In Europe, the Liberal Center Is Going Extinct

Europe’s centrists often claim to defend liberal values against populist threats. Yet ahead of June’s EU elections, liberals have adopted far-right talking points on everything from the climate to migration — and it’s not saving their weak poll numbers.

French far-right Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen (L) shakes hands with French president Emmanuel Macron after talks at the presidential palace in Paris, on June 21, 2022. (Ludovic Marin / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

Even before this June’s elections to the European parliament, the EU has lost its center. It seems the bloc can no longer count on the EU-wide liberal political group, known as Renew, as the needle of the scales.

The most recent example was France’s president Emmanuel Macron. He promised to beat the far right — only to pass an immigration law reliant on the Rassemblement National’s support. Whether due to his neoliberal policies, his rhetoric now hybridized with far-right propaganda, or outright complicity, Macron has paved the way for Marine Le Pen to succeed him as president. We could say the same about Renew’s main Dutch affiliate (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD) with regard to that country’s perennial anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders.

The paradox is that the liberals who were supposed to act as a barrier to the far right are themselves providing it with a Trojan horse. Some of Europe’s most influential centrist parties and governments are facilitating the normalization of the far right, or even incorporating its propaganda into their own. When it comes to antisocial and anticlimate policies, liberal parties like the German Free Democratic Party (FDP) bear a heavy responsibility.

Surely, not all liberal forces are endorsing a far-right agenda. But this internal contradiction could trigger the implosion of the liberal group in the European Parliament. Today, the signs of a split are already visible — and there are also those who are rooting for it to happen.

The Trojan Horse

“But we mustn’t fall into the trap of the populists or extremes,” Emmanuel Macron said in his speech at La Sorbonne in September 2017. “We need to overhaul the European project, through and with the people, with much greater democratic stringency.” France’s two-term president has betrayed both his promises: to stop the advance of the far right and to cultivate democracy in Europe, or even just in his own country. Instead, during France’s 2022 elections — first the presidential contest, then the vote to elect the National Assembly — Le Pen increased both her support and her presence in French institutions.

Despite their disappointments and frustrations, many left-wing voters voted for Macron in the runoff of the presidential election, as he himself has publicly acknowledged. But the opposite was not true: parliamentary elections are also held in two rounds, and when it came to choosing between the ecological left (the alliance known as Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, NUPES) and the far right, many prominent Macron supporters favored abstaining instead of stopping the Rassemblement National. The self-styled liberals preferred to demonize the Left, which represented a real alternative to their neoliberal policies, rather than curb the far right, as they had been promising to do for years.

“There is no more cordon sanitaire,” as Kévin Mauvieux, one of the eighty-nine MPs for Le Pen’s party triumphantly put it in July 2022. A month earlier, at the Elysée Palace, President Macron had been photographed while shaking hands with the leader of the Rassemblement National, after he had sounded out her willingness to be part of a government of national unity. That handshake on June 21, 2022 is but a stark representation of the relationship between the two; suffice it to say that Le Pen managed to elect two members of her party, Sébastien Chenu and Hélène Laporte, as vice presidents of the National Assembly, in a vote reliant on members of Macron’s own Renaissance party.

It is quite striking to see the much-heralded antipopulist Macron as the great facilitator of the far right. And yet, it must also be said that France is by no means a unique case. On the contrary, there is a repeating pattern. In October 2022, the Swedish Liberals (Liberalerna) joined Ulf Kristersson’s cabinet. In Sweden, the government coalition enjoys the external support of the Sweden Democrats, formerly a neo-Nazi movement. Again, the liberals no longer have any inhibition against the far right.

An Illiberal Twist

The drift to the right by liberals in Europe, however, is not only about the patterns of their alliances. Form goes together with substance. The Dutch case well illustrates this.

After shoring up their consensus by building a narrative against “sovereigntists” and Euroskeptics, liberal parties that were once considered moderates are now making a deal with the devil: they think they can survive by coming to terms with the far right.

Geert Wilders was once the epitome of what a European liberal could well loathe: Islamophobic, xenophobic, allergic to diversity, eager to get the Netherlands out of the European Union, as well as a forerunner of Donald Trump, with whom he shares a blond forelock and whose aggressive populism he anticipated. Naturally, Wilders’s identity politics are combined with unbridled neoliberalism, in a refrain typical of the far right: even in his last election campaign this past fall, he promised to cut taxes, as well as measures like taking away funds from arts and culture. This neoliberal agenda explains certain affinities with the liberal space. But so far it had certainly not been enough to normalize such a character.

