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31 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Leader: The return of Europe

The central reason the EU now confronts such challenges with confidence is the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president.

By New Statesman

At the close of 2016, the European Union was haunted by the spectre of permanent decline. For the first time in its history, a member state had voted to leave. The Brexiteers hoped – and Europhiles feared – that Britain’s departure would trigger a chain reaction. The United States, meanwhile, once a champion of European integration, had elected Donald Trump as president, a man who openly wished for the break-up of the EU. As Europe confronted these new threats, its own long-standing problems – the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the Russia-Ukraine conflict – remained unresolved.

The paradox, as the political scientist Ivan Krastev writes in his essay on page 24, is that although these troubles have endured, the EU is now defined by a new mood of optimism. In part, this reflects a genuine shift in economic performance.

The eurozone economy grew at its fastest rate for a decade in 2017 (2.5 per cent) and unemployment fell to its lowest level since 2009 (8.7 per cent). By contrast, the UK grew at around 1.8 per cent, its worst performance since 2012. Though the Brexit vote did not result in the recession some forecast, Britain’s losses – and the EU’s refusal to grant concessions – have been sufficient to deter other member states from leaving.

Mr Trump has also proved less destructive than many had feared. An accelerating US economy has reinforced the EU’s recovery, and the American president has inadvertently united Europeans in contempt. However, Mr Trump’s new threat of a trade war (“I’ve had a lot of problems with the European Union,” he said) shows the potential for mutually destructive protectionism.

The central reason the EU now confronts such challenges with confidence is the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president. As Mr Krastev writes, his victory was “a reminder of the importance of leadership” and of the winning combination of “talent, ambition and good luck”. Mr Macron’s unashamed advocacy of Europe and his assured personal style has created a profound change in the political atmosphere. For too long, EU leaders appeared to regard support as an automatic entitlement; Mr Macron recognises that  it needs to be earned and argued for.

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Britain’s troubled state offers a contrasting lesson in leadership. Theresa May’s absence of vision has made the unenviable task of Brexit even harder. Such is the Prime Minister’s weakness and lack of authority that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, privately mocked her refusal to make the EU an “offer” in the negotiations. Though they are divided by the Europe Question, Remainers and Leavers in Mrs May’s party are united in despair at her leadership. Her premiership has become a joyless act of managing decline.

The best leaders are political alchemists: capable of repeatedly turning crises into opportunities. Mr Macron’s achievement was to transform despair into optimism and fear into hope. At a defining moment in the UK’s history, it is precisely this skill that Mrs May lacks. 

Theatre of the elite

In this magazine last year, the Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro described the musical Hamilton as “the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing… an early performance of, say, Richard III, on the Elizabethan stage”. So it was a grave disappointment to many fans when the latest tranche of tickets went on sale on 29 January. Around half the seats have been hiked in price from £89.50 to £100 since the initial release, a rise of 10 per cent in just 18 months. Top price “premium” tickets are £250; only eight seats are £20.

Tickets are selling well, so some would argue this is simply the market in action. But Hamilton has the potential to create a new generation of theatre-lovers, and treating it as a purely commercial proposition seems short-sighted. In New York, the sky-high stalls prices were offset by the Rockefeller Foundation funding 20,000 tickets for schools at $10 each.

Hamilton at least is backed by private money. We should ask more searching questions of subsidised theatres, such as the National on London’s South Bank, which received £18.2m from the Arts Council in 2016-17. Although schemes such as the Travelex £15 tickets are welcome, standard prices cannot be allowed to creep ever higher without theatre losing touch with younger and less wealthy audiences. The art form will die if it becomes a conversation purely among the elite. 

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration