As soon as European parliament election results rolled in on our TV screens on Sunday night, Labour Party activists, MPs and commentators were up in arms on Twitter discussing what the result means for our Brexit position. Labour performed badly and this was to be expected. Our campaign often felt lacklustre. From the moment the campaign strategy was conceived, there were big arguments around our lack of clarity on Brexit and our focus on national issues over which MEPs have no influence.
Activists were disappointed that Labour missed the opportunity to test a radical, socialist, internationalist campaign with the electorate. In an environment as polarised as these elections, simple messages of Remain or Leave won the day. This led to big gains for the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party at the expense of the two main parties, who are seen as responsible for the mess we are in.
Britain will conduct its election post-mortem mainly through the lens of our own national struggles. But across the Channel, Europe’s power players are gearing up for the next big fight: who will fill the top spots of the European institutions?
The European People’s Party, the group of centre-right MEPs, won the most seats. But at 179 seats – compared to 216 in 2014 – it’s far from a showing of strength. The centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) won 150 seats, down from 187, while the liberal centrist coalition ALDE (which now includes Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche) comes in third at 108 seats, followed by the Greens’ 68 seats. Right-wing populist parties, not yet organised in a coherent political group, are set to win 115 seats between them.
The discussions around who will be the next Commission President could be tense. Udo Bullman, the German MEP leading the S&D group in the European parliament, has already claimed that the EPP does not have the political capital to lead the EU and the Commission any longer. Liberals also demand negotiations take place to create a “robust majority way beyond the partisan lines” rather than simply giving Manfred Weber the top job as the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat.
Labour’s performance in these elections is even more tragic when looking at the close gap between EPP and S&D votes. Had we built on our poll lead at the start of the campaign and delivered a resounding majority, we could have helped to tip the balance for a social democratic leadership. During the scramble for power that will play out over the next few weeks, socialists and grassroots activists in Labour who want to fight for a progressive Europe must think about where to go next in light of that failure.
Interestingly, voter turnout across the EU for these elections was recorded at over 50% – the highest turnout in at least 20 years. Brexit might have had an unexpected knock-on effect, both in Britain and across Europe. Certainly in the UK, one of the unexpected side-effects of Brexit was the politicalisation of a population that has not taken a big interest in the EU or its institutions in the past. British politicians rarely spoke about Europe in the same way as, for example, German or French leaders routinely do. It was always thought of as a trade block, sometimes a hindrance, not a worthwhile political project.
But since Brexit, public discourse is focussed on the merits of a customs union or the single market, state aid rules and, more fundamentally, where power lies in European institutions. While anti-EU sentiment has hardened, manifesting itself via support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and calls for no deal, Britain now also has a real European movement – perhaps for the first time in the history of its membership. This is an opportunity for socialists to galvanise.
Although the far-right and similar anti-EU populist parties have not performed as well as some feared ahead of the elections, they remain a significant force in the European parliament, performing particularly well in countries such as France, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
Some of these parties have changed their tune on the EU. There had been discussions of pushing for their own versions of Brexit, but watching the UK fail so miserably in their attempt to leave has prompted a rethink. Leaders like Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen now want to use European institutions to advance their political agendas, rather than break up the EU.
In a way, this is both more dangerous and more complex. An EU led by far-right forces will undoubtedly inflict pain and suffering on vulnerable people, oppress minorities and women and intensify anti-Muslim and anti-refugee “Fortress Europe” policies. We don’t yet know whether they can be successful in forming a coherent parliamentary group, given that it will be difficult to unite nationalists across the continent with different priorities behind a set of political goals.
But this must serve as a wake-up call to the left. Especially in Britain, whether Lexiteers or soft Brexit advocates, the concept of building transnational alliances to take on European institutions and change the lives of millions of people across the continent is often denounced as a fantasy exercise. It is deemed utopian and far less realistic than delivering a “good” Brexit along Labour’s red lines and then enacting socialist policies in this country.
Yet if we leave the institutions of the EU up for grabs for the far right, they will seize the opportunity for change. Britain may well be out by then – but if some were already concerned by a socialist Britain on the edge of a neoliberal EU, the threat to British socialism a far-right EU would pose is even greater.
What we need to do now is unite progressive forces across the continent and build up from these elections to a transnational, socialist left. Our MEPs, of course, already work with colleagues in the S&D group. But we need to move from parliament to grassroots and workers’ struggle, too.
If Labour’s reaction to the results is to shift towards a second referendum and remain position, it is paramount that reform is at its heart. The work to build a grassroots European left must be the immediate priority.