Opinion

John Lloyd

Goodbye to all that centrism

John Lloyd
Sep 30, 2013 20:17 UTC

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.

Reviving a European democracy

John Lloyd
Jun 3, 2013 17:52 UTC

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.

This is what we, who like precision in such matters, call “a lot.” The millionaire population in the UK – the fourth-largest in the world – stands at over half a million households. This is so many that when I reminded a wealthy friend of mine, who was complaining about a personal setback, that she was a millionaire, she snapped, “Isn’t everybody?” Tactless as the response seemed, the rich hobnob with the rich. After a while it becomes the prevailing wisdom.

Within rising global wealth, BCG sees a sign that Western economies are edging upward at last. Indeed, the United States seems to be set for appreciably faster growth. But Europe is stuck in recession; If there is growth, it’s anemic and is happening outside the euro zone.

The European Union’s unending quandary

John Lloyd
May 21, 2013 15:45 UTC

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.

Nothing brings relief. In the Netherlands, a TV show persuaded the country’s deputy finance minister, Frans Weekers, to watch clips of Bulgarians boasting about how they had defrauded his country’s government of welfare benefits. Bulgarians and Romanians, the poorest members of the European Union, will be able to move to any state in the EU next year. What had been presented to the poor as a new freedom is now an imposition for the rich.

Those who have been most enthusiastic for the union now proclaim that it is in grave danger. In an interview earlier this month the financier and philanthropist George Soros said European leaders, in trying to find exit routes from the crisis, have “generated political dynamics that are leading toward the EU’s disintegration.”

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

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.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

Where is the Paul Ryan of Europe?

John Lloyd
Aug 22, 2012 12:30 UTC

“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.

Like his European precedents, Ryan the savior-theorist has appeared at another turbulent time. The near-century-old politico-economic school he embraces now seeks to prove itself on ground made fertile by the fearful debt that hangs over the world’s greatest power.

The first of these influences, and the one on which his enemies have most eagerly seized, is the controversial capitalist-individualist Ayn Rand. Rand was born, raised and educated in Russia, during the period spanning the revolution that ruined Rand’s comfortably off family. Although many consider Russians to be non-European, Rand was raised in a secular Jewish family in Russia’s avowedly European city, St. Petersburg, and her educational influences were all European.

Europe’s impossible dream

John Lloyd
Jul 23, 2012 20:41 UTC

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.

For much of the last 60 years the Union has been Good, scattering tangible and intangible blessings upon its growing group of member states. It brought investment to the poorer countries that joined. It broke down physical and psychological barriers between states, so that their citizens now pass casually into and through countries that once required major preparation. It gave the former Communist states of Central Europe an ideal to which to aspire and templates by which aspirations could become routine. And it made inter-European war so unthinkable that its possibility ceased to be thought about at all.

The dream of the founders was an ever-closer union transforming itself into something like a federal state. They thought it could exist in idealistic form while the practical changes were put – with much labor, compromise and argument – into place. One of these founders, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, called up the ideal in a speech in 1948:

The hard challenges for Europe, an overly soft continent

John Lloyd
May 29, 2012 19:22 UTC

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.”

She says that when she thinks of the Greeks, she has sympathy for their plight, but: “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all these people who are trying to escape tax all the time.” And there is greater sympathy for the absolutely poor: “I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time.”

Lagarde does not in the least resemble my mother, except in one thing: When, as a child, I would whine “I don’t like it” about food she had prepared, she had a stock reply: “There’s some wee boy in Africa that would be glad of that!” (I would have been glad if he had had it – my mother was fond of tripe and couldn’t grasp my hatred of it.)

A London divided against itself

John Lloyd
May 7, 2012 15:08 UTC

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.

Boris beat Ken (Livingstone). In London, the two main contenders for the mayor’s seat are known, with or without affection, as Boris and Ken, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they are seen, still, as not quite serious people. (The London mayoralty doesn’t have much power, and nothing like that enjoyed by Michael Bloomberg in New York, who isn’t universally called Michael.) Indeed, they are not seen as entirely serious by themselves. Both have deserved reputations as comedians. Ken used to appear on comedy quiz panels, Boris wrote witty columns for the Daily Telegraph.

Ken Livingstone is a 66-year-old Labour veteran, a working-class-born ideologue of the left, by far the most experienced figure in London politics. He ran the Greater London Council from 1981 till its abolition in 1986 and held the mayoral seat from its creation in 2000, for two terms, until 2008 – when, with Labour’s stock diving, he was beaten by Boris. Experience didn’t count enough this time, though. Everywhere else in the UK, the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies in government were pounded, losing hundreds of local government seats. Labour surged back. Except in the capital.

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.”

Do we need a referendum on referendums?

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2012 19:09 UTC

Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?

It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.

That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

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