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.
The rich are always with us, and we’ll have more of them soon. A report last week from Boston Consulting Group shows that the global millionaire population is some 13.8 million. That is twice the size of Switzerland, which is, incidentally, where many of them have parked much of their wealth. More will accrue, and more individuals will pass the million-dollar mark. Global private wealth will, says Boston Consulting, grow by almost 5 percent per year over the next five years, reaching $171.2 trillion.
The pace of European disintegration continues to quicken. Recession deepens in the 17-member euro zone; it is now the longest downturn since the currency was launched in 2000. In Italy, a new left-right government, launched on an anti-austerity program, finds the neighborhood more austere than it had hoped. In France, Maurice Levy, boss of the advertising giant Publicis, did a survey showing that northern Europeans – Poles, Germans, Brits – were moderately optimistic while southerners – Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and the French – were deeply pessimistic. France dipped into recession earlier this month, for the third time in four years. The union is pulling apart.
In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.
Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.
“European” is Representative Paul Ryan’s insult of choice for President Barack Obama, and for his policies. Yet the influences Ryan cites, and the thoughts behind his plan for debt reduction, were offered by Europeans of the 20th century. Their ideas, the foundations of which were laid in Europe’s turbulent twenties and thirties, have nearly a century later found an influential apostle in the United States.
The economic logic of European integration is now directly confronting nationalistic sentiments in the hearts and souls of Europeans. It’s becoming clear that nationalism resonates more deeply. That is the stuff of our patriotic life, fragments from our history that we use to shore up our present and point to our future. To discard them is to discard part of our mental and moral makeup.
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, gave an interview to the Guardian last Friday. In it, she offered some advice to the people of Greece. A succinct summation: “Stop whining.”
London voted for its mayor last week and voted, narrowly, for Boris. Boris Johnson was the Conservative incumbent, a 47-year-old upper-middle class, Eton- and Oxford-educated former journalist, a classics-conversant, high-IQ prankster with a streak of political intelligence and ruthlessness that reportedly has Prime Minister David Cameron worried for his job.
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.