Chris Mills Rodrigo – EU Elections Show Why the Left Can’t Win by Running Rightward

The left should focus on an agenda which appeals to the working class.

Chris Mills Rodrigo is the managing editor of

Cross-posted from Common Dreams

Picture by Antoine Moens de Hase

The recent European Parliamentary elections went poorly for the region’s leftist parties, to say the least.

All across the continent, socialist, worker, and environmentalist parties—many of which had risen from the ashes of the Eurozone crisis—lost ground as far-right authoritarian parties picked up new support.

The Greens, primary architects of the European Union’s ambitious Green Deal, lost 19 seats of the 70 they had secured in a triumphant 2019 election. And while the Left coalition in parliament actually gained two seats to control 39 of the 720 available, the country-by-country results paint a darker picture.

In my native Spain, Podemos only managed a meager 3.3% of the vote, down from over 10% at their apex in 2019. Syriza, which briefly turned Greece into an epicenter of the European left, only pulled in 14.7% support, a far cry from their first place finish at nearly 24% in 2014.

And in France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party beat the field so badly that President Emanuel Macron called snap parliamentary elections.

The overall results of the European Parliamentary elections—where millions of citizens across the European Union’s 27 member states voted to fill one of the bloc’s three legislative bodies—actually went slightly better than some observers feared. The moderate coalition of the conservative European People’s Party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the weakened liberal Renew Europe party looks poised to maintain leadership, although the far right’s influence over the body undoubtedly grew.

The two far-right groups in parliament—Giorgia Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists Party and Marine Le Pen’s more eurosceptic Identity and Democracy party—gained a combined 16 seats. Although an alliance is not on the horizon as of now with the two parties differing over the role of the E.U., together their bloc would nearly match the center left coalition.

And that’s not counting Alternative for Germany (AfD) which, despite being kicked out of Le Pen’s coalition after a leader suggested that Nazi SS officers were not necessarily criminals, placed second in Germany ahead of Prime Minister Olaf Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats.

After a setback of this magnitude, a period of reflection and restrategizing will no doubt take place. But as they grapple with a rising far right, the last thing Europe’s leftist parties should do is shift to the right themselves.

How can leftists in Europe beat back the rise of the anti-immigrant, ethnonationalist right and wrest power from centrist parties that are already pledging to weaken climate commitments? Present a unified front, energize new voters, and resist the temptation to soften their positions.

Presenting a United Front

The story of the left in Europe over the past decade is one headlined by infighting and fragmentation.

Spain’s Podemos, the left-wing faction borne out of the anti-austerity “15-M protests” starting in 2011, has faced several fractures since performing well enough to form part of the ruling coalition. The split offof Más Madrid, the marriage and subsequent divorce from Izquierda Unida, and the formation of the new progressive coalition Sumar have all resulted in Spanish voters not having a clear leftist option at the ballot.

In Germany, former parliamentary co-speaker and representative from the leftist Die Linke party Sahra Wagenknecht broke away to launch her own party with a more nationalist-populist appeal. That left Die Linke scrambling to survive and opened the door for the AfD to be one of the only viable options for voters outside of the political mainstream.

People can still be motivated to participate in politics when presented with compelling reasons.

There are often legitimate disagreements between leftist parties. But working through those without breaking off into separate factions will almost certainly put the left in a stronger position.

France provides a compelling example for that strategy. Following Macron’s call for snap elections, the country’s Socialists, Greens, Communists, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s progressive La France Insoumise party have come together to form the Nouveau Front Populaire, a coalition that despite internal differences has a common program.

Early returns on that joint bid are promising—although Le Pen’s party is polling in first place on around 31%, the new front is only a few percentage points behind. Macron’s Renaissance party is polling a distant 10 points behind.

The French case also shows that despite poor turnout in the European elections—roughly 50% of the over 400 million eligible voters in the continent cast ballots—people can still be motivated to participate in politics when presented with compelling reasons. Over a quarter million people—or closer to 700,000, according to the labor unions—flooded the streets of France after the elections to make their voices heard against the looming threat of the right.

As Sophie Binet, leader of the left-wing CGT union which helped lead the protests, said, “It’s our responsibility to build the popular wave that will block the far right.”

Sticking to Principles

The left has historically had success mobilizing those that are frustrated with the political system—and they should be unwilling to cede those potential voters to the far right. But neither can Europe’s leftist parties fall into the trap of shifting right themselves to steal a handful of votes from other parties.

As Manon Aubry, the co-chair of the Left group in the European Parliament, toldJacobin, “We spent too much time trying to protect ourselves from the reactionary agenda. We should also be offensive.”

One issue that Aubry suggests leftists could make a bigger wedge out of? Reining in out of control wealth concentration. A “tax the rich” agenda, she explained in the same interview, can inspire “most of the people who suffer from the increase of prices: The superrich have never been so rich, this is time to say stop to that.”

Instead of accommodating the right, Europe’s leftist parties should take their largely disappointing results this month as an opportunity to refocus on the core issues that matter to the working class. 

To the contrary, shifting to the right in the face of growing authoritarianism can actually end up boosting that movement.

In a study published in 2022, researchers found that accommodating the far right on an issue like immigration—the unifying enemy of Europe’s right—does nothing to tamper its rise and can even help it grow. “By legitimizing a framing that is associated with the radical right, mainstream politicians can end up contributing to its success,” the researchers wrote in The Guardian.

Even if triangulating could work in the short term, would it be worth it? Seeing as the European Parliament’s center right party, emboldened by the newly more conservative makeup of the body, has already pledged to do away with a key pillar of the European Green Deal—banning the sale of combustion engines starting in 2035—the answer seems to be no.

There are several cases around Europe which show that sticking to positions can pay off electorally.

Take a look at Denmark, where the Social Democrats led by current prime minister Mette Frederiksen have adopted increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the decade since the far-right Danish People’s Party burst onto the scene. They finished behind the first-place Socialist People’s Party in this month’s elections.

France again shows this dynamic of centrist parties tightening their stances on immigration yet failing to break voters away from the far right—the showing of Macron’s Renaissance party was more than doubled up by Le Pen’s party despite Macron signing an immigration bill almost copied from her.

One of the biggest surprises of the election came in Finland, where the socialist Left Alliance pulled in 17.3% of the vote running on a platform that party leader Li Andersson described as combining “ambitious environmental and climate policy with the traditional themes of the Left: workers’ rights, investment in welfare services, equal distribution of income.”

The electoral gains of the Workers Party of Belgium and Austrian Communist Party in this election are further proof of the value of focusing on core working-class issues.

There’s Nothing Inevitable About the Far Right

While the rise of the authoritarian right in Europe has been alarming, it is by no means guaranteed. But if the centrist coalition that has held down leadership of the bloc for decades keeps shifting rightward on key issues like immigration and climate, it risks losing—or else helping the far right achieve its goals without even having to win itself.

Instead of accommodating the right, Europe’s leftist parties should take their largely disappointing results this month as an opportunity to refocus on the core issues that matter to the working class. By doubling down on principles and putting aside minor differences to present a unified front, the left can provide a tangible, substantively different answer to the rise of fascism on the continent.

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