Simon Hix: Centre-right won elections ‘on socialist ticket’

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The European Parliament shifted to the right not because the centre-right won the EU elections, but rather due to the Socialists’ inability to convince voters that they can tackle the economic crisis, Simon Hix, professor at the London School of Economics, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Simon Hix is a professor at the London School of Economics and the founder of the ‘Predict09‘ tool for predicting the outcome of the European Parliament elections.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The results of the elections proved that you were right with ‘Predict09’, although the outcome for the Socialists was a bit worse than you had anticipated. What happened? Why did the Socialists do so badly?

It is astonishing. Across Europe, social democrats, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, have done very badly, while the centre-right in government has done quite well, like in Poland, France, Italy and even Germany. 

Something systematic is going on. Two factors: mainstream centre-right parties in most places have adopted the agenda of social democrats, i.e. they are now in favour of public spending, as a result of the economic crisis. There is no particular difference between the centre-right and centre-left, but the centre-right told the electors: You should trust us more, because we know how to run the economy better than they can. 

In the meantime, the people really affected by the economic crisis and by large-scale immigration, which we have seen in the last decade in Europe, are all white, indigenous social democratic voters, who are predominantly voting either for the far-right or the far-left. 

In Britain, these votes went to the Greens and the BNP. In France, they’ve gone to the Greens and to the Communists, in Germany to Die Linke and the Greens, in Hungary they went to Jobbik, in Finland to the True Finns, in Denmark to the Danish People’s Party, and in the Netherlands to Geert Wilders. 

So you go around Europe and you see no particular difference between the centre-right and centre-left, but the centre-right said to the electors: You should trust us more because we know how to run the economy better than they can. 

It is not the centre-right winning, but rather the centre-left going down, and the votes are shifting to extremist parties. 

But why is that? Is it something endemic to social democracy? Why did their message not get through? 

They did not do anything different to present themselves in these elections. They did not propose a Commission president, which they could easily have done. Their voters expected them to respond to the economic crisis, and they didn’t. 

The centre-right, their voters are not really feeling the effects of the economic crisis in most member states. It is the left and their voters who are affected – the pensioners, the low-skilled workers – they feel the crunch of the economic crisis. But the socialists blamed America and the liberals for the crisis. They did not offer anything different to the centre-right. 

So they fell due to their own blame game? 

Yes. And there is no leadership. There isn’t an Obama figure, there isn’t a Blair figure. Love him or hate him, there is not even a Berlusconi. There isn’t a Donald Tusk or a Sarkozy. Zapatero is the only one who has not been hit too badly. 

Still, he was hit… 

No. He is the only one who’ll come away from this election saying: ‘Well, it’s not too bad.’ It is amazing: if you consider that there is 20% unemployment in Spain and Zapatero manages to lose the elections by only 2%. 

All is relative indeed…so what do you make of the far-right? 

The far-right always does well in European elections. The real shock is in Hungary with Jobbik, and in Britain with the two BNP seats. This a real shock. Richard Corbett lost his seat to the BNP. That is shocking. 

Will the new political configuration affect the modus operandi of the new Parliament? 

I don’t think there will be a far-right group in the European Parliament, because those groups are so different. I don’t believe Wilders is going to sit with the BNP. 

The big change is that the social democrats are going down and that is going significantly reduce their influence in the Parliament. The new group to the right of the EPP is going to become quite influential now, because the EPP is going to need them as allies for a bunch of things. If the conservatives can get enough parties to sit with them in a group, they will get about 50-something seats, so they will be the fourth largest group in the Parliament. 

We are getting into coalition building…do you think there will be a majority to back the reappointment of José Manuel Barroso as president of the Commission? 

I don’t know. The EPP has said it is going to back Barroso. Zapatero and Socratés [Spain and Portugal’s socialist prime ministers respectively] and Labour said they would back Barroso, but considering that they have been hit severely, they might not have the majority. 

ALDE is also pretty much divided on backing Barroso, the Greens have campaigned against his reappointment and even among Spanish, British and Portuguese socialists, there are divisions on whether to support him for a second mandate… 

Exactly. Given what has happened, they feel in a stronger position to say: ‘No, we are not going to back Barroso.’ I think they see it now as a big mistake. There is real anger among British Labour MEPs. 

Besides, it is a secret vote, so they can vote however they want. 

But do we have an alternative to Barroso? 

The liberals think they have one: Guy Verhofstadt. 

What about the balance of power within the EPP? 

It seems that the Poles are now going to have 31 seats, the Italians – UDC and Partito della Liberta together – will have 36 seats, and the Germans will have 41 seats. 

I think the Poles will play a big role in the EPP. They are going to have a big committee chair and I think it is going to change the colour of the EPP. I don’t think the EPP is going to be as federalist as it has been. [Polish Prime Minister Donald] Tusk has apparently made an appeal to the British Tories to ask them not to form a new group, because he intends to form a new anti-federalist wing inside the EPP. 

There is a schism festering inside the EPP. We saw it at the beginning of the last Parliament, when we saw for the first time the election for the leader of the EPP. 

We may see elections this time too. Is Joseph Daul going to restand? Maybe not. Are the Germans going to nominate someone? They may lose if there is Polish candidate that gets backed by the Scandinavians and the new Eastern Europeans. Both are going to be pivotal in that one. 

What do you make of the Greens’ success? 

They have done very well. The Greens in Britain have almost doubled their votes. They were unlucky. They were very close to getting 3-4 seats, but they only got two. 

Will that impact on the priorities for the next Parliament? 

The Greens have gone up at the expense of the more radical left in the European Parliament. Greens currently have 43 seats and they are projected to get 52-56 seats. Whereas the far-left had 41 seats and projected final results see them at around 35 seats. It is amazing how the Parliament has really shifted rightwards. 

What will that mean for priorities? 

It is hard to know. We have seen shifting coalitions. We have a coalition of the centre-right on economic issues with EPP, ALDE and the groups on the right. I think there is going to be a free-market majority. 

You are also going to see a more liberal majority on civil liberties and migration issues, where ALDE, the Socialists and GUE/NGL are going to stand together. In that sense you see stability. When you see the grand coalition forming (which forms only 1/3 of the time), the EPP will be able to get their way with the Socialists much more than they have done. 

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