Brexit and Covid have, separately and cumulatively, forced to the surface European tensions that had lain dormant.
The European Union and the Fate of Nations
The European Parliament elections have put an end to the “far Right.” From now on, the EU’s ministers and bureaucrats will have a new nationalist Right complicating their machinations. The attempt to identify elite preferences with majority rule under the false rubric of centrism has failed. For the first time, the center-left Socialists & Democrats and the center-Right European People’s Party have failed to win a majority. Instead, an anti-EU bloc has emerged in the European Parliament, the very institution intended to fix the famous democratic deficit of the EU while sanctioning “centrism” continent-wide.
This immoderate centrism will no longer be able to label populists as undemocratic. These so-called populists in several countries now control the government. They achieved this by democratic decision in free and fair elections: think here of Poland, Hungary, and Italy. Populism is a popular choice for the European Parliament: England, France, and Italy bear this out. Unless elites propose to elect another people, as Bertold Brecht joked, they’ll just have to stop calling it “far Right.”
At the same time, the parties of nationalism have become a normal part of electoral politics—not losers, not marginal figures, but neither are they winners or dominant figures. If they wish to become leaders of European politics they must become more than angry democrats, that is, statesmen who are able to think politically in the best sense. That would entail an EU cognizant of the needs of its member nations and how its power is built on their legitimacy.
We are experiencing a politics of maneuvering between elites that still hold the highest offices in the EU and counter-elites hoping to replace them, change the structure of the EU, and even destroy some EU powers. The command of the high EU offices is still powerful enough to exclude the nationalists from EU coalitions, since there are alternatives on the center and left, but that will expose the center as its own faction or what Pierre Manent has referred to as the “immoderate middle.” Expect the nationalists to make this conflict worse by undermining the legitimacy of the European Parliament. They will work to subvert the European institutional consensus—to expose entrenched corruption and to expose the technocratic consensus as partisan, and to defend each other from Article VII sanctions (loss of voting rights) which the European Parliament threatened against Hungary in 2018.
This is a good moment for the nationalists to size up their adversaries’ ideas about the situation Europe now faces, adrift somewhere between America and China. Europe has neither the economic growth nor the technology to compete with either of the two, but EU officials keep saying they want to be independent of NATO on security and foreign policy even as China is buying its way into the EU and introducing new technologies over which it has a near-monopoly, such as 5G infrastructure. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the EU was not only the future of Europe, but political alternatives were inconceivable—they had no expression. EU politicians and their compliant press applied the epithet Eurosceptic to such views. But the failure to deal with the financial crisis, among other crises, has mainstreamed opposition to the EU on a number of levels in Europe—and it’s now storming into the European Parliament itself.
What champion of the EU consensus will fight it? The self-appointed leader of Europe is French President Emmanuel Macron. His presidency has not exactly been met with great success. The French people in many ways have given him their own vote of no-confidence, from months of street protests (“yellow vests” movement) to the victory of Marine Le Pen in the European Parliament elections, his own party coming in a close second, with only 22 percent of the votes. His great unpopularity, which plagued both his single-term predecessors, portends problems for the Fifth Republic. But Macron is still an elected president with very considerable powers.
Further, Macron’s version of left-leaning centrism still has adherents, evidenced by the Liberals and the Greens making gains throughout Western Europe, especially among younger, urban, well-educated, middle-class and wealthier voters. Centrism is beginning to identify as an elite phenomenon not just ideologically, but also sociologically. In some ways, it reflects the views of a class, in which membership carries almost religious and moralistic overtones, especially on immigration and climate change.
Macron’s ambition is to replace the previous champion, who shared the same environmental concerns, European ambitions, and economic ideas: Angela Merkel. Although German voters elect their Chancellor every four years, the lack of term limits creates conditions of unusual longevity in office. Thus, Merkel’s tenure, starting in 2005, is not shocking. But it has made her the most important politician on the continent, one whose grand gestures have defined the present moment.
Germany thus seems the stable core of the EU—but it is on the brink of recession and has experienced a serious political crisis over migration. More, Merkel has announced her retirement, without having strengthened her political position, either in Germany or Europe. Her appointed heir, new Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is increasingly unpopular and at odds with Merkel, so that it’s not clear whether Merkel will even serve out her last term, ending in 2021.
The party’s weak performance in the European Parliament elections is not helping. The CDU came in first, with 29 percent, but that’s at least a 6 percent drop from 2014. Their Social Democratic coalition partners suffered more catastrophic losses, so that, for the first time, the two together have failed to win a majority of votes. Both Greens on the left and the nationalist Alternative for Germany on the Right made vast gains, amounting to a third of the votes. Even in Germany, there are signs of a diminished center feeding a class conflict between ascending Green elites and nationalist populism.
As to the leadership of the nationalist assault, what we may call anti-Merkel politics and the rejection of EU arrangements post-2008 centers on the shining new star of Italian politics, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, which has moved very quickly from a regional party of small ambitions, vaguely separatist, to the core of the Italian government. The Lega-Five Star Movement alliance has led them to dominance and together they won an outright majority of the Italian votes in the EU elections.
In Italy, Salvini is looking forward to ever-increasing popularity, where, as Minister of the Interior, he stopped illegal immigration from North Africa and refugee resettlement by rescue charities. He represents the rich North, but has been making inroads into poorer Central and Southern Italy. He has charm and the common touch; he seems unflappable and is at the same time given to strong words against the EU.
Biographically and not just ideologically, Salvini is Macron’s opposite. Macron has so far proved ineffectual, despite the institutional powers at his disposal in France and the EU. But Salvini is coming quickly upon a crucial moment where he has to disappoint and rededicate many hopes he has stirred. This is where many politicians usually collapse. He has seized his chance, the rising populist anger, but must transform it into the calmer, more confident activity of a party, lest partisan arrogance and thwarted popular hopes destroy him.
Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are examples of a species of politician we were persuaded had disappeared, the Founder. They are not primarily managers of coalitions and governmental departments—like in Germany or France—since their countries simply have not reached a full development of the regime. They are not just smaller, poorer, or less powerful—they need a different kind of politics. They lack the prosperity that is simply taken for granted in other parts of the Union, so what ties people together as a country is a far more urgent question. The members that joined in the post-1989 waves of expansion are learning that the exalted promises of the EU are over. They have experienced crises and stagnation over the last decade or so, with no reason to believe things will become much better. EU expansion into Eastern Europe was supposed to lead to a post-historical future, but instead it led to the 2008 financial crisis and 2015 migration crisis.
As soon as he won the vote in Italy, Salvini moved to talk to other populist victors, having already formed a new European party for nationalists. Is it even possible for nationalists to have an alliance across borders? On what principle of justice? They will invariably have competing, contradictory claims and no institutional arrangements where leaders can pledge their loyalties and arrange to defend each other from the institutional claims of the EU, much less from the enormous influence of the German economy. Whether national politics or the continent-wide arrangement of institutions and economic interests wins will go a long way to deciding the future of Europe.
To conclude, what the nationalists can do is shake the confidence of the centrists and mount a minority assault on decisions in the various EU institutions, since they cannot control EU offices. We will find out whether the various EU institutions are weaker or stronger than they have hitherto seemed. But we will also learn how aggressive the shift from the political center to the Greens and Liberals will make the majority. There is no tranquility or common purpose in sight.