Europe’s Mood of War Is Whitewashing the Far Right

Ahead of June’s EU elections, centrist politicians are again calling for a vote to stop the far right. But the far right has already won mainstream credibility — and it’s because it accepts the EU’s increasing devotion of public funds to the defense industry.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen talking to media on September 7, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. (Thierry Monasse / Getty Images)

Forget the “cordon sanitaire” against the far right. Today, European neoliberalism is defended by a cordon into which such forces have already been integrated. The European Union’s future is being built well before citizens actually cast their votes on the first weekend of June: the paradigm shift is here already.

Until the 2019 European Parliament election, it still made sense to talk about a barrier against the far right. Now it is completely broken. One of the main reasons why the so-called center right has come to terms with far-right leaders such as Giorgia Meloni is their common pro-business purpose.

Amidst the campaign for June’s election, Brussels’s attitude toward investing public money in the defense industry, and European leaders’ push for a “war economy,” don’t just show that they prioritize the profits of a few. The building of a “wartime” narrative and the call for unity also serve to preempt criticism and help pave the way for forthcoming decisions and appointments in the EU institutions.

“At the top of the European institutions, a less ideological approach is needed,” French president Emmanuel Macron recently said. He favors a top EU position for Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank (ECB) chief. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is campaigning for a second term, which in her case means fronting EU policies ever more to the advantage of corporations; she had done it already with Big Pharma, and now it’s the turn of the agro-industry and the defense sector.

Even if many don’t realize it, an increasingly neoliberal Europe is being built before our eyes — and its political leadership now includes the far right. But proposing an alternative has already become more difficult. While reactionaries are on the march, a progressive front against them is sorely lacking.

The Neolib Trinity

There is much talk about von der Leyen, Draghi, and outgoing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte taking on key roles after June. The trio share a remarkable compatibility with the neoliberal pact. Although voters have to wait until June 6–9 before they pick the new EU Parliament, European leaders are already negotiating what will come after.

EU politics have a well-known unwritten rule with a German name: the so-called spitzenkandidat (“lead candidate”) process, which implies that the presidency of the European Commission should be entrusted to the frontrunner from the most-voted political family. This would suggest that European voters have direct control over at least one of the leading positions in Brussels. But in real (political) life that’s not how things work.

This was flagrantly obvious in 2019, when the spitzenkandidat from the European People’s Party (EPP) — Manfred Weber, today the leader of this center-right grouping — was outmaneuvered by Angela Merkel. During the negotiation among heads of government, the then German chancellor — and EPP member — Merkel imposed her defense minister, von der Leyen, as president of the EU Commission. She’s now running for a second term, as the EPP’s chosen spitzenkandidat, despite many delegates from her political family preferring not to support her.

National leaders are even more influential when it comes to the renewal of the presidency of the European Council, which brings together the twenty-seven heads of state and government to define the European Union’s political priorities. Draghi seems a likely pick for this position, although his sponsors prefer not to endorse him publicly: premature moves would squander his chances.

NATO will also change its secretary general in 2024, later than expected. It was no accident that incumbent Jens Stoltenberg has extended his mandate — his staying in post till this fall will allow top EU and NATO picks to be decided in combination. Today, Rutte, who as Dutch prime minister stood out as a “frugal” defender of austerity, is putting himself forward for this NATO role.

There are three key dates to see who is going to hold the EU’s steering wheel. From June 6–9, Europeans will vote. On June 17, an informal meeting of heads of government will enter into negotiations. But the unofficial time for the decision is right now: for there are already intense behind-the-scenes talks. Von der Leyen discussed this question with Meloni during her Italian trip in January. The Italian premier in turn talked with Macron about appointments at the last European Council. And the French president had negotiated with Olaf Scholz a few days before, when he went to Berlin.

The waltz of convergences is underway. The final outcome is subject to unforeseen factors until the end, but the neoliberal assumptions of the main players are set. After the EU and its leaders preached austerity during the years of the financial crisis, the pandemic provided a trigger to increase public spending not in support of welfare but to restore an ailing capitalist system.

Here is the scenario that is currently being worked on. With von der Leyen remaining as the president of the Commission, EU policies will be increasingly biased toward corporations. Already during the pandemic crisis, von der Leyen acted as a strong ally of Pfize-BioNTech, using private communications (texts and calls) with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla to negotiate a higher-price vaccines contract; the European Public Prosecutor’s Office is investigating her over “interference in public functions, destruction of SMS, corruption and conflict of interest.” At that point, the EU Commission president also hindered the Trips Waiver, a temporary patent waiver aimed to reduce the huge inequalities in global access to vaccines. During her ongoing spell in office, corporations have privileged access to decisions in Brussels.

With the campaign for a second term already in the pipeline, last fall this attitude sharpened, with the aim of attracting EPP’s major voters, i.e., businesses. In September, the Commission president announced the appointment of an EU small and medium enterprises envoy. She also asked ex-ECB chief and former Italian premier Draghi to prepare a report on the future of European competitiveness, stating that “a competitiveness check should be conducted on every new piece of legislation.”

Then winter came, and it was the season of agribusiness: Copa Cogeca, the most powerful farmers’ lobby, and the tractor protesters were greeted with deference in Brussels. Quite the opposite, climate activists were criminalized by European governments. The Green Deal, the only patch of progressive color in von der Leyen’s presidency, ended up faded by blows of derogations. Plans for the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) — whose green goals were considered so much “blah blah blah” by Greta Thunberg — were further cleansed of climate issues.

