The Fight to Win the Confidence of the Continent

The Fight to Win the Confidence of the Continent

Elections to the European parliament ended Sunday with far less commotion than those held in Ukraine the same day. In Ukraine, the polls were no more than politics as war by other means, while the EU just registered a seismometer’s warning of an earthquake on the way to the surface across the Continent.

Europe’s new crop of right-wing parties delivered a stunning rebuke to the political mainstream. In France, Marine le Pen’s Front National won roughly a quarter of the vote and a third of the nation’s 74 seats in the EU parliament. Germany’s neo-Nazi Alternative für Deutschland, Britain’s UK Independence Party and the Five Star Movement in Italy also made gains.

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Two indictments just were handed down. One is of the European project for its poor, distant, top-down design and execution. The other is of the neoliberal economic model long supported by most Eurocrats and a flashpoint since the financial and economic crisis of the past five years morphed into a social and political crisis.

The orthodox line is that these elections will not mean much because the EU parliament in Strasbourg has little power and turnout was low. Wrong twice. Europe’s woefully underdeveloped political institutions and the consequent alienation of much of the EU electorate are exactly what voters just told Brussels are critical problems urgently in need of attention. Never mind the euro; the EU itself must now fight to win the Continent’s confidence.

There was little surprise as tallies showed that right-wing parties—populist, nationalist, nativist, and four-square against a supra-national Europe—had made big advances in contests for the 751 seats in the EU parliament. Europe’s far right is frightening for clear historical reasons, and the attention paid these parties is altogether justified. They are to be watched.

Still, it is a misreading to take a rightward resurgence as Europe’s main event. Europeans are too vigilant, they remember too much, and they are jealous guardians of democratic political traditions far older than the Fascism and National Socialism from which today’s extremists draw. Anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and like positions are simply too revanchist to travel all that far. Give the 21st century some credit on this point.

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If far right parties are to make any kind of serious sale among European voters, their leaders will now be muttering, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The economic question bedeviling Europe takes in the recovery strategy of the past half-decade as well as the institutions in Brussels and Frankfurt that devise and carry it out.

The real threat to the EU and its strategists is properly read as a rise in populist politics that is a step beyond distinctions of left and right. The neo-fascist Golden Dawn and the leftist Syriza in Greece share little in common except for one thing–a thumbs-down read on the European project that is potentially more significant in the European political equation than traditional dividing lines. The impressively disciplined Syriza, good to note in this regard, was just confirmed as Greece’s largest party.

Brussels is squarely at fault here. Together with the European Central Bank located in Frankfurt, it is more or less sequestered from politics as it elaborates what it judges the best policies and regulatory regimes for Europe. This is dead wrong. When was the last time you read a news report of anything at all coming out of the EU parliamentarians in Strasbourg?

It is time to ask, What is this business of segregating the functions of a properly operating united Europe—the regulators and technocrats in Brussels, the central bankers in Germany, and the political representatives, the people who must matter most if the project is to succeed, over there in a picturesque, out-of-the-way city in eastern France?

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Last week’s elections brought this baked-in-the-cake problem to crisis. But the malformed institutions, giving politics too small a space, is half of what needs to be addressed. The other half is the prevalent EU recovery strategy as hatched in the Brussels and Frankfurt hothouses.

Most Continental governments and, so far as one can make out, virtually all of the technocrats in Brussels now adhere to the neoliberal economic thinking in fashion since the Cold War’s end and especially since the mid-1990s. Even nominally, Socialist leaders such as François Hollande in France must accommodate it to one degree or another.

You do not have to be a German Green or a Spanish leftist to recognize that two philosophic traditions now collide across Europe. Anglo-American liberalism has just run into a tradition of social-democratic political and economic belief that dates to the mid-19th century.

Whatever any leader’s convictions, the imperative now is to understand this confrontation and address it. Capital markets, corporate investors, and others should require no less in their own interest.

Manuel Valls, France’s new and neoliberal prime minister, called Marine le Pen’s victory “a shock, an earthquake that all Europe’s leadership must respond to.” Mais précisément, Monsieur le premier ministre.

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It is too soon to tell where last week’s elections will point the EU. Standing still or focusing solely on the rise of the right would be the worst outcomes. On Monday, Hollande went on national television to tell the French he recognized the polls as “a vote of mistrust toward Europe.” This is bitter but encouraging.

The argument for a balanced strategy from here on is strong. I think of Lionel Jospin, France’s Socialist premier for the six years to 2002 (and not a man now fashionable to quote, admittedly). “Market economy, not market society,” he used to say. The EU could do worse than giving the idea some thought. Many European voters share it.

In the first days of January, this column named 2014 “The Year of Political Economy.” It has just arrived on the Continent. The question now facing not just Brussels but also leaders in each European capital is what is to be done in response to the first signals of a Continent-wide revolt among voters.