Trends in European Politics

I believe the West and their political parties must take major steps to update their parties and their ways of working and debating issues.

The recent European Union elections, which resulted in about a third of the support going to the right-wing parties in many countries, show that the European mainstream leaders are losing some control. True, in democracies, it is the voters that decide, and they may have opinions that you and I disagree with, and indeed that the mainstream politicians and the establishment don’t like. The current right-wing populist and protest wave has gone on for several decades, since the late 1970s in some countries. Before that, there were left-wing protesters and socialist movements, who sometimes went too far and became over-confident and therefore lost support, and the pendulum swung to the far right.

At that time, the left-wing movement was more idealistic than the right-wing movement today, and it searched for a kinder and more inclusive society for ordinary people, locally and globally. Today, the European and American right-wingers, which include the Le Pen and Trump type of sympathizers, and others, seem to think about themselves first; they want to keep immigrants out, and they want to ignore many of the needed measures to reduce the climate change and fossil pollution, and they want the future generations to sort out those issues themselves, if they are real, they would say. The right-wingers are skeptical of multilateral cooperation in all fields, including the EU having a certain supranational role. On a national level, the right-wingers want people to fend for themselves much more than today, with reduced government assistance programmes and therefore also lower taxes. The right-wingers want less development aid if any at all; they want to trade on ordinary commercial terms. True, development aid has not worked the way the left-wingers and the centrists have promised, but it was probably not enough in the first place to have the real impact that they said it would have; thus in certain ways, it was rather political propaganda and pretence, not true pragmatic international policies for change and development worldwide, indeed in the Global South, which often meant former colonies.

Many of the left-wing policy approaches in the 1960s and 1970s were adopted in moderated formers by the social-democratic leaders in Europe. Today, when the right-wingers come up with new ideas, the current leaders, sometimes social-democrats, but more often centrists and conservatives, adopt several of the right-wing policies and implement them in slightly moderated forms, such as stricter immigration policies and reduced government support for the poor people, and less money for development aid.

The more radical leftist policies from the 1960s and 1970s are not even spoken much about anymore, indeed not such that concern a kinder and more inclusive society with less competition and inequality. In education and health, there are deep crises because of increased costs and poorer performance. In education, there has for several decades been focus on a theoretical, knowledge-based school, not a value-based school, with open approaches to meeting the children’s varied giftedness. In health, too, costs go up but performance and results seem not to follow suit. We seem to see the problems, but we do not question the models and lack of sustainability that we base education and schooling on and the high cost of hospitals and traditional medicine. Before I end this tirade of complaints, yes, in a ‘Besserwisser’ style, let me mention that we do not have a serious debate about the West’s and the whole world’s belief in continued growth and higher resource consumption, which is the foundation of capitalism and therefore the world economic system.

The right-wing rise evidenced in the recent EU elections would hardly have happened if the old parties and political establishment, made up of social-democrats, liberals and moderate conservatives, had played a more proactive role in changing their parties to become more all-inclusive for ideas and thinking, and also for actual participation and leadership. We should realize that unless the old parties open up and change, they will be seen as old-fashioned and fossilized by the youth, who will then continue to be attracted to the right-wing parties.

To be open means that the old parties have to include ideas from the right-wingers, and talk with them at the same level, not in arrogant ways as has often been the case until now. I don’t think the old parties should be self-complacent and say that the right-wingers are in minority, gaining only up to a third or so of the votes, and besides, that they are wrong. They should be more realistic, as I believe President Emmanuel Macron in France is, having called general elections for 7 July, as a prompt reaction to the Le Pen party, ‘National Rally’, gaining such large support in the EU elections while his own party was quite unsuccessful. I have seen that some commentators say he is gambling. I think he does the right thing as a realistic and modern politician.

I believe the West and their political parties must take major steps to update their parties and their ways of working and debating issues. In the USA, the two main political parties must be overhauled soonest, and other parties must be given more space, to save and improve the country’s democracy, once a model all. In Europe, it is not at all as bad as in the USA. But if the West wants to maintain world leadership, it must be much more on the ball and define more clearly its foundations, values, and ways ahead. The West must focus on renewing its superstructure and leadership, not only politically, but in all fields, especially economically and technologically. In our multi-cultural and multi-religious times the West must give more focus to those fields, not let them drift without dialogue and compromise. There must be a much deeper debate about migration and integration in Europe.

As for the military field, there is again a need for a new, comprehensive debate; currently, the West with NATO focuses on rearmament, but without a fundamental debate about it, and about more peaceful alternatives. The Russian War in Ukraine is a war with the West, not only one country. It should not have been allowed to begin over two years ago, but it is even sadder to see how it can go on with no urgent plans to end it. The West’s positive role and policies for peace internationally seem not to be top on the agenda, with Israel’s war in Palestinian Gaza being the most urgent one to end.

Finally, today, let me underline that when the leftists were the ones coming up with new ideas in the decades after WWII, based on many ideas and ideals on the Christian religion, the social-democrats and the socialists thought about local and international solidarity, about helping each other at home and in developing countries. The goals of development and the foundation for happiness were not (only) seen as being based on material resources and wealth, but as much on values and a simple life in moderation. I will try to write about those things in a future article or two, and about the West being a part of the wider world, today with competing partners, lending and borrowing ideas, cosmologies and more. We must always make sure that what we do is right and good, and that it can be defended morally.

Atle Hetland
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. He can be reached at

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid