New Times,
New Thinking.

A continent drifts

Europe’s politics have stalled. In an age of crisis, the EU needs a new generation of far-sighted leaders.

By New Statesman

Europe is a continent trapped in a political stalemate. The Spanish election on 23 July was merely the latest evidence of this.

Both the centre-right People’s Party and the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party were unable to command majorities even when combined with the far-right Vox or the radical-left Sumar. The composition of the country’s next government will be determined by a handful of Basque and Catalan regionalist parties. Such was the ambiguity of the result that a second national election may soon follow. Yet this indecision is characteristic of a continent in which no faction is politically or intellectually dominant and commanding leaders are few.

[See also: A world on fire]

In the late 1990s, a new wave of European leaders – Tony Blair (recently interviewed by Andrew Marr), Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, France’s Lionel Jospin – championed the “Third Way” or modernised social democracy. They were succeeded by a cadre of centre-right leaders committed to economic liberalism and fiscal conservatism: David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. Yet there is no comparable formation today.

Reports of the death of the centre left proved exaggerated. Germany’s moribund Social Democratic Party returned to power, under Olaf Scholz, in a three-party coalition in 2021, while Portugal’s António Costa won a third term and an outright majority in 2022. But the left is now in danger of returning to its losing ways: ousted in Sweden, Finland and, potentially, in Spain. Yet there is no coherent right-wing project waiting to fill the void.

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Italy’s Giorgia Meloni was once touted as a glimpse of Europe’s far-right future. But she has proved more pragmatic in office than some anticipated: avoiding confrontation with the EU in return for €191.5bn in post-pandemic funding and supporting arms for Ukraine in spite of her previous Russian sympathies. The far right may be insurgent in Germany and Austria, but in Spain it went backwards (Vox lost 19 seats). Across Europe, people appear determined to conspire against simplistic narratives.

France’s Emmanuel Macron is the continent’s most prominent – and grandiose – leader. But far from remaking Europe in his own image, he is struggling to maintain authority in France, beset as it is by riots and civil unrest. His remarkable electoral achievements – the only French president for 20 years to win re-election – are qualified by the absence of a political successor.

The risk in these circumstances is that Europe switches to autopilot – with dangerous results. The EU’s tight fiscal rules, suspended in the wake of the Covid pandemic, will be reimposed in 2024 in the absence of an agreement this year. By mandating budget deficits no higher than 3 per cent of GDP and debt no higher than 60 per cent of GDP, they would necessitate the return of austerity.

Mrs Merkel, who led Germany from 2005 until 2021, is often lamented as Europe’s lost liberal beacon. But as Wolfgang Münchau recently wrote in the New Statesman, the austerity she imposed on the eurozone “permanently damaged the zone’s economic resilience, fuelled the rise of the far right and drove wedges between eurozone countries”. She also underestimated the threat from Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia.

Yet, like the Bourbons, the austerians have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner, the leader of the hawkish Free Democrats, has declared: “Our aim is to strengthen the Stability and Growth Pact, not to weaken it.”

The EU remains a political and economic superpower. It has a population of nearly 450 million and a combined GDP of €15trn. And Brexit has strengthened public support (62 per cent of voters in France and 63 per cent in Italy would vote for their countries to remain members). There are eight states recognised as candidates for future membership. Even Euroscepticism has been institutionalised, as Ms Meloni’s compromises demonstrate.

But while predictions of European disintegration have so far proved deluded, the EU remains rudderless. In this age of permanent crisis, the bloc needs a new generation of far-sighted leaders committed to strategic statecraft. Instead it has a bewildering array of political forces: conservatives and communists, fascists and federalists, technocrats and techno-populists. Yes, this is democracy in action. But it is also incoherence.

[See also: Worse could follow Putin]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special