Europe goes to extremes

April 24, 2012

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.

Yet they need not triumph. There are many causes for the European malaise, but two of the most pressing do not stem from the cynical manipulation of fear, or from subterranean hatreds. They are part of the nature of contemporary European life and of its constitution – and can be fixed, though only with large political will and with time.

First, immigration into Europe in the 2000s is not like that into the wide spaces of North America in the 19th and the 20th centuries (where, even so, many newcomers met with prejudice, and worse). Immigrants to Europe come into densely populated, urban societies, where populations see themselves as having been stable for centuries. The newly arrived often cleave strongly to their faith – and may regard with some contempt the largely irreligious Europeans around them. In the cities of Germany, in the suburbs of Paris, in the former textile towns of Northern England, the newcomers live in areas segregated by choice, by price and by prejudice. Often, the families are large; not infrequently, they are more dependent on the state and the social services than the indigenous whites.

None of this needs to be toxic. It can become so when the immigrants are seen to take more than they give, which is the rule of thumb by which they are judged by their neighbors, who are themselves often in low-cost housing with little to spare. Yet the European governing classes have been slow – and are slow, even now – to make clear to those who immigrate that they have a larger responsibility to adjust to the new society than the society has to them. The lack of that steady pressure – to integrate, to become full and useful members of a society with a culture that, though relatively liberal, has rules and expectations – has caused much of the mutual incomprehension of the incoming and the settled populations of Europe. When we have decided to admit people to citizenship – a large privilege anywhere – we should welcome them: The best welcome is a tough one, making clear what the rules are and the need to observe them.

And second, the European Union – the common whipping boy of the right and left populists – is fundamentally flawed. The flaw has been to create a powerful entity that has large power over people’s lives – yet is divorced from them, hardly known by them, easily seen – as are immigrants – as an alien and tyrannous machine smashing through cultures and customs, licensing and encouraging commercial forces that do so. The new populist parties have an answer for this, and it is a simple one. It is to leave the Union; to return to the nation; to find in the nation what it is to be truly French, or British, or Dutch; to end an artificial order and re-create an older, purer one.

If the euro survives, and the Union itself is salvaged, it will truly betray its peoples if it does not recognize that no construction of this kind, a massive geopolitical work still in its early stages, can take on a human dimension without the most extensive democratization. Europeans must find their way toward seeing each other as common citizens bit by bit, no doubt slowly, in ways both discovered by themselves and encouraged by their politicians.

Europe has torn at itself for centuries. It tore itself to bits within living memory. It is a skeleton of a continent whose emergence as a state – if it is ever to come – will be centuries in coming. That has to be recognized, before the real work can start.

The Europeans are strange people – terribly civilized, as they see themselves, yet extreme in their hatreds and their wars and in many of their actions. In the French election and in the foundering of the government in the Netherlands we glimpse the prospect of a gathering crisis. But it’s not ineluctable. The bad management of good intentions was a human mistake, and human agency can fix it.

PHOTO: France’s president and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy, speaks to supporters at La Mutualité meeting hall in Paris after early results in the first round of voting, April 22, 2012. REUTERS/Yves Herman.   France’s far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen leaves a restaurant to attend a meeting at party headquarters in Nanterre, near Paris, April 23, 2012, the day after the first round of the 2012 French presidential election. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol.   Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party attends a debate in The Hague about the government’s resignation caused by a crisis over budget cuts, April 24, 2012. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country faced a crisis and asked parliament to push through budget cuts after his government lost the support of its main political ally and tendered its resignation. REUTERS/Paul Vreeker/United Photos


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Why don’t they pay more to protect themselves and to project force? We do.
Not until after WWII as a result of complete global devastation with no other western country really left standing did America ever spend so much on protecting themselves. Are military was always scarce and small until we needed volunteers.
Secondly, we were pivotal in allowing them not to pay and some, like Germany, were not allowed to have a real force for years. Why would they pay more to protect themselves when they knew the USA was stupid enough to fit the bill?
“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.”

