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06 February 2024

Solve the Problem

Germans have been taking to the streets demonstrating against a far right party - the Alternative for Germany. The protests follow reports that some AfD members took part in a conspiratorial meeting to prepare for the mass expulsion of foreigners. I share the sentiment and the outrage against the vile Neo-Nazi organisers of that meeting. But I doubt that these demonstrations will have much of an effect. Remember the march of the one million in London against Brexit? The Brexit Marches are a warning that political battles are won at the ballot box. There is no point in demonstrating against the ballot box. 

The reasons for the rise of the far-right in Europe are the same everywhere: migration; de-industrialisation; opposition to Green policies; resistance to Metropolitan social and environmental values. In Germany, the AfD is now polling at 21 per cent. The new party of Sahra Wagenknecht, a well known politician of the hard left, is supported by 7 per cent. The total radical fringe makes up a third of the total.

At the European elections in June, the far-right is expected to make big gains almost everywhere. They will not "win" the elections in the classical sense. But according to analysis by European Council on Foreign Relations (https://ecfr.eu/publication/a-sharp-right-turn-a-forecast-for-the-2024-european-parliament-elections/) the two far right groups together will become approximately as big as the main centre-left block - the Socialists and Democrats, and the Greens. This power shift will have a huge impact on EU politics. The era of left-wing dominance in the EU is drawing to a close. 

In the European Parliament, the hard right is represented by two groups. One is the European Conservatives and Reformists, the Tories' old group. Its most prominent representative  Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, the leader of the Brothers of Italy. It also includes Poland's Law and Justice Party. The other party group is the far-right Identity and Democracy. It encompasses the AfD, Marine Le Pen's National Rally, Geert Wilders Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Matteo Salvini's Lega. 

The European Parliament does not have formal coalitions that form governments. It has shifting voting coalitions instead. For example, it may not affect who is going to be the next Commission president. The betting is on a second term for Ursula von der Leyen. Giorgia Meloni supports her, together with the centre-right, the European Peoples' Party. 

But the shift to the right will have a huge effect on the EU's political agenda. For starters, it will kill the EU's Green Deal, the prestige project of the current Commission. The most controversial part of the programme has been the nature restoration law. It passed last July with a narrow majority. The law forces countries to see aside 20 percent of their land and sea areas for nature restoration by 2030. It is one of the reasons for the farmers’ protests everywhere in Europe. They see it as a landscaping project forced upon them by people who live in cities. As with Brexit, the political conflict in the EU too is playing increasingly on political dividing lines between Metropolitan areas and the provinces. Under the ECFR projections, the Nature Restoration Law would not have passed. There would be a structural anti-Green majority in the European Parliament. 

The centre tends to respond to the right with outrage. It would be smarter for them to focus on the policies that have given rise to the far right. Here is my short to-do-list:

First of all: end austerity. Austerity is a political Doomsday machines at times of weak economic growth. Germany’s debt brake is the worst and least flexible of all of all the pro-cyclical fiscal rules in the EU. In theory, they should allow for counter-cyclical policies. In practice, it never works out like that. Governments always end up with austerity because this is the way of least resistance.

Second, deal with de-industrialisation in an adult manner. The governments of France and Germany are pretending it is not happening. They are trying to reverse it with massive subsidies for industrial companies that have no hope of ever becoming profitable again. Re-industrialisation is a promise the centre cannot keep and that will damage its credibility further. There are reasons why the advanced countries of the west are de-industrialising. What governments should do instead is to present a strategy for a post-industrial order. The entire tone of the debate has become far too defensive. Everybody talks about threats, very few talk about opportunities.

Third, grow realistic about Ukraine. As the US is dropping its financial and military support, the full brunt of the financial burden falls on the EU. In times of re-emerging fiscal constraints, Ukraine is a gift from heaven for the far-right. The EU should work on an exit strategy - other than total victory.

And finally, get serious about migration. Solve the problem. My own preference would be for a much much more active policy of engagement with Africa and the Middle East. I do not think that the EU can ever protect its porous maritime borders and mountainous passageways through force alone. 

What is happening right now is that the serial policy errors of the last decade - in energy policy, in industrial policies, in defence policies, and in the eurozone - are coming together. I see the strength of the far-right in Europe as a metric of policy failures in the centre. Brexit was not the result of bad people lying to stupid people but because the relationship between the UK and the EU had become unsustainable.

If you are really interested in defeating the far-right, maybe start by demonstrating against austerity. And solve the problem.

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