LONDON, March 9 (Xinhua) — A failure by the European Union to do more to engage hesitant and frustrated pro-Europeans risks leading to voter volatility and greater support for populist parties, an expert on European politics at London-based Chatham House said Friday.
Georgina Wright was commenting amidst a changing political landscape which has seen the leaders of both Britain and Germany weakened politically, and the more recently uncertainty fed by changes in the make-up of the Italian parliament.
British prime minister’s plan for a snap general election last year to boost her power at 10 Downing Street backfired when her Conservative party lost its majority in the House of Commons.
Across the channel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned to a coalition between her Christian Democratic Union Party with the center-left Social Democrats, with commentators saying it was out of desperation after talks on a three-way alliance with two smaller parties collapsed last November.
In Italy, the leaders of two anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the anti-illegal migrant League party, are setting their sights on power after Italians backed populist politicians in last weekend’s general election.
Wright, whose research interests include Britain’s relationship with the EU and the future of the EU, has given evidence to select committees in both the House of Commons and House of Lords.
In an exclusive interview, Wright gave her views on what the impact could be of the current political line-up in three of the EU’s major member states.
“I think recent elections point to important divides within EU countries: between political elites and the public, among members of the public, and between political elites themselves. These divides raise important questions for government priorities, as well as for the EU,” said Wright.
She said she believes the political instability comes from a breakdown in the traditional left-right balance that has characterized the European political landscape.
“Voters no longer believe that these parties are able to deliver, with many embracing populist and even extreme right-wing/left-wing parties. This sends a strong message to political elites in member states, as well as officials in Brussels, public opinion matters, and that their concerns must be addressed.”
Wright added: “These structural changes are leading to a more fractured political scene with pulls toward the center and/or to more extreme sides of the political spectrum.
“For many voters, traditional left-wing and right-wing parties are failing to deliver economic prosperity, which is why they look to candidates who are promising a new outlook for their country’s future.
“The success of populist parties/extreme parties has yet to be fully understood. Most of them have, so far, been in opposition, although Italy could see a new government coalition formed with the populist party cinque stelle.”
She said on Brexit, “May’s election result fuelled fears this would make it harder to achieve consensus on how to move forward. But the prime minister’s speech last Friday shows that there an agreement of sorts has been reached within her Cabinet. This signals that, for now, her position as prime minister is intact.
“If negotiations with the EU were to break down, May would be forced to resign. But at the moment, this seems unlikely as both sides (Britain and the EU27) want these negotiations to succeed,” said Wright.
She said the coalition talks in Germany did led to France taking a more prominent role in the EU, and pushing its own ambitious reform agenda, particularly for the Eurozone.
“But a recent statement on the EMU published by the governments of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden show that the future of the EU will not be determined by France and Germany alone. For Brexit, the presence of coalition governments in EU countries doesn’t make a difference.
“The EU27 have remained surprisingly united and are firm that all negotiations are to be led by the Commission (EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s Task Force 50), not member states.
“They have also made clear that they want a good deal with the UK, but that this deal should not undermine the integrity of the single market.”
Wright said despite the traditional structure of political power weakening in most European countries, the checks and balances on power have remained intact.
“But I do think this forces national governments, and in particular the EU, to pause and think about the drivers that are fuelling distrust. A recent analysis by Chatham House, which is based on a panEuropean survey of 10 European countries, shows that there is exists a plethora of attitudes to the EU.
“Yet, the smallest groups (federalists and EU rejecters) dominate political debates on the EU’s future. The EU must do more to engage other groups — Hesitant Europeans, Frustrated Pro-Europeans — as well as better understand their concerns and expectations. Failing to do so may lead to greater voter volatility and greater support for populist parties, who in the minds of many, are not afraid to address those concerns head on, for example around immigration and identity,” Wright warned.