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A humanist future for Europe

A humanist future for Europe

Following last week’s European elections, Nick Spencer unpacks the results, the rise of the far–right, and Europe’s humanist future. 11/06/2024

There must be something in the air. Some kind of political gambling virus maybe. Because a month or so after Rishi Sunak called an election despite being 20 points behind in the polls, Emmanuel Macron has done the same in France.

Well, technically not the same. Sunak only had months left to play with and Macron’s presidency is not up for grabs. The coming French election is parliamentary, for control of the National Assembly. Macron called it because, in the recent European parliamentary elections, his Renaissance party were trounced by Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally party. “I cannot act as if nothing had happened,” Macron declared, either nobly or stupidly depending on your point of view.

If French politics feels unpredictable and a bit “tipping point” at the moment, it’s not alone. In Germany, the incumbent parties – an improbable coalition between Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the free–market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – took a beating. Celebrating in their stead was the far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) getting 16% of the vote, with analysis suggesting the party performed especially well among younger voters. It could have been worse. AfD were polling at 22% a few months ago.

The shift to the hard, or populist, or far – we’ll come to the terms later – right is visible elsewhere. In Italy, Prime Minister Georgia Melloni’s Brothers of Italy party had a clear win, with 29% of the vote. In Austria, the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) won with nearly 26% of the vote. And predictably, in Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party won again in Hungary with an impressive 44% of the vote.

It wasn’t like this everywhere. In Sweden, the Social Democrats came out on top, and the Greens beat the far–right Sweden Democrats. In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centre–right Civic Coalition (KO) group narrowly beat the right–wing Law and Justice party. In Denmark, the Socialist People’s party (SF) became the largest party. A new centre–right party in Hungary (Tisza) claimed 30% of the vote, thereby denting Orban’s longstanding dominance.

Even here, however, where the far right was beaten by more centrist parties, there were signs for those with eyes to see. In Poland, support for the far right (and anti–Ukraine) Confederation tripled to 12%. In Spain, the far–right Vox party received nearly 10% of the vote, increasing its seats from two to six. In Belgium, the far right Vlaams Belang tied with two other parties on about 14% of the vote. And in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) increased to six seats and came second.

Overall, the centre–right European People’s Party (EPP) emerged formally as winners, gaining over a quarter of the 720 seats, but it was the only centrist party to have grown and then not substantially. The centre–left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) declined slightly, while the liberal Renew Europe group lost nearly a quarter of their seats and the Greens more than a quarter.

By contrast, the far–right parties – the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy (ID) group – now control over 130 seats between them, and that is not counting 30+ stragglers from even further right.

The rise of the far right

Perhaps the most telling result of the election is the fact that were the far–right parties to unite and collaborate, they would form the second largest bloc after the dominant EPP. They won’t, primarily because they don’t really agree on a positive agenda for change. For all that such parties are commonly branded with the mark of “populist right” or “far–right” or sometimes “neo–fascist” they have, to adapt a phrase that has passed into popular usage, “less in common”. They do not share a common political programme or even vision of the future.

They do share a sense of (what they deem to be) the problem, or rather the problems. In no particular order: illegal immigration, legal immigration, asylum, economic stagnation, inequality, the loss of traditional cultural and social norms, lack of democratic accountability in the European Commission, and the Green Deal which seeks to make Europe the first carbon neutral continent but at a cost that many deem unacceptable (and some deem wholly unnecessary). Other problems hover on the margin – how to respond to Russia, how to support Ukraine, how to deal with China – but these are the main ones.

But while agreeing on the problem is certainly a start, it is only a start. Political foes can agree on the problem. Successful collaboration is forged from shared agendas. Given that each of these far–right parties will naturally have a distinct national agenda in addition to its varied and particular approach to European–wide issues, the chances of the kind of sustained collaboration that might change the European political landscape permanently, is slim.

Macron’s humanist vision

That, however, is emphatically not a reason to ignore this (further) rightward shift in European politics and to proceed with left–liberal business as usual. Nor should the election results be dismissed as essentially a series of referenda on national governments, channelled into a political forum that, frankly, matters less to most voters, a kind of Euro–protest vote. It is not so much the success of far–right parties in these elections that matters, as their steady and seemingly relentless growth over the last 20 years or so. Far right parties are the major, influential and sometimes dominant political force in many European countries. Their on–going popularity is for a reason, arguably a deep one, that is ignored at a cost.

Europhiles, or at least some of them, get this. In April this year, President Macron gave a speech, at the Sorbonne, on the future of Europe. It is a truly astonishing piece, and well worth reading, standing at a humungous 16,000 words and referencing, among others, Albert Camus, George Steiner, and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (can you think of a British leader, or even public figure, who would make such a speech?) It got headlines for warning about Europe’s possible “death”, and although the speech itself was far more upbeat than that suggests, the coverage captured the fact that Macron clearly saw the challenges facing the continent as deep ones.

He was effusive about the EU’s achievements over the previous seven years (not coincidentally, how long he had been in the Élysée Palace), such as the €800bn common debt fund to help with Covid and the reassertion of European external borders. His ambition went further than listing recent achievements, or outlining his ambitions for defence, growth, finance, and security. He wanted to “rejuvenate the European demos”, worried that “our Europe has lost its self–esteem” and indeed its faith in the future. The “demographic decline is a source of deep–seated concern”. He insisted that Europe was not simply a region, a location, a matter of “living somewhere – whether in the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic or the Black Sea regions”.

Rather, it was a set of ideas “a unique relationship with freedom and justice”, a “civilization that probably invented doubt and self–questioning”, a commitment to liberal democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the rights of oppositions and minorities, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, the autonomy of universities. That Europe stood in contrast to the essentially market–driven society of America, and the essentially state–driven one of China. “To be European,” he said, “means believing that there is nothing more important than being a free, knowledgeable individual endowed with reason.”

And that was the key. Because at the heart of these ideas that stood at the heart of Europe there was, Macron repeatedly insisted, a particular understanding of the human. To be a European, he said, “means defending a certain idea of humankind that places free, rational, enlightened individuals above all else”. It was “humanism”, a word he repeated in some way 16 times, that made Europe what it was, and “sets us apart from others”. Whether or not that humanism is indeed unique to Europe – a thinker like Amartya Sen would vigorously disagree – it was this that lay at the heart of the Europe that Macron sought to protect and promote: a European humanism with a commitment to respecting the unique, free, rational dignity of each person, poised fruitfully between faith and reason, hope and scepticism, on which the political apparatus of a healthy society could be built.

Of course, Macron being who he is and where he was, could not possibly have acknowledged, even were he so minded, that this European commitment to humanism derives from over a millennium of hegemonic Christian faith. Such an acknowledgement need not – please note – be at the exclusion of all other sources of humanist values, be they (elements of) classical thought or (elements of) the 18th–century Enlightenment. But there can be no serious doubt that the European humanism whose praises Macron sang derives in large measure from the Christian inheritance that many European intellectuals, Macron included, have dutifully ignored.

Perhaps we should not be surprised then, that despite his rousing conclusion to his mammoth speech – “On 9 June, the Europeans will [choose their future] … the choice is not to do as we have always done, nor is it simply to adjust. It is to proudly promote new paradigms” – his Renaissance party found itself badly defeated in the European elections, and Macron found himself taking such a gamble for his political future. To truly reinvigorate that deep humanism Macron professed, and to fortify (or better still forge) the European demos that is formed around it, secular intellectuals like Macron will need allies from thought worlds they have heretofore eschewed. They need allies.

They could begin in worse places than Pope Francis. Francis, quite apart from making concern for asylum seekers, migrants and for the environment (three big losers in these European elections) central to his papacy, has also made some acute, indeed cutting, comments about Europe losing hope. “Europe [is an] Old Continent [and] is increasingly turning into the continent of the old, a tired and resigned continent, so caught up in exorcising loneliness and anguish that it no longer knows how to savour, in the civilization of giving, the true beauty of life.”

Alongside this criticism, however, he has also (characteristically) set out a vision of hope, and done so in a language strikingly similar to Macron’s. “At this juncture in history,” he noted in 2021, “we need not only new economic programmes or new formulas… but above all a new humanistic perspective, based on Biblical Revelation, enriched by the legacy of the classical tradition, as well as by the reflections on the human person present in different cultures.”

The idea of a biblical humanism is liable to terrify the kind of French intellectuals who applauded Macron’s speech but if they are serious about preserving Europe’s particular characteristics and defending it from an opportunistic and simplistic populist right, they need to get over their fear. The recent European elections may not constitute the unanswerable and irreversible victory for the far–right that some feared, but it is a sign of deep unease, and perhaps of things to come. It needs creative, reflective and collaborative response from all of those genuinely concerned for Europe’s humanist future.


On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal? 

EU flag image by Kaufdex from Pixabay

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 11 June 2024

EU, Europe, Religion Counts


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