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Europe Moving To The Centre After Labour And Tusk Victories

We had expected that compared to 2024, 2023 would be a quiet year in electoral politics, but this has not been the case. Amidst a geopolitical landscape marked by tragedy and turmoil, the past week has seen two electoral events that augur well for a more coherent, and less politically volatile Europe. Last weekend, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform party and two, quite different opposition parties in Poland garnered 248 seats in the 460 seat assembly, most likely bringing to an end the reign of the PiS.

Normally Polish general elections do not matter much for the EU, but Poland is Europe’s rising power – because of its growing economy, a fast-growing military spend, the war in Ukraine and a slowing German economy (the Polish election campaign has led to new lows in relations with Germany). Thus, this election is highly significant.

The international political effect of the election result will be to bring Poland back into the European political fold, to add heft to Europe’s policy on Ukraine and to remove a festering quarrel over ‘European values’. Within Poland it is a loss for ‘illiberals’, a win for liberal groups (women’s rights in particular, many Poles ignored the divisive referenda votes held at the same time as the election) and a realignment of Poland away from the ‘eastern awkward squad’ to a better-behaved member of the EU.

As the Polish campaign was coloured by the castigation of Donald Tusk as the ‘EU/Germany’s boy’ in Poland, he will be slow to politically embrace the EU, but as a former EU Council President, will naturally work very closely with EU leaders. Perhaps his most important task for him will be to reverse the damage to Poland’s institutions – television, media, legal arena and even the central bank. One of his first moves will be to try to remove PiS loyalists from these institutions and introduce measures to safeguard their independence.

Orban odd man out

The election is a clear positive for Ukraine, not simply in terms of continued logistical support for its war effort, but also in terms of its long-term ambition of joining the EU. Hungary and Viktor Orban are clear losers and will find themselves isolated in many EU debates. In a cruel week for geopolitics, Orban chose to mark his allegiances by very publicly meeting Vladimir Putin in Beijing. In my view it is time for the EU to severely sanction Hungary, and to think of a mechanism to expel it from the EU.

The significant development is that we may start to hear more about ‘Hungrexit’, and now, less about Brexit.

On Thursday night in the UK, Labour overturned two huge Tory majorities in Mid-Bedfordshire (a Tory seat since 1931) and Tamworth. If these results were repeated in a general election there would be a landslide victory for Labour, and an end to the Tory government since 2010. The next UK general election (less than a year away) is now Labour’s to lose.

At the risk of showing my age, the rise of Labour puts me in mind of the early Blair years (I recall walking past Downing Street the day after Tony Blair came to power in 1997). What was telling in the run up to that was the quality of the Labour front bench, and the extent to which ‘New Labour’ prepared for government (taking ‘change management’ classes at Oxford with the academic Roger Undy).

Blair is back?

While it is generally accepted that this Labour frontbench is neither as dazzling nor potentially transformative as that of the first Blair government, they are starting to behave in a Blairite manner. One example is the newly appointed shadow spokesperson for technology and innovation, Peter Kyle, who is treading very carefully on the topic of AI.

At the recent Labour conference. Kyle and colleagues with similar remits, have been very careful to sound business friendly (emphasizing ‘progressive AI’) and the need for policy makers to permit ‘innovation’ in AI. His behaviour is not unlike that of Blairite politicians in 1997, who engaged with business before coming to power, and who worked hard to ‘not scare the horses’.

A Labour victory next year will quieten the British political landscape. It is likely that many of the badly behaved, ‘swivel-eyed loons’ – to use David Cameron’s term, of the hard right will either lose their seats or be relegated to the far fringes. Domestically, Labour’s greatest difficulty will be in the related challenges of restoring trend economic growth amidst weak public finances, and in replenishing investment in public goods like education.

Brexit will not be reversed, and neither will it be renegotiated under Labour, but there is scope for the EU and the UK to adopt a less antagonistic and more pragmatic stance with each other on trade oversight, financial services and the regulation of new technologies. Military and security cooperation might well grow even closer.

A Labour victory would mean that all of the large European economies have centre right or centre left governments, and that very few of them (even Italy) go against the grain of the European project. With Germany and France working on their relationship (over herring sandwiches in Hamburg recently) Europe will have the policy space to chip away at the many challenges it faces.