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JOHN KAMPFNER: Is Europe on the brink?

A gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protestor on the streets of Paris after discontent over taxes and rising fuel prices exploded into violence. Photo: Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

At the end of a momentous year, JOHN KAMPFNER surveys the febrile European political scene and finds embattled leaders, emboldened populists and a looming election in which everything could be up for grabs.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images – Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes the most obvious statements can be the most profound. While warning Europe that letting Britain hang would be a profound mistake, Tony Blair acknowledged recently on the Today programme that European leaders ‘don’t wake up every day thinking about Brexit’. He added: ‘If you’re Macron in France, Brexit is not your number one priority’.

From our little island, waving our plastic union flags, it is easy to forget that we’re not the centre of the universe. Perhaps we were, once. But that was a few years back. Europe (or the Continent as we used to call it, and as we’re taking to call it again in one of our many genuflections back to the 1970s) has rather bigger poissons to fry than the fate of Madame May.

The concerns are national and multi-national. First the gilets jaunes. Unlike political systems still wedded to the traditional parties, it could be said that France has already tried change. Last year saw the spectacular launch of the Emmanuel Macron brand. Like Blair in 1997, the new kid on the block personified change. He urged his countrymen, and Europeans, to believe in radical centrism. To those jaundiced by the promises of Blair, Clinton and Obama, the terms radical and centre might have seemed an oxymoron. Bizarrely, the man educated at the École nationale d’administration, the school of the French elite, who wafted effortlessly at the age of 30 into the investment bank Rothschild and was quickly termed the ‘Mozart of finance’ because of his track record in mergers and acquisitions, succeeded in convincing voters that he was a bit of a revolutionary. He swept aside his opponents in the 2017 presidential elections with elan. Except for one: the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.

Now the dangers are greater than for any other EU member state. France’s electoral architecture increases the danger of the populist tide. The presidential election, as in the USA, ends up as all or nothing. Macron’s two-to-one victory over Le Pen in the second-round run-off was respectable, but not overwhelming. He now has little over three years to recover his credibility and popularity, no easy feat with so little at his disposal to mollify the growing army of detractors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s country has been fomenting unrest and backing radical groups for years. Picture: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP – Credit: AP

The National Rally (formerly Front), meanwhile, can work the regions, fomenting unrest and picking up malcontents along the way. Given that more than 10 million people voted for the FN in 2017, even before the unrest was galvanised, the potential for growth is frightening. Militating against that is the possibility that the extreme vote could split. The gilets jaunes might, in all the various forthcoming elections, put forward their own ‘spontaneous’, anti-politics candidates. Either way, the threat from the extremes is potent. Macron is showing, in his style and substance, to be ill-equipped to address their concerns.

In Germany, the problems are less acute but more strategically important. Angela Merkel is already in danger of appearing a lame duck, having been pressurised to announce that she is stepping down by 2021. The decision by the Christian Democrats to elect as its next leader a moderate in her own image will allow her to keep hold of the reins for a little longer and with more dignity.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is not a radical in the mould of the man who challenged her for the top perch, Friedrich Merz. AKK, as she is known, is also a gradualist and coalition-builder. But the Merkel era is coming to an end, and with it, Germany and Europe will undergo a potential trauma.

Merkel, whom I knew a little when she was the bag-carrier to East Germany’s first and last democratically-elected leader just before unification, has defied the consensus of modern celebrity politics and shown that you can do dull and be successful.

One decision – the opening of Germany’s borders to migrants from Africa, Middle East and beyond – was her only egregious act of risk-taking. Much of the political mayhem sweeping Europe could be traced back to that.

But, even though she was forced to temper that policy, and even though a number of countries such as Austria and Hungary erected their own barriers, she never disavowed it, seeing it as part of Germany’s obligation as a compassionate and democratic nation.

Compare that to the UK’s mealy-mouthed restrictions, and the tiny number of destitute it has let in in recent years, and it is clear where the moral high ground resides.

But politics is politics, and AKK will have to reconcile Germany’s professed openness with the similar cocktail of resentments that are afflicting its neighbours. The experience of the CDU’s Bavarian partners, the CSU, is instructive.

When they tacked further to the 
right than is their usual position, they were dismissed by many of their core voters as a pale imitation of the real red meat version, the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD).

The most striking, and heart-warming, difference between the present German experience and equivalent countries is the surge in popularity enjoyed by the Greens. All the many cases of populist insurgencies across Europe (further afield the case of Mexico is the exception) have seen the right farther than left the beneficiaries.

I haven’t yet got round to Italy because where do you begin? Even in normal times, it struggled to sustain serious governments. With its present rag-tag coalition of the far-left Five Star Movement and far-right League, it has hit a new and perilous nadir.

My tour d’horizon of ogres could take in ultra-nationalist governments of the former Warsaw Pact, notably Hungary’s Viktor Orban, but these would merely add more detail to an established trend.

Even the most bellicose of these governments has shied away from repeating the British experience of seeking to leave the EU. The chaos that has engulfed the UK has been salutary for them.

Even more alarming than the departure of one country is the danger that the club could be taken over by those same extremes that have hijacked, or threaten to hijack, its constituent members.

The European parliamentary elections in late May 2019 could prove that tipping point. If the radical right emerged as the largest party, everything would be up for grabs. Italy’s deputy premier, but de facto leader, Matteo Salvini, has posited the thought that he should succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the Commission, the EU’s executive arm. The experience of Donald Trump suggests: beware the man bearing hubristic gifts.

So, given that we may well be out by March 29, why should any of this matter much to us? A good bit of spectator sport perhaps, no little schadenfreude, but for us Brits, Europe’s travails will no longer be central to our concerns.

In many ways, it will be worse than ever before as we are affected by crises but have no formal levers to affect responses.

The biggest beneficiary of the ructions across Europe will be Vladimir Putin. The Russians have been funding and trolling on behalf of the extremes for several years, openly celebrating each victory. There will be more to come. And we Brits, belatedly wise to the threat posed by the Kremlin, will be too far removed to have any proper influence.

The demise of the pan-European project will be to the detriment of all but its avowed enemies, among them Putin and his ally Trump. A weakened Europe will have little clout in the looming battle between the US and China.

The irony of this sorry situation is that, in times gone by, many in Europe saw Britain as a beacon of stability and sturdy good sense. That Germans and the Nordics saw us during the 1990s and 2000s as drivers towards economic reform. The Eastern Europeans remembered the role of Margaret Thatcher in helping to undermine Communism and John Major in pushing for the expansion of the EU towards the east. As for Blair, they all recall a man who, briefly, was seen as a, possibly the, leader of Europe.

Now it is worse than Blair fears. It is not just Brexit which features low in the priorities of Europe’s leaders, but soon it will be Britain itself.

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