Opinion

John Lloyd

Goodbye to all that centrism

By John Lloyd
September 30, 2013

How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.

While Europe’s economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that’s fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany’s, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.

Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.

The day after that response, Pierre Moscovici, the French Finance Minister, came to Brussels with his country’s budget. Under a recent agreement, budgets must be approved by the European Commission before they’re debated in the French parliament. This timeframe, with much else, was decided during the turbulent past two years, to contain the crisis and calm the markets. Now, the consequences of that decision to seek European Commission budget approval, and the suppressed frustration at the national level over the straitjackets on their economies, are becoming more widely evident, and a generally EU-supportive press is becoming increasingly critical.

At the national level, the signs of rebellion from the Union continue to accumulate. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has held the stage in the Italian political opera since he was judged guilty of tax fraud in July, has talked grandly of defying the EU by adopting an expansionary program if and when his Forza Italia party is returned to office. Last weekend, he delivered on his threat to pull the Forza Italia ministers out of the coalition with the center-left Democratic Party. His party may split on the issue: he, a frisky 77 last Sunday, has turned strongly against an EU whose leaders pressed for his resignation in 2011. He now seems set to lead his loyal deputies into a Euroskeptic, populist position already occupied by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

Across Italy’s northern border, the Austrians voted on Sunday for a new government, and very narrowly gave the majority to that country’s right-left coalition. The Freedom Party, strongly anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic, took 22 percent of the vote, up nearly five percent on its previous showing and only a little behind the two main parties. It might have been the largest party if a new group financed by the Austro-Canadian Frank Stronach, even more strongly anti-EU, hadn’t taken 5.9 percent.

Austria’s economy is relatively stable; Italy’s remains in recession. Yet in both, the rising political tide carries anti-immigrant or anti-EU sentiments — or both. It’s not the economy, stupid.

Next May, elections will be held for the European parliament. It doesn’t have the power of national legislatures, but it’s taking a higher profile under the active leadership of the German deputy Martin Schulz. On current national trends, many strongly Euroskeptic deputies are likely to join the assembly in May — from France’s National Front, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, Britain’s UKIP (and many Conservative MEPs), Italy’s Five Star Movement (and some Berlusconi deputies), the Dutch Freedom party, Hungary’s Jobbik, the Greek Golden Dawn (if not banned by the government), the Czech Republic’s Libertas and the Party of Free Citizens, the Danish Freedom Party, the True Finns, the Swedish Democrats and others.

These parties’ stances are very varied — from the outright Nazi Golden Dawn and the anti-semitic Jobbik to the constitutional UKIP and True Finns — but all appear to have the electoral strength to send significant representations to the Brussels parliament, and all see political advantage in testing the EU all the way to destruction. Parliaments don’t usually host parties who doubt the existence of the state whose citizens elected them. Starting in May, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the EU’s assembly will.

“More Europe” and “an ever-closer Union” have been the slogans of the EU for decades. “Less Europe” and “a return of lost sovereignty” is now the gathering cry among the people who do the voting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has herself called for more Europe. But she knows that her electors don’t want to pay more than they already have to save it. If, in the old jibe, the Union was a French design paid for by Germany, the designers are now reviewing their plans and the sponsors looking at what they got for their money.

The European Union is a big, rich market, that rivals the U.S. But politically, it’s still 28 nations. It has neither a plan, nor the will, to get from less Europe to more. Nor to forge a close Union.

PHOTO: Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi stands inside the new headquarters of his re-launched original political party, Forza Italia (Go Italy), in downtown Rome September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Massimo Percossi/Pool

Comments
8 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Is there a point here? The EU and the EuroZone have been targets by most Europeans since their inception. This is not new. Turmoil is the constant state, not the exception. All we have here is some of the same old platitudes rehashed over and over by bored “journalists”.

Observing the quarter-after-quarter, year-after-year European summits among “eaders” that always claimed success when the only things on which they agreed were the menus for the sumptuous dinners while real action was promised sometime, some day to be determined in the next meeting, then the next, then … A bunch of bloviating politicians… Yet, the sycophant “journalists” report this nonsense as progress.

How’s the six-year depression doing? How many years will chicken journalists keep labeling it a recession or a “recovery” that lingers, yet to actually take hold…

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

Oops! “leaders”

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive
 

I appreciate the European attitude toward immigration within the EU, but there are obviously geographically sensitive limited resources for which receiving countries should be compensated. The first line on my national budget I’m taking to Brussels for approval is “ok, we expect 1m immigrants that will cost us $500m Euros to support – I’d like a check for that please”

Individual taxpayers in a particular country cannot be expected to support immigrants they do not need. If it’s an EU policy there should be EU funding for associated costs(net, as many immigrants contribute to the host country).

Again just my opinion, but host countries also have a right to expect immigrants to integrate into society – without having to give up individual identity. If you have moved to France you are French – act like it. But, who cares what they wear?

Hate never wins the day, but only provides temporary respite to ignorant, scared little animals.

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive
 

Wasn’t the E.U. idea always fatally flawed, assuming that meant the mass movement of peoples from all over Europe? How realistic is it to expect that all these people and cultures will mesh together with only minor inconveniences to all? Britain seems like the worst case, with Muslims and foreigners from basically everywhere flocking into the little country and taking over. But Greece is poorer and native Greeks have a problem with the masses of those crossing their borders to live in Greece and take over Greek neighborhoods; but only the “neo-fascists” will listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens. I agree that if certain countries are expected to bear the brunt of the immigration crunch then they need to be compensated.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive
 

Why did they photograph a likeness of Silvio Berlusconi from Madame Tussauds and not the real thing?

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive
 

again wishful thinking. Election after election, the antiEU parties are expected to succed and they keep on losing, last example in Germany. Why? I got this answer from a Greek: we do not hate Bruxelles or the Germans because they have given us hundreds of billions. The only major European country who refused to contribute has been the UK: who do you think we should hate?

Posted by phoen2011 | Report as abusive
 

{JL: The euro zone crisis is already forcing integration, yet citizens are recoiling from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim. It’s nearly impossible to be a centrist politician in Europe these days.}

This is a over-characterization of the problem.

The EU legislature is a fig-leaf of democracy, and has no real power over the Commission in Brussels. Were it to do so, then the politicos on the Commission would be more heedful of it.

And because the Brussels politicos have their fingers on the purse-strings, that is all that matters. What happens in the EU-states is a “local problem”. Which is the case, particularly at present, given the financial predicament in most countries, especially those on the southern underbelly of the EU.

The next move towards fuller democracy is an EU presidency and a tripartite governance – that is, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. This sharing of power, and the inevitable tug-of-war between all three, is an inevitable evolution.

So, why does the EU not just get on with it?

Because they figure there is no person of multinational EU stature. So, what about Angela? Think of it: Th EU’s first prez is a woman!

The only stumbling block in that path are the political predilections of existing national Prime Ministers. (A female as first EU-president? Heaven forbid!)

Which means, as in the past, they must be outflanked by a EU-wide referendum on the matter.

And that will take a long, long time to achieve …

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive
 

You say there is no center any more. But no center in a State doesn’t mean no Center in Brussels.
Obviously people will have different views.
But I would like to see a stronger EU precisely because of a weakening of Brussels/Strasbourg. In this overcrowded world, population movement is a Problem but a stronger Brussels won’t help. The Problems created by weak or corrupt governments wouldn’t be solved by a stronger Brussels (unless it was somehow exceedingly strong).
Brussels should provide only a centrist framework. If you wanna be “in” – then agree to that.

Posted by seymourfrogs | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •