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12 December 2016

Europe’s states of disorder

Those optimistically talking about a "soft Brexit" are missing the bigger picture. 

By John Gray

It is too early to gauge the full impact of the Austrian election and the Italian constitutional referendum. The increased majority for the Green-backed candidate in Austria shows a European electorate refusing to elect a president from an organisation that was founded by a former SS officer. But Norbert Hofer’s Freiheitliche Partei Öster­reichs (Austrian Freedom Party) managed to command nearly 47 per cent of the vote, and with this level of popular support it could still become the country’s largest party in parliamentary elections scheduled to be held by September 2018, which may now well be held earlier. In that event, the FPÖ leader could become chancellor. The creeping advance of the far right across Europe may have paused but it has not stopped.

The crushing defeat of Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, who has said he will resign after losing the referendum on 4 December, should be seen in a similar light. The chief beneficiary will be Beppo Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which is demanding a referendum on Italian membership of the eurozone and a general election early next year. Grillo’s movement is not an Italian version of the FPÖ, though it has disturbing undercurrents of anti-Semitism. But the result could also energise the far-right separatist Lega Nord, as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Months of political uncertainty will derail plans to deal with Italy’s fragile banking system. If any of these parties entered government over the coming year, the euro itself would come into question.

The pattern could be repeated in France. François Hollande’s announcement on 2 December that he will not seek re-election is the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic that a president has left the scene in this way. His Parti Socialiste will hold a presidential primary in January, but with any centre-left candidate carrying the deadweight of Hollande’s presidency, the final run-off seems likely to involve two figures from the right, the Front National’s candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the candidate for the centre-right Républicains, François Fillon. Many who are suspicious – with good reason – of Le Pen’s claim to have “detoxified” her party take some comfort from the belief that Fillon is bound to win comfortably in such a contest. Yet this is far from clear, and a Fillon victory would not stabilise the situation in Europe. Whichever candidate prevailed, the fragmenting international order would suffer another great blow.

Formerly prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon has been touted as a Catholic conservative who can appeal to the provincial bourgeoisie while applying a dose of Thatcherite shock therapy to the creaking French economic model. (Fillon is more illiberal on social issues than Margaret Thatcher ever was, but let that pass.) It does not take powers of clairvoyance to see these are conflicting roles. Like neoliberalism everywhere, Thatcherite policies in Britain left much of the middle class in a precarious position. Lacking job security and looking forward to an uncertain old age, most cannot remember a way of life in which they could save and plan for the future.

Fillon’s proposals – which include sacking half a million civil servants and slashing public spending by €100bn over five years – would go a long way towards obliterating the middle-class way of life in France. In practice, there is no prospect of any such programme being implemented. Thatcherism was possible and, on its own economic terms, successful because when it was imposed Britain was not trapped in deflation. Cutting public services led to higher unemployment for a while, but it did not tip the economy over the edge and into an abyss.

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A similar programme would do exactly that in France today, not least because France lacks a flexible national currency that could absorb some of the strain.

The politics of the two countries are also very different. Thatcher had no serious opposition because when she became Tory leader Labour had moved to the far left, and then it split with the formation of the SDP. By contrast, Fillon faces a strong challenge from Le Pen, who will follow the lead of the French far left in condemning his programme as economic vandalism. It is a stance that will play well with France’s powerful trade unions, which Fillon has vowed to crush, and with sections of the conservative middle classes. Having identified itself with a failing status quo, the centre left seems to be out of the game.

France has no tradition of small-state conservatism, and hostility to market capitalism has always been a platform of the far right. It has been assumed that France’s multiparty, multi-phase system for electing the president would bar the far right from power indefinitely. The stench surrounding Le Pen’s family and many of her supporters would be too much for any French majority ever to put her into the Élysée Palace. But in a contest with a neoliberal at a time when austerity policies are discredited, this outcome can no longer be taken for granted. If she is able to communicate the risks of Fillon’s Thatcherite programme to a wide span of voters, Le Pen could edge closer to power in 2017 and make a convincing run for the presidency in the general election after that. According to some reports, this is the result for which she and her advisers have been hoping and planning. If the plan seems to be working in the elections next year, it will be hardly less of a shock than outright victory.

Even a convincing win for Fillon would spell further trouble for what is still being fondly described as the liberal international order. He has been unequivocal in urging far-reaching détente with Moscow – ending sanctions, accepting the division of Ukraine and backing Russian intervention in Syria, for example. Suggesting that it is Islamism, not Vladimir Putin, that poses the chief danger to Europe, it is a popular stance in France and much of Europe. Whatever the outcome of a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen, Russia’s influence would increase across the continent.

The nature of the political upheaval in Europe continues to be misunderstood. An intrepid follower of fashion, the writer and gadfly Bernard-Henri Lévy has joined many others in opining that voters are no longer interested in facts or arguments. But “post-truth politics”, like “populism”, is a term mostly used by liberals who cannot face up to the self-defeating effects of their inordinate ideology. They might benefit from revisiting an idea that captivated an earlier generation of progressive thinkers, and considering the possibility that history obeys a law of dialectical contradiction. By pursuing the ultra-liberal project of a borderless continent in which national identities count for little, Europe’s ruling elites are bringing the opposite into being.

Unhappily, there is no sign of any higher synthesis. Europe has entered one of its periodic states of protracted disorder. That seems not to have penetrated the minds of those who agitate for a fuzzy Brexit. Their jubilation at the election of a Liberal Democrat after Zac Goldsmith’s self-immolation in the 1 December by-election in Richmond Park, south-west London, screens out this larger reality. Equally, whether you see it as a legitimate test of constitutional principle or the pursuit of the Remain cause by other means, the result of the government’s appeal against a legalistic challenge to its authority to implement British EU withdrawal is sublimely insignificant, in the context of the upheavals under way across the Channel. By the time any soft Brexit could be negotiated, Europe’s political landscape will have changed beyond recognition. 

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump