How center-leftists can stem the nationalist tide in Europe

How center-leftists can stem the nationalist tide in Europe
© Getty Images

The rise of nationalist movements in Europe has coincided with a steep decline in public support for center-left parties. Despite harboring much residual goodwill toward them, European voters no longer see these parties as offering clear answers to the most vexing questions of the day.

That is a key takeaway from a sweeping new survey of European political attitudes that the Progressive Policy Institute released late last month at a gathering of center-left leaders and thinkers in Berlin.

ADVERTISEMENT

Conducted by Expedition Strategies, the poll interviewed 1,503 voters in Germany, France, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy.

The findings reveal a restive European public worried about their economic prospects, high taxes, inequality, immigration and climate change. Most see their country and the European Union as headed down the wrong track.

That mood, notes pollster Pete Brodnitz, gives insurgent parties a presumptive edge over long-established parties of the center-left and center-right. 

It also underscores the key challenge facing progressive parties in Europe: reinventing themselves as forces for change rather than pillars of the status quo. The trick is to fashion new appeals to the persuadable voters they need to forge governing majorities, without alienating core partisans. 

The PPI/Expedition Strategy survey highlights the key dilemmas that Europe’s center-left parties confront on the road to renewed political relevance:  

The Social Democratic paradox 

The poll has mixed news for Europe’s Social Democratic (SD) parties, which have occupied the center-left of the ideological spectrum there. Asked to name the party they generally preferred, most voters picked Social Democrats by a wide margin. In fact SDs drew almost twice as much support as conservative parties.

But there’s a hitch: Only about a third of the voters who identified with Social Democrats still vote for them most of the time. Despite what Brodnitz calls “legacy support,” voters don’t see SDs now as clearly defined or as strong on the issues that matter most to them.   

For example, though Social Democrats are competitive on climate change, Green parties tend to “own” the issue in voters’ minds, while liberals and conservatives have the most credibility on economic issues, and nationalists and conservatives dominate immigration and cultural identity. 

With admirable candor, Valerie Rapault, leader of the Parliamentary Group of “Socialists and Affiliated” in France’s National Assembly, told the April 25 conference in Berlin that many voters “do not recognize us as people who are giving value to our society.”

The economic opportunity — and risk 

European voters’ top concerns are mostly economic, though climate change and immigration aren’t far behind. They worry that the rich are getting richer, that the cost of living is rising faster than incomes and that taxes are too high. There’s pervasive concern that “too many people are getting benefits without earning them.” 

These aggregate findings mask important national differences. Of the six countries surveyed, only Germans (where Social Democrats are still relatively strong) rate their economy positively.

French and Italians are the most pessimistic in their economic outlook and are most likely to view nationalists positively (36 percent in each country). 

All this points to an opening in Europe for center-left parties to counter the populist narrative of xenophobia and cultural grievance by championing the economic hopes and aspirations of working and middle-class voters for better jobs and wages and more reasonable tax burdens.

That’s particularly important to supporters of nationalist parties, who are even more concerned about high taxes than immigration.

Immigration: To engage or not to engage?

Public qualms about immigration and Europe’s asylum policies are wide and deep, our poll confirms. Most respondents believe migration has had an adverse impact on their country. That sentiment is strongest in the traditionally progressive bastions of Sweden and the Netherlands. 

These negative views are driven chiefly by worries about terrorism and strains on public budgets. Islamist terrorism is the top security threat for all parties except for Social Democrats and Greens, who put climate change first. Nationalists show by far the highest level of fear (57 percent) about Islamist terrorism.

A plurality of voters in all six countries, including those who identify as Social Democrats, want their governments to do more to limit migration. Yet progressive opinion leaders in government and the media tend to dismiss anti-migration sentiment as racist.

So, center-left parties often keep mum on immigration, a stance that strikes nationalists as infuriatingly elitist and condescending. 

“If you don’t engage an issue, you will lose the issue,” Brodnitz cautioned the Berlin gathering. In fact, what’s missing in the immigration debate is what only the center-left can provide: a progressive alternative to right-wing xenophobes that balances humane treatment of migrants with recognition of every democratic polity’s right to protect its borders and determine who can come to their country.

Climate change: a free political good?

Our poll found near unanimous support for more vigorous action to fight climate change in Europe. Whatever their other faults, Europe’s right-wing nationalists — unlike Trump Republicans — aren’t climate deniers.

Two-thirds of our respondents — including a solid majority (56 percent) of nationalists — want their country’s government to do more to combat climate change. Public support for meeting the EU’s ambitious goals for cutting carbon emissions is uniformly high, especially in Italy and France.

What isn’t so clear is exactly what Europeans are willing to do to reach those goals. When French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronNATO is not brain dead yet Trump, NATO chief to meet at White House Macron: NATO experiencing 'brain death' MORE increased diesel fuel taxes last year, he triggered a furious popular revolt that has yet to abate.

In Sweden and the Netherlands, nearly two-thirds of respondents in our poll expressed concerns about higher energy costs and taxes.

Despite the apparent breadth of the consensus on climate change, there’s a danger in regarding it as a kind of free political good, without costs or political risks.

In the abstract, almost everyone thinks we need to stop overheating our planet. In reality, our pious intentions often gets crowded out by the more urgent and concrete problems of everyday life.

The low salience of climate change for economically stressed families was the point of a story Zefi Dimadama, vice president of the Party of European Socialists Women, related in Berlin.

When she asked her constituents in Greece how important climate change was to them, they admitted it could fall pretty far down their priority list behind food, shelter, jobs, health and other pressing needs.

This suggests that for European progressives — and their American counterparts — the wiser course is to propose energy policies that integrate the public’s interests in climate protection and jobs,  rather than forcing voters to choose between them.  

There are tons of other fascinating insights in PPI’s poll of European attitudes, touching on international competition, big tech companies and reconciling national sovereignty and what Macron has called “European sovereignty.”

But getting the core issues of inclusive growth, immigration and climate change right will likely decide whether Europe’s center-left parties can recover and join America’s Democrats in leading a progressive counter-mobilization against the common threat of illiberal nationalism.

Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute.