Is the European centre collapsing?

17 October 2021

8:00 PM

17 October 2021

8:00 PM

There’s a growing tension in the European bloc between those unhappy with Brussels’s increasing interventionism and by those who feel the EU does not intervene enough. The biggest casualty in this escalating conflict could well be the centre-right which, until now, has largely held the fractured bloc together.

It’s been a tough few weeks for the European People’s Party, the biggest political group in the European parliament. The group is now preparing for the departure of its long-time talisman Angela Merkel from frontline politics. Merkel’s CDU was the bedrock of the EPP, but now it appears that Germany will be run by the Social Democrats, who are members of the overtly integrationist Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European parliament.

Meanwhile in neighbouring Austria, the bright young thing of the European centre-right, Sebastian Kurz, has resigned following allegations of corruption. Kurz is accused of using taxpayers’ money to pay for a pollster to produce favourable results. The downfall of a politician who was able to sympathise with the concerns Visegrád Four countries had about European integration, yet who was also palatable to pro-EU forces, is a major blow for those who believe the bloc’s differences can be solved through dialogue rather than punishment and recrimination.

Amid this turmoil, EPP figures are becoming increasingly concerned about their declining support in national elections across Europe. The group previously controlled all of the EU’s biggest countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. If the SPD comes to power in Germany, the group won’t control any of the ‘Big Five’ European countries.

Support is draining from the EPP on both flanks. On the right are parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, Italy’s Lega and France’s National Rally. All object to greater EU integration. In July, these parties and others signed a joint declaration calling for fundamental reform of the EU because ‘instead of protecting Europe and its heritage, it is itself becoming a source of problems and anxiety.’

The declaration cited Brussels’s ‘moralistic overactivity’ resulting in ‘a dangerous tendency to impose an ideological monopoly.’ These parties believe the EU’s attempts to influence domestic policies on migration, LGBT+ rights and, more recently, controversial legal reform in Poland, exhibit the bloc’s domineering – even imperial – tendency. There has even been exploratory discussions on the establishment of a new right-wing European parliament group to counter the EU’s expansion.

Ranked against them are many in Brussels for whom the EU’s agglomeration of more powers is an appealing prospect.

On the left, the Socialists and Democrats – the second largest European Parliament group – have called for ‘less talk and more action’ on the rule of law, an ‘EU LGBTI strategy to end discrimination,’ and a ‘permanent mandatory relocation mechanism’ for migrants arriving in the EU. These ideas cause the bloc’s more conservative members to recoil with horror.

Caught in the middle of this fight are those who used to consider themselves centrist. The bloc has become a battleground of absolutist rhetoric: if you’re not for the EU, you are against it. ‘You can’t be in the EU only a little bit,’ said a former Polish constitutional court judge after the country’s recent ruling on the primacy of national law. But does that mean ex-Communist states who joined the EU for primarily economic reasons now have to submit themselves to shared standards of culture and governance?

The departure of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party from the EPP earlier this year demonstrated the shrinking horizons of the European centre. Orbán’s calls for an EU without moral activism meant he was outside the EPP’s ideological boundaries. The EPP is no longer a broad enough church to contain Orbán’s EU-scepticism. Instead, its members want the EU to continue on its current trajectory and are only slightly less integrationist than progressive groups in parliament.

The centre ground risks becoming a no man’s land.

The collapse of the centre-right could have serious repercussions if a vital link between Eurosceptic forces and progressives is severed. Last year’s bitter standoff over the ‘rule of law’ mechanism for EU funds was only resolved through the intervention of Merkel, who has always been wary of the serious economic consequences of a Hungarian or Polish departure from the EU.

That bridge between the EU’s two factions is growing weaker, and with the EPP losing control in Germany, could well collapse. Without the anchoring effect of a strong centre, polarised extremes could well tear the bloc apart.

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