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A step to the left, a step to the right: the new European centre

This month’s press review looks at Olivier Roy’s essay on the new European centre, and several European political figures who fit – or break – the mold.
Voxeurop

One of the more eye-catching headlines in recent months appeared in Bari Weiss’s outlet The Free Press: “How Abortion Became ‘the Defund the Police of the GOP’”. During the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the US, “Defund the Police” came to symbolize the excesses of an activist class that was out of touch with the general population, and the black lives that seemed to only matter as props for specific political goals – goals which tend to tarnish the image of the Democrat Party for the average voter. As Olivia Reingold explains in her article, the US Republican Party is now being tugged in a similar fashion towards an electorally hazardous position on abortion.

Transposing this image of the centre and its fringes to the European context, we might say that social or religious conservatism is to the populist right what immigration is to the left. This is at least the conclusion we can draw from political scientist Olivier Roy’s deep and wide-range analysis in Le Grand Continent, “The Great Recentring”, in which Roy outlines the new parameters of European political centrism. Taking stock of the various wins and losses of European populists in recent years, Roy notes that the more socially conservative parties, like Vox in Spain (opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion), or PiS in Poland, have tended to meet far worse fates than social liberals like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, or even Marine Le Pen in France

“The populism that wins,” Roy writes, “is a libertarian populism […]. Marine Le Pen clearly understood this when she defined French identity by laïcité [secularism], rather than Christianity, in her 2017 presidential campaign platform. She does not question the right to abortion, or same-sex marriage. Thus, she rises in the polls as Marion Maréchal fails to take off. Geert Wilderswinner of the December 2023 elections in the Netherlands, has a resolutely liberal platform when it comes to questions of social mores.”

Meanwhile, as the populist right continues to gain ground in the run up to the 2024 European elections, the outlier on the left is Denmark, where Mette Frederiksen’s left-wing government is known for its unusually strict approach (by European standards) to migration and asylum. “For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that the price of unregulated globalisation, mass immigration and the free movement of labour is paid for by the lower classes,” The Guardian quoted Frederiksen as saying, just before her decisive defeat of Denmark’s right-wing government in 2019. For Roy, the Danish government typifies the new centre in European politics. “The most typical example of this shift”, Roy writes, “is to be found in Denmark, where the Social Democrat party has implemented the most restrictive policy of exclusion and forced assimilation in the whole of Europe, precisely in the name of the social model and liberal values.” Roy also includes the France of Emmanuel Macron in this shift: “In France, they enshrine abortion in the constitution right when they approve the most restrictive immigration law.” 

On the subject of Macron and the political centre, it is worth recalling Didier Fassin’s London Review of Books article from 2019, where Fassin argues that Macron (an “extreme centrist”) is in fact a populist of sorts: “Populism is typically understood as a discursive strategy opposing the people and the elite, with populists claiming to represent the first against the second. But the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, an advocate of left-wing populism, argues persuasively that it also implies a vertical form of power and requires a charismatic leader. Macron, who makes so much of his rejection of traditional political elites – right and left – and of his wish for a direct relationship with the people, is undoubtedly a populist.”

Another outlier on the European left, and a politician who no doubt agrees with Mette Frederiksen’s analysis of mass migration, is Sahra Wagenknecht in GermanyJulia Kaiserwriting for the UK outlet focused on EU politics and policy, The Parliament, points out the irony of the fact that the AfD’s chief electoral threat – besides efforts to outright ban them, of course – comes from a politician who is ostensibly on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Talking to Kaiser, a board member of the German institute for election analysis Forschungsgruppe Wahlenpoints out the electoral overlap between the AfD and Wagenknecht’s BSW: “When looking into the supporter groups, we see the greatest potential in the AfD’s support base: 43% of AfD supporters consider voting for the BSW.” Fabio De Masi, the BSW’s lead candidate in the upcoming EU elections, is open about the party’s attempt to tap into the frustrations of AfD voters: “We want to make a serious offer to those who vote for the AfD out of frustration and anger because they think this is the most visible way to express their protest.”

For several reasons, however, Wagenknecht does not belong to the new European centre outlined by Olivier Roy. These reasons include her perceived Euroscepticism, as well as her opposition to providing military aid to Ukraine. While Frederiksen, as well as, say, Poland’s recently elected Donald Tusk, may have broken with liberal or left-leaning consensus on migration, they are firmly pro-NATO and pro-Ukraine, and hardly have a Eurosceptic bone in their bodies. One would never imagine the EU Observer publishing an article declaring that someone like Wagenknecht should be the next EU Council President, but it is hardly surprising to see them publish an article arguing that Mette Frederiksen should occupy that role. 

EUROPEUM research fellow Hugo Blewett-Mundy writes that Frederiksen is the ideal candidate to replace Charles Michel when his term ends in the near future, and that it is precisely Frederiksen’s forthright stance towards Russia that should earn her that role. Denmark is “the second-largest bilateral donor to Kyiv in proportion to gross domestic product (behind Estonia) […]. Despite the economic fallout from the war, Denmark has allocated 60.4bn kr (€8.1bn) in a national Ukraine fund. Frederiksen has also personally led joint efforts to ramp up defence investment.” Blewett-Mundy also highlights Frederiksen’s talent for consensus-building: Frederiksen’s government ran a successful referendum campaign in June 2022 to reverse Denmark’s opt-out of EU defence policy, “a brave decision for a traditionally Eurosceptic country to take”.

Ciarán Lawless

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