As right-wing populism gains, is the left lagging behind?

As European vote nears, left-wing groups criticise the bloc’s economic policies and seek sovereignty, but fail to unite.

Greece''s former Finance Minister Varoufakis addresses a news conference in Berlin
Greece's former Finance Minister presents his ideas on how to democratise Europe in Berlin [File: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]

Rome, Italy – Nationalist and far-right populist parties have emerged as the main challengers to the status quo in the European Parliament elections, some of which have coalesced around Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and co-deputy prime minister.

Parties that previously stood for an exit from the bloc, following Britain’s footsteps, now support a new pan-European nationalist alliance to change the EU from within.

Leaders and MPs of 11 far-right parties took part in Salvini’s final election rally on Saturday in Milan, among them France‘s Marine Le Pen and the Netherland‘s Geert Wilders. 

Hungary‘s Viktor Orban didn’t show, but he’s recently praised Salvini for “manning the front line” in the central Mediterranean – a reference to Italy’s crackdown on refugees.

Since the last European elections in 2014, those parties have made gains at the national level. They are now in power in Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary, and are no longer fringe outfits in countries such as France. 

While divided on a number of issues including Russia and the EU’s budget, right-wing populists have put forward similar messages around protecting national sovereignty and culture, as well as borders, against the “threat” of migration.

Left-wing Eurosceptics have also made considerable gains at the national level in recent years, from the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn to Podemos, the party that emerged from the Indignados movement in Spain, and Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise (Unbowed France).

Anti-European populism on both the right and the left is seen equally as a “threat” to the European project of deeper integration – but especially to the dominance of the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, which holds all three top jobs in the EU.

I believe that the foundations of European collaboration, crystallised in the treaties of the European Union, are the enemies of labour, of the people's demands.

by Samuele Mazzolini, lecturer at the University of Bath

But despite mainstream rhetoric about populists trying to wreck the EU, some analysts have warned against labelling anything that dissents from the current state of affairs as anti-European.

“The problem is what sort of Europeanism has been embraced,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at Italy’s University of Trento, told Al Jazeera.

“A sort of Europeanism that welcomes globalisation with open arms. One, in theory, could be pro-European without completely endorsing austerity and market deregulation. Something that the [mainstream] left has not done,” Ruzza added.

While this is one of the reasons why the left has lost much of its traditional electorate, more radical alternatives are fragmented, according to Ruzza.

“Corbyn is very different from Melenchon and the Italian left,” Ruzza explained.

“Melenchon’s is a sort of anti-Europeanism which, in some ways, was perceived as concerning by a number of working or lower-middle classes because the party embraced, for instance, some yellow vest groups and was seen by some as too exposed to the possibility of violence and connections with the far-right,” Ruzza added. 

Melenchon’s La France Insoumise is currently polling at an average of nine percent, far behind President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, both polling at over 20 percent.

“Corbyn’s anti-Europeanism is old-fashioned Trotskyism,” continued Ruzza, “based on a belief that socialism can be better realised within [the borders of] the nation-state than in this capitalist club which is the European Union.” 


There are eight pan-European political groups that MEPs can choose to join.

Most parties labelled as left-wing populists are part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group in the European Parliament, which currently counts 52 out 751 seats.

According to projections, this group will retain roughly the same number of seats. 

Besides Podemos and La France Insoumise, it includes parties like the German Die Linke (“The Left”) and the Greek Syriza (“The Coalition of the Radical Left”). 

By comparison, Salvini’s new alliance alone – which does not include Orban’s Fidesz or the Polish Law and Justice – is projected to gain 73 seats.

The UK’s Labour Party is part of the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. 

Its ambivalent stance on Brexit and on a second referendum, partly due to Corbyn’s own Euroscepticism, has led it to currently lag 10 points behind Nigel Farage’s right-wing Brexit Party, which is projected to bag the most votes in Britain, polling at more than 30 percent.

Can the EU be reformed?

Like the right-wingers, larger parties and a galaxy of smaller groups on the left, especially in Western Europe, have also spoken of a need to reclaim sovereignty from the Brussels establishment.

But they start from a fundamentally different perspective.

“An exclusivist message, of retreat into the nation-state, is easier to articulate for the right than it is for the left,” Ruzza argued. “The left has always been inspired by Marxist values of international solidarity. In fact, it was never the case that those values were fully embraced by the working classes.”

For Melenchon and others, reclaiming popular sovereignty means leaving European treaties, which he says “have frozen economic policy in the absurd dogma of ordoliberalism – Germany’s variant of social liberalism so dear to the Merkel government.”

Cooperation should exist away from those treaties which have cemented Franco-German dominance within the EU at the expense of other countries, particularly in Southern Europe, they say.

In the summer of 2015, Greece’s then-Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis lashed out at the country’s creditors.

“What they’re doing with Greece has a name: terrorism,” he said, when the Syriza government was forced to impose austerity on its citizens in the thick of the country’s economic crisis. 

“What Brussels and the troika want today is for the yes [vote] to win so they could humiliate the Greeks. Why did they force us to close the banks? To instil fear in people. And spreading fear is called terrorism,” he said, in a column for The Guardian. 


Varoufakis, who resigned over Greece’s bailout terms in 2015, founded a transnational leftist movement which aims at democratising the EU, DiEM25 and will take part in the elections for the first time.

However, polls show that support for it so far is negligible.

Others believe that reforming the EU is impossible.

“In order to modify the treaties you need the unanimity of all member states,” Samuele Mazzolini, a lecturer in international studies at the University of Bath and cofounder of Common Sense, an association that aims at promoting “democratic populism”, told Al Jazeera. “There are countries that benefit from the treaties the way they are.

“I don’t feel anti-European. I believe that the foundations of European collaboration, crystallised in the treaties of the European Union, are the enemies of labour, of the people’s demands, of the possibility of a politics based on growth and employment, geared at the well-being of European citizens, especially in Southern Europe.”

During a recent debate among candidates for the the presidency of the European Commission, the nominee for the socialist group, Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, hinted the centre-left bloc – which is projected to lose seats but remain the second-largest in the European Parliament – will seek an alliance “from Macron to [Greek Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras” to challenge the dominance of the centre-right European People’s Party. 

However, this would imply cooperation between Macron and Melenchon.

“We should stop obsessing about the populist vote,” Ruzza argued. “When we have a problem with the populist vote, that is 15 or 20 percent. The real issue is with the other 80 percent that has not been able to find a credible and persuasive recipe.”

Source: Al Jazeera