The European elections on May 23 mark a point of transition in European politics. More than 50 % of Europeans eligible to vote made use of the opportunity. In some countries, the numbers were even higher. In Belgium 88.5% went to vote, in Denmark 66%, in Spain 64%, and in Germany 61%. These are remarkable figures. They show that for the first time in its history, the parliament has come to be recognized by a large number of Europeans as an important component of the political structure of the EU. Not only the parliament but also the EU as a whole has thereby undoubtedly gained in democratic legitimacy.
But something even more important has happened in this election. Dire predictions about the inevitable rise of the radical right have not been borne out. Yes, right-wing parties did gain ground in some countries (Italy, UK), but they declined in some others (Germany, Spain). At the same time Left-Green won surprising new ground. Some commentators have bewailed that this development will undermine the political center and thus threaten the political stability of the EU. We may, in reality, be seeing the emergence of a new political order.
The established conservative and social-democratic parties of Europe have so far failed to pursue an effective course against the rise of the new right. It does not help to characterize this new right as populist, since that term can signify a multiplicity of different political positions. These “populists” are better described as localists. They hark back to the nation and the idea of national sovereignty; they try to construct walls against the outside world; they want to keep immigrants at bay; they seek to uphold traditional local values; and above all they oppose “globalization.” It is against this localism that Left-Green defines its agenda. Climate change cannot be combatted locally; it is a global affair; it demands international co-operation; our natural environment is the globe; all of humanity is bound together in the need to preserve the environment.
Environmental politics has, moreover, science on its side whereas the new right only has its little, shopworn, pitiful prejudices. But let’s not be too summary in that judgment. There is certainly value in tradition and in local cultures. Environmentalists need to learn that in addition to preserving natural habitats, we must also preserve cultural habitats. This insight is needed, if we are to drain the waters of the new right.