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Whither Europe?

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Share the post "Whither Europe?" It is now two weeks since the European Parliament elections, and the dust has yet to settle. It was a remarkable election in many ways–unprecedented, really. Normally, EP elections are referenda on incumbents; domestic issues outweigh European issues. It would be too much to say that domestic issues took a back seat this time; of course they always matter, or at any rate the “throw the bums out” reflex always counts for something. But this time a very different sentiment is what moved masses of voters, I think, a sentiment that conjoined the usual disgruntlement with a more ominous foreboding that things might be heading in a seriously wrong direction. Europeans, like Americans, have begun to worry about Big Things: Is the postwar

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It is now two weeks since the European Parliament elections, and the dust has yet to settle. It was a remarkable election in many ways–unprecedented, really. Normally, EP elections are referenda on incumbents; domestic issues outweigh European issues. It would be too much to say that domestic issues took a back seat this time; of course they always matter, or at any rate the “throw the bums out” reflex always counts for something. But this time a very different sentiment is what moved masses of voters, I think, a sentiment that conjoined the usual disgruntlement with a more ominous foreboding that things might be heading in a seriously wrong direction. Europeans, like Americans, have begun to worry about Big Things: Is the postwar order finished, is democracy in decline, have societies become irrevocably polarized?

The result was a big shock to party systems in a number of countries. Leaders disappeared: Andrea Nahles had to resign the SPD leadership in Germany, and, more remarkable still, no one has stepped forward to replace her. A caretaker triumvirate has assumed the leadership.

In Italy, the Five Stars movement has shrunk, while the Democrats, behind Inspector Montalbano’s brother, have made an interesting comeback. Pedro Sanchez has given socialists new hope in Spain.

In France, Les Républicains have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves; Wauquiez is out, Pécresse has struck out on her own, Bertrand waits in the wings, while Larcher putters about trying to pick up the pieces. La France Insoumise is in crisis.

Meanwhile, right-wing mayors are taking their distance from LR, and if not quite joining Macron are at least giving the impression that they might be prepared to supply LREM with its missing grass roots just in time for the municipals 9 months from now. It’s a curious time in France. LREM has essentially become the party of the center right, replacing the Republicans and drawing a large chunk of the Republican vote while shedding some of the ex-PS supporters who voted for Macron in 2017 to the Greens. Macron now settles comfortably into the place in the political spectrum for which he was always destined, the center right, dropping the last pretense of ambidextrousness now that lefties have nowhere else to go. The LREM-RN duo is now the only game in town, the ultimate vindication of Mitterrand’s Machiavellian intuition that the best way to beat the right was by strengthening the far right. The kicker is that the far right has been strengthened by the mass defection of the working class, leaving the left without a backbone. And everything will work out fine if the RN has indeed hit its ceiling at 25-30 percent of the vote, as seems to be the case.

Indeed, across Europe, despite advances by parties variously identified as anti-immigrant, right-wing nationalist, or “populist,” the real news is that these parties revealed their limits in this election. The vast majority of Europeans–close to two-thirds, I would say–have awakened to the danger and said no, even if it means–and apparently it does mean–shattering old party systems in order to move toward a new confrontation, less a distributive conflict than a difference of opinion about how to manage capitalism.

The anti-capitalist parties are dead. In the center ring the contest is between a party of growth essentially committed to the standard litany of supply-side reforms it believes will suffice to muddle through without drastic change to the status quo, and a set of more or less “green” parties committed to replacing the growth incentive with some notion of sustainable development and moderated consumerism. Both the growth and green parties believe that the central problems are transnational in scale and therefore reject the nationalism and closed-border mentality of the tiers minoritaire. Growth vs. Green: this is the new mainstream, with the nationalist xenophobes thus far still reasonably well confined. Growth and Green will have to find some ground for compromise if this configuration is to remain stable (except in France, where the two-round voting system will keep the far right confined, even if a 20-percent dose of proportional is added to the legislative elections).

For those who hoped that Europe’s consecutive crises would lead to the demise of capitalism, the news is not good, pace Wolfgang Streeck. Capitalism actually seems to have fewer enemies these days. It’s not so much that “there is no alternative,” as Thatcher liked to say, as that no one can agree on an acceptable alternative. So the Greens and Growthers will clash about how to dress it up, while the Far Righters will content themselves with arguing over whom to exclude from the fruits.

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Art Goldhammer
Writer, translator, scholar, blogger on French Politics, affiliate of Harvard's Center for European Studies, writes for The American Prospect, The Nation, etc.

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