Thursday, July 25, 2024

Opinion: EU populists seem blind to the real threat

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Last weekend’s European elections, with just over half of the 373 million eligible voters across 27 countries casting ballots, have rocked the continent. The result reduced the leaders of the bloc’s biggest nations, Germany and France, to lame ducks. And though the center-right will continue to dominate parliament, the surge in support for the extreme right evokes memories of the ugliest moments of the 20th century.

While Russian funding and propaganda were widespread – including claims that Ukraine was plotting to assassinate French President Emmanuel Macron and then blame the killing on Moscow – the right-wing surge was mostly homegrown, stoked by inflation, opposition to climate change policies and the urban-rural divide at the heart of so-called culture wars.

Above all, continentwide support for the right is driven by hostility to mass migration from the Southern Hemisphere, to which no government appears to have a credible response. Few politicians of the center and left dare to tell voters the truth – that the migrant flood can only increase, given the demographics of Africa and consequences of climate change.

Even fewer have the nerve to tell Europeans that, amid falling birthrates, Europe’s economies need at least some migrant labor. Indeed, Europe’s big story – what should rightfully have been the central issue of these elections – is its severe economic decline, relative to Asia and the United States.

Though there is some dispute about interpretations of statistics influenced by exchange rate fluctuations, the EU’s share of world gross domestic product is falling, being overtaken by that of China. In the past five years, U.S. real GDP has grown by 7%, against Germany’s 3%. Europeans work fewer hours than Americans and take more holidays. In dollar terms, the EU’s economy is now only 65% of America’s, down from 90% on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis.

Europe has created not even the beginnings of a rival to the U.S. tech giants. Its universities languish in world rankings well below those of the U.S. – only a handful of British research hubs such as Imperial College, London, are around the top. Moreover, European financial markets offer much more limited access to capital than do their U.S. counterparts.

These latest election results have mostly yielded gains for parties attempting to save the continent’s old tribal model, rather than those addressing the challenges of the new universe, which is coming whether we like it or not. The far right is rising on the back of the same sort of fears that powered the rise of fascism before World War II.

Prior to the weekend vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told the French people: “Don’t be like the British who cried over Brexit” – meaning look forward instead of forever backward. Now, however, a majority of French voters have ignored his counsel.

The European to watch in the months and perhaps years ahead is Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party was among the big winners from this weekend’s elections, gaining almost one-third of the national vote. This is a politician who once spoke warmly of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, saying “everything he did, he did for Italy.”

Since securing the national leadership, she has achieved the difficult – and perhaps alarming – feat of making her far-right party and, above all, herself look respectable. She has dropped her earlier opposition to EU membership, arguing instead only for reform, and forged a close working relationship with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She is also being courted by French right-wing star Marine Le Pen. She told Italian TV during the campaign: “I want to try something that’s not easy but fascinating – to repeat in Europe what we’ve achieved in Italy.”

She remains committed to a “zero tolerance” policy on migration. Her critics argue that beneath the surface, her party remains close to its fascist roots.

Indeed, she made the election a personal referendum by urging voters “just write Giorgia” on their ballots. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which won only 6% of the vote in 2019, secured a stunning 29%.

The really dismaying quality about the European right, like the U.S. Republican Party, is that its policies, which would have been branded extremist even five years ago, are now treated as mainstream. It is certainly true that Meloni has become an important European player, but it is too soon to dismiss fears that she represents forces profoundly dangerous to European democracy.

Back in 2001, political philosopher Larry Siedentop dismissed the EU as “bureaucratic despotism.” This has been a view shared for several decades by conservatives, including those who drove Britain to Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

Yet today there is an understanding, even among some followers of the far right, that in the new economic universe, no nation save the U.S. or China is large enough to prosper, or indeed negotiate on the world stage, entirely alone. European countries hang together, or hang separately, as the British have been discovering by painful experience.

The election results constitute a massive rebuke for Europe’s liberal elites, whose grip on power has been receding for years. To be sure, there is some comfort in the fact that the far right have not displaced the dominant center-right in the European parliament.

Moreover, opposition parties have gained important ground in Hungary, ruled by the antidemocratic Viktor Orban. And Belgium’s Flemish separatist movement have failed to make the breakthrough many feared.

A recent continentwide opinion poll showed that even in the UK, 66% of voters have a positive view of the EU, surely driven in part by a realization of what those voters feel they have lost through Brexit. The young, especially, show an ever-more pronounced enthusiasm for union. This may help to explain why even the far-right parties such as Le Pen’s moderated their opposition to their nations’ EU membership.

But there remains an ugliness inseparable from all neo-fascist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Plentiful reasons for fear persist among those of us who believe that all politics are best conducted around the center. Amidst Europe’s near-obsession with migration as a threat, far too few people are yet focused on the towering prospect that the U.S. and Asia look like dominating the new economic and industrial world, with Europe being left behind and gravely threatened on its eastern borders by possible further Russian aggression. These election results represent a step back from facing such cruel realities.

Oh yes, and one more message from the European weekend: Any ruling politician up for election anywhere in the Western world had better be seen to do something meaningful to control immigration. Or lose their job.

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