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Id Foundation

Towards the end of the left/right divide in Europe?

Every Monday morning, you can catch up with Raphaël Audouard, Director of the Identity and Democracy Foundation, on Ligne Droite, Radio Courtoisie’s morning show, and in his column on our website. This week, we look at the weakening of the left/right divide in Europe.


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The emergence of populist parties in Europe bears witness to the political upheaval underway in Europe. The traditional right/left divide is increasingly being challenged by the emergence of new political players focusing on new issues, including immigration and insecurity. However, these developments are taking place in different ways in different European countries.


Central and Eastern Europe: a shift away from mainstream parties


In Central and Eastern Europe, some mainstream parties are changing. Depending on the country, one or more major parties, hitherto perfectly integrated into the political system, are taking up issues linked to immigration and, to a lesser extent, wokism, adopting a more populist and national-conservative stance and opposing the rest of the political spectrum. These may be right-wing parties (as is the case in Hungary with Victor Orban’s Fidesz, in Poland with the Law and Justice party or in the Czech Republic with ANO 2011) or left-wing social democratic parties, as in Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia. These developments are made possible by the fact that the populations in these countries are more conservative, more identity-based, and are therefore prepared to accompany and support developments which, in France for example, would provoke a crisis in the party concerned. In addition, the fact that these populist parties are historically rooted in local political life makes it more difficult to demonize them. At the same time, small nationalist parties are emerging and, in some cases, forming coalitions with the major populist parties. This is the case in Slovakia, for example, where the governing coalition is made up of Robert Fico’s Smer-SD and HLAS-SD social democrats and a small nationalist party, the Slovak National Party, a member of the Identity and Democracy Party. In many Eastern and Central European countries, the patriot/globalist divide has thus replaced the traditional left/right divide.


Western and Southern Europe: the emergence of new patriotic parties


In the countries of Western and Southern Europe, this change in the political landscape is only just beginning, and the situation is quite different. The emergence of populism is not the result of the transformation of mainstream parties, but is linked to the appearance of patriotic parties seeking to turn the political chessboard upside down by opposing all the old dominant parties in an attempt to establish themselves as one of the two major forces in the political system. These are most often right-wing parties (the RN in France, Vox in Spain and Chega in Portugal), but similar phenomena can be observed with left-wing parties (SahraWagenknecht’s party in Germany, the 5 Star Movement in Italy and Sinn Féin in Ireland). In most cases, these parties have not yet succeeded in establishing themselves as one of the country’s two major forces. However, there are a few special cases. France is the most advanced country in this transformation of the political spectrum. The main divide is now between, on the one hand, the RN, which is a patriotic-populist party, and Renaissance, Emmanuel Macron’s party, which embodies a liberal-globalist center. In Greece and Italy, the situation is a little different because populist coalitions were formed in the past and came to power, but eventually disappeared. In Greece, between 2015 and 2019, the country was governed by a coalition comprising the radical left-wing Syriza party and a small nationalist party, the Independent Greeks. Similarly, between 2018 and 2019, Italy was ruled by the Lega, the right-wing nationalist party of Mattéo Salvini, and the left-wing populists of the 5 Star Movement. The collapse of these coalitions led to a return of the left/right divide, although in both cases the right retained elements of the populists’ anti-immigration programme. Western and Southern Europe therefore seem to be gradually following the same trend as Eastern and Central Europe.


The Nordic countries: a shift across the political spectrum


In the Nordic countries, the entire political spectrum is shifting on the issue of immigration. All parties, from the social-democratic left to the populist right, increasingly seem to agree in questioning immigration. As a result, immigration is less of a divisive issue than in other countries, and the left-right divide, centered around economic issues and to a lesser extent around issues such as ecology, feminism and LGBT rights, is holding firm. Strict migration policies are applied by the social democratic left in Denmark, but by the right in Finland and Sweden.


There are thus three main groups in Europe: the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, where the patriotic-globalist divide is the result of the evolution of the major mainstream parties; Western and Southern Europe, where new populist parties are emerging and seeking to overturn the political chessboard; and Northern Europe, where the entire political chessboard has evolved on the issue of migration, and where the left-right divide remains relevant.


The causes of the emergence of this new patriot/globalist divide


Globalization and the waves of migration that have accompanied it have transformed European societies and given rise to new issues. What’s more, a new divide has emerged in society between two categories of the population. On the one hand, large cities open to globalization have seen the development of middle and upper classes benefiting from globalisation and inclined to defend the values of freedom, particularly economic freedom, and openness to immigration. At the same time, this defence of the values of freedom and openness will also lead them to adopt progressive positions. In these same cities, immigrant populations from the countries of the South are concentrated in the outlying suburbs. Although they remain very poor, they benefit from the globalisation that has enabled them to come to the countries of the North and hope for a better life. What’s more, often confined to service occupations, these populations sometimes benefit from the increased consumption of the upper classes in the cities. A coalition of winners from globalisation is thus formed, even if this coalition includes very rich and very poor populations. Conversely, on the periphery, i.e. in medium-sized towns and rural areas, the working and lower-middle classes are suffering from globalisation and are expressing expectations of protection in the face of various forms of insecurity: physical insecurity linked to the increase in violence due in part to immigration, cultural insecurity due to the cultural upheavals brought about both by immigration from the south and by the influence of American culture, and economic insecurity which gives rise to expectations in terms of social protection to deal with the increase in unemployment due to relocation and the economic difficulties linked to globalization. The current patriot/globalist divide reflects this opposition between liberal, progressive and globalist parties that will defend the worldview of the wealthy classes in the big cities and populist, patriotic and social parties that will seek to meet the protection needs of the peripheral working and middle classes.

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