In a recent article Jean Pisani-Ferry called for the emergence of new EU political groupings that go beyond the traditional left-right competition and offer voters clear choices on issues like economic openness, Europe and immigration. A close associate of Emmanuel Macron, Pisani-Ferry is arguing explicitly for the transposition of the strategy of the French president, who overcame the traditional centre-right and centre-left divide and emerged as the main adversary of the populist radical right in France, to the whole of the EU.
Pisani-Ferry is rightly influenced by Macron’s success in winning an election by running on an avowedly pro-EU platform, and he is right that a realignment in European politics is needed. He is wrong, however, to think that it should be between, as he puts it, those who ‘uphold or reject the open economy and open society’. Instead, what European politics needs is a change in how established political families of the centre-right and centre-left address the issues of European integration and national sovereignty.
While Pisani-Ferry’s call for EU politics to represent new divides in European societies sounds appealing, it misunderstands the purpose of party politics in two ways. First, political parties’ traditional function is not just to represent voters, but also to absorb social cleavages in a way that societal change does not turn into political disruption and irreconcilable partisanship. To use the example of the two major British parties’ divisions over Brexit that Pisani-Ferry cites, these intra-party divisions have, arguably, also kept the societal divide created by the EU referendum from feeding inter-party polarization and, perhaps, destabilizing the democratic regime in the UK.
Pisani-Ferry also underestimates the nuanced role of party politics in emerging multi-level polities. Historically, the primary divide during nation- or state-building is between supporters and opponents of integration. The goal of party politics in such cases is to neutralize this centre-periphery cleavage by imposing uniform political competition across the new polity that contests the political system’s policy outputs rather than its legitimacy. Pisani-Ferry’s call for European integration itself to become the main stake of European elections means instead that the EU would effectively run a referendum on its own existence every five years.
Despite these shortcomings, his critique is valuable because it highlights the complacency of the pro-European centre-right and centre-left in a period when they are squeezed by populism on the one side and the necessity of more integration on the other. In this context, mainstream party families must find ways to absorb within their ideological platforms popular concerns of the centre-periphery type – over national sovereignty, immigration etc. – so that they offer meaningful choice to voters about European issues. How could they achieve this?
The current competition between the centre-right and centre-left leaves many voters unrepresented. Social-democratic parties are unequivocal supporters of European integration even though large parts of their traditional working class following is weary of cultural openness and the dilution of national sovereignty. Centre-right parties, on the other hand, are trying to adapt to the relentless pressure of the far right on issues of immigration and cultural identity, while being forced to concede ground to the populists’ advocacy of national sovereignty as the solution to problems of security and community. This puts the centre-right, theoretically and (apart from the British Conservatives) still a pro-European party family, in a bind. Both these families need to be shrewder in absorbing the openness-closure divide in their competition.
On the one hand, the centre-left must give up the atavistic hope that social justice and redistribution can be realized on the supranational level, when it is clear that a great federal leap forward towards a fiscal union is not forthcoming. Instead, these parties should start speaking about how such goals can be realized at the national level if the EU’s intrusive rules and monitoring over national budgets loosen and more leeway for individual governments to perform welfare functions is created. In other words, the moderate left must emphasize again the link between socio-economic justice and sovereignty.
The centre-right on the other hand should re-claim the notion of ‘more Europe’ from the progressives who have monopolized it since the 1990s. Even though the EU can perform more effectively many of the functions populists and nationalists want to be returned to nation-states – from border protection to counter-terrorism – the identification of the EU with cosmopolitan values in recent years has created a values gap between it and vast parts of European societies. Instead of emulating populist themes on national sovereignty, the centre-right must defend a conception of a united Europe that satisfies the need of many Europeans for a sense of community in a globalized world.
Pisani-Ferry is right that European politics is in a period of flux and that politicians must adapt. It is important, however, to manage these changes in a way that does not play into populist narratives of polarization and crisis. In this, the established centre-left and centre-right political families have an important role to play if they exit their ideological comfort zones and accommodate popular concerns about sovereignty, community and security in their respective ideologies. Europe does not need a new realignment that would elevate populists to the status of one of the two poles of party competition. It needs the old alignment of left-right politics to rediscover its capacity to represent citizens’ concerns as European integration moves forward.
Angelos Chryssogelos is a research fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. He has held teaching and research positions at the LSE and King’s College London. He is an associate fellow of the Europe Programme of Chatham House.
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