The old European order has fallen – but that is no reason to despair. In its place a more vibrant, responsive one is emerging, far more capable of responding to the challenges ahead, says JOHN KAMPFNER
A couple of Sundays ago, I was sitting in a traditional pub in Aachen. That beautiful old German city epitomises the European dream. Just a few miles from the Belgian and Dutch borders, Aachen was liberated by the Americans six months before the end of the Second World War.
It is synonymous with Charlemagne, the 10th century all-European conqueror who has become its chief brand. Napoleon, who briefly invaded, modelled himself on him, as did Otto the Great and Barbarossa.
The elders of Aachen decided in 1950 to initiate an annual Charlemagne Prize. Everyone who is anyone has won it, from Lech Walesa to Bill Clinton to, of course, Tony Blair.
I was pondering all this Ode to Joy symbolism and slugging down a beer when I chanced upon a copy of Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s equivalent of the Sun on Sunday. Anything to keep me busy.
Spread over two pages was an article about identity and Euro-enthusiasm – not something that its British counterpart would be minded so to do – with quotes from a variety of readers about what Europe means to them.
Alongside it were two surveys, comparing the responses with a previous set, conducted in December 2011. The first asked: do you feel more German or European? The answer then was: 75% more German, 23% more European. Now it comes in at: 64% and 31% respectively. One third of people calling themselves European first is eye-catching. What would the figure be in the UK, I wonder?
The second question asked: how would Germany fare if it left the EU? The answer now is: 23% think they’d do better with some kind of ‘Dexit’, against 63% who think life would get worse. What really struck me was that in December 2011 the result was virtually a dead heat. Better was 46%, worse 45%.
In Germany, of all places, the country appeared to be split about a project that had defined its foreign policy, indeed its very post-war national purpose.
Eight years ago, the country was mired in controversy about its handling of the Greek debt crisis. Posters depicting Angela Merkel as Hitler had appeared on Greek streets.
Old tropes were being revived – overbearing, arrogant Teutons, and idle, corrupt southerners. Many Germans wondered whether ‘bailing out’ the rest was worth the effort. But to leave outright? It seems that we don’t have a monopoly on contemplating self-harm.
The soul-searching began long before Brexit, and it continues unabated. Last weekend’s parliamentary elections across the continent have been chewed over with customary anxiety by European politicians and policy-makers. The result was a curate’s egg of new-look liberals and ecologists and new-look nasties, with some traditional parties bucking the trend and either holding their own or even gaining ground.
The adoration of the authoritarian Viktor Orban in Hungary, who has employed Putin-style curbs on the media and civil society groups, is deeply depressing, as is the continuing support for the Peace and Justice party in Poland.
Matteo Salvini’s continued strong showing is alarming in one respect, but when was Italy’s political culture regarded as stable or mature? As for Marine Le Pen, she edged out Emmanuel Macron’s party for the top perch, but her total was slightly lower than 2014 and it is premature to see that result as a precursor to the next presidential vote.
There are three reasons, notwithstanding the presence of the hard right in Strasbourg and Brussels, to be cheerful.
The first is the double negative. The Bild opinion poll appears to hold true for the rest of Europe. No matter how hostile the various right-wing nationalist groupings are towards European integration, or the policies that underpinned it, such as freedom of movement, Britain’s Mayhem appears to have deterred them all from any serious contemplation of actually leaving.
That means they will have to commit unequivocally to the institutions of Europe, in order to influence them in their direction.
Secondly, and most excitingly, comes the rise of new constellations of grouping on the centre-left. From Ireland to Finland, the green agenda has taken hold. It has moved to the heart of politics (where it should always have been) and will influence decision-making by all parties.
Germany’s Greens are the most interesting. They’ve been around so long that they are considered part of the establishment. (Back in the 1980s and 1990s they were still split between the ‘fundamentalists’, who believed they should shun the mainstream, and the ‘realists’ led by the former radical Joschka Fischer, who went on to become the foreign minister who sanctioned the use of the German military against Serbia).
Now the Greens are in coalition governments with the ruling centre-right CDU in a number of states. What they’ve done is to usurp the more traditional, class-based, social democrats. The pattern is repeated in a number of countries.
The rise of the new, and not-so-new but still fresh, parties is shaking up the entire tree. With Angela Merkel soon to depart the stage, the CDU is asking itself tough questions, as is the SPD, which has suffered even more.
The same applies to the centre-right Partido Popular in Spain, alongside the conservatives and socialists in France. It is not just the Tories and Labour in the UK who have been rebuffed. Some conventional parties, such as the socialists in Spain have shown resilience, but only by reinventing themselves.
European politics, in short, is about to become exciting again, as the higher electoral turnout foreshadows. The haggling for the top jobs in the commission, the presidency of the Council and the various committees in the parliament has begun.
In the old days these battles would have been regarded with boredom and cynicism. They were widely perceived as a stitch-up between the major countries, and they usually were. I’ll give Jean-Claude Juncker the nod, if you give me the European Central Bank. That may still be attempted, but there will be nowhere to hide.
The European parliament and the EU more generally will have to start talking with a fresh candour and openness about the issues that have driven the discontent – the notion of free movement, economic models, growth versus sustainability.
For much of the past half-century, the debates were narrow and constrained. The field was inhabited exclusively by the globalised Davos set, the same besuited men awarded the Charlemagne gongs metronomically each year.
Now they have to share centre stage with the awkward squad; the arguments will start to be had. Nobody sensible wants to leave the EU any longer.
At the same time, nobody sensible believes things can stay as they are. What a fine time to be influencing the future of Europe. These are just the sort of debates that the Brits have long demanded take place. What an irony it would be if they’re not around long enough to influence them.