European politics have been bewildering recently.
The Left has been on retreat despite the difficult economic conditions from before the pandemic and exacerbated by it. And yet ideas such as the expansionist role of the state in the economy, have been rising since the financial crisis and are here to stay for some time because of the consequences of the pandemic. And interestingly we’re seeing in different European countries working class districts voting for centre-right parties.
Fears of the far-right sweeping Europe have proven exaggerated. Yet, there is no denying that the liberal values upon which the European project was founded seventy years ago, have been weakened, and that nationalism and nativism are now key features of European politics.
On the other hand, green, highly liberal parties are doing well in big cities in rich countries, while almost not existing elsewhere.
Which leaves the centre-right - in power in Germany and France, yet facing serious prospects of losing elections this year and next in these most influential of European countries.
Three phenomena could shed needed light.
One: ideology is becoming irrelevant. This is not surprising given the shocking descent that the 2008 financial crisis has revealed in modern capitalism, and the caricatural leaderships that the left has come up with since then, particularly in different countries where the left traditionally inspired and led.
Two: fear and anger rule supreme. This is also not surprising. The financial crisis and its aftermaths, which were with us right until the onslaught of the pandemic, have imposed pains on major sections of most European societies, and increased uncertainty about the future. The pandemic added anxiety, and after over a year of lockdowns, pent up frustrations.
Three: fear, anger, anxiety, and frustration, as always, are leading people to seek the comfortable and familiar. This is why conservatism, in its various garbs, is on the rise in Europe.
More importantly the comfortable and familiar manifest in many people looking for a folk-type of leader - one who is neither grand nor great, but who adopts popular culture and ideas, seems to embody national traditions and psyche, and who’s able to connect with the largest sections of voters. “Seems” is the key word here, because in these circumstances street-smartness, intelligent rhetoric, and mastering the popular imagination are crucial ingredients of success. Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini, and Isabel Diaz Ayuso are but examples of that type of leader.
These phenomena create a serious problem for the European project. They deprive it of leadership, for this new corps of leaders do not represent the values upon which the European Union was built, and they will not champion them. At the same time, the European Commission (the Union’s administrative body) can neither impose its will on member-states of the Union nor does it have the legitimacy of direct representation from the people.
This creates a vacuum at the top of the European Union, which since its early days, in the 1950s and until now, has always been a top down project. That is, a class of leaders, ruling in generally promising, at least not difficult economic conditions, putting momentum behind ideals about what Europe ought to be. At the beginning these ideals centred on ensuring peace in the continent (following the rivers of blood of the Second World War); and with time and success, the ideal evolved into an ultimate objective of political union in the whole of Europe.
The presence of Angela Merkel veiled the impending problem of vacuum at the top. Europe’s biggest economy and now the weightiest country politically, was the perfect champion of the European project and ideals. But with Merkel leaving, Germany will likely undergo a period of soul-searching and experimentation with ideas different from those of the past fifteen years.
France will likely not fill the void in the immediate future – partly because it has a presidential election next year, partly because it is still adjusting to its new positioning within Europe as an important, but far from being the most important, member of the club.
With Germany looking inward, and perhaps questioning some of the commitments it has undertaken towards the European project in the past years (especially since the financial crisis), and with France still looking for a real role, there is a risk that the void at the top will allow anger, fear and frustration to simmer.
This could lead to a division in Europe between countries that, because of their richness and global competitiveness, truly uphold liberal values, and countries where the simmering negative feelings get exacerbated by the challenging socio-economic conditions, and gradually we see them move towards Illiberalism.
This will be a colossal challenge for the European project – and a loss for the world, for Europe remains the natural home and best hope of true liberalism at a moment of immense geo-political tumult and global social change.