02 Mai 2022

The European Policy Quartet: After the elections in Hungary, France and Slovenia – what next for the European party system?

  • Julian Plottka, University of Passau / University of Bonn
  • Sophie Pornschlegel, European Policy Centre, Brussels
  • Manuel Müller, University of Duisburg-Essen / Der (europäische) Föderalist, Berlin
This conversation was conducted as an online chat in German. The transcript below has been edited and translated.

Janez Janša and Viktor Orbán
Janez Janša was voted out of office. Viktor Orbán remains.

The 2019 European elections were often described in the public debate as a duel “Emmanuel Macron vs. Viktor Orbán”. As national politicians, the two were not even up for election – but they were seen as the most important leaders of the two most important opposing camps in Europe: on the one hand, the French president, who had made his mark as a liberal-progressive pro-European, on the other, the Hungarian head of government, who uses nationalist and Christian-conservative rhetoric while dismantling democracy and the rule of law.

Last month, both of these leaders were re-elected. At the beginning of April, Orbán’s Fidesz won 54 per cent of the vote and a two-thirds majority of seats in the Hungarian parliamentary election. Three weeks later, Macron beat Marine Le Pen with around 59 per cent in the second round of the French presidential election. At the same time, in Slovenia’s parliamentary election, Prime Minister and Orbán ally Janez Janša (SDS/EPP) suffered a crushing defeat against the green-liberal newcomer Robert Golob (GS/–).

Today’s quartet is about what these elections mean for the EU. Will the coming years become a replay of the 2019 European election campaign?

In my view, not necessarily. Macron’s re-election and Janša’s electoral defeat in Slovenia are good news for the EU: Pro-European governments are important to push the European policy agenda forward until the 2024 European Parliament election. Of course, a lot can change with other upcoming elections, especially in Italy next year. But currently, Orbán is rather isolated with his authoritarian pro-Putin line in the EU – and negotiations are being held with Poland, hoping that the right-wing populist PiS will not move further towards authoritarianism.

A new social cleavage

I will disagree here. If the slogan “Macron vs. Orbán” is supposed to symbolise the conflict between supporters and opponents of European integration, then I expect a repetition. I think that the 2024 European election campaign will again be characterised by a “Go vote, save the EU” campaign.

At first glance, this is bad news because it seems to be a depoliticisation of the debate again, potentially fuelling disenchantment with politics. At second glance, however, I see signs – especially when I look at the electoral programmes for the 2021 German Bundestag campaign – that voters can be won over with pro-European campaigns. The conflict is no longer between system supporters and system sceptics. I think it is time to move beyond this negative post-functionalist view of the “Macron vs. Orbán” contrast. In reality, this conflict is more about a new social cleavage, which is known in political science as “GAL vs. TAN” (green/alternative/libertarian vs. traditional/authoritarian/nationalist), “integration vs. demarcation” or “inclusion vs. exclusion”.

That means that you see the polarisation Macron / Golob vs. Orbán / Le Pen / Janša as the new normal for European politics?

Yes. The exciting question is actually: Will the formerly dominant left-vs.-right conflict be replaced by a new dominant inclusion-vs.-exclusion conflict? Or will we permanently have a two-dimensional conflict space?

Winning elections with pro-European positions

That’s a good point, Julian. But if this line of conflict gains in importance, it also raises the question of how the parties can deal with it. In any case, it would be problematic if the next European election were again just about a pro- vs. anti-EU debate – if only because that is a meaningless framing. In the end, this also favours the high level of abstention, which, for example, led to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National becoming the strongest party in France in the last European election.

A first step is to convey that people are in favour of Europe and that this can win you an election. With regard to the frugal four, the ECFR has shown that the Danish population is less Eurosceptic than their government. In a survey, the Danes were in favour of a larger EU budget, provided the government says clearly what the money is sensibly spent on. That is exactly the point: the pro-Europeans have to promote concrete European policy content and no longer just “the EU”.

I’m just afraid that we won’t be able to convince the parties and governments of this until the European elections in two years’ time. Even if, as I wrote before, I see some first positive tendencies.

It’s similar in Poland that the population is more pro-European than the current PiS government. But how exactly do you imagine that pro-Europeans promote European political contents? Given the division of competences between the national and EU levels and the resulting complexity, it is not particularly easy to create party political slogans based on European policy. Often, the European dimension is not present at all in national public debates.

Admittedly: Macron has managed this quite well, proposing concrete ideas and using a language that appeals to the French, for example with buzzwords like “sovereignty” or “une Europe qui protège”. But all the time, I have Peter Mair’s thesis in mind: that the EU was created to escape the politicisation of the national level and to take decisions that are not supported by a majority. That explains why this pro-vs.-anti-EU conflict line has become so strong.

Alternatives beyond “for or against”

I also think that pro-European positions can win elections. What worries me about this shift in the debate, however, is that there is no democratic system in which the same camp will win permanently. And if, for example, in France the only plausible alternative to Macron is Le Pen, then there is a high risk that at some point the authoritarian nationalists will come to power after all.

Already now, the right-wing authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland pose an existential challenge to the EU institutions. The political system of the EU is very consensus-oriented, which has worked reasonably well for the traditional political cleavages (economically left vs. right, socially liberal vs. conservative, etc.). But can consensus solutions be found when the “other” camp consists of Orbán and Le Pen?

This is precisely what we have to overcome. If the core question is: “What kind of Europe do we want?”, then we have a political debate. What foreign policy do we want? What social policy do we want? What economic policy do we want? I think the core is to move the debate from “for or against” to a debate about this or that policy.

It is easy to be “against the EU” by ranting about the “Brussels red tape” or using other populist narratives. Being against a specific policy is more difficult. This makes the debate more differentiated and gives space to other actors.

But then the problem is that the salient issues in the various EU member states are very different when it comes to European policy. In an election at the national level, everyone agrees on which topics are relevant to the population; in the EU, not so much. For the French public, distribution policy might play an important role, in Germany it might rather be economic policy, in Poland energy policy, etc.

But back to your question about consensus solutions, Manuel: No. If certain decision makers want to undermine the EU from within, there should no longer be any willingness to reach a consensus. In this regard, the EU institutions will have to change their political “habitus”.

Institutional constraints

I agree, but that brings us back to the debate on the political system. After all, the consensus orientation of the EU is not only a habitus, but also arises from institutional constraints – unanimity procedures in the Council, the Commission elected by the national governments, etc. In order to become more resilient to electoral victories by national populists in individual member states, the EU would have to overcome these institutional constraints. But that would only be possible through a treaty reform, in which all member states, including the Orbán government, would have a veto.

I totally agree with you, Manuel. But it’s not only Orbán who is against treaty reform; I think that the French or German governments don’t really want to actively push that either. But you could already change a lot within the treaties. Treaty changes are not the panacea we (as EU experts) often hope for. Migration policy is a prime example: We would already have the possibility to take decisions by qualified majority, but when issues are politically sensitive, they require the political support of all governments to be implemented.

I would also argue that European decision making has only worked in the past because of package deals in which everybody got their own. There was very rarely a consensus in the true sense of the word, but always formula compromises that everyone could sign. With Orbán and Le Pen, this will be even more difficult – unless it is shown that a rejection of policies at the EU level hurts their voters.

But decisions at the EU level must not become a “how do we contain Orbán?” game either. That would drastically reduce the efficiency of European policy decisions. Ultimately, this is where intergovernmentalism reaches its limits and undermines the ability of the EU and national governments to act. This can only be solved either by reducing cooperation and letting each country go its own way, or by reforming the procedures and making them more efficient.

Agreed. But as you write “with Orbán and Le Pen”, I would like to make a quick correction: Orbán has a say in the EU, Marine Le Pen doesn’t. Even if some media comments suggest otherwise, she has lost that election.

National differences in the transformation of the party system

Let’s return to the European party system: in the European Parliament, Macron’s LREM belongs to the liberal RE group; Orbán’s Fidesz has been non-aligned since last year, but is apparently moving towards the far-right ID group. The two largest European parties, however, are still the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES), and despite their gradual decline in recent years, they are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, this is because the transformation of the party system varies from country to country. In some countries (such as Germany, Sweden, Spain, Portugal) the old party system with its alternation between EPP and PES still exists to a large extent. In other member states (including the three that just voted, but also, for example, Italy, Bulgaria and others) there is little left of it.

From my point of view, this is a special challenge for the European party system: on the one hand, we can observe how the European parties are becoming more institutionalised – for example, through the leading candidates, soon perhaps through transnational lists. On the other hand, the party system as a whole is becoming more unstable, and national fragmentation is also growing.

Well. In Germany, too, the old 2.5-party system doesn’t exist any more. We now have a six-party system.

And I wouldn’t be too optimistic about the institutionalization of European parties either. Whether the leading candidates system will prevail again in 2024 still depends on many factors.

EPP and PES hardly play a role in France any more

Basically, I refer to my point above: The question is whether instability is only a feature of the current transformation or will become a permanent feature of the system. We can certainly live with a transitional phase because new stability can then be expected in the foreseeable future. If the instability becomes permanent, the political systems at national and European level will have to be adjusted.

But what if the transformation is permanent in some countries but not in others? That doesn’t seem an entirely implausible prospect at the moment.

Which transformation do you mean? If it is about the ideological reorientation from “left vs. right” to “GAL vs. TAN”, then I suspect that in the medium term there will be a stabilisation in a one- or two-dimensional conflict space.

When it comes to changing party organisations, France, for example, has a long tradition of instability. I think the European party system can absorb that. The only spoiler could be populist parties that cannot be politically located. Here, however, I would assume that their success will decrease as the party system stabilises.

I actually meant the transformation of party organisations, and here above all the national differences. In the past, not all, but the vast majority of member states had the central political line running between the EPP and the PES. Today, depending on the member state, the dominating parties can be completely different.

