[ANALYSIS] How the populist storm is set to undermine PL and PN allies in Europe

The forthcoming MEP elections are likely to condition political debate on issues like migration for the coming months as anti-establishment and far-right movements are poised to make gains, further weakening the hold of the two main European parties

In the first European elections in Malta in 2004, voters were invited to vote PN for the sheer reason that the European People’s Party was the “largest group” inside the European Parliament. Coming out of the anti-European wilderness, the Labour Party was also keen on affirming its links with the Socialist group of which Joseph Muscat was a prominent MEP.

But 15 years later Maltese MEPs may well wake up to a new reality where populist parties and undermine the hegemony of the two big groupings.

The forthcoming MEP elections are likely to condition political debate on issues like migration for the coming months as anti-establishment and far-right movements are poised to make gains, further weakening the hold of the two main European families, namely the centre-left Socialists and Democrats and the European People’s Party.

This is bound to make mainstream parties less likely to accept any changes, which may see them accept migrants from other countries.

Also weighing on these elections is talk of a new pan-European centrist alignment pushed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who may face a choice between joining the liberal ALDE or attempt to reshape European politics by forging alliances with parties currently represented in both EPP and the Socialists.

Yet it remains doubtful whether an alignment of parties that pushed through austerity and de-regularised markets, is best placed to confront the rise of the far-right in Europe.

Although Maltese MEPs have little numerical impact on the balance of power in the European parliament, Muscat enjoys clout as one of four serving Socialist prime ministers in a political landscape which has shifted to the right.

Any further setback by the socialists at European level may prompt Muscat to explore new alliances, which may boost his European ambitions. Muscat was keen on tweeting a photo with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in last week’s migration summit.

However, photographs with French President Emmanuel Macron were also given prominence in official press releases.

Muscat’s decision to accept 230 migrants stranded on the Lifeline boat, may also have been influenced by the direct intervention of the French President in forging a coalition of the willing to redistribute migrants among eight European nations, apart from Malta.

Muscat himself is well to the right of most of his European Socialist partners and could fit in a more centrist alliance which could have some of the hallmarks of the alliance of “moderates and progressives” Muscat crafted before the 2013 election.

Can populists challenge EPP dominance?

With the socialists braced for setbacks in France, Italy and Germany while losing the British contingent of Labour MEPs thanks to Brexit, the EPP is braced to remain the largest group even if they lose support to the far-right.

But can they lose dominance if an alliance is forged between the various constellations of conservative, anti-establishment, right-wing and populist parties?

One major problem is that, so far, attempts to group political parties to the right of the EPP together have failed. Marine Le Pen’s makeover of the National Front into the more moderate National Rally may facilitate cooperation with conservative parties like the German AFD.

Currently Marine Le Pen’s Party is represented in the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group along Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the Austrian Freedom Party.

But the German AFD, which may make major gains in forthcoming MEP elections, do not form part of the alliance and are considered to be economically neo-liberal in contrast to Le Pen’s economic populism.

One major incognita is the destiny of the European Conservative and Reformist Group, which presently includes the British Tories along conservative nationalists in Poland and anti-immigrant but mildly Eurosceptic parties in Sweden and Denmark that shun any association with the cruder racism of the far-right.

With the departure of the Tories due to Brexit, these parties may either seek new recruits, defect to a more conservative-friendly EPP or team up with the ENF group.

The Italian 5 Star Movement currently allied to the British UKIP, votes with the left on most issues in the European Parliament with the significant exception of foreign policy where it is aligned with Putin’s Russia.

But as it now governs Italy with Salvini’s Lega, it represents another incognita. The party will have to choose between remaining alone or replicating the Italian experiment in Europe.

Ultimately another obstacle is that far-right parties tend to fight for their own country’s national interest and are therefore unlikely to join others on a pan-European platform.

For example on migration, far-right parties in central Europe support sending migrants back to Italy despite the protests of Italy’s far-right government.

Therefore, the European right-wing may be destined to remain a disruptive force at European level with far-right parties more interested in taking a share of power in the nation states.

This makes it unlikely for all forces to the right of the EPP to unite behind one ‘Spitzenkandidat’ candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president.

It is also unlikely for any new European centrist group to present a candidate for the presidency.

This means that the debate between Spitzenkandidaten will be restricted to the established European families, thus giving them an advantage.

Will Malta follow the wave?

In the last MEP elections in Malta, the far-right Imperium Europa, led by Norman Lowell, garnered 2.7% of the vote, nearly overtaking the Greens as Malta’s third party in the European elections.

Yet since then, the Maltese far-right has failed to make any significant inroads and lacks a charismatic figurehead.

But with no government at stake and an increased likelihood of migrant arrivals in the next months, nothing can be excluded.

Yet one drawback for the Maltese far-right is that their ‘idol’ in Italy, Matteo Salvini, is expecting Malta to accept more immigrants.

This may act as a cautionary tale on how the emergence of a far-right in Europe may actually make Malta more vulnerable to the influx of migrants from Africa.

The Nationalist Party may also seek to capitalise on public opinion polls showing concern on migration issues, but Muscat’s balancing acts and ability to play the strongman (for example with international NGOs who pick up migrants in the Med) in sensitive moments may neutralise these attempts.

Muscat may also turn the table on the PN by pointing at the inertia of its European partners to support Malta’s calls for burden sharing.

As things stand, it is extremely likely that the PN will try to milk the migration issue and Muscat is also likely to play along, fully knowing that he can play a different tune to different audiences.

For Muscat it may also be a welcome distraction from the corruption issue.

But buoyed by economic growth, he is also likely to fight the election on local issues, which have nothing to do with the European issues.

The elections may well be transformed in a referendum on whether Muscat should stay at the helm of the result. Yet, with no government at stake, voters who still distrust the PN but have reservations on various aspects of Muscat’s policies, may also be tempted to abstain, vote third parties or even vote for PN candidates to clip his wings.

These may also include voters concerned with rising social inequalities, corruption and environmental degradation that do not feel represented by either party.

Will AD or the PD find the right candidates to tap in to this reserve of increasingly vocal but marginalised voters? It remains highly unlikely that the third party vote will undermine the dominance of the two Maltese major parties that will most probably share the spoils with Labour having a greater chance of a fourth seat.

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