Four months ahead of the European elections, liberal parties are torn between those ready to engage with the far-right and those opposed to any kind of alliance. Spain and Sweden offer the latest examples.
After a four-month impasse, Socialists, Centrist and Liberals reached a deal on Friday (11 January) to form a government in Sweden, by securing the support of the Greens.
The far-right Swedish Democrats, which came third at the last election, were left out.
“This time, in this case, and in these circumstances, this is the best way to go for Sweden’s liberal parties,” said Birgitta Ohlsson, a member of the Swedish liberal party, after the deal was announced.
The agreement, which put an end to four months of political impasse caused by the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, still needs to be signed off by the parties and backed by parliament in a vote on 16 January.
But there is a strong likelihood that Stefan Löfven, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, will continue as prime minister.
On the other side of Europe, the picture is very different.
In December last year, the citizens of Andalusia, the most populated region in Spain, went to the polls. The election put an end to 36 years of socialist governments and opened the doors of the regional parliament to the far-right for the first time since 1978, when democracy arrived in the country.
Far from excluding the far-right from talks, the conservative Popular Party (PP) closed two deals in parallel: one with the liberal Ciudadanos party to form a regional government on the one hand; and another with the far-righ Vox on the other, to secure the support of their 12 MPs, which they need to reach a majority in the regional parliament.
The problem is that some of the points on both agreements contradict each other.
Although Ciudadanos has warned that they do not consider Vox as a government partner and will not fold to what they agreed with PP leader Teodoro Gracia Egea, they have not broken the deal so far.
In spite of its limited representation, Vox has shaped the agenda of the negotiations, spreading false information along the way to support their narrative.
Among other things, Vox openly opposes measures to tackle gender-based violence, the protection of the LGBT minority and any migration policy that is not strictly based on labour purposes.
Reactions in Brussels
When the results of the elections in Andalusia came out, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, congratulated Ciudadanos.
“The success of the far-right, however, should worry us all,” he warned.
Now, Verhofstadt does not seem so worried anymore as he rushed to praise the agreement between Ciudadanos and the PP to form a government.
In line with the Spanish liberals’ narrative, he argued that Ciudadanos came to power in Andalusia without any “concessions or agreements” with Vox, in spite of the happy picture shared by the leaders of the three political parties.
“A historic opportunity opens up for the regeneration and the modernisation of this great land,” Verhofstadt said.
Contento de ver a @CiudadanosCs en el gobierno de #Andalucia con un programa centrista y reformista y sin concesiones ni acuerdos con @vox_es. Se abre una oportunidad histórica para la regeneración y modernización de esa gran tierra, ¡Ganan los andaluces y todos los españoles!
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) January 10, 2019
In Brussels, ALDE sources pointed out that this is a regional matter. They do not believe the alliance will necessarily be replicated in future elections.
However, the negotiations to form a government were led from Madrid and a big part of the agreement concerns state policies.
In fact, not all liberals in Europe see the agreement through the same eyes.
In France, the centrist government currently in power warned about the risks of engaging with extremists. “There cannot be any compromises with a far-right political party which defends values completely opposed to ours,” EU affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau commented.
Emmanuel Macron, who defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential elections, has made the fight against the far-right one of his hallmarks.
Although Ciudadanos has been one of Macron’s political allies in Europe in the past months, he may reconsider this alliance based on the outcome of the process in Andalusia. Deals with the far-right could also be a key element of his decision to join ALDE after the European elections in May.
In contrast, members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) have shown less reluctance to forge government deals with the far-right, as illustrated in Finland and Austria.
The social-democrats, for their part, rushed to denounce the PP and Ciudadanos for their agreement with Vox.
“What is happening in Andalucia is very worrisome. PP and Ciudadanos seem to be capable of doing anything to grip power, but there should be certain moral limits,” Udo Bullmann, leader of the social-democrats in the European Parliament, told EURACTIV.
“They will govern thanks to the support of an extreme-right party that denies violence against women, that denies LGTB rights and criminalises minorities,” he stressed. “This shows that the mainstream centre-right parties are declining and a new ultra-conservative and illiberal right is on the rise,” Bullmann said.
European Commission First Vice-President, and lead candidate for the social-democrats, Frans Timmermans criticised the coalition deal as well.
“Is this what the EPP has in store for Europe? A coalition with the extreme right?”, wondered Timmermans. “Let me be clear: our party will never form a coalition with the extreme right in Europe. This I guarantee,” he added.
“This shows that the mainstream centre-right parties are declining and a new ultra-conservative and illiberal right is on the rise. That is certainly the case of PP with its new leadership. And this trend is particularly dangerous for the European project and it is something that the EPP should reflect on.”
In Andalucia, PP and Ciudadanos will govern with the support of an extreme right party that rejects fundamental European values. Is this what the EPP has in store for Europe? A coalition with the extreme right.
— Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU) January 11, 2019
The far-right dilemma
While traditional political parties decide whether or not to engage with extreme parties, the far-right faces its own dilemma, as they explore possible alliances for the upcoming European elections in May.
Italy’s Matteo Salvini, whose far-right Lega party is in a government coalition with the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, is exploring alliances outside the far-right political grouping in the European Parliament, the Europe of Nations and Freedoms (EFDD) group.
Salvini said on Wednesday (9 January) in Warsaw that Italy and Poland should spark a “European spring” to replace the centre-right influence of Germany and France, ahead of May’s European elections.
In Poland, the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party currently in government, is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a European Parliament political group formed by the British Conservatives to challenge the traditional pro-EU stance of the EPP, Europe’s dominant political family.
“I see this particular meeting in Warsaw as an effort to convince Mr Salvini not to play solo but instead to join a well-established, well-positioned and strong group in the European Parliament,” ECR lead candidate Jan Zahradil told EURACTIV.
Zahradil said he was confident the ECR could become the third main force in the chamber after the European elections, “but in terms of post-election arrangements, we really have to wait until May 2019 and see the election results.”