Firstly, this creates the problem that voters at the EU level must get to know a party system that they are not used to at the national level. In France, for example, the EPP and the PES are hardly present any more, and in Estonia almost all parties that according to the polls can expect to enter the next European Parliament now belong to the liberal RE group. And secondly, there is the danger that party antagonisms overlap with national antagonisms – for example, that RE is perceived as a group that represents “French positions” due to the strong influence of Macron.

On France’s “long tradition of instability”: that was mainly during the Fourth Republic, when France was a parliamentary rather than a semi-presidential system. Today, there are still many changes in the party landscape, but they no longer have such an impact on the stability of the political system. As long as the French government has power, the system is stable, although not necessarily particularly representative because of the weak parliament.

(By the same logic, by the way, at the European level, strengthening the European Parliament could also lead to more instability. I don’t want to say that this would necessarily happen – but it shows how much we also look at the debate on institutional reforms through national lenses. In Germany, a strong parliament is usually seen as something good for democracy and political stability, in France not necessarily).

Right-wing governments in the European Council

But regarding the transformation of the party landscape and its effects on the EU: In principle, national changes in the party landscape have a strong impact on the European level – especially in the case of large countries that provide many members of the European Parliament. Macron’s electoral victory has given the RE group a completely new role in the European Parliament. And clearly, when parties no longer position themselves along traditional political axes, consensus building and structuring European parliamentarism becomes more complicated.

But when we talk about the rise of right-wing parties, I see less danger in the European Parliament than in the European Council – because of the national veto power, and also because in the current system the Council in general plays a more important role than the Parliament.

Yes, I feel the same way. Incidentally, also because (not least due to the European consensus structures) it is easier for right-wing parties to conquer political power at the national level. In the European Parliament, the right is far from a majority. But in individual member states they can certainly come to government and then have a say in European politics through the Council.

I also see the role of the European Council as extremely problematic here. Beyond the question of ideological conflicts within party systems, Hungary also raises the concrete question of how to deal with authoritarian regimes within the EU. Should a head of government with dubious democratic legitimacy be allowed to have any say at all in the European Council? What was once called the “other democratic deficit” at the national level is also a democratic deficit in the Council and the European Council.

Right: The Hungarian election on 3 April was not fair, and now Orbán can co-decide for all 450 million EU citizens. That is very problematic.

When the whole EU is at stake in national elections

Absolutely. Theoretically, this is also the reason why
art. 7 TEU explicitly mentions the withdrawal of voting rights in the Council – except that for well-known reasons the article 7 procedure is hardly applicable in practice.

But this again leads us to the question of how we can free ourselves from the influence of individual national governments. In the end, it is also an institutional problem if European elections hardly ever lead to major changes in the political course of the EU, while the functioning of the EU as a whole is regularly at stake in national elections like in France or Hungary.

That point is true: In Brussels, you can see to which degree European policy depends on national elections. As soon as one important national election is over, the next one is already around the corner, which then also changes the composition of the Council and thus the balance of power.

But I do not see “freeing” the EU from the influence of national governments as the solution. For the foreseeable future, the EU will remain a political system whose institutional structure has both supranational and intergovernmental elements. That is why we need to strengthen the European Parliament and the Commission, but at the same time we also need a Europeanisation at the national level.

Above all, the Council and the European Council must stop acting as a permanent international conference between diplomats and instead become a second parliamentary chamber. But for this we need a fundamental institutional reform of the Council system.

What can the EU do?

After 2017, there was a lot of talk in Germany that the German government should not let Macron down in European politics, as otherwise there would be the danger of a Le Pen victory in 2022. That has not happened now, Macron has secured himself another five years of presidency – but with a considerably smaller margin. And in other countries, the next key elections are already around the corner, for example in Italy (in May 2023 at the latest) and Poland (autumn 2023).

So let us come to the crucial question: What can, what should the EU do against the rise of right-wing anti-democratic actors? In particular, what should the governments of other member states, such as Germany, do to make a Fratelli/Lega victory in Italy, a PiS victory in Poland or even an RN victory in France in 2027 less likely?

The EU should do what it does best: regulate. For example, in order to defend media pluralism, fight disinformation and force digital platforms to stop hate speech and polarisation. The EU should also pay even more attention to the rule of law and to fighting corruption. It should use all its means – including sanctions – to send the signal: Those who act anti-democratically have no place in the EU.

Last but not least, the EU should also deal more with inequality and make sure that structurally weak regions are supported. The French presidential election has shown it again: Marine Le Pen’s voters are poor and live in the countryside. The EU, as well as national governments, can find political answers to this.

In the medium term, we have to tackle institutional reforms – although I now think that this will lead to a “Europe of (permanently) concentric circles”, with differentiated rights and obligations.

In the short term, Germany should approach individual countries more strongly and strengthen democratic forces through joint initiatives where they are in power. We must show that not all Central and Eastern European states are national populist – and that with a democratic government they have influence in the EU.

Julian Plottka is a research associate at the Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics at the University of Passau and at the University of Bonn.

Manuel Müller is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen and runs the blog „Der (europäische) Föderalist“.

Pictures: Janša and Orbán: European People’s Party, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; portraits Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel, Manuel Müller: private [all rights reserved].

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