Yet even before November’s elections, in which this Dutch Trump emerged as the country’s leading political force, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, who took over the leadership of the VVD from outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, had said she was ready for dialogue with Wilders’s far right, too.

“The turning point in Geert Wilders’ path to Dutch electoral triumph (if not power) is now thought to have been the decision by the leader of the conservative VVD party to open the door to Wilders’ party as a coalition partner,” Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde wrote. “It was at this moment that many voters calculated that they might as well vote for Wilders as for the VVD.” Mudde draws the conclusion that liberal-democratic values must be “asserted rather than assumed”: they must be defended also against “the radicalised political mainstream that has largely normalised [the far right].” This is an argument we can readily share — and it also brings us back to the case of Macron’s camp.

In 2021, France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, defined Marine Le Pen as “too soft” on Islam. In more recent times, the French government, the president, and his Renaissance party tabled a new immigration law whose contents were so infused with far-right propaganda that Le Pen considered it her own “ideological victory.” Not only did Rassemblement National MPs vote in favor of the government’s bill, but their support was decisive to it passing.

A Neoliberal Agenda

The European Council on Foreign Relations forecast for the 2024 European Parliament elections shows how difficult this vote will be for the liberal Renew group — set to fall from its previous 101 seats to 86 in the 720-member parliament — and for its French affiliate Renaissance. The Rassemblement National is projected to be the winner — growing from twenty-three to twenty-five seats — while Renaissance declines from twenty-three to eighteen seats. These predictions partly explain Macron’s moves, first chasing the far right, then playing as an illusionist.

The appointment of Gabriel Attal as France’s new prime minister in January is, indeed, an attempt to sell the voters the illusion that the past can repeat itself. Having started his political career in the Socialist Party, and being a charismatic figure popular among the French, the new premier Attal can still attempt the catchall approach that already worked for Macron in his early days. But while Attal is effectively a Macron clone, we are not in 2017 anymore: it is now evident that Macron is not the bulwark against the far right, but rather is the Right.

The neoliberal agenda, as embodied, for example, by last year’s unpopular pension reform, goes hand in hand with an increasingly illiberal attitude. Right-wing interior minister Darmanin — who is so good at getting police to amicably escort tractors during agribusiness protests — has not hesitated in forcibly suppressing social and climate demonstrations. In order to push through the raising of the retirement age, the government used all the levers at its disposal, to the detriment of France’s democratic stability. The so-called liberal French government (Darmanin most of all) has also criminalized environmental organizations — “ecoterrorists,” as the minister calls them — and those standing for human rights, including the historic Ligue des droits de l’homme.

The Explosion of the Center

Despite the French president’s now well-established tendency to dissemble and change his clothes, there is a coherence in his neoliberal agenda, which brings him closer to the Right as well as to other important parties in the liberal group in the EU.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is one of them. Its leader Christian Lindner’s pro-austerity push from the German Ministry of Finance is one of the main culprits in watering down the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact, a set of rules that constrain public spending and thus effectively undermine welfare. The European Trade Union Confederation warned that “EU member states could be forced to collectively cut their budgets by more than 100 billion Euro next year under the Council’s plans to reintroduce austerity measures.”

If the new pact is born with tired austerian formulas — and if the EU is still governed by austerity policies — this owes much to the German liberals’ contribution. And just as the French president boycotted some important green dossiers in the EU (such as pushing for nuclear and gas to be considered as “green” in the so-called EU taxonomy), so did Lindner.

The Green Deal — which has become the favorite scapegoat of the Christian-democratic European People’s Party (EPP) as well as the far right — is a good litmus test of the precarious unity of the liberal group in Europe. In July 2023, when EPP leader Manfred Weber tested the possibility of forming a broad right-wing majority in Brussels by attacking the “Nature Restoration Law,” the Finnish liberal MEP Nils Torvalds told me he had to “play with the Rubik’s cube,” i.e. mount an ingenious operation to find a compromise so that the liberals would not give Weber the numbers he needed to carry through his plans. In that case, the Rubik’s cube was solved, and Weber was defeated. But when it comes to climate issues, Renew often splits.

In 2017, Macron had transformed his party, also at the European level, into a centrist “catchall” vehicle of “both Left and Right.” But it would be naive to believe — as Macron would tell us — that we are still in the same situation today as seven years ago. The cordon sanitaire has been dismantled, and the liberals illiberally flirt with the far right. After June’s elections, we will see the true nature of the EU liberal group. And it cannot be ruled out that we will also see its explosion.