Europe's dangerous new fault line

Europe's dangerous new fault line

The European Union is still reeling from the insurgency of this past week’s elections to its 751-member Parliament. But after a political “earthquake,” as the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, called it on Sunday, it is also worth sifting through the rubble of hyperbole in search of resilient continuities.

This Strasbourg assembly continues to be controlled by its centre-right bloc; the euro is not on the brink of collapse; negotiations on the all-important free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States proceed. The 28-nation club still has a healthy list of aspirant members knocking on its door: Turkey, Macedonia, Iceland and, of course, Ukraine.

Yet an audit of this sort can readily spawn complacency, and it is decades of complacency that have helped far-right and other extremist parties to make their most conspicuous gains since direct elections to the European Parliament were first held, in 1979.

Among the new members is Udo Voigt, the leader of Germany’s National Democratic Party, who has declared Hitler a ‘great man’ and questioned the scale of the Holocaust. In Denmark, the far-right Danish People’s Party topped the poll, and doubled its number of members in the European Parliament. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front also achieved the best results. Across the Channel, the United Kingdom Independence Party, known as UKIP, did the same, beating all the main parties.

This uprising — anti-European Union, anti-immigrant, anti-elites — is chemically powered by a tripartite compound. First, the founding fathers of what has become the European Union (principally, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman) dreamed of a Continent that had twice been scorched by world war at last embracing peace, but gave little thought to the cultivation of a European demos, a popular emotional identity with the new apparatus.

As euro-sceptics correctly observe, the European Union affects most aspects of day-to-day life. But it is a vast institutional structure without a soul. Occasional renditions of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the European Union anthem, scarcely compete with the deep loyalties of nationhood, region and neighbourhood.

Second, this is more than a question of sentimental attachment. The chasm between citizen and Union never seemed wider than during the euro-zone crisis of 2010 and its aftermath. Youth unemployment reached 25 per cent and higher in some regions. One can argue about the deepest causes of this contagion and the best medicine. But the famously well-padded Brussels bureaucracy was and remains the object of much popular anger.

Third, Europeans are confronting the consequences of unprecedented population mobility and the loss of control over their national borders implicit in European Union membership. There may be no European demos, but there is certainly a rules-based European citizenship, which means that a young person from Bucharest, Sofia or Zagreb can go to London, Paris or Rome in search of work and a new life. The restrictions governing settlement in each destination differ, but the core liberty is clear.

There is, in fact, little evidence that immigrant labour displaces indigenous workers. But countries that attract immigrants need sufficient new housing and public services to keep pace. The problems are rarely insuperable, especially with the tax revenues that can be expected as a byproduct of immigration. Considered with a cool eye, mobility within Europe is an engine of future shared prosperity, not a threat to national traditions or public safety.

Yet the cool eye has been alarmingly absent. The rise of immigration as a Pan-European issue more closely resembles a culture war than an economic controversy. The populist parties, mostly of the right, are shaking a fist at the pluralism, turbulence and heterogeneity of contemporary life. Precisely what some people most relish about Europe’s global cities, they most dislike.

Visceral politics

This is visceral politics: the politics of the “other,” fearing and loathing of that which is different. If the 20th century has one certain lesson, it is that such emotions should never be ignored or lazily appeased. Take Britain, where I live: There has been a long and agonised  debate among politicians and commentators about the true nature of UKIP, and its alleged racism. While officially deploring extremism, the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, has churned up atavistic prejudices with reckless indifference to the consequences — a technique also deployed by Ms Le Pen in France.

When Farage said that certain parts of Britain were becoming ‘unrecognisable’ because of immigration, he was sending a barely coded message to the electorate. Ditto his appalling remarks in a recent radio interview: “I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.”

In the sudden prominence of figures like Farage, Le Pen and Morten Messerschmidt of Denmark, the far right now has what it always wanted: a place at the table. Numerically, these parties account for fewer than 100 seats in the European Parliament, and it is doubtful that they will operate as a bloc.

(Farage’s pinstriped reactionary politics, for instance, are very different from the theatrical style of Golden Dawn of Greece, whose logo is provocatively reminiscent of the Nazi swastika.) But coordination is less important than momentum, which is what they have.

For all the poise that they have mustered for the cameras, Europe’s heads of government are in varying degrees of shock, struggling to understand what has happened and how they should address it.

They do know that a new treaty is needed, not least in response to the euro-zone crisis. David Cameron, the British prime minister, has the selective assistance of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, in pressing the case for both a renegotiation of Britain’s membership and sweeping reform of European Union institutions to make them more accountable.

Brussels, Cameron said this week, has become “too big, too bossy, too interfering,” and though he did not say so explicitly, it will not mend its ways if Jean-Claude Juncker, the establishment candidate, is appointed president of the European Commission. The founding fathers of this union were peacemakers. Their successors should be radical democrats.

They must also be more courageous than they have been in the past week. These election results are partly the consequence of structural flaws in the European Union’s organisation — failures that should be tackled. European voters have suffered grievously from the global downturn, and politicians cannot express contrition too often for the part they played in that.

But they must also be more forthright in acknowledging that extremism is no longer confined to the streets. The politics of hate, or fear, or both, is now a significant force in
Europe’s assembly. What separates statesmanship from the routine practice of politics is the courage to take the risks of plain speaking and decisive action when they have to be taken. Europe needs such statesmanship now.