Continental Drift: Europe at a Crossroads

A specter is haunting Europe. It has many names, and none of them fits. It is neither left nor right, and neither revolutionary nor reactionary, although it is a bit of all these things. It has many diverse and sometimes incongruous manifestations; it seems to spring from a single fountain of malaise and discontent.

It should be given a name, but labeling it “populist,” “extreme,” or “anti-European” is much too facile and imprecise, for by doing so one discounts it a priori as something unworthy, subversive, and pathological. Yet it is quickly becoming the norm, and in its turn it rejoices in labeling traditional politics as obsolete, irrelevant, and counterproductive. As the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev wrote recently, “It’s hard to judge if the majority of the Europeans are moving to the left or to the right, but what is obvious is that almost nobody is left in the center.” The very definition of left and right is now being called into question, in the same way the national socialist movements did before World War II. But today’s specter is certainly anti-establishment in every sense of the word. Its enemies are the traditional political elites, the Washington consensus, and the Eurocrats. It is anti-American if not anti-capitalist, anti-Israel if not anti-Semitic, and anti-Brussels if not anti-European.

It speaks of the helplessness of a man in the street, who feels he has no control over the policies made in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Strasbourg, not to speak of Washington, and whose political power, enshrined in his vote, has been devalued to the point of irrelevance. It speaks of the frustration of the blue-collar workers, whose jobs have been taken over by foreigners from other parts of Europe and whose unemployment insurance and social benefits must be shared with foreigners from outside Europe. The influx of immigrants makes it more difficult to find a job in times of crisis and keeps the wages low in times of growth. It is thus easy to blame the unemployment and stagnant wages on them, although the root causes may lie elsewhere.

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It speaks of the insecurity of the white man, whose privileges of race, status, and gender were overdue to be shattered by the racially and socially egalitarian postmodern world. At the same time, it speaks of the sense of injustice of the common man in the face of the growing economic inequality. Made up of such discordant elements, it is no wonder that the voice of these movements, although clear in articulating a set of millennial goals, is so inarticulate in terms of specific policies of how to attain them. It is more a howl of frustration than human speech.

The growing influence of these movements has not gone unnoticed by either the interested observers or by the voters themselves. The best thing that could be said about the rise of the anti-establishment movements in the latest election to the European Parliament, in 2014, was that most analysts feared it would be worse, though not by much. At the same time, the more prominent the phenomenon has become, the more insistent have the governments and traditional parties been about its irrelevance, nuttiness, and lack of worth. When members of the French political establishment wanted to show their united solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks by marching through the streets of Paris, they pointedly excluded the National Front of Marine Le Pen, which represented 27 percent of the vote in the latest European election, as if it had been in some way complicit in the horror that took place three days earlier. Given the passions in the air, it may have been a good policy but it was almost certainly bad politics.

The growth of the parties of discontent in various European countries stems from a variety of roots. The Greek Syriza party, the Spanish Podemos, and, mutatis mutandis, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy are driven by unemployment, economic decline, and the lack of prospects for millions of mostly young people. If one should look for a common label, they would be the parties of anger.

The Hungarian Jobbik, the Bulgarian Ataka, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the Czech Dawn of Direct Democracy are driven by traditional nationalism and xenophobia, sometimes without having many foreigners to point at. Trying to mitigate their obvious anti-Semitic instincts in the face of public opprobrium, they often find an easy surrogate target in the European Roma (or Romani) people, an ethnic group dispersed all over Europe with little in terms of organization, public advocacy, or general support whose numbers are estimated in the astonishing range of 2–12 million people, but are likely to be closer to the upper end of that scale. It would be easy to label these groups as parties of hate.

In the west and north, immigration is the rallying cry for the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, or the True Finns, who have become so successful that they renamed themselves just Finns. Together they comprise parties of fear.


For all their differences, however, all these parties seem to have one problem in common. It is the elephant in the room, the European Union. Clearly, the EU is more directly linked to some of the problems motivating the discontents, like the European financial crisis, which brought out in the open the unsustainable state of Greek finances, and is largely innocent of others, such as the deplorable levels of corruption, the dwindling indigenous population, or the number of immigrants and of Roma in some of the member countries. It gets blamed no matter what.

