Now that the dust has settled following last week’s European elections, it appears the real winners were the Western European Greens. Yes, populist firebrands Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini redrew the political maps of the United Kingdom and Italy, respectively, and Eastern Europe stubbornly insists on going in its own direction, but in most of Western and Northern Europe, a political realignment now under way is shaking up the left as much as the right — and the Greens stand to benefit the most.
The contours of this political realignment are well described by Dr. Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs in this Cato Unbound discussion. As he points out, the primary dividing point is the politics is identity — nationalism versus globalism. To date, new nationalist voices have gained the most attention. As Davis notes, many of these nationalists favor collectivist economic policies — a strong welfare state (for nationals only), protectionist trade barriers, and antitrust action against large multinationals — and reject the free-market ideas that conservative parties have adhered to for the past 40 or so years.
Yet, less appreciated has been the direction of the left. As I argued in my 2008 book, The Really Inconvenient Truths, environmentalism has replaced social-justice Christianity as the driving force of the Western left. And, with the emergence of globalism, an ideology based around tackling global problems such as climate change has accordingly risen to prominence. Rather than socialists coopting environmentalism, the reverse has started to happen. The Green Parties of Europe are in the process of overtaking the Social Democrats and hard-left parties alike.
Britain provides a great example. The Labour Party, currently hard-left under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, is being squeezed in both its heartlands from different directions. In the urban northeast of England, which has reliably voted Labour since the party’s founding, voters deserted en masse to the nationalist Brexit Party. In the south, with a more highly educated and cosmopolitan population, a substantial number of Labor voters went for the Greens this time, and many said they did so because of policies other than Brexit. While most say they will return to the Labour Party at the next general election, Labour will face continual pressure from the Greens going forward.
In Germany and France, the process is further along. The Greens came in second in Germany, comfortably beating the Social Democrats, and topping the poll among people 24 and younger by some way. In France, Les Verts came third behind the nationalists and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrists. The Greens comfortably beat France’s traditional Socialist party, which controlled the presidency only recently.
Philippe Lamberts, the Belgian co-convener of the Green group in the European Parliament, told journalists, “We can see that with an uptick in nationalism and populism, that to forge a stable European union the Greens are going to be indispensable.” As the realignment takes hold, the battle lines will probably see the Greens in the vanguard against the nationalist parties.
The question is where this leaves free-market classical liberals. Green ideology generally views the free market as an enemy of the environment (although free market environmentalists such as those of us at CEI would strongly disagree). The American Green Party, for instance, rejects liberalized trade and its supporting institutions, such as NAFTA and the WTO, and opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is despite the findings that freer trade provides the best possible bang for the buck in helping the global poor raise their living standards.
Taking this all together, the future of free-market liberalism in Europe looks increasingly dim. In this sense, the globalist half of the new political divide is explicitly anti-globalist when it comes to the free movement of goods and capital. So, if the Greens were the winners of the European elections, while the populists still gained ground, the biggest loser was the free market.