At the beginning of March, EPP delegates had to meet in Bucharest to endorse von der Leyen as their frontrunner. The Commission president showed up with a big gift. On the eve of the EPP congress, the EU commission launched a “new defense industrial strategy.” The legislative package is a wink at the defense industry as well as at Macron: the French president is pushing to inject funds into the sector, and von der Leyen will need his support to be confirmed for a second term.

However, Macron’s office aims to achieve the best negotiating conditions, and that is why at the end of March, when journalists asked the French president about von der Leyen’s future, he said that “the EU presidency must not be hyper-politicized: the president must rise above the parties.” This statement recalls the main argument with which the former Goldman Sachs man and former ECB chief Draghi was called into the Italian political arena to become prime minister. The callback is not accidental.

Since 2023, Macron’s entourage has considered Draghi an option for a top EU job, in the first instance as president of the European Council. The plan is precisely to propose him as a somewhat impartial name, as the former savior of the euro and the future savior of a Europe trapped amidst multiple crises, wars, and rising right-wing forces.

Rally ’Round the Corp

Thus the vicious circle closes: after austerity and anti-social policies have increased support for right-wing populism, another dose of neoliberalism is proposed as the medicine.

There is a reason why the word “resilience” is so fashionable in Brussels, after the globalization of capitalism has shown its full limits. Instead of extending social rights, strengthening welfare, and redistributing wealth, the rabbit in Draghi’s hat will consist of increasing EU’s public debt in order to aid business. No matter if austerity cuts social expenses: paradoxically, public funding can be used without restraint when it helps global private players to perform well and capitalism to reconvert itself once more.

With the alibi of preparing the report on the future of European competitiveness, Mr “whatever it takes,” as Draghi is known for his response to the Eurozone crisis of the 2010s, is already having close discussions with European governments to whom he is explaining how to manage global challenges: with an “enormous amount” of investment; and “public money will never be enough.”

Draghi and Macron — two figures who are certainly receptive to the demands of the big players in finance and the global economy — have shared the idea of new, common debt, jointly issued by EU member states along the lines of “Next Generation EU,” since they sat together at the European Council as national leaders. Then as now, they have to face Berlin’s reluctance in this regard.

Launching the “war economy” and referring to “European boots on the ground in Ukraine,” the French president played a lead role in generating hype around the increase in military spending, and in promoting the narrative about the risk of EU becoming directly involved in a war. This trend is due not only to Macron’s love for defense corporations.

It is important to note that the European center left is also aligned with this focus on the defense industry. At the beginning of march, Socialist leaders gathered in Rome for their European party congress. German chancellor Scholz spoke in favor of increasing military spending. The Danish premier, Mette Frederiksen — also a name in the running for the presidency of the European Council — is ready to cut welfare for this purpose: “Europe must curb welfare spending to deter Russia with prolonged defense funding increases,” she told the Financial Times.

Political scientists usually refer to the so-called “rally ’round the flag effect” to explain how, faced with a perception of external threat such as war, the entire nation identifies with the leader and critical attention is reduced.

There doesn’t need to be a war for that, although war is all around us today. Thirteen years ago, in Italy, the rise of the spread (the gap between German and Italian bond yields, taken for a measure of investor confidence in Italy) was presented by mainstream media and politicians as a cataclysmic event. This framing paved the way for the rise to government of Mario Monti, a former EU Commissioner, and his “blood and tears” austerity policies.

Already back then, the call for a “technical” (rather than party-political) government was made. In fact, anything but merely “technical” in its interventions, Monti’s leadership was politically oriented by a neoliberal compass, as could be seen from his government’s austerity policies, including a disputed pension reform. Becoming prime minister in 2021, Draghi was presented to Italian public opinion as a savior who would get the crisis-hit parties of a bind. The same framing could now be used at the European level: this summer Macron will perhaps describe him as the new messiah.

The expected electoral success of the far right is going to favor this type of narrative, because it will provide the bogeyman, or to put it another way, a “threat” that favors the rally ’round the flag effect. But this is a game in which each side plays their role: when it comes to neoliberal policies, the far right and the mainstream parties are on the same page.

The dismantling of the cordon sanitaire was triggered by the European People’s Party three years ago, when it began a tactical alliance with Meloni. This cooperation is mainly based on a common neoliberal attitude. Italy’s prime minister goes beyond laissez-faire: she often says that the state “should not bother those who have a business.” After including a criminal shield for tax evaders in a decree, during a trip to Sicily Meloni referred to the fight against tax evasion by shopkeepers as a case of pizzo di stato: that is, she compared taxes to a state-imposed mafia racket. While the far right shows sympathy for tax evaders, no sympathy goes to those on the tougher end of things. Meloni abolished the so-called “reddito di cittadinanza,” a social safety net that benefitted vulnerable groups, and she used International Workers’ Day to issue a decree that further reduces restrictions on precarious contracts.

In February, in the European Parliament, Reconquête — the xenophobic and Islamophobic party in France led by Éric Zemmour and Marion Maréchal — joined Meloni’s European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping, which is a bridge to the EPP. This is only apparently paradoxical. Even though it is the most far-right force in French electoral politics, Zemmour’s party “has a neoliberal approach and it exploits a process of radicalization of the bourgeoisie,” Jean-Yves Camus, one of the leading experts on the French far right, told me.

Despite the rhetoric of leaders like Macron and Weber, who still devote inflammatory words against the threat of the far right, they are the ones who normalized it. The neoliberal perspective is the trait d’union that binds them together. Immediately after June’s elections, the far right is going to provide the self-defined centrists a perfect alibi to divert the EU in an even more neoliberal direction. It’ll be a call to “rally ‘round the corporations” that European policy increasingly serves.