European elections: an off-ramp for today but we need to start preparing for 2029



Picture of Joe Elborn
Joe Elborn

Executive Director of the Evens Foundation

The biggest jumps in extremist party power in the European Parliament were between 2004-2009 and 2009-2014. Austerity and driving already vulnerable groups below the poverty line meant that many opted to reject the status quo. And while things continue to be grim for many, this year’s election results produced only a small increase in power for the extremists overall, mostly at the expense of the Greens. The numbers won’t shift politics much. We avoided just (by one seat!) a right to far-right on-paper majority, which takes away what would have been a big incentive for the extremes to coordinate more. There remains a thin but manageable firewall of about 39 seats between the traditional moderates and extremists. So we avoided disaster by a few percentage points (unless you are in the climate space). So we are ok. Right? I’m not so sure.

The fundamentals across Europe remain shaky. At best, we’ve bought ourselves breathing room for five years. But, we’ve got to make use of that time to fix what is broken. Unfortunately, with this polarised parliament and the thin margins, any big new ideas are likely dead on arrival. If I were von der Leyen I’d be making a publicly bland deal with the ‘grand coalition,’ a secret giveaway to Meloni and a warm enough public commitment to the Greens. None of it will be radical. Nor will it tackle the foundational problems. The very things Europe needs to do are probably prohibited in this arrangement which just turns up the heat for 2029.

At the centre point of all this is the fragmentation of communities across Europe

The first thing Europe probably won’t do: Fix our shaky economics (top-down)

We’ve not really sorted out our system since the 2008 economic crisis. We’ve been dancing from crisis to crisis since with our eyes closed. Our geopolitical position needs defending. We need to be more self-sufficient. We need a serious, new industrial strategy to create good, stable jobs – especially for young people. To do any of that, we need new ways of raising significant capital at the EU level to invest strategically and drive growth. This won’t be done with platitudes or the same old fixes. We know precarious economics is a prime driver of extreme voting, but with a weaker centre ground, getting anything transformative through will be a tall order. So that centre will continue to erode. In 2029 the heat will increase.

The second thing Europe probably won’t do: Fix our shaky communities (bottom-up)

Large swathes of people are fearful and uncertain. We see over 60% dissatisfaction levels with ‘democracy’. We see problems with loneliness and belonging. There is pervasive fearfulness of ‘others’ because of weakening social bonds. Trust in institutions is at an all-time low. There is an emerging mental health crisis. At the centre point of all this is the fragmentation of communities across Europe.

These underdressed issues profoundly upset the social fabric of Europe. Part online, part offline, wholly global and instant, we are in a new era of community. No one knows how to really reconnect us again. To re-inspire those important virtues of civic duty, pride and care. How do we create a new shared story like religion or the missions to the moon in the past? Without stronger social connections and glue, fragmentation will continue. That fragmentation is the petrol that powers extremists. In 2029 the heat will increase.

The more we accept there are multiple solutions to things and that we are not always right, the better the political space will become

So, we have five years to make strides toward fixing some of the fundamentals in order to turn down the heat. That is assuming we avoid the looming crisis points hovering overhead:

  • Economic shock: trade wars (looking at the US) and protectionism could easily tip our financial world into turmoil once again. Pension funds being a particularly vulnerable space with our ageing population. Economic turbulence would boost extremist votes quickly.
  • Migration shock: climate migration, plausibly by 2029, may create tipping points where we have France-type moves to the extreme.
  • Demographic shock: A lot of what is holding up the current status quo is significant moderate support by older people (60+). Under 25s in many countries are hugely dissatisfied and turning to extremes. As the over-60s get replaced by the under-25s the extremist wave looks likely to grow but there is also a possibility that young people en-masse reject the status quo due to a major event.
  • War shock: no one knows what will happen next in Russia’s war with the EU (let’s call it what it is). We only know that the situation feeds fear and uncertainty which drives extreme votes at local level, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

So what can we do? I realise the above is all a bit doom and gloom. Beyond our leaders taking steps to fix or prepare for the above, there are two smaller things we can all do:

  1. We can take small steps to de-polarise our wider politics. Set aside the bullshit hyper-moralised debate and accept that every moderate party has something to bring to the table, a valuable perspective. Parties are generally filled with good people trying to make the world a better place. We need to get out of the era of ‘demonising’ and find a way to cooperate more meaningfully. Instead of publicly attacking something, try picking up the phone to understand ‘why’ something was written or said. You’ll be surprised. When working on an issue, many agree on the big lines, it’s just different ‘hows’ that people have. Is that so bad? The more we accept there are multiple solutions to things and that we are not always right, the better the political space will become.
  2. We can embrace hope-based communications. Most people, rightly, don’t care about EU politics. They do, however, hear the problems and scandals. If we don’t give airtime to the positive, and give hope, then we just feed the system with fear. All of us in the bubble have trashed political compromises (myself included!). Let’s make a ritual of writing (genuinely!) positive press releases and stories as well as critical ones. Let’s humanise politicians and accept they are mostly working with positive intent and in good faith. Enemy and victim framing in our storytelling is a simple thing to choose not to do.

So, today, we need to set our sights on 2029. We need a collective effort within and without governments to alleviate the immiseration of large swathes of the population. We need a new way of working within and between moderate parties. The alternative will be the slow strengthening of extremist voices. Eventually, a crisis will hand them power. Then, all bets are off. We have an off-ramp for the next five years. Things are bad, but salvageable. Let’s resolve to take that opportunity.

This article is part of our European Elections #Voices4Choices campaign. Find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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