Many have read the results of the French and Polish elections as a comeback for progressive, leftist and pro-European forces. Warsaw’s mayor Rafal Trzakowski (from the centrist Europeanist party Civic Platform) only narrowly lost to incumbent Andrzej Duda, from the conservative populist Law and Justice party. Considering Law and Justice’s enduring popularitywith the electorate, this result is indeed a good one. In France, the municipal elections saw a surge in many cities of coalitions comprising Green, Socialist and Europeanist parties, defeating candidates from Macron’s En Marche party and the right-wing opposition in key cities like the capital, Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg. Although this bodes well for future alliances between progressives forces in France and elsewhere, this is clearly not enough.
Even a cursory analysis of the results from a geo-economic point of view, suggests that progressives have made very little progress in winning the support of citizens living in the peripheries. In Poland, there is a quite strong correlation between a higher Gross Regional Product and better results for Trzakowski. Apart from the Warmian-Masurian Region, the only other eastern Region in which Civic Platform performed relatively well was the Masovian, comprising the country’s capital Warsaw, the country’s financial and economic hub.
In France, the cities in which the Green-Progressive coalition have won have more than 100.000 inhabitants. Moreover, these cities (and cities in general) are the same in which these parties perform better in legislative elections. A look at recent opinion polls for the Presidential and legislative elections shows that the heartlands of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National have been left unscathed by the purported progressive surge. Le Pen currently hovers around 25% in the Presidential Opinion Polls (3 points below the incumbent Macron), suggesting that voting intentions have broadly remained the same since the 2017 Presidential elections. In these elections, Macron and other candidates opposed to Marine Le Pen performed poorly in those regions of France which have historically grown the least in the last 20 years.
This speaks volumes about the incapacity of the Left and more generally Progressives and Europeanists to win back the trust of the most economically and socially disadvantaged citizens, who seem to have turned their back permanently on anything but populism and the far-right. To be clear, and this is the heart of the issue, this is a European-wide problem. Throughout the continent, populists and the far-right have made inroads in the continental peripheries, and have obtained stunning electoral victories or have very narrowly lost in unlikely places. For example, last year, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord was deemed likely to win the regional elections in Emilia Romagna, a stronghold of the left. The Lega performed very well, and the region’s most deprived districts voted en masse for the right-wing candidate Lucia Borgonzoni, while the cities were strongly in the hands of the incumbent Stefano Bonaccini. Similarly, the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) gathers around 10% nationally but is granted more than 20% of the vote by citizens living in the economically depressed areas of former Eastern Germany. In the 2017 federal election, the AfD won an astonishing 27% of the vote in the Eastern region of Saxony, becoming the most voted party in the region. This same pattern is repeated throughout the continent, and the burning question is: why do the far-right and the populists have such a wide appeal among those whom the Left was supposed to represent?
As the magazine has previously argued, the Left and Progressive Europeanists have been undergoing a radical identity crisis in the last 20 years. Europe’s Social Democratic parties have pandered to the right-wing agenda of austerity and soft Euroscepticism, and have made an impression on the public that the European Union was a necessary evil. Therefore, leaving behind its social mission to improve the livelihoods of citizens, Progressives have left a vacuum for the far-right to fill. When no one in Italy was talking about improving family incomes, the Five Stars proposed their controversial Citizenship Income. When Eastern Germans continued to see industrial complexes being built in Western Germany or even Poland, they saw the AfD as a bulwark against rising unemployment. When austerity began to cut deep into the social fabric of France’s peripheries, the French Socialists preferred to entrench themselves within the Paris Metropolitan Area. The same goes for Poland.
Therefore, there is a strong and urgent need for a renewed Progressive project that seeks to win the trust of the peripheries, and stops being the standard-bearer of metropolitan elites. Territorial cohesion and regional integration are probably the most important policy issues facing Europe’s leaders, and the challenge lies in making formerly depressed areas economically dynamic and full of innovative entrepreneurs who are able to make peripheries a decent place for young people to build up a family and older people to lead a comfortable life. Progressives need to think big, especially in the wake of the approval of the Recovery Fund, which has unlocked resources to carry out properly the Green New Deal industrial revolution and the creation of comprehensive infrastructure throughout the continent. Additionally, the Left and Progressives should start again to practice bottom-up politics by being present in peripheral territories throughout the year and not only during election time. Some good practices that the continent needs to import include canvassing and holding regular ‘clinics’ with elected officials, to make it possible to citizens to express their concerns, make policy suggestions, and in general, keep politicians accountable.
The times we are living in are extraordinary, and it is not inexact to say that we are living in a historical juncture. The approval of the Recovery Fund has created a Europeanist momentum that has brought disarray within the populist camp, with nationalists from different countries contradicting each other about the results of the recent negotiations. This is the time when Progressives start building bridges between centre and periphery, Brussels and the regions, the city and the countryside, the affluent and the economically deprived. Representation for the less well off has historically been the mission of the Left, and now is the time to do it and live up to our Progressive ideals. Recent events in Poland and France suggests this is still a huge and urgent task.