Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, the Front National, was eager to see Syriza, the Greek far-left party, win Greece’s parliamentary election. She was not alone. Joined by other heads of national parties and some communist leaders, Le Pen expressed her support for the leftist party on January 20, five days prior to Syriza’s victory: “Yes, we hope for the victory of Syriza!”
How is it possible that parties on opposite sides of the political spectrum agree on what type of government Greece should need?
Political parties in Europe on both extremes are disconnected from the challenges the European Union is currently experiencing: they have proven unable to identify and understand the economic, demographic, cultural and spiritual changes Europe has endured over the past 30 years. Stuck in the 1930s, the anti-market left still believes in a state that controls its citizens’ socioeconomic rights, while the nationalist right dreams of a mono-cultural, mono-ethnic and mono-religious society. Clearly, they have not realized their ambitions were nothing more than unrealistic dreams and a hindrance for the progress of their respective societies. The EU presents the perfect scapegoat: unprecedented in history, the outcome of this Union cannot be predicted, making it a great opportunity for these parties to serve as populist storytellers.
The EU, still quite unknown to the citizens it administers, is an easy target to criticize and demonize. Indeed, extremist parties love to target policies that people can’t really measure or assess in daily life. In France, for example, the anti-immigrant platform of the Front National is most successful in rural areas — regions with the lowest proportion of immigrants, as shown by election results since the party’s creation in the 1970’s. The extreme left and right unite against the EU system because their outdated solutions would only be applicable in a powerful and independent national state. Modern history shows that good political governance can only be moderate, whether leaning towards the left or right. This is how European citizens have experienced a progression of living conditions and an unprecedented era of peace throughout the continent — a situation that none of these sinister parties would be able to create.
Nonetheless, the majority of the Greek electorate has democratically elected Syriza. The current rise of anti-European parties in the EU happened in a perfectly democratic and legitimate way. This raises the issue of the perception of the current EU system by its citizens. Rather than a movement against the existence of a political union of European countries, this worrying electoral trend is more a reaction against today’s European administration: lack of transparency of the EU’s mechanisms, lack of legitimacy of the elected representation due to a complex and fairly opaque election process, misalignment between the perception of what European citizens believe the priorities of the EU should be and the reality of what the EU administration actually focuses on. Most of the voters of anti-European parties support another type of European Union, not a backward regression to national sovereignties.
Nonetheless, the rise of extremes should not be underestimated. Key reforms must be implemented to reconcile the divide between the EU administration and its citizens. The development of new direct elections at the EU level is a priority, along with a clear correlation between the political composition of the European Parliament and that of the European Commission. The European Council, traditionally representative of national sovereignties’ interests, should have its power minimized. The currently opaque selection of the President of the European Council needs to be transformed into an open and transparent election of a President of the European Union. The EU needs to have clearly identifiable politicians that are held accountable for their actions. It should also better communicate its action across the European territory, the roots of its creation and legacy. This should start by including the history of the EU in primary education programs.
The reaction of extreme European parties after the election of Syriza demonstrates that the opposition between the left and right is becoming less and less pertinent. Rather, a new opposition has slowly evolved over the past 10 years: on the left side, the anti-market, Marxists opposed to the proponents of reformism and social-democracy; on the right side, fiscally conservative yet socially liberal actors (a group within which Christian-democrats would fall) opposed to nationalist, protectionist, and fairly xenophobic extreme-right activists.
We, believers of a prosperous future for Europe, should focus on what unites us rather than on what separates us. Moderates, whether left- or right-leaning, make up a majority of European citizens. Our union will make Europe stronger, provided we use this union to implement real democratic changes through political representation and transparency.