Europe's Political Center Cannot Hold

February 18, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: FranceUnited KingdomFront NationalUKIPElections

Europe's Political Center Cannot Hold

Decades of political consensus have come to an end.

THERE ARE times—and the present moment is very much one of them—when certain great poems, minatory and ominous, force their way into the mind. It might be Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” or Auden’s “The Fall of Rome,” not to mention Kipling’s “Recessional” and “The White Man’s Burden.” Published in 1898, the latter’s subtitle, more interesting than its lurid title, is “The United States and The Philippine Islands,” but might just as well be “The United States and the Middle East” more than a century later, with its warning about “The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard.”

And of course, “The Second Coming.” In that extraordinary, oracular work, W.B. Yeats was not making a trite political statement. Although the lines

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;”

were in part inspired by Ireland, where a brutal terrorist campaign was being waged (dignified as a “War of Independence”), about which Yeats, the sentimental nationalist who also identified with the Protestant Ascendancy, had such mixed feelings, they were not meant to be a guide to everyday politics. Yet the words “the centre cannot hold” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” written in 1919, seemed all the more forceful with every year over the next decades of totalitarianism, total war and total murder. So they do again today.

We have witnessed the explosion of the Levant and the implosion of Europe, the rise of demagogues on both the Left and, more notably, on the Right, on both sides of the Atlantic. The internal atrophy of democratic politics in the United States is another question, although one that Americans appear reluctant to address. Anyone can deride Donald Trump’s vulgarity, but those who do so are less inclined to ask what possible reason there is why Hillary Clinton should be president, or whether the Americans can really lecture benighted Mahometan savages about the benefits of democracy when little more than one American citizen in three bothered to vote at the last midterm elections in 2014 (one in five in Mississippi and Utah). And in any case, whoever votes, the United States is blessed, as Mark Twain was the first to observe, with the best Congress money can buy.


BUT WE Europeans should hesitate before sneering in turn. Constitutional representative government is always a fragile plant, which needs to be carefully tended and nurtured, and doesn’t always flourish of its own accord. What has happened in these recent years is not just the near collapse of the European Union, but the demonstration of its complete inadequacy to deal with present dangers, from the self-inflicted and unresolvable crisis of a single currency which was never what English law calls “fit for purpose,” to the awful problem of mass immigration from mostly Muslim countries in western Asia and north Africa—a problem both for Europe and for the countries the migrants leave.

Beyond that is the acute threat within Europe to political stability. That stability was based on an unwritten agreement, what was sometimes a far too cozy and smug consensus between ostensibly moderate parties, “center-right” and “center-left.” It’s this consensus that is now being severely challenged from the outside left and outside right by parties and politicians called “extremist” or, much more revealingly, “populist.”

This is true in the Eastern European countries that have only been free of dictatorship and Soviet imperialism for a quarter-century, and have belonged to the European Union for little more than ten years. They have shown alarming signs of sliding back into authoritarianism, nativism, racism and corruption. But then maybe the hopes held for their immediate evolution into a liberal democracy most of them had never known was always illusory, particularly in Hungary and Poland, the latter of which appears to ape the former as it conducts what amounts to a Gleichschaltung of its state institutions.

More perturbing are events in the Western European countries that created the new Europe, the original six which signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951 (creating the European Coal and Steel Community), and then the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (creating the Common Market or European Economic Community). The three largest of these countries were France, Germany and Italy. Their recent experience is somber.


IN FRANCE, the old liberal consensus is threatened principally by the Front National. Its origins are dark, and merited the label “neofascist” when its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen (suspected of torture and murder when he was a French soldier in the squalid Algerian war) used blatantly racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. His daughter Marine is much cleverer and better attuned to the public mood than her father. She has tried to pursue “de-demonisation,” to the point of expelling her own father from the party, but the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim tone persists.

Fourteen years ago, the French establishment had a nasty shock when Le Pen père ran second in the first round of the 2002 presidential election, knocking out the Socialist Lionel Jospin and forcing the Socialists to support the conservative Jacques Chirac in the run-off lest Le Pen win. “Add to that,” writes Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian, the nearly seven million votes the Front National won in the regional elections last December, “and it becomes obvious that dark clouds have also gathered.” It’s by no means fanciful to suppose that the daughter could also run second in 2017’s presidential election—or even win. What would be the consequences for relations with Germany? The Franco-German alliance welded together by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer was at the core of the idea of European unity, two foes whose enmities had repeatedly enmeshed Europe in strife now making common cause both militarily and politically.

A different kind of repudiation of established politics has been seen in Italy. Three years ago, the moderate socialist Democratic Party and the absurdly named “People of Freedom” party, led by the mountebank Silvio Berlusconi, each touched 30 percent of the vote, but were both astonished by the Five Star Movement close behind them, led appropriately by a comedian, Beppe Grillo (a comic by profession, that is, rather than an unwitting buffoon like Berlusconi). This is the very type of new “pop-up party,” comparable to but more successful than, the German “Pirates.” The Cinque Stelle is not discernibly Left or Right but just anti: antiestablishment, antiausterity, anti-European. It could be called antipolitical, and almost anti-Italian. Such random protest parties are often labeled Euroskeptic, but although the graffito slogan you can see in the Veneto, “Basta Italia!,” will probably be painted by a supporter of the rightist Northern League, that’s the spirit of Grillo’s Five Stars as well: enough Italy as well as enough Europe, enough of our rulers, throw the rascals out. This is the specter haunting those rascals, or at any rate what that interestingly heterodox French politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement calls “the soi-disant elites.”


IF THE ECLIPSE of the official centrist consensus causes puzzlement as well as widespread dismay, its origins take less explaining. When the European democracies were reborn—or reinvented—after 1945, there was a crystal-clear mission, not only to be peaceable and constitutional, but also to thwart extreme politics on either side. Among other legacies, the French Revolution bequeathed to us the potent and beguiling—but often misleading—political metaphor of Left and Right, from when the meeting of the National Assembly the radical bourgeois took their seats to the left of the conservative aristos. This image has always had limited application, and maybe very little in American politics, with its sundry peculiar institutions. If we still do use that metaphor, every important conservative party in Western Europe today stands to the left of the Democrats. But were the Democrats ever a left-wing party in the European sense? In its Rooseveltian heyday the Democrats were a truly weird alliance of organized labor, city bosses, intellectual liberals, the ethnic urban working class and Southern segregationists.

By midcentury, American politics had a Tweedledum and Tweedledee aspect, so that it was hard to distinguish the parties. Dwight Eisenhower was nominated by the Republicans and elected president in 1952, but he might just as well have been nominated by the Democrats. It wasn’t until the conservative movement rose up and conquered the GOP that a truly vivid distinction could be made between the two parties.

In Europe, the journey has if anything been in the opposite direction over the second half of the last century. Conservative parties moved towards the center from the right as socialist parties did from the left. This was a reaction to the events of the first half of the century, when polarization between Left and Right had had such catastrophic consequences. Modern European democracy was a repudiation of all species of totalitarianism, nurtured by two traditions in harness, Christian Democracy and Social Democracy. They both altered their positions or tone after the horrors between 1914 and 1945 that shouldered Right and Left with so much historical baggage to shed, in the form of fascism and Communism.

If what is now the European Union has one underlying tendency it’s not socialism (or Social Democracy) but Christian Democracy, a very distinctive tradition dating back to the early years of the last century and partly inspired by the social and political teaching of the Roman Catholic Church—in particular of Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum condemning not only Marxian socialism, but also the unrestrained free-market capitalism that bred it. In Austria it had been the “Christian Socialist” or Christian Social party of Karl Lueger, who was elected mayor of Vienna in 1897 after being vetoed three times by the Emperor Franz Joseph, on a distinctive platform echoed across Europe: anti-Marxist but also anticapitalist, antiliberal and, of course, anti-Semitic. This was the same pitch as was heard in France from the Anti-Dreyfusards, Charles Maurras and the Action Française. In Germany, it was infused with extreme nationalism and metastasized into National Socialism. Adolf Hitler lived in Vienna during the Lueger era and liked what he heard. Der schöne Karl, as Lueger was known, became an inspiration for the Führer.

After the defeat of the Third Reich, Christian Democracy thus had to clean up its act, and it did so very successfully, eschewing violence and racial hatred while sublimating nationalism into “the European idea.” A brilliant period of economic growth meant that greatly increased material prosperity (which the Americans also enjoyed in the postwar decades) could be combined with a high degree of state-sponsored social security (which they did not enjoy). And this went hand in hand with a “moderate” political consensus.


NOWHERE DID that consensus seem more stable than in Germany. For the sixty-seven years of its existence, two parties have dominated the German Federal Republic, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), with a third party, the Free Democrats, invited after dinner, as it were. More accurately, it was dominated by the first of those. To begin with, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were neck and neck, a couple of percentage points apart in the 1949 election, but gradually the CDU, under the guileful leadership of Konrad Adenauer, pulled ahead to a clear lead. By the 1957 election, his party was almost twenty points ahead of the SPD and, for the only time in the history of the republic, won an absolute majority in the Bundestag, despite an electoral system deliberately designed to prevent such an outcome, as well as to keep out extremist parties. The patriarchal style of der Alte helped shape western Germany into a stable democracy that avoided the fate of Weimar.

And yet so strong was the spirit of compromise and consensus that Adenauer asked the centrist Free Democrats to join him in a coalition, even though he didn’t need their parliamentary support. There was an echo of that spirit at the last election in 2013. It was an outright victory for Angela Merkel and the CDU, with 42 percent of the vote to the SPD’s 26 percent, and again despite the electoral system, they very nearly gained control of the Bundestag, just five seats shy of an absolute majority. She couldn’t form a coalition, since the Free Democrats had plummeted below the 5 percent level (which meant that they could not be represented in the Bundestag), and the third-largest party was the bluntly named Die Linke (“The Left”), made up of disaffected refugees from the left of the SPD and recovering Stalinists from the former East Germany. And so she asked the SPD to join her in a “grand coalition.” This is the ultimate expression of centrist consensus, though one which makes some Germans wonder what the point was of voting at all.


THEN THERE is England. There’s always been a healthy skepticism about parliamentary government in England, exemplified by Lewis Namier’s acidulous remark that “men no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.” And maybe the United Kingdom is a slightly misleading example when discussing European politics, because of its dubious “European” identity, about which the British, or more exactly the English, are so neuralgic. It’s at least possible that in a referendum this year the British (or the English) will vote to leave the Union.

Nevertheless, the British case is illustrative of several trends seen elsewhere in Europe. The truly interesting thing about British politics in my lifetime is less the changing balance between the larger parties than their joint eclipse, along with the decline of political participation. At the 1950 general election, turnout was 84 percent, the highest it has ever been. It fluctuated and declined, to 72 percent in 1997, a figure that I among others lamented at the time as a regrettable failure of democracy.

That was Tony Blair’s first victory, and we hadn’t yet realized the nature of his dark mastery, which was not so much to move the Labour Party to the right, true as that was, as to invent a politics which was neither ideologically left-wing nor right-wing, but simply empty of any ideological content at all: to void politics of its content, or take the politics out of politics. A perfectly natural consequence was the collapse in voter participation, from 72 percent turnout in 1997 to 59 percent only four years later.

But just as significant was the eclipse of the larger or mainstream parties. At the 1951 election (called precipitately, and unnecessarily, less than two years after the last one) Tories and Labour nearly tied for the popular vote. More to the point, they shared 97 percent of the total vote between them. By 2010, that share of the popular vote enjoyed by the two larger parties had fallen to 65 percent: a change of kind rather than degree. Formal party membership has also collapsed, as has party affiliation. This example must be treated with care, since British politics are really so unlike continental politics. The Tories do not much resemble a European Christian Democratic party, any more than Labour does a European Social Democratic party. And yet British politics have foreshadowed European, notably German, politics in important respects.

In Germany too, though more recently, political participation has fallen: turnout was 79 percent at the 2002 general election, but dropped to 71 percent in 2009. Likewise the two big parties shared 77 percent of the vote in 1990, but only 57 percent in 2009. Even if the CDU-SPD duopoly has been remarkably stable by continental standards, it is now cracking. The SPD in particular can barely be called a mass party any longer; it won slightly over 25 percent of the vote in the 2013 Bundestag election.

The centrist Free Democratic Party may revive; it represents, after all, a strong and admirable tradition, “liberalism” in its original sense of social and economic freedom from an overly mighty state. But its fortunes are menaced by the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) party (a party whose name scarcely needs translating, even for those who know no German!), which appeals to many of the same voters as the classical-liberal Free Democrats. Die Linke will continue attracting support, all the more since leftist voters feel frustrated and disappointed with the SPD and the compromises it has made in coalition with Merkel.

But her most serious challenge will come from the right, notably in the form of the AFD, sometimes labeled “Far Right,” although that is inadequate if not misleading. The AFD began with vigorous opposition to the European single currency. It may now be denounced for veering towards demagoguery, as when it condemns the assaults on women in Cologne as “the result of uncontrolled migration.” But that’s what many Germans think and it does appear that a number of the assailants were, in fact, asylum seekers, a phenomenon that is creating an uproar in the Bundesrepublik and directly threatens Merkel’s continued popularity. If anything a more intellectually coherent version of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, AFD was founded by a number of serious figures, including Konrad Adam, a former editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and was supported by an array of academic economists, in response to the Eurozone crisis. If ever the best lacked all conviction, it was the anguished response by Berlin and Brussels to that collapse, and the utterly unconvincing insistence that the Euro was be protected at all costs, however much suffering that might mean in Greece and Spain.

Maybe the truth is that this cozy centrist consensus which for so long governed Europe, and which in many ways was once truly benevolent, was always more vulnerable than it seemed. It worked in good times, but has proved helpless in bad ones. The soi-disant elites dreamed up a single currency, which was always fraught with risk, if boom ever turned to bust or the bubble burst. At the same time, they were lamentably complacent about a level of immigration with which European countries had just about managed, or seemed to manage, but has now becoming a problem on a scale which now threatens the whole edifice of democratic politics, and the consensus of center-right and center-left politics. Across Europe that consensus is cracking; the center is not holding; the ceremony of “moderate” innocence is drowned. We have to pray that no blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author, whose books include Yo, Blair! (Politico’s Publishing, 2007), The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane, 2005) and The Controversy of Zion (Perseus Books, 1997), which won a National Jewish Book Award.

Image: Flickr/Rémi Noyon