Opinion

John Lloyd

Europe goes to extremes

John Lloyd
Apr 24, 2012 16:07 UTC

Americans might be forgiven for regarding Europeans as a puzzle. And not an intriguing one, but an irritating, what-the-hell-are-they-thinking kind of puzzle. The global survey books by American thinkers this year – Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision, Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself – profess to be in frustration more than sorrow with Europe’s passivity. Why don’t they pay more to protect themselves and to project force? We do. Why can’t they unite into a federal state and get a properly integrated economic policy so they can get over this euro crisis? We did. Why can’t they get over their obsession with immigration – especially since their populations are shrinking, and they need more labor? We have.

Europe, a continent whose elite had long condescended to America, regarding it as a place of extremes and crudities, is now in danger of seeming both effete and weird. The surge in support for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election in France – the largest piece of news, since the Socialist François Hollande had been expected to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round – makes her National Front party, if not she herself, a kingmaker, and deposits her at the center of French politics.

She rejoiced in Paris, and less than 400 kilometers away in the Hague, the Dutch government fell – as the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, withdrew its support, citing opposition to a budget that, prompted by the EU’s new fiscal pact, strove to bring the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP. For Wilders, this asked the Dutch people to “pay out of their pockets for the senseless demands of Brussels … we don’t want to follow Brussels’ orders.”

All over Europe, now, parties of the far right and far left see their support grow as they denounce the EU or immigration, or both; as they direct the frustrations of hard-pressed people into channels of blame; as they flatter their supporters by telling them that they, the ordinary folk, have in their common sense and in their experience of life, the real answers to the woes afflicting the countries of Europe. Both on the right and on the left, a fevered populism denounces the experts, the “old” politicians and parties, the self-interested elites, those who are against “us” – us, the people.

There is not a little political charlatanry here: Le Pen and Wilders are educated people; they know well enough that the answers to Europe’s woes are complex, time-consuming and dependent on consensus. But they choose to ignore that. And there is more than a little racism bubbling away, toward Muslims and immigrants of every kind,  both of color and from Eastern Europe. It finds it harder to speak its name now, unlike the Jew-hatred before the last world war – but it’s not less powerful for being partially suppressed. These movements are not, to be sure, fascist armies. But the breakdown of government they may provoke could open up spaces for greater extremes than they.

Anders Breivik’s disgusting sanity

John Lloyd
Apr 20, 2012 20:35 UTC

To watch Anders Breivik, in the news clips available of him in the Oslo court where he is being tried for mass murder, is to see a smile on the face of an animal much more terrifying than any beast: a human fanatic, whose own mental processes have produced a monstrous creature. That smile is so normal, appearing so naturally in his conversations with his defense lawyer Geir Lippestad. It seems almost…carefree. Indeed, Breivik does seem free from care. “I would say,” said Lippestad on Wednesday, in the precise and fluent English all Norwegians seem able to speak, that “he’s always in a good mood.”

Lippestad, who will likely never have another such shot at fame, will probably never again walk such a high wire. He must defend a man most of the world believes to be wholly indefensible and many in Norway know as one who murdered a relative, friend or acquaintance. He must accompany his client as he comes to court and gives his defiant, fist-out salute. Breivik has been asked to stop, but so far hasn’t. Lippestad is helpless in this matter, saying that “either he will or he won’t. There’s nothing that we can order him to do.” The Norwegian authorities are grimly determined that all the rules of a liberal order be followed: Lippestad, in a liberal society’s iconic (but hardly popular) role of the defender of a human horror, bears the brunt.

And he must argue, under instructions from his client, that he is sane. If he’s sane, he can get 21 years – the maximum sentence – and then, after he serves the sentence, there will be an argument (which Breivik may win) that he can be freed if he is judged no longer to be a danger to society. A judgment that he is insane could keep him in a secure medical facility for life, if that custody is constantly reimposed on three-year reviews. He has said: Give me liberty or give me death. He says the maximum sentence would be “absurd.” Norway has no death penalty: It is not about to invent one for him, even if many Norwegians would wish it (including one of the lay judges on the panel hearing the casecasec, who had to resign when he made this clear).

As elections approach, France contemplates a bonfire

John Lloyd
Apr 13, 2012 18:29 UTC

It’s too early to hear the sound of the tumbrils rolling, or the excited click-clack of spectators’ knitting needles as the aristos are taken to the guillotine, but don’t bet that a modern bonfire of the pretensions of the very rich won’t happen, and maybe soon. (Peacefully, I hope: Revolutions are mostly horrible affairs.)

The French allusion occurs because the presidential election campaign opened officially there earlier this week, and the first round of the two-stage voting process will take place on Sunday Apr. 22. From the results of that first pass for the French people, we should see something of central interest and concern to our times, with an import far beyond France. We’ll see how mad people are, and how deeply (or not) they feel they shouldn’t take it any more.

The smart money remains on one of the two front-runners in the race: President Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the right, who’s campaigning as if his life depended on it; and François Hollande, of the Socialist Party, an altogether more laid-back man whose travel-to-work transport was, until recently, a scooter (the kind with a motor – modesty has its limits). They both have been hovering below 30 percent in the polls, while 10 percent is taken by François Bayrou, a veteran campaigner and a liberal, centrist, sensible sort of man, who is trying to pump up votes for a job that is unlikely ever to be his.

For Europe, it doesn’t get better

John Lloyd
Apr 4, 2012 21:03 UTC

The European crisis isn’t over until the First Lady pays, and the First Lady of Europe, Angela Merkel, cannot pay enough. She needs to erect a large enough firewall to ensure that the European Union’s weaker members do not, again, face financial disaster. That will not happen – which means the euro faces at least defections, and perhaps destruction.

The crisis had seemed to recede somewhat in early 2012, and the headline writers moved on. But it had only seemed to recede, and relaxation was premature. As Hugo Dixon of Reuters’ Breaking Views put it on Monday, “the risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.”

But the underlying tension remains between high indebtedness in nearly all the EU countries and the need to pare back public spending without suffocating the economies. The flat, or negative, growth lines in the same countries that are indebted are likely to be made worse as demand falls and a malign cycle threatens.

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