Helmut Kohl. October 1978.Wikicommons/German Federal Archive. Some rights reserved.In recent weeks there have been crucial elections in three large European countries, France (presidential and parliamentary), Britain, and Italy (municipal elections). Overall, about 105 million voters have been called to the polls. While results have been quite surprising, and relatively new figures (Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron) have gained international prominence, European democracy has not really demonstrated its strengths.
The most encouraging aspect has been the rise in the youth vote, which in Britain has mainly been won by Corbyn’s Labour. British youngsters are somewhat better off than their peers on the continent: youth unemployment would be around 11%, much less than in most EU countries (22% in France; 35% in Italy; 39% in Spain). And yet they have expressed dissatisfaction by voting en masse for Corbyn and rejecting the perspectives of austerity, debt, and uncertainty.
At the same time their choice has been a demand for better politics, and for a return of values, vision, and ideas; they have had enough of self-serving Oxford-educated cliques, and élite infighting. They have had enough of the few, of all the browbeating issued by the oligarchy in the run-up to the Brexit referendum as well as in its aftermath. An anti-élite attitude has emerged also among the French youth. At least in the first round of the presidential polls (22 April), those under 24 preferred more ‘extremist’ Le Pen and Melenchon to the ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’, Emmanuel Macron. Macron largely won the second round and the legislative polls; yet the overall turnout in the latter two rounds was as low as 49 and 43%. So the fact that ‘Republique en Marche!’ brought many youngsters to the National Assembly is not a true measure of its appeal among younger generations. Will Macron really bring ‘change’? If so, in what way?
A strong political cleavage, also evident last year in the US elections, is forming between metropolitan areas and the ‘countryside’. Better-educated ‘urbanites’ voted Democrats, Labour, and Macron. Most British large cities voted Labour; in London, Corbyn’s party obtained 49 seats; the Conservatives, 21. Similar conditions apply to Macron in France – he won Paris with a share of almost 90%.
That said, Labour and ‘En Marche!’ differ profoundly in many other respects. Corbyn’s platform is clear and well-defined, partly through discussion with a high-profile (and much-debated) Committee of Economic Advisors. There is a party, there is a vision. By contrast, and despite his connections with heavyweight economists (such as Jacques Attali and Jean Pisani-Ferry), Macron has been vague and generic, bordering on demagogy and resembling a constantly metamorphosing hologram.
His case is as worrying as that of the so-called ‘personality parties’ (Berlusconi’s ‘Forza Italia’ being the most famous example) which emerged in Europe about twenty years ago and which still maintain a degree of organisation and structure; ‘Republique en Marche!’ looks like a ‘big tent’, one tailored to a supposedly charismatic leader, who somehow puts himself before and above the party, and has crucial links to little-transparent external forces (such as ‘high finance’). Needless to say, this evolution is highly problematic for modern democracy.
Such a growing personalisation of politics, and the ‘volatility’ of party structures in ‘peripheral’ areas, have also contributed to the decline in popularity of globalist and ‘progressive’ forces in the rural areas. Feeling more and more marginalised, the ‘periphery’ (a derogatory and unfair term in itself) has turned both ‘far right’ and ‘far left’.
Protectionism, re-industrialisation, exit from the euro, and other (sometimes populist) slogans have captured the attention and the votes of dispossessed factory workers, miners, agricultural workers, or the unemployed. Can the ‘global’ world, if it wants to stick to democratic principles, afford to neglect and forget millions and millions of voters? After all, Hillary Clinton, amongst other reasons, lost the US presidential polls in the ‘peripheries’, while Macron realised the point a bit late on, after his opponent Marine Le Pen visited an embattled factory in his own home town, Amiens.
Now though is the time to act. Will the new president understand that democracy cannot be ‘rule by the few’ and demonstrate this in the facts and choices he puts before people, beyond his flamboyant rhetoric?
What European democracies have lacked most, since at least the 1980s, is high-profile political vision. A politician with a vision in fact passed away on 16 June: we are talking about Helmut Kohl. The former German chancellor was not flawless (from a CDU financial scandal to the much-debated early recognition of Croatia, which contributed to increasing tensions in the former Yugoslavia). But he had a grand vision for Germany and Europe, and pursued it despite numerous obstacles. German re-unification, in his view, complemented European integration; it was Kohl, who, despite little knowledge of economics, pushed the euro as a political project of peace between Germany and France.
As he used to recall, he had lost an older brother in World War Two and was deeply committed to European peace. Moreover, German re-unification might have given him a place in history books, but probably cost him the chancellorship (in 1995), because of its tremendous economic effects on the eastern Länder. In a sense, he sacrificed his own career, and did not then attempt the financially rewarding adventures into consultancies, banks, or corporations, which so many younger politicians have attempted.
Macron is 48 years’ Kohl’s junior. Will history remember him as a statesman or a pale hologram, a leader, or a figurehead in pursuit of factional interests? Perhaps it is too early to say. But western democracy urgently needs to regain the vision, the ideals, the nobility of the generation of politicians who witnessed World War Two and its aftermath. It matters to Europe, to democracy, and to our future. Better economic conditions, which so many youngsters need, require first and foremost better politics.