Centrist political parties have been struggling in many parts of Europe. There are two opposing literary images that spring to mind. Tolstoy’s unhappy families – in which each family is miserable in its own unique way – is the narrative of political journalism. It explains the decline of the centre in terms of national stories: French pension reforms; German energy policy; Italian stagnation.
The opposing view is that of a unifying force behind the chaos in European politics, the Spiritus Mundi in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
France is the most interesting example as it is the only country that tried to reinvent the middle ground through Emmanuel Macron’s radical centrism. That came and went. He won last year’s presidential contest, but then failed to win a majority in the parliamentary elections. When the National Assembly balked at his pension reforms in March, Macron invoked Article 49.3 of the French constitution, which let him override a parliamentary vote. This led to massive, ongoing protests and a slump in his approval ratings. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, the far left have both benefited from the fiasco.
Italy last year elected a far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. In Spain, the far left and far right have formed alliances with the centrist parties and pushed them to more extreme positions. The centre still holds in Germany, but it too has weakened thanks to Covid, Russia’s war and inflation.
Why is this happening in so many countries at the same time? One answer is that the social fabric that supported the centre has come unstuck. It’s partly an economic story, but you can’t reduce it to a series of numbers. In postwar Europe, industry provided lifelong employment, and guaranteed pensions and social stability. Industrial plants were surrounded by sprawling neighbourhoods. People were rooted in their communities. This is why the Germans talk about Industriegesellschaft – industrial society – as opposed to industrial economy. It is a way of life.
I also see the decline of the industrial society as the reason why European voters have reacted so strongly against immigration. It was only when people started to fear for their economic future that immigration mattered. Europe saw mass immigration in the second half of the 20th century – but from a very low previous level, and without political consequences.
Support for Brexit was at its highest in northern English industrial towns that used to belong to the UK’s rust belt. In Germany, the two parties invested most heavily in the industrial society were Olaf Scholz’s SPD and the centre-right CDU/CSU. In the 2002 elections their combined share of the vote was 77 per cent; by 2021 that had fallen to below 50 per cent. In France and Italy, more voters now support parties of the hard right and hard left than the classic centre parties.
Italy was hit by deindustrialisation first, and has gone further down the road of political radicalisation. Since adopting the euro, Italy has generated almost no productivity growth. Over the last 20 years, I have spent much time in Liguria, a once prosperous coastal region in north-western Italy, bordering France. It is still one of the most beautiful spots in Europe. The most outwardly visible sign of economic decline is abandonment – the dereliction of shops, houses and farmland. It is a dying land.
The European Commission classified Liguria as one the European regions worst affected by brain drain. Smallhold olive farming is one of its main agricultural sectors, but has become progressively less lucrative. Your best bet for finding a job in Liguria is through family connections. Neighbouring Piedmont to the north is also on the Commission’s list of regions in decline. This is the land of Fiat, wine and truffles.
Three German states, all in the east, are also on the list of despair. These are the strongholds of the Left Party and of the far-right AfD. Germany has been relatively lucky. It benefited from cheap labour from east Europe and cheap gas from Russia. But this is over now.
In Germany, as in France and Italy before it, the extremists are gaining ground. Sahra Wagenknecht, probably the most prominent politician of the hard left, is contemplating launching a new party that seeks to renew ties with Vladimir Putin, and that opposes Nato membership and arms deliveries to Ukraine. Polls have shown that a Wagenknecht party could win support from 20 per cent of the electorate; potentially, a combined far-left, far-right right vote could poll at around 30 per cent.
The costly green energy transition is also driving voters away from the centre. The latest example of this is a law to force homeowners to upgrade their heating at an immense cost.
There is still a centrist majority in Germany, and there will be after the next election. But it will take greater and greater effort to govern from the centre. Germany has a three-party coalition for the first time. The Netherlands has four parties. Belgium has a seven-party coalition. If society fragments, so does the political system.
Is the decline of the centre reversible? In theory, yes. But I do not expect this to happen, as the centre is not addressing the causes of why it is losing support: the addiction to short-term fixes, which contributed to deindustrialisation. This is how we ended up with quantitative easing, fiscal austerity, lockdown and economic sanctions, all with huge, unaccounted-for long-term consequences. As Yeats wrote: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age