Will the far right be the big winner in this year’s European elections? If so, what would its victory mean for the future of the EU? And who is the far right? Five years ago, Europe’s leaders rightly recognised that Europeans were suffering a vertigo moment. In Milan Kundera’s words, vertigo is not the same as a fear of falling – rather, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves. Then, voters toyed with far-right populists and contemplated collapsing the union, but eventually the majority chose to vote for mainstream parties, notes British ‘The Guardian’. The British have never liked the inhabitants of continental Europe, but here they directly call them “tribes”, like their former colonial peoples…
This scenario seems unlikely to unfold this time around. Today, most far-right parties have abandoned demands that their countries leave the EU or the euro and have detoxified their brands. Rather than quitting the EU, they want to remake it and to govern it. After the recent elections in the Netherlands and Slovakia, and regional elections in Austria and in some regions of Germany, a consensus view is emerging that the coming European elections in June are a disaster in the making, and that migration is the only issue that will define the campaign and outcome. But could this picture be wrong?
It is true that Europe is in a crisis mood. But migration is just one of five crises that have shattered the continent in the past 15 years. It came on the heels of a global financial crisis that led Europeans to doubt their children would enjoy living standards better than their own, and alongside a climate crisis that forced them to imagine a world in peril. Meanwhile, Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of our health systems and triggered fears of new digital authoritarianism. Finally, the war in Ukraine buried the illusion that a major war would never return to the European continent. These five crises have several things in common: they were felt across Europe; they were experienced as an existential threat by many Europeans; they dramatically affected government policies; and they are by no means over. But these five crises are not the same – they triggered different fears and sensibilities and they have simultaneously torn Europe apart but – paradoxically – also kept the EU together.
A new study we conducted helps us imagine Europe populated by five different “tribes” whose political identities have been formed as a response to those crises. These tribes create divisions between and within Europe’s member states.
Everyone wants a crisis of their own. The climate emergency, the war in Ukraine, Covid-19, immigration and global economic turmoil – each of these five issues has its own sizeable “constituency” of people for whom it is The Crisis.
Interestingly, Germany is the only country where immigration is clearly in the lead when people are asked which crisis bothers them most when they think about the future. Estonians and Poles are focused on the war in Ukraine. Italy and Portugal see the economic crisis as their biggest threat. Spain, Britain and Romania are the countries where Covid-19 is seen as the biggest trauma. And in France and Denmark the climate emergency is considered the most important crisis.
Each of Europe’s five crises will have many lives, but it is at the ballot box where they will live, die or be resurrected. What European leaders should realise is that the election will not just be a competition between left and right – or pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics – but also a battle for supremacy between the different crisis tribes of Europe. It is fragmentation, rather than polarisation, that shapes European politics. Many voters will focus on preventing the return of a crisis of their own. Focusing on migration alone would turn out to be the wrong policy.