian leaders have put forward. Renzi’s and Ponta’s new economic agendas, combined with their modern approaches to doing politics, has allowed them both to build new electoral coalitions that previous generations of Italian and Romanian politicians have been unable to reach. As such, both can thus tackle headed-on the anti-elite and anti-European populism that pre-dominates and thrives in other context. The challenge facing today’s progressives’ remains the same as it was following their defeat in the 2009 European elections. At that time, John Halpin, Ruy Teixeira and I argued there was an urgent need to develop a convincing economic narrative, embracing a more open politics, and building new electoral coalitions. We must hope that the next five years sees a more committed attempt to rise to this challenge.