The issue at hand seems to be not just the policies of the EU but the EU as such. It is a paradox at the core of the union that the bigger and more integrated it is, and the more powerful its Parliament becomes, the less appealing it is to its citizens. In 35 years of elections, the percentage of Europeans voting for the Parliament decreased by 30 percent, getting smaller and smaller with each successive election. The decline is more pronounced and consistent in countries at the core of European integration like France, Germany, and Italy than in the known troublemakers such as the United Kingdom, where the percentage has hardly changed at all. In Portugal, the number of voters has decreased by more than 50 percent. In Slovakia, 87 percent of voters did not bother to vote at all in the 2014 election, beating their former federal Czech partners by 5 percent.

The composition of this unbeloved Parliament is changing as well. Since the beginning, it has been dominated by three establishment political groups, center-right Christian Democrats (currently European People’s Party), the center-left (currently the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), and the Liberals (currently Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). Two other groups with more radical ideas about change and reform originated in the opposition to the establishment bloc or defected from the mainstream, but either way have been a part of the political process and not infrequently a part of the governing establishment for long enough to warrant an in-between status. They are the Green group (the Greens/European Free Alliance) and the Conservative-Reformist bloc (European Conservatives and Reformists), which on a national level includes some traditional establishment parties such as the British Conservatives, or the Czech Civic Democratic Party, as well as the Polish Law and Justice party and the Finns. The rest consists of a coalition of Communist and radical left parties in the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, radical anti-European parties in Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, and the non-aligned Non-Inscrits of Marie Le Pen’s National Front and several smaller radical groups with low coalition potential (interestingly, they include both the proto-fascist Greek Golden Dawn and the Communist Party of Greece). 

Although the three European establishment groups still control 63 percent of the seats in the Parliament, they all lost seats in the latest election—collectively almost a hundred, amounting to 12.5 percent of the total. The Reformists and Greens have more or less held their own or—depending on the reshuffling of the alliances—made slight gains, but the bulk of the balance went to the radicals.

The relationship between times of economic hardship and political radicalization is well established, having played out to a disastrous effect in Europe in the 1930s. It is true that between 2008 and now all the European economies took a beating, with the recession most severe in 2009 and a second, smaller dip in 2012. They are only now approaching pre-crisis levels. The eurozone, which includes most of the richest countries in Europe and also most of its basket cases (the two categories not necessarily mutually exclusive), fared slightly worse than the rest of the EU. Some countries, namely Greece, Cyprus, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Lithuania, and Latvia, were made to go through a grinder. Yet the map of the countries with the highest level of discontent does not coincide with those hardest hit economically, but includes nations that have fared relatively well, such as the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, the UK, and France, the country that has miraculously hardly suffered at all in terms of GDP growth. Moreover, the tide of discontent seems to be rising just at the time when the worst in economic terms seems to be over, a phenomenon reminiscent of some mental states, where the patient undergoing severe depression is the most at risk at the moment he starts to emerge from the state of apathy and stupor. Ultimately, it is apparently not the pain people have gone through that makes them radical, but the lack of conviction that things can get significantly better.

While economic factors undoubtedly played a role, much of the discontent revolves around identity politics. The process of European integration, combined with revulsion against nationalism and xenophobia (rightly seen as the culprits in some of the worst continental tragedies of the past), the ideology of multiculturalism, and the growing proportion of Europeans with a non-European background, has led to a diminishing sense of national identity without the kind of strong European identity that Vaclav Havel and others called for to supplant it. The result is a sense of identity drift that is continually at a disadvantage against the strong, and sometimes assertive, identities in Asia, the Middle East, the United States, and lately also Russia.

What kept Europe going for years was a vision of a continent whole and free, and increasingly united. The appetite to make it whole is gone; Turkey has been placed, partly of its own volition, in a permanent holding pen; Ukraine was a nonstarter even before Crimea and Donetsk; membership for Montenegro, Serbia, and other countries of southeastern Europe is years, and more likely decades, down the road. Our freedom has become entangled in a maze of regulations, directives, sacred cows, and taboos, and unity is not often mentioned these days, except to deplore its absence. Re-nationalization of policies seems to be the order of the day. What significant “European” decisions are taken are more likely than not to be taken by a single country, which makes neither the country in question nor other Europeans feel particularly comfortable. Yet all the European establishment parties of yesterday are irrevocably tied to the project of “an ever closer union.” Is it then such a surprise that people are beginning to look elsewhere? 


