Europe is not doomed to be run by the hard right
The prevailing bleak narrative forgets that the continent has weathered worse storms.
An absolute staple of all writing on Europe since the Brexit vote is that continental politics is striding fast to the hard right while the European Commission has lost the plot under a president who enjoys a cup of cheer on more than just festive occasions.
The story goes that Macron is in trouble. Merkel is going. Matteo Salvini sometimes appears the heir apparent to Mussolini though he furiously rejects the comparison while strutting on platforms in Italy’s piazzas. Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, is dragging his country back to the 1930s as an ultra-clerical state, and ghosts of Franco are winning seats in southern Spain.
The narrative continues: the years of 2-4 per cent growth are over. Europe cannot handle its immigrant problem, has no answer to President Trump’s approach to international trade, climate, nuclear arms or Nato treaties. President Putin is running rings around EU leaders as his military dictate terms in Ukraine, Syria, Serbia, Georgia or Transnistria, his secret agents kill at will on English soil and meddle endlessly in the Balkans to detablise south-eastern Europe.
Stand by, goes the modish commentariat view, for the hard populist right to take over the European Parliament in May and for Brexit, when it happens, to be the first gravedigger of the fabled European project.
But is all this true? Europe has known far worse crises of politics, economics, relations with the US, and Russia and between its own member states.
In every decade since the first enlargement of Europe – in 1973 when Britain, Ireland and Denmark entered the European Economic Community – there have been major moments of prevailing European doom and gloom.
Every decade or so, France has major street protests, often violent, which lead to government climb-downs. There is little new in the yellow vests protest.
In Portugal, inflation and the oil shocks of the 1970s combined with serious fears that communists or the far left might take power after its ramshackle military empire crumbled.
Terrorist violence in Ireland, mainland Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece, the Iberian peninsula occupied huge amount of political space in the 1970s and 1980s.
There have been competing economic models. Margaret Thatcher’s economic shock of full-scale de-industrialisation vied with the more moderate social market economic models of Germany, Benelux and the Nordic European states.
The 1990s required Europe to mount a massive rescue operation on the gangrenous economies left over from the Soviet imperium. West Germany in 1990 enjoyed growth, social redistribution, and full employment. This arcadian existence disappeared as rich, prosperous West Germany had to transfer a huge chunk of its wealth to the bankrupt third world economy of communist East Germany.
This century has seen the intense crisis of the crash imported from America. The real economy of decently paid jobs and sound public finances has struggled for a decade to find some equilibrium. But other than Greece and southern Italy, the other so-called PIGS are back on their feet with more growth and less food banks or homeless in the streets than Britain.
And during all this time Europe has still been around, sometimes marking time, always under attack, whether from populists of the UKIP right or the Syriza left. That is, until Syriza had to form a government and when the left’s loudest EU basher Yanis Varoufakis was released to become a media celebrity and the grown-ups in Athens cooperated with – instead of confronting – every social-democratic, let alone centre-right, government in Europe.
In recent months, the Italian populists have deescalated their noisy Brussels-bashing and done most of what EU and Italian businesses said should be done. Brussels is compromising on budgets in both Rome and Paris.
Since Brexit, no one other than the petty far right or stupid left calls for leaving the EU or the euro. Voters and demonstrators in Poland and Budapest are making clear the long-run of the nationalist right can’t last forever. Poland accepts 1.7m Ukrainian immigrants without protest and will get very sour when the UK turns on the Poles who have worked hard, paid taxes and helped grow the UK economy this century.
To be sure, there are no hero figures in Europe. No Trumps, Putins, Mohdis, or Maduros. Is that so dreadful? At times, the EU seems more like Switzerland, a permanent essay in compromise and muddling through. The noisy demagoguery of Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders or assorted German and Austrian far rightist wins headlines but not power.
Next year will see more of the same. No party or grouping will dominate the European Parliament. The next president of the European Commission, Council and Central Bank will be compromise candidates.
And if by some happenstance, the British political class finally admit that the new facts and the new electorate means the people and not the politicians or media elites should decide the UK’s European fate, then 2019 may even end better for Europe than its doomsayers can ever imagine.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave the European Union