A liberal-centrist vision for Europe?

Opinion piece (Carnegie Europe)
Camino Mortera-Martinez
14 March 2019

While the liberal-centrists style themselves as a progressive bulwark against populist-nativism, they have yet to develop a united vision for the future of European co-operation.

In the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, centrist parties have reformulated their coordination in an express attempt to push back against illiberal-nativist parties. This has generated much talk of a centrist renewal in European politics that could give a healthy boost to European Union reforms. Yet most attention so far has fallen on the personalities and rivalries involved in this potential renaissance, rather than on what unique substance a centrist alliance might bring to EU integration. While the liberal-centrists style themselves as a pro-European and progressive bulwark against populist-nativism, they have yet to develop a united or distinctive vision for the future of European cooperation.

New Alliances

The centrist push is rooted in the meteoric rise of French President Emmanuel Macron. His ascent has catalyzed what might be termed a European liberal-centrism that situates itself between the long-standing dominant center-right and center-left parties and coalitions that have controlled European politics for decades. It has also posed a challenge, as Macron’s La République En Marche! (LREM) remains outside the main grouping of longer established liberal parties, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Macron has often intimated that he seeks to disrupt and restructure European-level politics in the same way he did in France. In October 2018, Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a “progressive, pro-EU” alliance for the EP elections. In November, LREM and ALDE confirmed they would present a common platform. This is presented as a united front to dislodge the conservative dominance of top posts in Brussels without LREM having to join ALDE for the moment.

This new alliance is liberal in the sense of setting itself against the self-styled bloc of populist illiberals represented by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and other right-leaning populists and parties around Europe. Its architects insist that only by bolstering pro-European positions will the EU be able to contain the populists. To undercut the populists, Macron wants to shake up the somewhat cozy mainstream party politics that have dominated EP proceedings for many years. The more established liberal parties are ambivalent on this score but have accepted some of Macron’s discourse in order to bring LREM on board.

The centrist alliance insists that current problems with the EU are partially a result of the much-debated collapse of the center ground in European politics. A persistent concern in debates about European democracy is that the center is weakening, for a complex set of reasons such as growing polarization and the deficient functioning of mainstream coalitions. In most states, both right and left are shifting away from the middle ground and coalition building efforts are becoming more onerous—as seen in recent years in countries as diverse as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.

The Personalities

In the politics of the new alliance, most of the focus has been on the individuals involved and on tactical questions. A key issue was whether Macron would seek to replicate his LREM movement at the European level or strike partnerships with existing party blocs in the European Parliament. For now he seems to have reined back his initial ambition and is concentrating more on working with existing parties such as Rutte’s VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie) and Spain’s Ciudadanos rather than forging a separate European En Marche.

Yet the French president is still intent on disrupting the long-existing set of party allegiances within the EP and ensuring that the future of European liberal-centrism is not played out solely through the existing liberal bloc, ALDE. Notwithstanding the agreement to present a common platform, it remains unclear exactly how LREM and ALDE will work together after the May EP elections.

Macron has courted an eclectic mix of wider partners. He has on occasion sought rapprochement with the left-wing Partito Democratico in Italy as well as with the center-right Civic Platform in Poland. Most media comment revolves around the precise relationship among Macron, ALDE, and ALDE’s leader in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, and other such questions. Much of the debate in recent months has focused on whether the liberals will take part in the Spitzenkandidaten process (“top candidates” in German) in the forthcoming EP elections. Largely at Macron’s behest, at the time of writing they have not chosen a single candidate for the elections and—unlike many other liberals—the French president continues to oppose this system.

All this focus on tactics and personal relationships has a crucial effect: it means that the centrists have made relatively little progress on generating shared, innovative policy ideas. In September, the emerging band of centrist brothers penned a joint letter declaring that they were keen to “reinvent Europe,” but they gave no clue what this reinvention might entail. The letter was significant mainly for who signed it: the heads of LREM, the Belgian Mouvement Réformateur, the Dutch Democrats 66, Spain’s Ciudadanos, and also individual figures including Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy; Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta; and Verhofstadt. Macron’s recently presented plan for a European Renaissance has galvanized debate and contains a plethora of significant proposals; however, this was not drawn up as a set of shared, distinctively liberal-centrist ideas and rather embodies many specifically French interests and positions.

Whatever precise form it takes, the liberal-centrist alliance is likely to emerge as either the third or fourth force in the new parliament depending on how well a possible alliance of populist-nativists does. Its primary impact may be indirect, as it adds pressure for a realignment of existing party blocs inside the EP. This might be welcome, but it still begs the question of whether there is a liberal-centrist vision for the future of EU that is attractive, genuinely innovative, united, and cogent.


This lack of detail on substance reflects the fact that the liberal-centrist bloc is either still reluctant to nail itself to firm policy positions or is struggling to reconcile internal differences. At the moment it is difficult to detect a liberal-centrist vision for Europe that is genuinely distinctive from that of other groupings, innovative or meaningfully progressive. It doesn’t help that the very term “liberal” is associated with the left in some countries and with the right in others.

The ALDE manifesto for the EP elections calls for more unity in all areas of policy and a generic defense of liberal values, but it does not specify any particularly innovative model of EU integration that is different from today’s template. It contains some speculative, half-formed ideas on new ways forward that will still need to be fully developed. For instance, it calls for moves to “re-negotiate the division of competences between the European Union and its member states.” When the manifesto mentions boosting democracy in the EU, it says this should be achieved through giving more powers to the EP, although the party also put the manifesto through a series of citizen forums.

There are questions relating to the centrists’ aims on a number of issues:

Models of integration. Notwithstanding their routine calls to reinvent Europe, many of the rising centrist parties adhere to fairly traditional federalist views. At the same time, they tend to mix this with more intergovernmental preferences in some areas. Macron’s outline of a European Renaissance calls in grand terms for a major leap forward in integration, centralized powers in many policy areas, and the creation of several new agencies and councils—representing a curious mix of traditional federalism with enhanced intergovernmentalism on issues like migration and foreign policy. While Ciudadanos politicians are enthusiastic about a federal Europe, such talk is anathema to the main Danish or German liberal leaders. Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, leader of the Venstre (Liberal Party), has recently spoken against ambitious plans for political union and instead urges a “union of nations” that focuses on “down-to-earth solutions.” Compare Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera’s unabashed “I want a United States of Europe” with Rutte’s rallying cry of “less is more.” While Macron’s European Renaissance template envisages a transnational vanguard pushing forward with new cooperation if necessary without other states, liberals from many smaller states are staunchly opposed to any such two-tier Europe.

Economic policy. While generally in favor of more economic cooperation and relatively open markets, centrist views on Europe’s economic policies differ greatly. Macron’s push for eurozone reform mirrors the notion of “economic governance” that has sat at the heart of French positions—left and right—for three decades. Dutch and other so-called Hanseatic liberals oppose a well-funded, redistributive economic union. Rutte insists a smaller, not larger, budget is the way to relegitimize the EU with citizens. Spanish liberals tend to argue the opposite. Many northern liberals are less statist than Macron or Ciudadanos. These different views are in large measure a result of national positions more than a distinctly centrist vision of European economic policy. Acknowledging the depth and persistence of such differences, the liberals have held a series of internal meetings to contain the damage to their unity.

Trade and single market. On broader economic issues, one challenge is that Macron is an enigmatic mix of free-market liberal and traditional French dirigiste. The contradictions in his positions have become even more apparent in his responses to the yellow vest protests. Macron’s protective position on posted workers met with opposition from liberal parties in Southern and Eastern Europe; taking this a step further, his European Renaissance document calls for a “social shield for all workers” and European arrangements for minimum wage levels. Macron’s global trade policy is also hard to pin down: he preaches globalization but also a dose of protectionism—and his focus on protecting jobs is in part French, not European protectionism-lite. Ciudadanos is more open to global markets. It was, for example, in favor of the ill-fated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and still wants an EU-U.S. free trade agreement. Spain in general is less protectionist than France, including on the center-left.

Identity. One apparently common and new theme highlighted by many centrist parties is that of national identity. Rutte promised a focus on Dutch identity after winning the 2017 elections. Macron promises the same with regard to French identity. Spain’s Ciudadanos has developed a particularly high-profile focus on national identity because of the Catalan conflict. In mid-2018 it launched a new campaign, Citizen Spain, aimed at fostering national identity and patriotism. The liberal-centrists insist there is no contradiction between their push to strengthen national identity and their support for something that approximates a federal Europe. They stress the identity question as one pillar of their pro-EU agenda explicitly to push back against the nativists’ use of national identity discourses for Euroskeptic aims. While strong national and European identities can coexist, the liberals are having to face up to tensions in this area. At least some centrists worry that the focus on national identity might at some point clash with the ostensible liberal concern with tolerance and inclusiveness. There is lively debate within many liberal parties—including to an increasing degree within Ciudadanos, for example—over what kind of balance needs to be drawn on such questions.

Security. Macron espouses a tough line on security, reflecting a firmly rooted French approach shared in recent years by most points on the political spectrum, and his European Renaissance proposals identify defense integration as a priority. Ciudadanos calls for deeper EU integration on both internal and external security, including counterterrorism and defense. Other members of the liberal alliance argue for greater caution in military deployments and are more ambivalent on security policy. Danish liberals remain unenthusiastic about a more defense-oriented and securitized EU.

Disruptors or Guardians of the Status Quo?

There is some work to do if the nascent alliance is to develop a truly pan-European liberal-centrism. Unsurprisingly perhaps, at present there is a mix of common liberal stances and distinctive national positions. Northern members of the alliance would see themselves as generally more liberal in the classical sense on identity, cultural, and social issues but are more orthodox when it comes to EU-level economic policies. In the south, liberalism often works the other way around. At the moment, European centrism’s substantive distinctiveness remains patchy, and it is a creed clearer about what it is against—anti-European populist-nativism—than what it is for.

There is clearly much to welcome in the more assertive defense of European liberalism. And the effort to shake up the existing structure of party politics in the EP is very much needed. However, the new centrist alliance errs in simplistically presenting the upcoming elections as a binary choice between pro- and anti-EU forces. Macron, Rivera, and other liberals often use the terms “nationalist” and “populist” in a questionable and overly expansive fashion that risks foreclosing constructive debate with their political rivals.

Indeed, there are dangers in the liberal-centrists positioning themselves as the bulwark against a populist tide. For all their vaunted newness, this position could make the centrist alliance look like a defender of the status quo—a status quo in which many voters have lost faith. Not only are there major discrepancies between liberals from different member states, but few of the ideas they have so far presented are radically new. While the new centrist alliance defines itself as progressive, it accepts many elements of the current EU template that caused untold damage to large parts of the European population during the past decade of crisis. Most of its nascent policy lines are more right-of-center than progressive.

In fact, since forming the alliance, both Macron and Ciudadanos have struggled to retain the claim that they are centrist-liberals and not rightist—Macron because of the yellow vest protests; and Ciudadanos, among other things, because of its recent arrangement with a rightward-drifting Partido Popular and the far right Vox in Andalusia and its newly announced veto on a coalition with Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist party after the forthcoming April elections. There is now a clear disjuncture between how these parties define themselves and how citizens perceive them.

LREM says the aim is to upend the whole Brussels business-as-usual establishment. But to many of Europe’s newer parties, the liberal-centrists are the ones who want to take control of the process to keep the standard EU template on track. Italy’s Five Star Movement and other organizations are coordinating on an anti-austerity and local democracy platform; this accentuates the risk of the centrists being left defending an unloved status quo, the very opposite of being the vanguard of a reinvented Europe. The centrists will not shake up the EP’s rather insipid consensus machine if they seek to simply replace the old actors without modifying the policy script.

The new centrist alliance should also take care not to overstate the notion that rebuilding the center is in itself the way to shore up European integration. In many member states, the center has not collapsed quite as much as is often suggested—and the EU’s legitimacy is suffering even where the center is holding reasonably strong. In many senses, the center’s decline is more the effect than cause of the EU’s problems. A recent Pew Research Center report shows a mix of left-right and people-elite cleavages across all EU states, and that this applies to centrist voters as well.1 It is not clear why a reinforced center should be intrinsically superior in redressing the EU’s current problems. Ideas for innovative EU reform are needed and would be welcome whether they come from the far left, center, or conservatives.

It is true that many of the new centrists have shown an interest in qualitatively new forms of democratic politics. They say they are seeking to move in the direction of creating a broader social movement as part of their attack on the dominant parties. They stress their commitment to devolve formal policymaking competences to a more local level as part of their democratization agenda. They have courted input online from nonparty members. And they see themselves as guardians of the European Citizens’ Consultations process—Macron’s European Renaissance proposals call for a set of citizens’ panels to follow on from this.

In practice, however, centrists are at present not gaining ground as pioneers of a new style of participative politics. While LREM and Ciudadanos both espoused a new style of revived, participative politics, they have yet to fulfill this promise nationally, let alone expand democratic innovation outward to the European level. This could and should be their signature identity, at the subnational, national, and EU levels.

At the moment, the leftist movements and even some of the maligned populists are doing more to deepen local-level democratic participation. Polls record voters’ increasing concerns about Macron’s top-down decisionmaking style and aloofness. His recently launched Grand Debat offers considerable promise, but so far this remains carefully choreographed rather than a genuinely open channel of democratic participation. Ciudadanos has lost much of its initial focus on community-level citizen engagement as it seeks to position itself as the staunchest defender of the formal institutional status quo in Spain. Its initially well-deserved image as a democratic innovator is in danger of being lost from sight.

Centrism needs to be recast as a creed capable of linking citizens to the political sphere but without tipping into populists’ simplistic majoritarianism. Bringing forward new ideas to this end, and suggesting ways of looking beyond the EU’s status quo, should be the centrists’ focus in the run-up to the EP elections. In these ways, and not by engineering a gladiatorial contest with the populists, the new alliance could make its most positive contribution to reinventing Europe.