Europe’s phantom political centre risks fuelling populism

Article by Catherine Fieschi – The Financial Times

New coalitions and electoral strategies disguise opportunism and an absence of ideological substance

In Europe, the idea of the political centre has never been so fashionable. Centrism seems to be the balm of choice to soothe the populist wounds of European democracies. President Emmanuel Macron of France kicked it off in 2017, and a coalition spanning the political centre looms in Germany. As for Italy, prime minister Mario Draghi’s national unity government is doing all it can to erase the very notion of partisanship. But does this centre have any ideological substance?

A year of pandemic pressure has done much to explode conservative financial orthodoxies, leftwing scepticism about elites and populist suspicions of EU institutions. European political parties were pried from their respective centres of gravity under a mortal threat. But the collective surrender to an expedient, rather than an ideologically meaningful, centre predates the pandemic.  In part, it is the result of the much-peddled story of the demise of the left-right divide. But mostly, it is the result of political opportunism: a convenient way for parties to tread water as electorates are transformed under the weight of tectonic shifts, be they digital, environmental or geopolitical. As voters adapt, float and flit and as values shift (or not), parties hunker down and wait. What better place to do so than in the non-committal centre?

Macron was elected in 2017 in part because he was savvy enough to seize the political day — and everyone else’s political twilight. He made the most of an imploding French political class by inhabiting the relatively safe and utterly malleable political centre. Four years later the ideological hollowness of Macron’s line is obvious, as is his party’s fantasy of the centre. When probed, French voters still identify with left-right values. Suspicion of liberalism, regularly confused with neoliberalism, runs deep. Constructing a coherent centrist position will take a lot more work than Macron has put in.

Germany’s next coalition, in which the Greens appear almost certain to figure, could be the next centrist vortex. The professionalised Green leadership is determined to rule out no one from their big tent, aside from the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany. In a land of “grand coalitions”, the combination of the end of the Angela Merkel era, restive voters and a shaken transatlantic relationship demand a form of continuity of which the Greens may be the unlikely providers.

Italy has been plagued by polarisation, having veered wildly from an improbable alliance of left and right populists in 2018 to a no less unstable government of left populists and social democrats. Now, thanks to the hubris of its political leaders and the deft manoeuvring of President Sergio Mattarella, the country has ended up with Draghi’s entirely implausible government of national unity. On the face of things, it borders on the miraculous. Draghi is respected at home and abroad and comes with no partisan strings attached. The result is near-unanimous support. Even the hard-right League’s Matteo Salvini joined this unabashedly centrist Europhile alliance. The unity signals a resolve to access the EU’s post-pandemic recovery funds, but also a desperate drive towards an ever-receding equilibrium.

But does old Europe ever really “do” centrism as more than indecision? True, in the consensual Nordic democracies, compromise is a political value. But is there a centrist European tradition of which to be a part, or is everything merely a timid “third way” — reflected at EU level in matters such as its relationships with China and the US?  With the help of the liberal political tradition, which is thinner elsewhere in Europe, the UK’s Liberal Democrats probably came closest. But there, too, the party was essentially an aggregate of voters on the left and right that created the illusion of a centrist position. The party’s struggles testify to the difficulty in being more than a ballast for either of the other two big parties.

As for central and eastern Europe, one distinguishing factor is the political mirage of a centrist liberalism in which western powers encouraged the region to place its faith from the 1990s. This precipitated a style of politics defined not by a left-right spectrum, but by a populism whose suspicion of liberal elites shows no signs of waning.  Some might argue that the centre, whether real or imagined, is no bad place to aim for and we should be relieved.

But the paradox is that, in its meaninglessness, this phantom centre may fuel precisely the kind of ersatz consensus that triggered the great populist backlash to begin with — in both east and west.

Published online on 11 May 2021, The Financial Times

Europe’s phantom political centre risks fuelling populism

Catherine Fieschi

Published in
The Financial Times


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