The EU’s austerity policies have led to a fragmentation of its power, encouraging the rise of populist parties.
Richard Titmuss once wrote: “Without knowledge of wind and current, […] societies do not keep afloat for long, morally and economically, by bailing out the water.” There is something in this of today’s Europe, leaking on all sides as it is, and in all collective initiatives which run out of steam or when the consensus over their ultimate purpose is broken. Today, Europe’s public sphere offers an utterly desolate panorama: the generalisation of a populist discourse; anti-Semitism and Islamophobic outbreaks in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre; the undermining of rights and freedoms (first for Them, and later for Us) in the interests of security; the return of identity politics, and so on.
Europe is progress and civilisation. But it is also suicidal geopolitics played out like a Viennese imperial ballet, the classicide of the gulags and the genocides of Treblinka and Srebrenica. If the ghosts of the past return, it is because they never truly went away. They are always there, waiting for the next beer hall agitator to capitalise on dire economic straits, anxiety over the future, and the weakness of a transitional political class who are too often part of the problem as they fight to contain the tsunamis that mark a change of epoch. On top of this there is this frivolous selfie modernity of the social networks, which is so often guilty of globalising the absurd and banalising what is human. It is all the same to have your picture taken at the state funeral for an epic figure like Mandela, or on top of the tortured corpse of an Iraqi prisoner that is covered in ice cubes, or styled as Hitler on Facebook like Lutz Bachmann, the leader of the Pegida movement (who stepped down once the photo was picked up by the tabloids).
Postmodern Europe tried to put History – with its class warfare, belief systems, and ideologies – behind it.
Postmodern Europe tried to put History – with its class warfare, belief systems, and ideologies – behind it, instead adopting a script for the end of a film based on cosmopolitan identities, democracy, rights for (almost) everyone, and the social market economy. This script was built on great pacts between political forces of the left and right, former enemies. With the ashes of Berlin and Warsaw still smouldering, this vision represented an attempt to go beyond the Westphalian sovereignties (greedy for wars of national pride) in search of an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, and to extend this European model throughout its immediate surroundings and also on a global scale.
Despite its achievements, this utopian vision sank into crisis some years ago, immersed in a fruitless struggle with itself and new realities, within Europe and without. The ideas from the old script just do not work anymore. Reflecting sentiment within societies, the member states themselves resist any further cession of sovereignty, except in cases of extreme necessity – as in the euro crisis – only to reconsider or downgrade such agreements when the storm abates. The utopian vision of Europe included a kind of idealising of the integrational process, in which national interests and the balance of power (not just Germany’s) have always played a central role. But the systemic crisis gives even greater precedence to national interests, especially when faced by the difficulties of reaching a compromise among almost 30 states, many of which have different political cultures and conflicting interests.
Populist ideologies are making their return, attractive not just to the average citizen, but also to many members of national elites.
Thus, populist ideologies are making their return, attractive not just to the average citizen, but also to many members of national elites, as is the case with Alternative für Deutschland. This clash between models and “Europes” is seeping beyond the union’s frontiers and entering the geopolitical and global strategy mix. The continent’s limping security apparatus falters in the face of the crude “green men” logic of military force in Crimea, reinforcing an agenda that combines historical revisionism and wounded pride at the Treaty of Versailles with orthodox pan-Slavism and a masterly ability to exploit the West’s weaknesses and double standards.
There is no new Cold War, but there are multiple little cold wars, from Ukraine to the Baltic States, the Black Sea, and the Balkans. It is a fight between ideas and apparently irreconcilable visions, over the rules and basic principles of the European space and its political model. This clash of visions between the Kremlin and the European Union is echoed in the domestic European debate. We have seen in the votes on Ukraine and Russia in the European Parliament how the Kremlin’s viewpoint receives support from right-wing Europhobes like Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, as well as forces such as the United Left and Podemos, plus the usual suspects who feel nostalgia for a Soviet Union that they were fortunate enough not to experience in the flesh.
In this battle between utopias, ideas, and visions of Europe, those at the extremes embark on marriages of convenience and drown out moderate options.
In this battle between utopias, ideas, and visions of Europe, those at the extremes embark on marriages of convenience and drown out moderate options. We should not, therefore, be surprised by the government alliance in Greece between a victorious Syriza and the Independent Greeks, a right-wing nationalist party that agrees with its partner on the economy but not on other issues, such as gay rights. There will be more of this.
These movements overestimate the sovereignty of nations and their ability to influence events in the anarchic globalised world we live in. But their finger is firmly on the pulse of the moment, skilfully using twenty-first-century tools to mobilise masses; and they do have the capacity to inspire, something that mainstream European parties have not achieved for quite some time. They expose the contradictions of a Europe that is too remote in terms of the fears and social problems that groups like Pegida catalyse. This is the same Europe that has embroiled itself in a clash of legitimacies which it can only lose as it fouls its own nest by telling Greeks who they should and should not vote for. And a Europe that, thanks to the discourse of “there is no alternative” to austerity and the general drift of eurozone policies, only succeeds in catapulting alternatives (more or less desirable, but European nonetheless) in Greece, France, Germany, and Spain. Because it continually refuses to tackle the problems put on the table by populists, this is a Europe that allows the debate to be dominated by populists’ proposals, visions, and perceptions, even though these are often wrong. The timeworn European script to deal with populist movements and the crisis is not working; indeed, it is often counterproductive. European leaders should bear this in mind, not so much with regard to Greece, but above all because of what might happen in other key states, such as France, the United Kingdom, and even Germany itself, upon which the very viability of the union depends.
Europe is in need of a catharsis, but we are getting ever more bogged down in the clash of legitimacies and democracies.
Sooner or later, all utopias are destined to fail, in relative or absolute terms. Today, more than ever, simplistic solutions are not what is required, but rather imperfect ones, just like the uncertain world in which we live. Power is too fragmented today, the world too interdependent and the challenges too big. The hopes of today will be followed by the disappointments of tomorrow, because not all interests can be reconciled. The paradox is that Europe is in need of a catharsis, but we are getting ever more bogged down in the clash of legitimacies and democracies, because it is not only a confrontation between “peoples” or “citizens” and “the caste” or the demonised Troika (the easy view), but also between European nations (demos) such as Germany and Greece.
In these circumstances, Europe once again needs great consensuses to reinforce the legitimacy of the common cause, giving it a new narrative that generates inspiration (and not just alienation). These accords should boost Europe’s prosperity and competitiveness while defending our model of liberties in a hostile and dangerous world. It is easy to say, I know; in reality, there are too many dilemmas, too many interests at play, and politics is what it is. But it is crystal clear that neither the discourse of old nor today’s demagogues of the left or the right will get us out of this mess.
This article was originally published in Spanish in El Mundo.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.