Can Europe Make It?

Over the worst in Europe: the 2010s have not ended like the 1930s

A resurgent “Europe of citizens” has fended off the challenge from the “Europe of Fatherlands”. What remains now is to deal with a discredited “Brussels elite”.

Evgenii Dainov
10 June 2019, 3.29pm
Green Party elect candidates for the federal list of the European elections in 2019.
Sina Schuldt/PA. All rights reserved.

This year’s elections to the European Parliament suggest that the societies of Europe have started emerging from the ailment, which observers call “nationalist-populism”, “the alt-right” and the like. Far from taking over the European Parliament, as they had rather loudly hoped, the populists visibly ran out of steam. Moreover, just prior to the elections they failed to present Europeans with a united front, the Poles having quarreled with the French and the Italians, the Austrians having gone down in disarray after the Strache scandal, and Marine Le Pen having incensed Central and East European nationalists by pushing extreme protectionism against their truck drivers.

The background

A fundamental defect has been evident in the EU, since the near-collapse of Greece and the crisis of the euro in the early 2010s. That defect, however, was the outcome of a previous underlying malaise, evident on the level of ideas for at least a decade.

In terms of fundamental ideas, there is an easy way to narrate the history of the EU. In the beginning there was the Coal and Steel Community. The idea was that no country could prepare for war clandestinely, because the future victims of its aggression would immediately sense that something was amiss the moment that country sharply increased its coal and steel production. The basic original idea was to keep the peace. Then came the Common Market. The idea here was to use the newly-established peace to spur on the development of trade and thereby spread affluence around the member countries. The European Economic Community which followed was the furthering of that idea by releasing from restrictions the movement of goods, services, capital and workers.

There followed the European Community, shortly thereafter to become the European Union. The idea here was that, building on the economic integration already achieved, member states could now move on to achieving political integration and ultimately become some kind of politically unified body. This is where things obviously began to come unstuck by the end of the twentieth century.

The problem

There are only two known ways to bring together diverse countries into one political unit. One is from above – empire-building. The other is from below, via the mechanisms of democracy, leading to the birth of entities such as the USA. The European Union tried to find a third way, avoiding both empire and democracy: achieving union by technocratic imperative.

The European Union tried to find a third way, avoiding both empire and democracy: achieving union by technocratic imperative.

Both left-wing progressives and right-wing free marketers united behind this attempt. For the left, it was benign societal engineering, leading to a future of continent-wide brotherhood overcoming millennia of distrust and war.

For the right, this was simply the new kind of politics-without-politics. That can be traced to the withdrawal of the state from common affairs, which started at the beginning of the 1980s. A market freed of impediments, the idea went, is a benevolent and self-regulating mechanism, working for the good of everyone involved. Governments could only mess things up with their inept interference. Later, the same logic was extended to the world of money. Central banks, as markets, should be left alone to regulate the world of money, rather than serve the whims of governments. Then came the deregulation of the banks themselves. The autonomous individual, placed in a free market situation, knew best, the thinking went; so would bankers know best, once relieved of government oversight. Problems arising would be dealt with by independent watchdogs and auditors. Anyone feeling hard done by could take her case to the courts.

A new, mechanistic picture of society, curiously reminiscent of medieval models of the Ptolemaic universe, pervaded “the West”. In this model, the various components of the mechanism regulated themselves, while circling around the market. The purpose of governments was to oversee the smooth running of the machine, making minor adjustments as needed. Policy, run by technocrats and experts, was to replace politics, ultimately run by the demos.

“On that basis, why anyone votes is a mystery”, quipped Joseph Stiglitz in 2013.[1] A mystery indeed. If you are told that what you are facing is an objective (i.e. operating outside your will), self-regulating mechanism that is functioning for your own good – what use is it to vote for a political party that proposes different policies? Not only would they, if implemented, disturb a self-regulating mechanism, but they might not be possible at all, given the state’s already completed withdrawal from all significant regulation.

In the context of the EU, the political outcome was that the European Commission became, in the words of Jurgen Habermas, “a strong but free-floating executive… especially appealing to the market radicals.”[2]

With the demos thus effectively shut out and with no Emperor to exercise oversight, the experts took it upon themselves to move political integration along, bereft of effective control and accountability. With the marketplace seen as the default mode of all human activity, it was decided to start political integration with the introduction of a single currency, the euro. The rest, it was assumed, would follow in due course, given that people are only interested in market outcomes, rather than in participating in the politics of “Brussels”.

Democratic deficit

It could not, of course, happen this way, given that human beings do not function like mere components of the market. “Economists,” Stiglitz warns, “overestimate the selfishness of individuals… To non-economists, this approach seems nonsensical…”[3]

Not being economists, the citizens of Europe immediately spotted what was to become known as a democratic deficit; and reacted to it. The two referenda held on introducing the euro, in Denmark and Sweden, were both lost by the respective governments. The same, only worse, happened with the referenda on the European Constitution of 2005. With four referenda effectively held, the Netherlands and France (EU founding members) rejected it outright. Planned referenda were then hastily cancelled in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Portugal and the UK. Thereafter, only one country, Ireland, held a referendum on the watered-down version of the Constitution, known as the Treaty of Lisbon.

We know now something that was not generally known (but should have been) even ten years ago: when governments place the common good in the care of “independent agencies”, thus divorcing decision-making from democratic oversight, the common good gets hijacked by special interests. In the end, in spite of being shut out from the decision-making, it is the demos who pay the price. This is what happened to the demos of Europe in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the sovereign debt crisis of the early 2010s. In both crises, the culprits bought themselves yachts; the ordinary people got saddled with record public debt.[4]

Leading candidate of the young Liberals in the European elections, Hamburg.
Leading candidate of the young Liberals in the European elections, Hamburg.
Britta Pedersen/PA. All rights reserved.

In both crises, the culprits bought themselves yachts; the ordinary people got saddled with record public debt.

Shaken by unexpected storms hitting them from all sides, Europe’s citizens looked for support. This was no longer to be found in the main political parties, who had in the meantime become part of the whole alien machinery, working outside of popular involvement – “cartel parties”.[5] More generally, people suddenly felt their skins crawl with what Durkheim once called anomie, a sense of naked, shivering helplessness, described by Jan Zielonka thus: “individuals lost in the maze of powerful international markets and deficient transnational institutions…”[6]

Shutting the citizenry out is not the kind of thing you can do, and expect to get away with it, to people who have for generations lived in a democracy. Once they feel that control has been taken away from them – and then realize that they have been cheated as a result – they respond with an uprising. This uprising started on the Left, but ultimately challenged the established order from the Right. That challenge peaked at the elections to the European Parliament, which ended on 26 May 2019.

The challenge from the Left

“In its current (i.e. democracy-deficient) form, the EU”, wrote Habermas, “owes its existence to the efforts of political elites who were able to count on the passive consent of their more or less indifferent populations as long as the peoples could regard the Union as being also in their economic interests...”[7] Inevitably, then, when populations stopped seeing the EU as serving their economic interests, they reacted. As was to be expected, given the preceding history of Europe, the initial reaction went left-wards.

With traditional left parties behaving as part of what became known as the status quo, great masses of European citizens set out to construct a new, radical left. In Greece, even before the crisis, when the European sickness was still a malaise, a Coalition of the Radical Left came into being, under the name of Syriza, in 2004. In the aftermath of the financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis following from it, Syriza was elected to power in 2015. In Spain, a radical left party Podemos (“We can”) was founded in 2014, gaining 21 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2015. La France insoumise came into being at the beginning of 2016 in France. The Left (Die Linke) sprang up in Germany, polling slightly less than one-tenth of the vote in the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Mostly, these parties ran on anti-austerity platforms. Their ideology is neatly summed up in the name of their Irish counterpart, “People Before Profit”. This was non-communist left populism, with echoes of the 1920s. It wanted to shift the Ptolemaic model from being market-centred to becoming people-centred; at no time did it threaten to bring down the EU as such.

On the fringes of this new left wave appeared, by the 2010s, an American import – “identity politics”. This new ideological package did not manage to become a significant participant in the debate on “the future of Europe”, but did make some headway into mainstream left parties, as well as some major universities. In Europe, “identity politics” became significant not for what it did on the Left, but for how it fuelled the rise of a new Right.

In Europe, “identity politics” became significant not for what it did on the Left, but for how it fuelled the rise of a new Right.

“Identity”, warns historian Tony Judt, “is a dangerous word.”[8] It is, indeed, because it does not want to reform or improve the political heritage of the Enlightenment; it aims to do away with it.

Identity politics is an attempt to demolish the very foundations of the liberal political philosophy that is at the basis of political life in both the EU and the USA. That basis, going back all the way to Aristotle, is the assumption that on the public arena human beings function as autonomous, self-aware individuals, capable of educating and improving themselves. These individuals are, on the public arena, free and equal; and are, therefore, supplied with certain inalienable rights and freedoms, which are universally applicable to all. Out of this arises the entire edifice not only of democratic politics, but also of justice and law.

Identity politics does away with this kind of individual, closing human beings into cages of group “identities”. The French thinker Raphael Glucksman has rather cleverly translated such identities as “groups of origin”: “communautes d’origine, de foi, de couleur, de peau”.[9] You cannot escape from the tribe you were born into; and everything you think, say or do is an expression of that tribe’s identity. If you try, as an autonomous individual, to escape from the tribe, by for example making the necessary efforts and sacrifices to get a good education, then you are not congratulated for achievement; you are denounced for having acquired a privilege.[10]

This kind of tribalism sits uneasily on the (European) Left, but is entirely at home in the kind of new Right that historians of the older generation easily recognise as “neo-fascist”.[11] The way it works is this. Once you become locked in a group of origin, you are no longer capable of interacting with other groups on an equal basis. You enter into what Tony Judt has called “communitarian solipsism”.[12] In the USA, this works in rather complicated ways. In Europe, predictably, this solipsism easily mutates into xenophobic nationalism.

The “neo-fascist” Right availed itself of identity politics by re-kindling the kind of isolationist and self-aggrandising nationalism not seen since the 1930s. Millions of Europeans, angry at the “elites” for continually failing them for a decade, saw their revenge in a nationalist uprising against “Brussels” and against its “liberal establishment”, seen as free-floating, uprooted and not caring for those left behind in failing communities. The attack on the “liberal establishment”, having failed on the Left, shifted to the Right. The challenge from the Right turned out to be much more serious than the efforts of the new radical leftists. By early 2019, this Right was seriously looking forward to taking over the EU via massive victories in the May elections for the European Parliament.

The challenge from the Right

On the level of ideas, the new Right which is challenging the EU (and other “liberal establishments” around the world) presents a combustive mixture of extreme left and right concepts that are a century old and, in some cases, older. Like most fashionable ideas of the twenty-first century, much of the ideological package of the new Right initially came from America. Before the appearance, in Europe, of the brutal language employed by the new-styled “conservatives”, its ideological basis was already being worked out by the American far Right.

During the rise of the Tea Party movement, Steve Bannon (who went on to become Donald Trump’s strategist before coming to Europe to foment a right-wing revolution over here) famously declared: “I am a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment”.

For decades, it had been seen as bad taste to indulge in the verbal abuse that Lenin made famous in the opening years of the twentieth century. This kind of language had remained locked in the hothouse world of the Trotskyist sects of Britain and the US (although, famously, Trotsky himself was very much against “brutal” language). From the early 2010s, it was out in the open again, this time – on the extreme right.

Lenin’s staple words were “smash”, “cripple”, “annihilate”, “crush”, “break”. There was a reason behind this, that he explained eloquently. Violent language, he wrote, was “calculated to evoke in the reader hatred, aversion, and contempt… not to convince, but to break the ranks of the opponents, not to correct the mistake of the opponent, but to destroy him, to wipe out his organization off the face of the earth”.[13] He populated his verbal world with targets, against whom this effort would be directed: class enemies, world imperialism and its domestic agents, the “traitors” and the “enemies of the people”. Lenin also invented the fashion of contempt for “experts” and “technicians”, claiming that they were superfluous, given that any cook could run a state.

In today’s western Europe, the extreme right took on this version of Leninism in order to foment an identity war between Christians (mostly male, white and “of the people”), threatened with extinction, and “liberals”, who were doing their best to de-Christianize and de-nationalize societies. In the East, where the memory of Lenin’s abuse language was still fresh, the new populist Right embraced the Marxist-Leninist ideology of permanent (class) conflict, in which no truce or compromise was possible.

In the East… the new populist Right embraced the Marxist-Leninist ideology of permanent (class) conflict, in which no truce or compromise was possible.

Curiously, in order to get to the stage of glorifying conflict as the engine of progress, east European neo-fascists went by a devious ideological detour, via Carl Schmidt rather than Karl Marx. Schmidt, a philosopher and legal thinker, had joined the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933 and had then greatly rejoiced in the burning of books that he called “anti-German material”. To his death in 1985 he refused to sever his allegiance to Nazi ideology, becoming an icon for east European xenophobes a quarter of a century later. What the east likes about Schmidt is not only his embrace of violent conflict and war, but also his understanding of sovereignty as the right to “make exceptions” – to break the rules. The result has been the eastern extreme Right’s celebration of violence, rule-breaking and conflict.

In both West and East, the “liberal establishment” was depicted as the enemy of the people and traitor to “European civilization”. In the east, the far right writers have been rather more candid than their western counterparts in describing what it is they accuse “liberals” of.

“The liberal project is a Tower of Babel,” wrote in 2018 a then rising star of the Bulgarian extreme right, Toncho Kraevsky. “Let’s do away with national differences, let’s do away with sexual differences, let’s do away with social inequalities, in order to turn people into the “end product” of history. Let’s uproot man from the church, the nation and his family, in order for him to be autonomous and independent. To become god, so as to create himself and build himself in his image.”[14]

Immanuel Kant’s free, equal and universal individual is depicted as a monster; in order to recover his human essence, that free individual (with the extreme Right, always a “he”) must re-think himself as a partial being, a part of collectives and groups that provide “identity”. Hence the eastern far-Rights penchant for pitting pithy slogans, such as “God, Nation, Family”, against the usual “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”.

A Europe of Fatherlands

Further west, the new Right has demonstrated a less theological bent and comes in more familiar guises. In Italy, the new Right’s celebration of Mussolini places it squarely in the category of neo-fascists. In Germany, the far Right has routinely been, since the 1960s, neo-Nazi, as it is today in Austria, the Freedom Party having been founded by old Nazis. In France, Le Pen’s movement draws on the strong reactionary, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic streak in French political culture, starting with the Dreyfus case, then seen in the “cagoulards” of the inter-war years and, most clearly – in the official ideology of the collaborationist Vichy France of the 1940s, explicitly centered on the denial of equality, the celebration of hierarchies and the elevation of “labour” to the status of patriotic duty.

What did these people offer to European citizens in the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament? On the level of ideas, what they offered was the shutting down of the Enlightenment.

The return of “Christianity” to the political debate aimed to weaken the separation of Church and state and, by dragging matters of faith from the private to the public sphere, to re-establish control over individuals in matters spiritual. The onslaught against the Kantian universal individual was designed to re-fashion the free and autonomous citizen into a part of a “group of origin”. With the replacement of the individual citizen by groups of origin, the citizen stops being sovereign and ceases to be seen as the source of political power. Sovereignty moves to “the state”. The end result is the undermining of the entire edifice of law and order, based as it is on the Kantian individual, rather than on collective bodies.

Given the ambitious nature of this undertaking, it becomes clear why the new Right breaks all established rules with ease and glee. If sovereignty henceforth lies solely with the state, and if the exercise of sovereignty is tantamount (as per Schmidt) to “making exceptions”, then the far-Right state has every right to break all established rules. This explains, among other things, the quite remarkable levels of corruption, demonstrated by far-Right parties and governments, as well as their inclination to undermine the primacy of the law, freedom of speech and of association.

Liberal democracy is the rule of the weak, of Popper’s “ordinary unknown man”. Undermining liberal democracy re-establishes the rule of the strong. Might becomes right and governance becomes arbitrary exercise of increasingly unlimited power. Obedience replaces liberty, hierarchies swallow up equality and “identitarian” xenophobia replaces solidarity.

Might becomes right and governance becomes arbitrary exercise of increasingly unlimited power.

In order to attain this kind of “new order”, one first needs to definitively get rid of the figure of the citizen. One absolutely needs to convince people to start running for the shelter of a group of origin, while leaving important matters in the hands of the strong man or (as quaintly mentioned in the Oath of Allegiance to the USA) “potentate”. This cannot, of course, happen within an EU committed to “ever closer integration”. The alternative, offered by the extreme Right, a “Europe of Fatherlands”, opened up the prospect of slow disintegration into ever more isolated nation states, run by powerful potentates outside of democratic control and legal accountability.

Significant numbers of EU citizens decoded this prospect and decided to defend their Union, however imperfect. In May 2019, voter participation returned to levels unseen for a quarter of a century, with supporters of the Kantian individual heavily outvoting, continent-wide, the extreme Right. Even the British, in the throes of an historic political, constitutional and cultural crisis, managed to produce more votes for the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and Greens than for the Brexit Party.

Even in the more militant East, the xenophobic-nationalist parties of sullen Bulgaria, albeit in power (with a member party of the EPP), managed to elect just two deputies (out of a total of 17). Impressive extreme-Right majorities were registered only in Hungary and Poland – the two most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in Europe, with the correspondingly highest levels of popular xenophobia.

With the impressive overall surge of Liberals and Greens, the much-trumpeted far-Right takeover failed to materialize. The end of the 2010s did not become a repeat of the end of the 1930s.

What in fact happened

The “sweeping victory” of the populist Right, expected by many commentators, did not take place. Instead, the favourite bogeys of the populist Right, the Liberals and the Greens, swept up far beyond expectations, including theirs.

Why? What happened?

Great events, lying in the near future, tend to cause tremors in the present. Such effects, indicating that the populist Right would not “sweep”, have been evident for some time.

The first such tremor was the election of Emmanuel Macron to the French Presidency in 2017. Instead of flirting with the nationalist Right (as were doing EPP member parties all over the continent), or looking on helplessly (as were doing the European Socialist parties), Macron ran on an aggressively liberal, pro-European, modernising and Green platform. He then survived a widely supported populist revolt by the Yellow Vests, without abandoning his agenda or mimicking populism himself.

For anyone who has truly understood that ideas drive history, Macron’s victory marked a turning of the tide. It provided a solution to the following conundrum, outlined by Habermas a few years earlier: “Today I cannot identify anyone anywhere in Europe who would risk a polarizing election campaign to mobilize majorities for Europe – and only that can save us”.[15] Macron did indeed run a polarizing election campaign to mobilize majorities for Europe. From this moment on, following Habermas, salvation became a possibility.

The second, very clear tremor were the results of the Bavarian state election of 2018. Instead of the far right AfD party sweeping the board, as expected, it was the Greens who doubled their share of the vote, becoming the second largest party and beating the Social Democrats into third place.

Then came the continent-wide weekly student marches “Fridays for Future”, which focused attention on the real and present danger of the ongoing climate emergency. In the meanwhile, as Europeans watched with dismay the “freak show” of Brexit, opinion polls registered a surge of support for the EU, across the continent.

Europeans refused to be herded into “communitarian solipsism” and to leave things in the hands of potentates.