Needless to say, the turbulence in the European political system is not taking place in a vacuum. From the outside, the developments are viewed with some concern from across the Atlantic and with some glee and a sense of opportunity from nearer by. It would be paranoid to claim that the rise of the anti-establishment sentiment is inspired or orchestrated from abroad, and in fact there is little to support such claim. That does not, however, mean, that disaffected groups do not have foreign sympathies, contacts, examples to emulate, and even sources of funding. The fact that you’re paranoid does not mean that there is no one out to get you.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has received some glowing reviews from the leading lights of the British UKIP, including its leader Nigel Farage. As Alina Polyakova has argued in the pages of this magazine (“Strange Bedfellows,” September/October 2014), the Russian leader is equally popular with the Hungarian Jobbik, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Bulgarian Ataka, and the Greek Golden Dawn, as well the Le Pen’s National Front. They are all busy condemning the European sanctions in response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine and travelling to Moscow, where they are treated as statesmen. The latest but not the least important in this queue is the governing Syriza in Greece, whose leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, is talking of a new dawn, golden or not, in Russo-Greek relations after having made the pilgrimage to the Kremlin.

The conspicuous thing here is that Putin seems to be an equal-opportunity admiree, enjoying the adulation of the post-communists, the radical socialists, the right-wing nationalists, and the proto-fascists in equal measure. They all admire his anti-Americanism, the bloody nose he is giving Europe in Ukraine, and his unabashed machismo, so unlike, in their eyes, the weak, effete, and ineffective European leaders.

The question is, could there be the seeds of a new ideology beneath the political opportunism in all these apparent misalliances? And is there more to this ideology than the obvious elements of nationalism and xenophobia? It would be premature scaremongering to summon the specter of an emerging Sixth International, but it would be also negligent to ignore the growing affinity of views between the anti-establishment groups in Western Europe and some of the neo-Russian ideologues. “In principle, Eurasia and our space, the heartland Russia, remain the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution,” quoth the prophet of “national bolshevism,” Alexander Dugin. “The new Eurasian empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.” This may seem far-fetched; Dugin is either too radical or too outspoken (not the same thing) even for the Putin circle, but if there is anything that most of the groups discussed so far, right and left, would agree about, it is their “national” patriotic character, their distrust of the United States and rejection of the Atlantic bond, and their disgust with the liberal values as expressed in European politics, economy, and lifestyles. 

To be absolutely clear, there is no question that this growing affinity poses a serious threat to Europe—all of Europe, not just the eurozone, and not just the EU—and that it brings about some very dangerous ideas, some rather unpleasant bedfellows, and a host of other issues. But it did not materialize out of thin air. Its pervasiveness and growth, both in terms of numbers and geography, is an indication that the malaise stems from common underlying roots; and pathological as it may be, it reflects the deeper malaise of the organism that gave it its birth. Its symptoms are a sense of complacency: the hope that the current problems will somehow go away, given enough time; the timidity to face the enemies head-on; the temptation to co-opt some of the populists’ strategies in the vain hope of stealing their thunder; and an inability to ponder the need for serious reforms that would give the European project a new sense of direction and energy.

Sometimes it seems that the main stakeholders in the European Union do not trust their own creation as much as they claim. Their main objection against any radical reform is that it could trigger such turbulence throughout the system that the whole edifice could collapse. Any tampering with the euro or the size of the eurozone could allegedly portend the end of the European Union. Any significant treaty change is impossible because it could fail in referenda in several European countries, and the EU could fail with it. Any weakening of the “ever closer union” could lead to no union at all. You need to keep pedaling, we are often reminded, lest you fall on your face, with catastrophic results.

It would appear that many of Brussels’ leading lights spend more time in their offices and cars than on their bicycles. They seem to confuse people on bicycles with sharks in the water that die if they stop swimming, thus forgetting what every child will learn: If you stop pedaling, nothing catastrophic usually happens. You slow down, and eventually put your feet on the ground, and stop. Maybe wait a little to catch your breath and consider where you want to go before you start pedaling again.

One dares to hope that the foundations of the union are solid enough to withstand an occasional slowdown or even occasional setbacks. To evolve, societies, just like individuals, need to adapt, discard what has not served them well, and explore new avenues of approach. To maintain otherwise is a recipe for disaster, and provides the opportunity to every demagogue, populist, and anti-democrat. The union can survive without a number of its regulations, without two seats for its Parliament, without quite a few of its policies, without some members of the eurozone, and if need be, even without the eurozone. What it cannot survive without are its people. 

Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and the author of Havel: A Life.



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