The European elections will end with centrists on the run

Guerilla social media tactics, filled with narratives of loss and despair, have fuelled the rise of extreme groups

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MAY 17: Nigel Farage attends a rally with the Brexit Partys European election candidates at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh on May 17, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Brexit Party leader was speaking at his first Scottish rally of the European election campaign. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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On a stage that was compared to a game show set, candidates to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission butted heads in a live TV debate last week.

On the surface, the exchanges were the high point of the European elections that will see the release of results for all member countries next Sunday night.

The event amounted to a telling exercise in how the election is shaping the future of Europe. In this era of insurrection, the old format is outclassed. The continent’s politics have reached the end of the road.

The debate’s made-for-television set-up was once the cutting edge of campaigning. Now, it looks tired, overtaken by high-impact social media campaigns. Demagogues, particularly those from the far-right and nationalist camps, are storming the political establishment via such means.

Known as the Spitzenkandidat debate, proceedings revolved around six candidates from mainstream party blocs who have their sights on the EU’s top job. As in a conventional national election, the leader of the bloc that does best will claim the position.

The Spitzenkandidat concept gives focus to the contest to elect 751 members of the European parliament. Despite resistance from some of the 28 countries in the EU, the process was first instituted in 2014, when it returned Jean-Claude Juncker as Europe’s figurehead.

The new system did not confer the legitimacy that its architects wanted. Europe has since lurched towards partial disintegration. This is visible, not only in the UK’s Brexit decision, but also in the rise of strongmen leaders in nations such as Italy.

The signs are that the current campaign has seen old and new mistakes play out. Denis MacShane, a former British minister for Europe under Tony Blair’s Labour government, said the debate highlighted the best and worst of Europe.

"Once again, despite first-rate debates and high-quality candidates, we are seeing the parliamentary elections fought as national campaigns with voters choosing between national political personalities and on domestic issues," he told The Parliament magazine. "I regret this, but we need a better way of making a European political choice of real importance to voters."

Slick videos with subtitles circulate on social media, spreading anger to millions of voters sitting at home

Beyond their own audience of political loyalists and earnest moderates, it is unlikely that the campaigns of any of the big parties is having much impact.

The guerrilla tactics of social media are much better suited to rabble-rousing leaders from the extremes. Fringe operators now head the field. Figures such as Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy are prominent examples. Nigel Farage, who is running under the banner of the recently formed Brexit Party, offers another example. (Despite the UK voting to leave the EU in 2016, the process has been so shambolic that the nation's departure has been delayed, meaning that it now has to participate on the European elections.)

There are common features of campaigns run by these factions. Big rallies, where crowds roar a narrative of despair and loss. Slick videos with subtitles circulate on social media to spread that anger from the thousands of attendees to the millions of voters sitting at home.

Electoral law has proven inadequate to police campaign behaviour. Ideas of fairness and a level playing field of broadcasting lie in tatters.

I do not follow Nigel Farage or his Brexit Party on Twitter, yet the party's posts litter my timeline. I would like a feed showing me the accounts that I follow. However, that is not on offer. I get its output in sponsored pushes. My timeline also displays posts because accounts that I follow like or retweet Farage and his campaigners.

Curiously, I do not get the posts of other campaigns, even though accounts I follow are politically active in other camps.

These are the modern equivalent of ambush marketing techniques and are devastatingly effective. The sense of momentum these groups generate creates a feedback loop and rising support.

Contradictory impulses among voters can be detected by pollsters, but play little part in the way such freakishly successful campaigns unfold.

YouGov found last week that a third of British voters who support Theresa May’s deal with Brussels to leave the EU are supporting the Brexit Party.

The whole basis of the Brexit Party campaign is that a vote for it will trigger a clean and immediate break from the EU –  exactly what Mrs May has bitterly opposed all along.

The political insurgents will not win outright across Europe. There is a good chance they will be the biggest vote getters in France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and others.

While Europe will continue to be led by those from the centre ground, the heightening sense of disarray will prevail.

The extreme wings will use the results to build a platform for more power in other countries. These are voracious forces. The centrists will finish next Sunday on the run.