The Reorganization of the European Party System

Lucio Levi
Member of WFM Council and UEF Federal Committee, Former President of UEF Italy

It is impossible to predict what the new year will bring. But it is clear that we are witnessing a crisis of the world order comparable to the Great Depression of 1929, which represented the prelude to WWII. Only thirty years ago the US and USSR celebrated their reconciliation which ended the Cold War, and Gorbachev opened  in the Soviet Union the transition toward democracy. In contradiction with this trend, today’s international relations are characterized by the revival of nationalism. Russia is regressing back to the closed society of the Soviet Union and is imposing again an authoritarian regime within its domains. These authoritarian tendencies represent a real threat for constitutional democracies, as shown by Trump’s coup d’état attempt of January 6, 2021 and Bolsonaro’s alike attempt of January 8, 2023 in Brazil. The defeat of both of them in the recent political elections and the solid international alignment which combats the Russian aggression against Ukraine shows the resilience capacity of democracies against the challenge of autocracies. The violation of the European security order has strengthened the awareness of the need of a collective response to Russia’s war but has not produced a timely foreign policy reaction nor a clear inversion of the ongoing trend. Moreover, the old privileged Franco-German relationship, on which the EU’s stability has rested, looks dangerously frayed. As there are not the conditions for starting negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the situation is likely to remain unchanged till the European elections.

Indeed, preparation for the 2024 European elections has already started. The EU is facing a reorganisation and restructuring of its party system. The reason for this lies in the fact that, for the first time since the European election by direct universal suffrage in 1979 took place, the two parties that have governed together over the Strasbourg assembly for the last 40 years — the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) — might not have enough votes to command a majority in the European Parliament. Italian Prime Minister and President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Giorgia Meloni met twice with the EPP’s leader Manfred Weber in Rome as the two leaders work toward an alliance in view of the 2024 European elections, however distant the latter may appear. It is to be noted that the rapprochement between the EPP and the ECR groups should be related to the formation of a centre-right alignment with a majoritarian vocation able to win the European elections. Moreover, a similar alliance has been established in the Czech Republic with ODS, the party of the Czech Premier Petr Fiala. Weber last December during a meeting of the EPP asserted that only those who are for Europe, for Ukraine and for the rule of law are eligible as potential partners of the EPP. At the same time, the partners of the above-mentioned alliance have marked their distance from the far-right parties such as the French Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, the German Alternative für Deutschland and the Italian League, assembled in the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. The significance of this move is clear: it marks a step towards the integration of Brothers of Italy (the political party led by Giorgia Meloni) into the democratic framework and the coalition of centre-right political parties. Although divided internally on this option, the EPP is seeking to maintain a dominant position on the centre-right political alignment. At the same time, Weber is seeking to reach, in competition with the party of Socialists and Democrats, an agreement with Renew, the liberal group strongly influenced by Emmanuel Macron, whose commitment aims to bankrupt the EPP's and ECR's design to reach the majority in the European Parliament, to confirm von der Leyen at the top of the European Commission and defeat Metsola's candidacy to that office.

The responsibility to govern Italy has obliged Meloni to address the problem of the respect of European agreements and not alienate the support of the European Union’s partners. To reach this goal, the Italian leader has changed her orientation toward the EU and the Atlantic Alliance.

On the other hand the EPP has renounced the traditional alliance with the Socialist group in the European Parliament, which has governed the EU since the first direct election of the European Parliament. The collapse of the European People’s Party coalition with the Socialists and Democrats is not a negative novelty since it opens the way to the formation of a left-right cleavage similar to the American party system. Freedom House's annual report on the development of freedom around the world reveals that democratic freedoms have been in steady decline for 17 consecutive years. Only 20 percent of the world's population now lives in countries classified by Freedom House as “free", less than half the amount in 2005 (46%), while in 2022 41% live in “not-free” countries (in 2005 18%) and 38% live in “partly free” countries (in 2005 18%).

With the European elections on the horizon, the perspective of a new alliance, that can spring from the changing political position of the Italian Five Stars Movement, is materialising. Originally born as a populist and anti-establishment party, claiming to be neither left nor right, has recently undergone a severe decline in the support of the voters (from 33% to 10%). Therefore, it has adopted a left-leaning program. Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the Five Stars Movement, is actively working to create a coalition with the Greens and the Social Christian movement, represented by the left wing of the former Christian Democratic Party, today a component of the S&D group.

Lastly, the Liberal-democratic group (ALDE) aims to occupy the role of the Parliament’s new centre under the aegis of the French President Emmanuel Macron, who has the historical opportunity to federate the liberal-democratic forces and lead a centre coalition, which could play the role of needle of the scale of the European party system between the centre-right and centre-left coalitions.

This scenario is a mere hypothesis which simply describes manoeuvres aiming at reshuffling the nascent European party system and more specifically outlines how parties can change their position in response to the challenges raised by the upcoming European elections.

The competition between democratic and autocratic regimes has a global dimension, but since democracies are a small minority in the world, this cannot be the sector where it is appropriate to relaunch multilateralism and promote international cooperation. However, there are other sectors where international cooperation can help to successfully solve global issues. One example are the environmental transition and sustainable development.

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