The abdication of Europe’s centre-Right
Genuine competition eludes the mainstream European Left and Right because they have too much in common. The ultimate consequences could be explosive
Germany is in the throes of a lifeless election campaign. The Social Democrats have no economic answers for the crisis capable of shoring up their base. Unless its weak ally the Free Democrats fails to enter Parliament, the victory of the Christian Democrats appears assured.
Angela Merkel offers no reforms and places demands only on the citizens in the stricken countries of the Eurozone. Her campaign joins the other issue-less ones in countries like France, Italy and Spain where a lackluster centre-Right has prevailed only due to the glaring inadequacies of Left-wing rivals.
Genuine competition eludes the mainstream European Left and Right because they have too much in common. They have an interlocking set of national interests that they wish to protect at the European level; usually those of corporate interests and powerful producer groups.
They agree on the need to sit out the single currency crisis even as it produces a lost decade for the Eurozone and a lost generation of young people.
A radical overhaul of clearly failing EU institutions lacks decisive backing among the major state players in the Eurozone. No Reformation is likely to spring from the European Left even though, in southern Europe, the bulk of the victims of EU-led deflationary policies are its own supporters.
A large centralised EU, controlling vast funding streams, still commands impressive legitimacy from southern European party elites. It reinforces patron-client networks through transfer funds and secure jobs and electoral security increasingly lacking at home.
Centre-Right politicians are locked into the prototype European semi-state to varying degrees; politicians who believe it is the central institutions which need to be subject to a searching cost-benefit analysis and not national economies and tax-payers do exist. But they are often subject to reprisals by party elites for any displays of frankness.
It is unelected EU technocrats who have pressed ahead with their favoured answer to the crisis -- even tighter managerial control of European affairs. They fill an intellectual vacuum owing to the failure of the major wings of European democratic politics to be a factory of ideas and maintain firm links with the active producers in society.
Those who have assumed leadership of the centre-Right have marked limitations. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi are noisy egotists who were unable to turn austerity conditions into an opportunity to reform sclerotic public institutions. Britain’s David Cameron has proven to be a colourless figure from a public relations background who is out of touch with Britain’s ‘coping classes’.
Mariano Rajoy is a sly, provincial politician who, at crucial points since becoming Prime Minister of Spain in 2011, has shown a dramatic failure to understand the magnitude of his country’s crisis; an economic one which could soon escalate into a territorial one.
The professional capabilities on the centre-Right are usually higher than those present among their Left-wing challengers, but not by any decisive margin. The understanding of economics is not that much better among politicians who often possess a legal background. For years now, they have acquiesced in decisions made at the top of the Eurozone that have drained the health of economies across Europe.
The career paths of the leaders of both the European centre-Right and Left have shielded them from the realities of life which much of their voting base would be painfully aware of. They have cut their teeth in bureaucratic or public relations roles before an ascension from the lower echelons of the party. Rarely, if ever, is recruitment based on competing ideas or talents
Last September, I spent a day at the European People’s Party’s European get-together in Bucharest. The EPP is the centre-Right political family at the European level. Several thousand people assembled in the enormous kitsch palace build by the former dictator Ceausescu.
What struck me was the confident demeanour of the PR men and lobbyists in evidence on all sides along with colourless politicians, often strolling around aimlessly as if they were delegates at a convention organized in a one-party state.
Formulaic statements about Christian democracy and European civic values were dutifully issued. In reality, very little was done to ensure that these actually influenced the EU’s public profile.
According to the German academic Roland Vaubel, in the European Parliament, along with their supposed rivals on the Left, the Party of European Socialists, they form one large party: ‘the party of EU centralization’.
Today’s Conservative-Liberal Democratic governing alliance in Britain is very much in the tradition of continental deal-making where spheres of influence, involving money, jobs and status are divided up between whoever is inside the tent of the ruling coalition. Party activists have been supplanted by corporate backers. The Tories may be allergic to the EU project in its current disorderly state but, like the EPP, the commitment to broad post-national and progressive concerns is undisguised.
Naturally, unruly popular opinion must not be allowed to frustrate the trans-national agenda of ever deeper cooperation. Those populists who seek to turn their unease into active opposition must be firmly dealt with.
In 2012, Mario Monti, the EU technocrat imposed as Italy’s prime Minister called for heads of government to convene so as to work out ways to contain mounting signs of disunity and populism in the region. This smacked of the desire to institute a ‘Holy Alliance’ against nationalism of the kind Europe had witnessed between the defeat of Napoleon and the 1848 revolutions.
In Britain, more covert means are preferred. The top strategists hired by David Cameron will be given the task of monstering UKIP, depicting it as a dangerous force that could bring Britain close to anarchy if the large slice of the electorate drawn to its diagnosis of Britain’s ills dares to vote for it in 2015.
The European centre-Right contributes to what the American academic Walter Russell Mead described as ‘the world’s first “post-reality” elite; an elite which makes policy disconnected from the real world’. As long as it turns a deaf ear to the problems of the middle and lower classes and adopts an un-critical or complacent stance to poorly performing European institutions, then any ascendancy it enjoys will be fleeting.
Indeed, its absorption with careerist politics only deepens the European crisis. The abdication of the centre-Right makes it likely that in one corner of depression-hit Europe an outright revolt will occur against the current, unsustainable order of things.
Tom Gallagher’s book, Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis has just been published
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