Wednesday 23 January 2019

European politics still trending dangerously towards extremes

Germany's elections will have far-reaching implications for a post-Brexit Europe, writes Dan O'Brien

Frau Merkel: She has been weakened by last week’s election result — so can her centre hold? Photo: AP
Frau Merkel: She has been weakened by last week’s election result — so can her centre hold? Photo: AP
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The tectonic plates of European politics have shifted more since 2010 than in the previous two decades. With Democratic Europe's three biggest and most influential countries having held general elections over the past six months, a changed landscape is emerging. What are the implications for Europe and Irish interests?

Up until the French and Dutch elections last spring, there was much dark talk about Europe heading back to the 1930s. After the hard-right suffered a setback in the Netherlands and the arch-centrist, Emmanuel Macron, won the presidency in France, a wave of commentary suggested the populist surge might have peaked. Last weekend's German elections has raised fresh concerns about extremism after the far right did better than expected, and will enter parliament in Berlin for the first time since the Nazi era.

With commentary blowing this way and that depending on the outcome of the latest election, the important thing is to look at the underlying trend. Political scientists Giacomo Benedetto and Simon Nix have done exactly that by meticulously looking at all elections across democratic Europe over many decades.

They are currently updating their data set to include this year's elections, but, as of the end of last year, the good news was that across Europe well over 80pc of voters supported non-extreme parties at the ballot box. It is for this reason, and lots of others, that Europe is not about to descend into another 1930s-type dark valley.

The bad news is that the hard left and, in particular, the hard right have been gaining ground. In elections in all of the big three powers in Europe this year, the centre ground has been further eroded.

The extremes in Germany are now stronger than on average across Europe and they have gained ground more rapidly. That has happened despite an extended period of economic growth.

For the rest of Europe, there are two big takeaways from the German election: Angela Merkel will not tower over her prime ministerial colleagues quite as much as she has done heretofore; and Germany will be somewhat less likely to agree to the sort of federal Europe proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron last week.

Mrs Merkel has been weakened by last weekend's election. Her party lost a quarter of its support and the only coalition she can form will have a smaller majority than her outgoing arrangement. And it will comprise three parties rather than just two. While her Christian Democrats will be the biggest party by far, the two likely partners take diametrically opposing views on both economics and Europe. Mrs Merkel's influence will also be lessened by the departure of her long-serving finance minister. Wolfgang Schauble was the dominant figure among European finance ministers over the past eight years, and also the longest serving.

However much he became associated with austerity during the euro crisis, he has always been a European integrationist. No alternative candidate will have his clout and if, as is likely, his successor comes from the increasingly Eurosceptic Free Democratic party, the next German finance minister will be less instinctively integrationist.

If Germany's election last weekend brought change to that country and its orientation in Europe, France's presidential election did the same, but in different ways. While much of the focus on French politics has been on the hugely ambitious new president, it is sometimes overlooked that the first round of France's presidential election in April showed the centre ground crumbling. Together, the hard left and hard right got twice as much support as in Germany - more than 40pc. That happened despite low levels of immigration.

The winner-takes-all voting system in France means that despite their sizeable support in last May's parliamentary elections, the extremes have only 6pc of the seats in the national assembly. Mr Macron has taken advantage of his majority and personal mandate to drive a wide-ranging reform programme, already pushing through a German-style shake up of employment laws.

His speech last week on Europe shows that he is, if anything, even more ambitious for his continent than his country. He proposed giving the EU many more of the attributes of a sovereign state.

Reaction to this across Europe was muted, at best. Sweden's Europe minister, speaking in Dublin, reflected this when she said her country did not support the sort of changes to the EU's treaty that his vision would require. The reaction in Ireland veered more towards negativity.

This in spite of Ireland having a vital national interest in making the currency we use more secure and less prone to crisis transmission, as it was in 2010-12 - and making changes to the bloc that would ensure big countries don't have excessive sway to the detriment of smaller ones. More positive-sounding and proactive noises from this island are needed. The European agenda is not influenced by saying No to everything. Making proposals, such as that a bigger EU budget could be financed by transparent income tax, rather than corporation tax, might be seen by other countries as more constructive.

Being a source of possible solutions, particularly as ill will grows towards Ireland over the profit tax issue, might come in handy when it comes to dealing with Britain and how it exits the EU.

If French and German voters are losing faith in the moderate centre, increasingly polarised Britons are too.

Last year, older people voted overwhelming to leave the EU. Last June, younger people voted overwhelming for a party led by a hard leftist who advocates policies that have never made any economy in which they have been applied anything but poorer.

If the British people have abandoned the pragmatism for which they are famed, their government might be reacquiring it. Recent months have seen the reality of Brexit become clearer. The sheer complexity of unscrambling so many eggs and trying to establish new relationships has begun to sink in among the pro Brexiteers. The inherent weakness of Britain's position vis-a-vis a much larger bloc is also better understood.

That is most clearly reflected in the new British position, which seeks the de facto continuation of the EU membership until 2021. That would give everyone more time to prepare and adjust.

The greater realism in London also reduces, but certainly does not eliminate, the possibility that the Brexit negotiations break down entirely. There are a great many twists and turns yet to come in the saga.

One of those twists could be the collapse of Theresa May's government and the coming to power of Jeremy Corbyn's hard left Labour party. This would have big implications for Ireland.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss