Why pro-EU left and right parties should not get any closer
The last national elections in most EU countries have questioned the traditional political spectrum in many ways. Many observers have argued that the rise of populists, nationalists and anti-establishments movements have especially underlined the obsolescence of the left-right cleavage.
In France, for the first time in history, both the Republican and the Socialist party were excluded from the run-off. In Germany, the popularity of the two old-fashioned parties on the left and right (the SPD and the CDU) has been seriously eroded by the rise of the nationalists of the AfD and Die Linke on the left wing. The list could also be enriched either by the cases of the Dutch Labour Party which suffered from a massive loss of seats in the 2017 elections, or by the boost in electoral attractiveness from which the old Freedom Party of Austria after having shifted towards right-wing populism. Italian party system has always its own peculiarities, but the progressive rise of anti-EU and EU-skeptic movements has undeniably undermined the political strength of more traditional parties.
This common trend must therefore be analyzed having clear the concept that is behind the world populism. The literature on the subject is enormously vast. Indeed, European populism is not harmonized and uniform across countries, but there surely are some common traits that can be noticed: the exaltation of people as if they were a unique entity, the unconditioned hate of the (supposedly homogeneous) elites and, above all, a black and white vision of reality (yes/no, us/them, good/bad). Even if reality is way more complex, there are two types under which its main features could be roughly categorized. The populism that apply the black and white logic with a nationalist fashion, and those that interpret that division through the broader abstract concepts of honesty, morality and rectitude and that reduce all the opponents to the status of corrupts and unreliable. Though they sometimes position themselves either on the left or on the right of the political spectrum, they are always there to destroy this cleavage by introducing some other divisive societal lines.
Up until the 50s, the left-right cleavage has successfully contributed to keep the nationalist sentiments silent, this process was decisively helped by the historical circumstances. The wounds of WWII were still fresh and the social composition of many European states had brought to the emergence of the classical conservators/socialists, right/left political conflict. After the end of welfarism, social-democratic parties have massively lost ground with respect to the support of the lower classes which started to suffer from the consequences of global competition. This went hand in hand with a period of crisis of political representation. This void left room for populism and nationalism to come back, therefore also the values related to the EU project are being questioned and the issue of letting it fall has been seriously put forward on the public debate.
The reaction of the “parties of the establishment” to this threat has been that of aligning more and more their positions and sometimes converge and form coalitions with the purpose of safeguard their shared values and priorities, most notably the permanence in the European Union and the process of European integration. Thus, the perception of them being the same thing, the establishment, the elites, the enemies of the people has been tremendously exacerbated. Therefore, the easiest and most effective way of conducting a political campaign for anti-EU movements is to take advantage of this perception and give always much more salience to issues related to the EU, the Euro, free trade and migrations. Such issues are likely to generate a cleavage which overlaps and substitutes the classical left/right. The French run-off is the perfect example: French people were basically asked to choose between two visions of the world, between openness and closure as a response to globalization, between globalism and Europeanism and nationalism. Left and right voters split in both sides. This new division is an enormous problem for the EU because it is no longer perceived as an institution which holds the political debate, its existence itself gets politicized and becomes a very contentious issue.
The image that this situation recalls is that of football match in which the supporters of both sides are unsatisfied about the stadium in which the match is held and start form alliances among them to protest against it, without caring about the match anymore. The European traditional left and right parties should therefore try to bring back the public discourse on those issues (job places, work conditions, the economy, youth unemployment) on which they always disagreed and start fighting about them with a European perspective, using the EU institutions as their arena, their viewpoint and their horizon. An important step towards this direction may result from the proposal recently advanced of keeping the 73 seats in the European parliament that UK will leave and assigning them to pan-EU transnational lists. This could be one of the ways to make the match start again and attract some disappointed supporters.