This article is a preview of the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The town musicians of Bremen are riling a crowd of voters gathered in the market square.
A rapper freestyles in German, grasping for something to rhyme with “Europe is the Future,” to the gray-haired crowd. He is joined by Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chair Andrea Nahles and their top European parliamentary candidate, Katarina Barley. On the sidelines, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas shakes hands and takes selfies with constituents before the towering 15th-century city hall. Inside, one room is plated with gold, though the city of about a half-million is 22 billion euros in debt following the Great Recession.
Bremen, a union stronghold, has gone Social Democrat for 73 years. But the city-state was to fall behind Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party for the first time this spring. (And, with Merkel stepping down from the chancellorship, the CDU is already lurching rightward.) Voting took place the last weekend of May—as Theresa May announced her resignation from the British premiership and as 28 European countries voted to determine the shape of the European Parliament and, by extension, the union’s future.
Across the continent, many had anticipated further gains for far-right parties that masquerade in populism but spit raw racism. Thankfully, the so-called populist surge has been halted for the moment.
The elections offer a tale of two markedly different social democratic results: good in Spain and Portugal, and three of the Nordic countries now have left-led governments. The left recovered in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Labor Party had been comatose, and in national elections the Danish Social Democrats wrested control from the ruling liberal party and served a decisive defeat to the xenophobic Danish People’s Party.
But for socialist or social democratic parties in the largest member nations—Germany, France, and the U.K.—it was a wipeout. In the German EU elections, the Social Democrats came in third with 16 seats, running behind the conservative European People’s Party (29) and the Greens (24 seats). Nahles, the party chair, resigned. In France, the Socialists barely fielded a candidate list. And in Britain, Labour placed third.
Much of the continent-wide debate focused on the global climate emergency, which spelled success for greens. Left-green alliances are possible in several countries. So has the left recuperated across Europe—or simply bottomed out?
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY system is convoluted, a meta-multiparty affair with 751 representatives—difficult even for the union’s biggest cheerleaders to articulate. Voters view these as second-tier elections. The far left dismisses the EU as a neoliberal project, the right considers it anti-nationalist, and the center has been inept at defending it—assisted by the European Commission’s stubborn austerity policies, which make it far harder to embrace. “Explaining why the European Union is important to voters takes three minutes,” an SPD legislator told me. The anti-EU message of Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD Party, “takes two seconds.”
At both the German and EU levels, this was a referendum on Brexit. Outside of the U.K., the rejoinder was: No, we don’t want to go—with about 50 percent voter turnout across the EU, better than the 43 percent turnout in 2014 and the highest in 20 years. In Germany, a high 61.5 percent of voters showed up.
“The British experience taught us that leaving the EU is not such a good idea,” one Hamburg father told me while his children played in an inflatable jungle gym across the sidewalk. Like other voters I spoke with in Germany’s second city, he mentioned the freedom to travel among EU countries as a motivation for voting. As German parliamentary candidate Katarina Barley noted, some 200,000 people pass between France, Belgium, and Luxembourg each day.
From the podium in Bremen, seasoned SPD parliamentarian Udo Bullmann addressed the migration crisis with a moral appeal: “Every refugee that drowns, a piece of Europe’s soul dies, too.” The crowd applauded in support of protecting migrants. He added that Orban’s Hungary and Duda’s Poland wouldn’t be eligible to join the EU if they had applied today.
All told, the Euroskeptic bloc called Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group got 44 seats. The very far-right European Alliance of People and Nations, which includes Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally, received 73. However, the center-right European People’s Party grouping received 179 to the Socialists’ 152.
Fears of the far right persist, but the biggest threat is a familiar face: the American president. “We don’t have an ally in the White House … We see Mr. Trump looking at the world as his business model,” Bullmann told me. He emphasized the need for labor laws and standards that push back against the monopoly power of tech giants and international companies. As Bremen’s old church bells rang, Bullmann, a former academic who had just quoted Habermas, paused for a selfie with a father and daughter.
“The story that social democrats can’t win elections is totally wrong,” he told me, pointing to socialists’ April victory in Spain, while also expressing concern about how a shaky center-left coalition in the European Parliament could end up empowering fringe parties and spoilers. A week later, the European Parliament’s socialist bloc would put Bullmann forward as its potential leader.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS weighed heavily on the minds of many voters I spoke with, borne out with the success of the Greens: They came in second in Germany, third in France, and placed fourth in the U.K., giving the Green bloc 76 seats, or about 10 percent of the European Parliament. Even Germany’s pro-business libertarian Free Democratic Party prioritized the climate crisis in their public messaging.
The grand coalition of center-right and center-left in many countries and in the European Parliament, bringing together the SPD with the conservatives, has undermined the social democrats’ appeal among young people. Meanwhile, the spread of small, ineffectual political protest and the presence of nondemocratic parties has hollowed out the center. One student in Hamburg told me he was anxious about Europe’s fracturing, and—weirdly—that’s why he was voting for the satirical party Die Partei. The German tricksters will send two representatives to Brussels.
Walking through the exhibition “Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy” at Berlin’s German Historical Museum earlier in the week, I couldn’t help but consider the parallels between then and now. Though the economic situation in 2019 is not comparable to Germany after World War I, liberal politicians’ failure to save liberalism felt familiar.
And considering how the demonization of Jews was so integral to the rise of National Socialism, I kept dwelling on a statistic—of the reports of mounting anti-Semitic attacks in Germany, the far-right has been responsible for some 90 percent of them. But reading the news, it seems that Arab and Muslim migrants are to blame for everything. In Germany, Muslims had become the Jews of the early 20th century, humiliated by hate that they had not perpetuated.
Did fake news influence the election and promote xenophobia? Of all of Germany’s political parties, the AfD has the highest engagement on Facebook by a long shot. “The empirical data shows that right-wing extremists or populists are very good at this,” one cybersecurity analyst told me. In the end, however, experts say targeted foreign-influence campaigns didn’t play a major role in swaying European-wide balloting.
After the voting, it’s the European Commission president that is the most important role; the Greens and left parties would have to band together to ensure that the EC president is a relative progressive, but that seems a long shot. One straw in the wind is that French President Emmanuel Macron is opposing the EC presidential candidacy of Manfred Weber of the Merkel-aligned European People’s Party. Macron has said he might even accept a socialist, such as Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands.
Deepening fragmentation is not good for the EU and its political process. With proliferating parties, it’s impossible to have a strong program in most countries, which means that Europe’s default setting is the austerity consensus of the Germans, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. The question remains whether a disjointed center-left and green coalition can take on not only the extremist right in the European Parliament but also Trump on one flank and Euro-austerity on the other. A mainstream bloc of center-right, center-left, and green representatives still holds a commanding majority in the European Parliament, but they don’t agree on much except the status quo, which is unpalatable to more and more voters. For most Europeans, the EU is necessary, but it is far from sufficient.
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung) provided support for travel and accommodations in the EU for reporting used in this article.