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Europe at the crossroads

The EU elections could see the populist right make significant gains

Artillery Row

In a parallel dimension, where 48 and 52 were reversed, Britain would currently be voting in the European elections, and Nigel Farage would likely be running as an MEP, not chasing a seat in the Commons. 

Europe certainly feels like another universe, one with different laws of political gravity. Whilst Britain’s mainstream parties have opened the borders, and populism remains locked out of politics, new parties of the nationalist right are on a relentless march across Europe. The Identity and Democracy Group, a populist, anti-globalisation grouping within the EU parliament started in 2019 is expected to make considerable gains in the coming days. 

European populists, unlike their British counterparts, seek to change and challenge the EU from within

The Left warn of the return of fascism to the continent, but have left many of their own voters politically homeless in their rush to embrace neoliberal economics and social liberalism, building a narrow coalition of wealthy, urban voters. 

Nor do those on the populist right necessarily see themselves as part of a radical movement — one young person who had worked in the European Parliament said that they were simply trying to return to Christian Democracy, pointing to more extreme, explicitly neopagan and neofascist parties on the rise as the true danger should questions of security, migration and crime go unaddressed by the mainstream. 

A number of left wing parties have already changed approach, with Denmark’s Social Democratic party taking a far tougher line on migration than Rishi Sunak’s government. Perhaps relatedly, Denmark is also one of the few countries in which the Left is expected to do well. 

What will this mean for Britain? At present, we seem locked into an American-dominated Anglosphere’s patterns, from spiralling housing costs, open borders and deindustrialisation to closed two-party systems and hegemonic social liberalism. As Angust Hanton has noted, Britain’s economy is more dominated by America than any other European state, save perhaps that of Ireland. 

Europe is of course not immune to these trends — but they have spread more slowly, and met with far fiercer opposition. The EU is an ambiguous force, at best, in this context, offering an alternative to relying on America, but imitating and enforcing a liberal American economic and social ideology upon member states. Whilst its administrative arm is dominated by globalism, the democratic elements, as we are about to discover, offer a potential root for reform and resistance. Notably European populists, unlike their British counterparts, seek to change and challenge the EU from within, rather than without. 

The danger of current political ructions, following the heightened rhetoric of culture war, is that serious programmes of governance are not countenanced by parties of the populist right, and profound challenges go ultimately unaddressed, especially when they do not neatly fit into oppositional narratives. It is all very well to, for example, complain about Green policies hurting workers, or jobs shipped overseas to China, but this does not add up to an answer to the very real problems of climate change or modern economic organisation in a globalised world. 

We have already seen the costs of this intellectual incoherence in the case of Giorgia Meloni. This onetime firebrand who promised to secure Italy’s borders has done nothing of the sort — mass migration has continued on her watch, and far from challenging globalisation, she has embraced neoliberalism to such an extent that she was praised by the Economist. She is a warning of what is likely to come — populists will use fierce rhetoric to gain power and displace traditional parties, but absent ideas of their own, will quickly default to a Reaganite approach of combining a patina of social conservatism with deregulation. The social and economic morbidities of globalisation will only worsen, and even more radical parties may benefit.

“Europe can die”, he has said, quoting Paul Valéry

Nevertheless, where there is energy, there is hope. Both Left and Right in Europe must turn themselves to the task of going beyond neoliberal social and economic policy, and imagine a Europe beyond globalisation, one strong and self-confident enough to resist the entropy eroding our shared European civilisation. 

Emmanuel Macron, though an imperfect and contradictory figure himself, and far from innocent of neoliberalism, is worth listening to on this subject. “Europe can die”, he has said, quoting Paul Valéry. His willingness to speak in civilisational terms, and to stress the importance of military and economic coordination, both within and without the structures of the EU, is a message that both sides of the political divide need to urgently hear and embrace. His criticism of the nationalists in Europe, that they are “reaping the benefits of Europe, while wanting to destroy it without saying anything”, may be harsh, but it is not exactly untrue — the populist right must stand for more than narrowly defined national self-interest, if it is to rescue European civilisation. 

Britons have got used to thinking of themselves as outside of Europe, but have not woken up to the growing influence of America, and the implications of this influence, for all that it dominates our screens. This dangerous mixture of parochial incuriosity, combined with a complacent openness to a world we refuse to understand is an increasingly lethal blend. Britain is exposed, ever more nakedly, to global economic forces, yet we labour under the illusion our fate is our own.

From Europeans liberals and populists, to British exceptionalists, there is a shared failure to conceive of our problems in civilisational terms, and an even greater failure to answer generational challenges in civilisational terms. Our sense of ourselves as belonging to a shared story, and a shared inheritance, has been lost, and along with it our capacity to organise both nationally and internationally.

The question for a complacent British establishment is whether we will ever wake from our deathly collective slumber to shape events, joining with allies and opposing foes, or simply be caught by the tide of a history determined elsewhere, sweeping us who knows where. 

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