As the cries of “Long live the nation state” echo across the Continent, and British anti-Europeans hail the beginning of the end of the EU, or at least its transformation into a toothless modern League of Nations, we should beware, for the parallels with an earlier age are compelling. We may be witnessing the slow “Weimar-isation” of Europe, a slide back towards the fatal interwar years when fascism was given its opportunity.
Europe in the age of Weimar Germany was brilliant at producing hollow treaties. These always aimed to pacify the whole continent, but also gave each nation so many opt-outs and privileges that nothing could be enforced. The Europe of Weimar was marked by mass unemployment, and though social conditions have improved beyond recognition, the lack of dynamism today in the labour markets of France, Germany and Italy is spawning nasty, populist, right-wing politics. The return of anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalist politics should also trigger alarms.
As it did 80 years ago, the right is moving rightwards. As they were 80 years ago, the trades unions are blamed for econo-mic ills, even though their most obvious characteristic is their powerlessness. Once again, the accumulation of personal wealth is treated with fetishistic reverence, while notions of equality and solidarity are neglected. In the Weimar era, America adopted a posture of lofty isolation; today, much of Europe spurns partnership with the United States.
But the real disaster of the Weimar era was the failure of the European left to fashion a common programme. Bert Ramelson, the former Yorkshire communist, used to joke that during the Spanish civil war he shot more Trotskyists in the back than fascists in the chest. British wit, to be sure, but the splits in trades unions and in political parties of the left, and the kind of gloating language of hate we heard from George Galloway on election night, are reminders of how brittle is the unity of the left.
Labour MPs gleefully devoured George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England in the early 1930s without realising that the disappearance of liberal politics would open the way to Tory hegemony. In France today, an alliance of populists and protectionists has just shattered the Socialist Party of Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors. In Germany, the former Social Democratic leader Oskar Lafontaine has formed a breakaway group in a clear echo of the disastrous splits in the 1920s. In Italy, too, the left is hopelessly at odds with itself, with Francesco Rutelli’s Margherita (Daisy Party) refusing to submit to the renamed Partito dei Comunisti Italiani in the Ulivo coalition, and the Rifondazione Comunista denouncing its erstwhile comrades as reformists.
Long gone are the days of 1999 when Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, Wim Kok, Massimo d’Alema, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and Romano Prodi appeared to be a centre-left alliance running Europe. Though those leaders were nominally allies, they had neither the theory nor the mechanism to shape a European reformist leftism. The rigid Montagu Norman-style policies of the European Central Bank – fighting the war against inflation while unemployment sank deep roots – met no coherent, organised challenge. Too many Labour policy-makers never read Le Monde or understood how limited were Gerhard Schroder’s options in Germany.
The European left today is as incoherent as it was during the Weimar years. Each national left believes it is right and the others are wrong. Policy debate and rational, democratic-left internationalism have been replaced by anti-science and anti-trade populist protectionism. Elections are looming in Germany this September, in Italy in 2006 and in France in 2007, and unless the democratic left starts to think and act together, it risks ushering in a long period of right-wing domination, ugly nationalism and the disintegration of the EU – a new Weimar Europe.
Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, was minister for Europe (2002-2005)