Yes, after a bloody civil war when the Federal Government decided to excerpt its power despite the previous 80 years of a limited Federal Government and State’s rights. Not that I agree, but it should be noted. Are you suggesting Europe needs a Civil War too?
“Why can’t they get over their obsession with immigration – especially since their populations are shrinking, and they need more labor? We have.”

We have? What neighborhood do you live in? I would suggest that America is a failed multicultural state. If any progress has made, it was the result of many additional laws to keep the majorities opinions subdued under the auspices of equality. And culture! What culture? The only thing we have in common anymore is that we all have houses we can’t afford, to many cars, and reality TV.
More Laws, less Freedom of Speech, affirmative action, separate neighborhoods and schools? I would not call that getting over immigration. No melting pot here, unless you consider the successful integration of Western Europeans. That is not really that great of an accomplishment.

More Labor? For what? Yes, they may need to readjust their priorities, sacrifice, and readjust their consumer based economy, but that is no reason to invite the world into your backyard. This consumer based economy has not worked and is built on a house of cards. Why continue to encourage more of it?

Posted by 55usaidwhat | Report as abusive

the french had no illusions when algerian terrorist mohamed merah killed jewish children at point blank range; the irony is that a pair of neo-nazis showed themselves to be equally vicious in germany

while the single EU market, with its living and working opportunities throughout the continent are much-appreciated, the institutions of the EU are undeservedly maligned;

you may find that there are specific demographic mentalities that resent the opportunities of the single market; the EU is 27 countries, not states, ranging from the memories of soviet totalitarianism in the former warsaw pact areas, to the discontent and diffidence of the petit-bourgeois as they inhale the reek of idle consumerism in shopping malls

but meet young spaniards, greeks, even brits who have found better options for education, work and lifestyle and you have a greater appreciation of the EU as a community

the EU is a conundrum that requires breathing through the nose, time for negotiation and even longer for implementation of its Directives

pandering to american values is a strawman argument; the EU is not that fidgeting flight of ill-conceived patriotism in other waspish lands, prone to the shock and awe of war against smaller demoralised, impoverished nations

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

John, have you been following the Republican debates and primaries?

Seemingly endless “channels of blame…we don’t want to follow [Washington’s] orders…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 [U.S.]…a fevered populism denounces the experts [elites/media]…more than a little racism bubbling away, toward Muslims and [Obama]…to end an artificial order [the U.N.]and re-create an older, purer [Imperial/Militaristic]one.

Sounds like Europe is finally catching up to the U.S.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

Well, Europe has many problems and the EU with its all ecompassing powers without much of voice by the people also needs to fixed or made better; but to say that the US has its problems licked is like taking a good acid trip. The anti-immigrant speeches of the republican candidates, the abysmal lack of progress on solving America’s economic woes; the country with the most encarcerated people in modern societies; a country where the middle class is shrinking and the wealthy get richer, where a working person struggles with health insurance, finding decent jobs; a country that is selling its economy to third world so that the wealthy can prosper. Is this the America that is so much better than good old Europe; oh and i forgot to mention that elephant in the room: a huge military whose purpose is not defense but domination. Spain used to be a military power until it went broke. American thinkers are too comfortable in their thinking. When life is easy things look easy.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

You have to look at everything in perspective, European not, US prespective. Mitt Romney is futher on the right in comparison to Marine le Pen.”Socialist” President Obama is much more conservative than President Sarcozy.
BTW none of them would ever receive more than 10% of popular vote in any European democracy with their views on gun posession.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

@John Lloyd:

easy peasy: we, europeans, will send all the islam immigrants flooding europe, to you guys in the USA.

John, I am sure that you and your friends will welcome them with open arms, just watch your towers !

Posted by Willvp | Report as abusive

@ John Lloyd: Are you following the presidential elections here in the US? The only scary thing i find is that as extreme as Europeans get, they are babies compared to our conservatives

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive