In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the socialist Red-Green Alliance and the far-right anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party appeared on camera together, issuing a common call for Denmark to follow Britain out of the EU. The prospects for real left-wing engagement in EU politics seemed spectacularly grim. Recently, however, the red-greens have wisely concluded from the chaos of the Brexit negotiations that now is not the best time to entertain a “Dexit.” And in Sunday’s elections, the party won its first seat in the European Parliament, ousting the Eurosceptic coalition that it supported until recently. It did so on a platform of ambitious European collaboration on climate, social policy, and infrastructure, in stark contrast to the empty opposition of the Eurosceptics. One seat may not sound like a lot, but given that it is all that the EU-critical Danish left has had for 20 years, it is significant that it is now occupied by a party which is starting to take a more nuanced attitude to European politics. The moderate socialist SF also won two seats.
Meanwhile, the Danish People’s Party plummeted from 4 seats to a single one, going from being the largest Danish party to being one of the smallest. And on a European scale, the usual mainstream parties have lost their majority in Parliament, forcing them to negotiate more broadly than usual. Are we witnessing an unprecedented opportunity for institutional change in the EU, and an emboldened left ready to seize it?
Looking at the bigger picture, there is much to temper such optimism. First of all, the most likely partner of the EPP and the SD is the strengthened ALDE group, which in Denmark possesses 6 out of 14 seats, all from current or former governing centrist parties. The stunted growth of the far-right seems to be a peculiarly Nordic phenomenon: elsewhere, Salvini’s Lega and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National have been more apt than the left at speaking to those disillusioned by the status quo.
But perhaps most importantly, the enthusiasm about the advance of the Greens has overshadowed the fact that the left lacks a common program just as much as the scattered far-right parties. Together, the Greens and GUE/NGL hold almost as many seats as ALDE. But behind the veneer of agreement on climate policy, there is likely to be sharp divisions among the two groups on other central issues. Even inside the socialist group, there is hardly any clear agreement about whether to approach the EU as a neoliberal aberration or as a genuine platform for socialist politics.
So while things are likely to change in Parliament, there is no saying how much, and whether it is going to be for the better. But the relative success of the Danish socialists presents a glimmer of hope. If the left is able to unite around a common vision for Europe that offers a genuine alternative to the far right while rejecting the watered-out compromises of the centrists, this may not only be an important contribution to the much-needed politicization of European democracy. It could also help dispel the left’s own understandable skepticism about the viability of the EU as a worthwhile political battlefield.
Of course, such a vision has yet to be formulated. For now we on the left have to contend with an uncertain future. Much can go wrong, but there is also, perhaps for the first time, an infinitely small chance of real change. There is important political work to be done in the coming years—not only in Parliament, but perhaps more importantly in what looks to be a reinvigorated European public sphere. In other words, this is surely not the right time to follow the Brits.