Such events demonstrated a kind of “return of citizenship”. Europeans refused to be herded into “communitarian solipsism” and to leave things in the hands of potentates. They re-focused on issues that engaged them not as members of groups of origin, but as citizens – Kant’s universal individuals. By that stage, also, the far-Right in power in various EU countries had managed to alarm the public with their contempt for rights and freedoms, with their seemingly bottomless capacity to appropriate public funds and with their free use of Russian money of dubious provenance.

This seedy underside of the new anti-liberal nationalism exploded on the media stage on 17 May 2019, days prior to the elections, with the Strache scandal. German media released a video, in which Hanz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s (Nazi-founded) Freedom Party, negotiated a deal with a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. In return for considerable, but possibly illegal donations, Strache guaranteed lucrative government contracts in the future, as well as hands-on participation in his intended taming of the media. That the whole thing was a “sting” (the woman did not represent a Russian oligarch) did not detract from the shock of the exposure of the greed, corruption and anti-democratic intentions of the Austrian far right, then in power with the centre-right.

Strache was seen to act as if the citizenry of Europe had already been done away with, and sovereignty concentrated into the hands of potentates beyond the reach of accountability. Europeans were faced with a clear choice: either go down the road of return to groups of origin; or re-position themselves as citizens, the source of power, legitimacy and sovereignty. On the one side stood Strache, Putin, Victor Orban and the like; on the other – a deficient EU, with its malformed “free-floating executive” and evident ineptitude in handling big political issues.

At the end of May, the choice was made. Better stay with a deficient, but reformable Union, than find oneself in the power of a Strache. This is the reason for the dramatic increase in support for Liberals (representing the idea of liberty and rule of law) and the Greens, who were worried by the damage done to the common good by climate change. Both speak to citizens, rather than to groups of origin; and the problems they address are to do with human beings in their capacity of equal citizens, rather than inhabitants of “solipsistic communities”. In countries such as Netherlands and Spain, even the crisis-ridden Socialists held on to – or recovered – their majorities. In Slovakia, which had been signalling for a while that it might turn to the nationalist Right, an entirely new pro-EU coalition, SPOLU, won the elections.

A resurgent “Europe of citizens” fended off the challenge from the “Europe of Fatherlands”.

The birth of the European demos?

In the meantime, something else of importance was happening. Although the British had for two years failed to “Brexit” the EU, they were as good as gone for the remaining members. In both the Commission and in Parliament it was quickly grasped that, in leaving, the British were taking with them most obstacles to “ever-deeper integration”. At the top reaches of the EU a drive began to compensate for lost time and speed up as many aspects of political integration as possible. The post of European Prosecutor was instituted, with the intention of overseeing the spending of EU money precisely in the countries ran by the extreme Right, where embezzlement had become an epidemic. New rules were being drawn up to stop EU funds flowing to countries, which undermined the rule of law and freedom of speech. Plans were being drawn up for a more effective oversight of banks, particularly – of banks operating in oligarchic environments. In its election manifesto, the EPP even promised to institute a “European FBI”, again with the intention of combating the lawlessness of oligarchic and nationalist regimes. By the early spring of 2019, people were whispering, in the corridors and smoking rooms of the European Parliament that, with the British out of the way, in two years more integration was achieved than in the previous twenty.

Solving the climate emergency, recovering order and reviving justice are all causes that cannot be locked into “groups of origin”. These causes transcend tribe, language and location. They belong to the Kantian universal individual in her capacity of citizen of the EU. The capacity of Europeans to mobilize around such topics led commentator Adelina Marini to declare “the long-awaited birth of the European demos – the most important element, which was until now missing, in the building up of the European project into a true political project”.[16]

The birth of the European demos, if that is indeed what we are witnessing, is a game changer. Writing on the future of Europe, Habermas identified the key problem as the “free-floating executive”, as we have seen. The solution he proposed was the appearance of the kind of “mutual trust that the citizens of different nations would have to show to each other as a precondition for their willingness to adopt a common perspective that transcends national borders when making political decisions on federal issues…”[17] In other words: the evolution of the demos beyond national borders and into a pan-European force.

Instead of locking themselves up in identitarian “solipsistic communities”, Europeans appear to be preparing to become citizens of a united Europe. At the very least, they appear to be willing to ditch the “understandings of identity based on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity and religion…” which Fukyama has analysed in a recent volume on identity and recognition.[18]

In the East, the picture remained somewhat, but not crucially, different.

That outside of Poland and Hungary, significant majorities in Central and Eastern Europe voted pro-Europe, is explained at least partly by the general feeling that integration was accelerating – i.e. that the profligacy and lawlessness of national oligarchic and populist elites could be stopped “from Brussels”. There is, of course, nothing new in this sentiment. Anyone finding themselves in the midst of chaos and injustice would welcome a bit of law and order, wherever it came from, but particularly – if it came from a body whose members were elected by ordinary people. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher had astutely picked up on this two-and-a-half decades previously, writing:

“If you have no real confidence in the political system or political leaders of your own country, you are bound to be more tolerant of foreigners of manifest intelligence, ability and integrity… telling you how to run your affairs…. If I were an Italian I might prefer rule from Brussels too…”[19]

Even in the nationalist and xenophobic East, there emerged a strong current of opinion in favour of more integration and, therefore, less sovereignty for the local potentates.

What next?

Europe’s citizens mobilized to stop the populist Right, but did not do so by supporting the traditional parties of the Left and Right. Resisting identitarian populism, they voted Liberal and Green. The inference is obvious: European voters want to preserve the EU (and the Kantian individual at its core), but also demand significant changes.

Withdrawal of support from the parties associated with the “Brussels elite” tells us that something must be done about this elite. What needs to be done depends on what kind of “elite” we are dealing with.

The Right’s accusation that this is a “liberal” elite is off-target. The elite’s problem is not its liberalism, i.e. belief in the Kantian universal individual. Its problem, as we have seen, is rather its free-floating, non-accountable position, as well as its conviction, formed over two decades, that politics is about applying expert solutions to arising technical problems. Or, in the words of Yanis Varoufakis , Greece’s former finance minister who battled this “elite” during his fight to save his country from bankruptcy:

“…“liberal” was the last adjective I would use to describe it. Once upon a time the liberal project was about the readiness to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty with hope and justice,” to use JFK’s words. An establishment that used truth-reversal so casually to annul a democratic mandate and to impose policies that its functionaries knew would fail cannot be described as liberal…”[20]

The “Brussels elite” needs to be brought back into the terrain of liberalism. It must be brought down from its “free-floating” status and anchored in democratic procedure and oversight. Democratic pressure must be applied to ensure that it returns to the understanding of politics as serving the common good of the polis (the polis being the EU), rather than as expert oversight of technical issues.

Both of these aims require carefully structured, but revolutionary changes of procedure so as to usher onto the stage the nascent European demos. For decades I have been telling my first-year students of politics that we judge how democratic a system is by counting up how many times the word ‘elections’ comes up in its constituent documents. The application of this simple logic to the EU means the expansion of the Europeans’ right to vote within the political system of the EU, as well as to ensure that this vote is meaningful, i.e. capable of producing binding results.

The European Parliament must be given a measure (to be gradually expanded) of real legislative initiative. Being directly elected, it must also be given a measure of effective control over the Commission, to ensure it never free-floats again. With such expanded presence of the European demos, inevitably the European Parliament should gradually move on from cosy consensual harmony at the top to dividing into majority and opposition. The popular vote must also be found a role in the election of the top positions in the Commission. Europe-wide “internal” party voting should be encouraged for the top positions (President, Chairman) of the “political families” in the European Parliament. Similarly, the top position in the parties’ election “lists” should be approved by Europe-wide party voting (the Greens have some experience in this).

Such measures should achieve a gradual re-introduction of the demos into Europe-wide politics. Policy should also be politicized in order to turn it from its technocratic fascination and re-turn it to its proper sphere of servicing the common good. European funding must be re-designed so as to help, rather than hinder (as it is doing today) the upholding of universal human rights and freedoms, as well as of law and order. A systemic effort must be made to turn institutions in nation states into inclusive, rather than extractive, as they are today in most Central and East European countries. [21] Turning institutions from extraction to inclusion should go a long way to weaken oligarchies and populist Right-wing parties, given that embezzlement of, and patronage in, European funds has formed the basis of many an East-Central European oligarchy and potentate.

Guy Verhofstadt, EU Parlt. rep. on Brexit and the Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is seen with Vince Cable and MEP candidates during the EU election campaign.
Guy Verhofstadt, EU Parlt. rep. on Brexit and the Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is seen with Vince Cable and MEP candidates during the EU election campaign.
SOPA Images/PA. All rights reserved.

Policy should also be politicized in order to turn it from its technocratic fascination and re-turn it to its proper sphere of servicing the common good.

Not least, economic and development policy should be dramatically re-thought in the direction of addressing the challenges of the climate emergency, as well as poverty, inequality and meaningful jobs..

What, in the meanwhile, of the populist Right itself?

The Right certainly preserves its capacity for mischief. For example, it could strengthen itself by coalescing into a kind of International, akin to the old Communist one. That, however, is highly unlikely and we already have evidence of this.

Were authoritarian types likely to form united fronts, then long ago we would have seen it formed between the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. We see, however, nothing of the sort, even though for the past quarter-century Russia and Belarus are supposed to be members of a “Unitary state”. What we in fact see is that the character deficiencies of these authoritarians define their relations: petty squabbles, open jealousy or contempt, envy and dislike. More recently, as already noted, fissures have appeared inside today’s populist Right in Europe. The Poles have quarreled with the French and the Italians, the east Europeans – with the west Europeans. An International is here highly unlikely and the mischief of the far Right should prove containable within the general movement to closer integration and greater democracy in the EU.


One is reminded of an observation by Paul Johnson in one of his big history books. By 1943, he wrote, the Germans were still fighting a 1930s war, whereas the Western Allies were conducting a much more serious 1940s version of war.

Prior to May 26, 2019, the populist Right’s message seemed somehow bold, daring, sometimes dashing and certainly “in vogue”. But a week later, by the end of May, that message already sounded curiously stale, faded and dated, in comparison with the ideas pushing forward the Green, Liberal and pro-EU vote.

The patient has survived the sickness of populism. Now is the time to begin doing the things that healthy people do.

Notes and references:

[1] Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Penguin 2013, p. 150

[2] Jurgen Habermas. The Lure Of Technocracy. Polity 2015, p.11

[3] Stiglitz, p. 141

[4] Yanis Varoufakis. And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability. Vintage, 2016

[5] Richard S Katz and Peter Mair, Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: the emergence of the cartel party, Party Politics, Vol. 1, No. 1, p 5-31 (1995).

[6] Jan Zielonka. Counter-Revolution. Liberal Europe in Retreat. OUP 2018, p. 33

[7] Habermas, p.3

[8] Tony Judt. Edge People. New York review of Books, February 23, 2010.

[9] Raphael Glucksmann. Les Enfants Du Vide. De l’impasse individualiste au reveil citoyen. Allary Editions 2018, p.61

[10] Thomas Sowell. Wealth, Poverty and Politics. Basic Books 2016

[11] I will not be attempting to come up with a definition of this new Right, because it is not yet mature enough to be locked into a proper definition. I will be using various descriptive terms which, taken together, should provide a n intelligible picture of the phenomenon.

[12] Judt, ibid.

[13] Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal. New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism. Penn State University Press, 2002, p.129


[15] Habermas, p. 69


[17] Habermas, p. 37

[18] Francis Fukuyama. Identity. Contemporary identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. Profile Books, p. 158

[19] Margaret Thatcher. The Downing Street Years. HarperCollins 1993, p.742

[20] Yanis Varoufakis. Adults In The Room. By Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment. Vintage 2017, p. 480

[21] See: Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson. Why nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Crown Business, 2012.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData