Can Europe Make It?

The irony of Brexit as the EU lurches right

As major European governments embrace new forms of xenophobic neoliberalism, Britons want the xenophobic neoliberal Theresa May out.

John Weeks
4 October 2017

Demonstrators protesting outside the Alternative für Deutschland's election party in Berlin, Germany, 24 September 2017. Christian Charisius/PA Images. All rights reserved.On Friday 22nd September, Theresa May, who poses as prime minister of Britain, spoke to a gathering of the neoliberal, out-of-touch EU elite (watch it on Youtube), whose guardedly positive reaction verified that both speaker and audience share a common reactionary view of European unity (as opposed to Union). For this crowd and for May herself, the EU is first and foremost about economics, trade and business, and not about European peace and cooperation as the founders hoped.   

Two days after the May speech, German federal states gave a solid endorsement of neoliberal Europe with a fourth consecutive victory by Angela Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democratic Union and its further-right Bavarian partner the Christian Social Union. However, the CDU/CSU captured a substantially reduced vote share, while the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD) jumped into double digits.

For this crowd and for May herself, the EU is first and foremost about economics, trade and business, and not about European peace and cooperation as the founders hoped.

No training in maths or advanced arithmetic is required to discover the source of AfD votes. A look at the numbers reveals the shifts. CDU/CSU declined by 8.6 percentage points (41.5% to 32.9%), and AfD up by 7.9 (see chart). The solidly centrist Social Democrat Party (SDP) suffered a relative decline equal to Merkel’s (down 5.2 points from 25.7% of the total vote). Having abandoned pretences of social democracy except in party name under erstwhile Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SDP seems well on its way to join the French Socialist Party in near-terminal melt-down.

With a right-wing coalition likely to rule Germany for the rest of this decade, no centre-left party has government posts in any major European country. Among the medium-sized countries, only in Portugal and Sweden do we encounter social democrats holding power.  

France recently elected a neoliberal president who made his fame in investment banking. Italians find themselves in the dubious grip of a bizarre coalition that includes the right wing misogynist Silvio Berlusconi’s “People of Freedom Party” (PDL). Over in Spain, the right wing Rajoy government has attempted to violently crush Catalonia’s independence movement, while the region gears up to declare independence. Among the four countries only in Spain has a major opposition force progressive (Podemos).  

In France, far-right National Front outnumbers the left opposition despite repeated scandals that include criminal charges against Le Pen herself.

In France, the far-right National Front outnumbers the left opposition despite repeated scandals that include criminal charges against Le Pen herself. In Italy, the opposition is split between the reactionary Northern League and the ideologically ambiguous Five Star Movement with its strong anti-immigrant streak. And now, in Germany, the likely coalition partners compete with each other with their promises to “address the concerns” of neo-fascist AfD voters. We can expect a right-ward drift in Germany, if not a right-ward rush, as the respectable parties chase the voters of their disrespectful competitor the AfD.

These four countries account for almost 40% of EU population (excluding Britain) and 75% of people living in the eurozone. Certainly, for two of them – Italy and Germany – the sitting governments will move to the right. In France, the right-ward drift may be prevented by the left’s extra-parliamentary protests against President Macron’s attempt to dismantle worker rights.

The control of governments in the European Union by right-wing parties, and the rise of the far-right that will shift those governments even further right, demonstrate the irony of Brexit. Almost without exception, the EU politicians who sat listening to May deliver her largely vacuous speech in Florence would far prefer her, or any Tory, as British prime minister over Jeremy Corbyn or any of the current Labour leadership. Yet a majority of her party and the vast majority of Tory constituency members want Theresa May out of an EU whose politics is increasingly in line with theirs.  

The control of governments in the European Union by right-wing parties and the rise of the far-right to shift those governments to further right demonstrate the irony of Brexit. 

The befuddlement of Tory Brexiteers over continental politics is matched by the complacency of the high EU elite. On 13th September in Strasbourg, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual “state of the Union” address. Early in that speech, he assured his listeners: “we continue to make progress with each passing day”.  

Six days later the government of Spain ordered and implemented the arrests of several officials of the Catalonia government for their part in organising an independence referendum. The government in Madrid quickly followed the arrests by taking direct control of the police force in Catalonia, and on 26 September threatened the prosecution of the region’s president.

Nine days later the prime minister of the first country that may leave the Union addressed EU leaders to smooth the path to exit.

Thirteen days later, in the largest and most powerful country of the Union, 13% of voters cast their ballots to give a rabidly anti-immigrant, neo-fascist party over ninety seats in the Bundestag.

And hard on the heels of the rise of neo-fascism in Germany, the right-wing Rajoy government in Spain sent national police and army into Catalonia to stop citizens from voting in the region's independence referendum. Except for the prime minister of Belgium, no one in the EU leadership has so far condemned the violence instigated by the Rajoy government that has left hundreds injured.

More than three weeks after President Juncker’s speech, his assertion of daily progress suggests that he would endorse the view of Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, that, contrary to rumour, EU citizens “live in the best of all possible worlds”.

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