Europe hasn’t turned fascist, but the wave of nationalism sweeping the continent does tell an important story.
Europe has voted for fascists. It’s the end of the world as we know it—except it’s not.
The response of the international press to last week’s European Parliament elections has been as predictable as it is overwrought. The 1930s are back, apparently. The writing is on the wall for the mainstream. Russian president Vladimir Putin has something to do with too, we’re told.
Only one of these claims stands up to scrutiny: the writing is on the wall, but it’s not the spectre of fascism that is haunting Europe. It’s the ghost of euro-sclerosis.
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Founded in the wake of World War Two the EU was a self-conscious rejection of nationalism. Never again would the continent be plunged into total war. Founded as coal and steel union (you can’t make war without materiel, so integrating heavy industry made it a virtual impossibility), the EU was always intended as a political union. But despite the dreams of founder Jean Monnet, it never happened. Instead what we got was European unification operating above the heads of the people. Little wonder then that our typical response to the EU is to ignore it until it can be ignored no longer.
Looking at just a few of the countries a pattern emerges very rapidly.
France’s National Front topped the poll, winning a quarter of all votes cast. Since taking over from her father Jean-Marie, National Front leader Marine Le Pen has done as much as she can to make her party palatable, but the whiff of neo-fascism and Holocaust denial hangs over the party.
In Britain, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which wants Britain to leave the EU entirely, has romped home winning 27.5 percent of the vote, electing 24 MEPs. Ukip are hardly fascists, but they certainly represent a divergence from the policies of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties that have until now defined British engagement with Europe.
Causing the most alarm, Hungary’s Jobbik won almost 15 per cent of the popular vote and in Greece the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party has taken three seats. Greece, admittedly, is a rather more extreme case than most, but even there the split toward the hard-left Syriza and far-right Golden Dawn is a rejection of the political elite more than a rise of anything in particular.
Even Germany, that most anti-nationalist and pro-European of nations whose post-war politics has been defined by shame at Germany identity (often to an absurd level in the form of radicals such as the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Anti-Germans) saw a rise of anti-EU sentiment with the eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland polling seven percent.
As with elsewhere in Europe, Ireland voted against the EU. Unlike countries Britain and France, however, the tilt was not rightward. Instead, in both the European parliament and simultaneously held local council polls, the big winners were smaller left wing parties such as Sinn Féin and the Trotskyist far left, as well as a bevy of independents. One sitting Irish lawmaker, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, will now go to the EU parliament on a ticket of general opposition to European monetary policy and the highly specific and local demand that the decision to preserve local peat bogs is reversed.
Similarly, Sweden tilted left. The Social Democrats came first, winning six seats, the Greens three and, for the first time, Feminist Initiative gained a seat. True, the right-wing Sweden Democrats won two seats, but the governing centre-right Alliance performed poorly. The four parties that make up the Alliance, the Moderate Party, the Centre Party, the Liberal People's Party and the Christian Democrats won only seven seats between them. The results of the Euro elections, if they play out in the general election due in September, are being read as a rejection of Alliance policies.
What all of this tells us is quite straightforward: despite widespread anti-European sentiment since the 2008 crash, national politics continue to dominate voters’ concerns. And it could be no other way, because despite its pretensions Europe is not a polity and has no unified demos.
It’s hard to see why this comes as a surprise to anyone. After decades of euro sclerosis Europe prospered from the mid 1980s but it did not develop a singular identity. Those of us old enough to remember the Europhoria surrounding the Maastricht treaty of 1992 remember it as we might remember a night on the tiles: that is, with some embarrassment. Despite Europe being a place and the EU being a major political force, making many of the laws that govern European nations, Europe is not anything like a state.
It would require a Herculean effort on the part of European elites, particularly in the wake of the various “bailouts”, convince a Greek, a German and a Briton that they share a common interest, never mind a culture—and even then there is no guarantee of success. None of which is to say, in a some kind of Baudrillardian fashion, that Europe doesn’t exist except on television or, in the fashion of Judith Butler, as a phantasmagoria. Were either the case then Karl Marx could scarcely have written, as he did in 1848, that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe. It is interesting to note, though, that Marx was engaged in an act of self-willing creation when he wrote those words: when the Communist Manifesto, properly The Manifesto of the Communist Party, was published there was no such party in existence. Clearly, though, Marx’s dream would be an impossibility if the publics of Europe were divided entirely, not engaging in any commercial, cultural or intellectual exchange.
The mere fact of exchange, though, is not enough, and no amount of Erasmus student exchange schemes or graduate-stuffed think-tanks will change that.
Those who fear the rise of extremes, particularly on the right, should consider that the success of anti-EU parties speaks of the decline of the various old national political orders rather than of the rise of a new one. This does not mean the EU can look away. Bloodless pro-European sentiment has long been a feature of national politics in most mainstream parties across every EU nation. Even Britain’s Conservatives, viewed as hostile to Europe, have no intention of pulling out of the EU.
The newly-elected left and right-wing parties are by no means equal and opposite, but they represent the same force at work: anti-politics. The vote for anti-EU populists and socialists, even for right-wing extremists and assorted oddballs, is a rejection of high-handed governance that pays little attention to people’s needs and desires.
This is seen most clearly in the turnout, which averaged 43.1 percent. Hailed as “high”, this is only high if you consider a 0.1 percent increase over the 2009 turnout a turnaround. The fact is that, even in the midst of Europe’s worst economic crisis in decades, more than half of the EU electorate didn’t consider voting to be worth their time. A starker rejection of politics would hard to imagine. Indeed, as the Centre for European Policies Studies has pointed out, the fact that turnout stabilised at 43 percent rather than collapsed can be put down to those who voted against the EU, not for it.
As much as it is a mistake to say the jackboots are coming, it would be a mistake to write this off as a mere protest vote.
Every time a treaty fails to get past the public or anti-EU politicians get elected Europe’s mainstream politicians scour the landscape for a scapegoat before finding one in the backward nationalism of the people. But the truth is that they have no-one to blame but themselves.
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