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Europe’s Postcards From the Edge
Elite ambition has kept the EU from completely falling apart, but the European project is going nowhere
One way to think about Europe today is as Humpty Dumpty, seconds before his great fall. A better way to think of it is as a Hollywood action hero pushed by unfortunate events over the cliff, clinging to the ledge with both hands, then one hand, then two fingers, while the camera pans over the depths of the abyss.
Britain has stormed out of the European Union, establishing a dangerous precedent. The governments that remain dislike, and often even despise, one another. Money and elite ambition have kept the motor running, but the EU is going nowhere.
The Germans are in charge, which is nobody’s idea of a happy development. The French fear the Germans but are stuck in a political and economic rut. Populist leaders in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere regularly outrage liberal sensibilities in Brussels. In a move that has been called an “existential crisis for Europe,” Poland’s judges have asserted their legal independence from EU rules. Now there’s talk of punishing the Poles with sanctions.
Of course, Europe hatches an existential crisis every month or so. Although the word “union” is in the name, in fact the EU consists of a number of tectonic plates—the South, the former Soviet satellites, the wealthy West—constantly crashing against one another. You don’t have to be a seismologist to see an earthquake coming.
European democracy is a Rubik’s cube in which the pieces never fit. The old political parties are disintegrating. New formations shift with the wind. Elections are easy; it’s what happens afterwards that’s hard. Cobbling a functional government together has become an excruciating process for many countries. In Italy, the head of government was never elected to his position. In Scotland and Catalonia, duly elected governments have demanded independence. In practice, democracy has translated into an impulse to smash at the EU, the nation state, the established parties.
Utopian energy choices have collided with supply chain realities to plunge Europe into a crisis that threatens social peace and the economic recovery. The pandemic still hovers over the continent like a shroud, but mandates and lockdowns from above have sparked large and sometimes violent protests. There’s an evident need for leadership, but Germany, which has led in the past, is caught in a moment of generational political transition. This story begins there.
The Fall of Angela Merkel, Europe’s Dowager Empress
For decades, Europe was run as a French-German combine. The French supplied geopolitical ambition and security capability; the Germans had economic clout. Angela Merkel’s tenure as German chancellor, however, coincided with a string of weak one-term presidencies in France that left the country too distracted to shoulder the burden of leadership. Between November 2005 and December 2021, with increasing confidence shading into arrogance, Merkel ruled Europe as if she were the dowager empress of a new-model Holy Roman Empire.
During her time in office, Merkel dealt with four U.S. presidents. She steered Germany and the EU through the debt crisis of 2009, the immigration crisis of 2015 (which her arbitrary decisions largely triggered) and the Covid-19 pandemic that continues to ravage the continent. Her mistakes were consequential, but she always landed on her feet. Merkel started out as a center-right politician and at the peak of her fame, after Donald Trump’s election, she was hailed as the greatest defender of liberalism and “leader of the free world.” Yet she was none of these things.
Merkel played to two distinct audiences: the German public and European elites. Her electorate demanded high economic growth and low unemployment, and she maneuvered the EU quite adroitly to achieve both objectives. In her time in office, Germany became an economic powerhouse, with GDP per capita almost doubling and the unemployment rate cut by roughly two-thirds. The rest of Europe did less well. France grew slowly and saw the wealth gap with Germany widen. Italy essentially flatlined during this period. Unemployment in Greece was nearly 17% in 2020, contrasted with 4.31% in Germany—but the Greeks were still making payments on their massive debt to German banks. (All statistics are the World Bank’s.)
Awareness of her country’s past made Merkel deferential to elite opinion. Only an excess of virtue, persuasive to the moral arbiters of the world, could mitigate the memory of Nazi horrors. But as her influence over Europe deepened, Merkel’s identity with its elites turned habitual and reflexive—and as these elites drifted toward the utopian ideals of the contemporary left, Merkel’s demonstrations of German virtue seemed to overwhelm her grand strategy.
In 2015, Merkle invited a million refugees from the broken societies of the Levant to enter Germany. This earned her the adulation of the elites and a “person of the year” award, but it shattered forever any semblance of unity in the EU by imposing, without consultation, an open-door policy on every member state. The immigration crisis that ensued was decisive in driving Britain out of the club and permanently alienating nationalist leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban. It spawned nativist movements across Europe, some of them seriously illiberal. The EU legacy of the dowager empress can be summed up as drift, division and decline.
Meanwhile, to fulfill the elite dream of ecological purity, Merkel mandated the closure of both nuclear and coal-fired power plants. The predictable effects have been high energy costs and dependency on natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At the moment, Germany, like much of Europe, is enduring a severe energy crisis due in part to “wind turbine failures.” The German economy is export-driven. High costs will make its products uncompetitive. Merkel’s long-term economic legacy may be to unravel the prosperity she maneuvered for so many years to obtain.
Her political legacy is already known. Exhausted, she retired at the end of her fourth term in 2021. The ensuing federal election dealt her old coalition a disastrous defeat, as it garnered the smallest share of the vote in its history—24%.
The new government is a grab-bag of tired Social Democrats, ecology-obsessed Greens and market-oriented Free Democrats: a mirror image of the country’s fractured political landscape. It confronts a raging energy crisis, peaking Covid-19 infection rates, high inflation and a restless nativist movement, and it must somehow deliver on a promise to keep the economy competitive while transitioning away from fossil fuels. For the foreseeable future, I’m guessing, the Germans will be fortunate if they can govern themselves effectively—they will lack the focus and the star power to cut much of a figure in Europe or the world.
The Resistible Rise of Eric Zemmour
French society is conservative in an existential, if not a political, sense. For much of the public, the French way of life is so delightful that it must be protected, at all costs, from the storm of the world. This is a difficult proposition. That the current form of government is called “the Fifth Republic” shows that the French haven’t been entirely successful.
The Fifth Republic was designed to arrest change. The old parliamentary system was broadly representative, but governments were weak and in a state of perpetual flux. Charles de Gaulle, a heroic figure, imposed a powerful presidency on the system. He succeeded on his own terms: The state was greatly strengthened, even if many strands of public opinion went unrepresented.
For decades, French presidents behaved like elected incarnations of the Sun King, and were treated as such by the media and often by the public too. They ruled over a stable left-right, two-party system undergirded by a technocratic elite. That day is done. The digital age has fractured to splinters the two-party arrangement and allowed strange new political forms to roam the land. It has also revealed a public that is disgusted with the evolution of society and enraged at what it perceives to be the corruption and selfishness of the political class.
The current president, Emmanuel Macron, is a product of this discontent. So is Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the crudely nativist National Rally, who in 2017 received 34% of the presidential vote as an alternative to Macron. So were the anti-Macron Yellow Vest protesters who set Paris banks on fire and vandalized the city’s monuments.
The latest mutated variant to haunt French elites is Eric Zemmour, author, journalist and TV personality, who declared himself a candidate for president on November 30. The move caused an amazing stir. Zemmour is 63, Jewish, five feet four in height and otherwise unprepossessing in appearance, and probably to the right of the hard-right Le Pen—but he has the gift of words, which she doesn’t, and he knows his French history and culture. The video in which he announced his candidacy was a bizarre pastiche of pop stars beloved to the French and national memories meant to induce a salute to the flag.
Because he has defended the Vichy government that collaborated with Hitler, Zemmour is sometimes accused of being a fascist. But a Jewish fascist, one would think, will face difficulties on both sides of that equation—and it’s more accurate to describe him as a secular Jew who has translated the French into the chosen people and the history of France into holy writ. The prophets of Zemmour’s covenant are Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. His Kingdom of God is a past that never was, in which French culture, the French language and French power radiated mystically over the world.
His hell is the present moment. His devils are the drivers of change, identified, as always in France, with decadence and loss. These dark forces include American materialism, the collapse of traditional values, but above all, immigration from Muslim countries, legal and illegal, part of a supposed “great replacement” of one population by another. To the elites, Zemmour is a dangerous bigot; he has been convicted of inciting hatred. His self-image is that of messiah in the end times. His 2014 book was titled “The French Suicide” and he now maintains he is running to “save” France rather than “reform” it.
The furor over Zemmour’s candidacy derives from the panicked notion that he might be “the French Trump.” And it’s true that Donald Trump and Zemmour share certain traits that separate them from traditional politicians. First, they aren’t politicians at all—they are media stars who can pose as populists. This is a tremendous advantage in today’s Darwinian struggle for attention. Second, they know how to keep the media focused on them by making outrageous statements. That reinforces their image as belonging to a different species from ordinary political figures. Third, they belong to the most admired caste in their respective countries. Americans love billionaires. The French love intellectuals.
But their specific weight differs greatly. Trump captured one of the major political parties in the United States, won the presidency and was possibly the top story in the world until the pandemic came along. For all the shouting about his “meteoric rise,” Zemmour remains a marginal figure in French politics who may or may not replace Le Pen as the personification of the anti-establishment right. He can spin the media into a frenzy but, last I looked, stood at 13% in the opinion polls and was headed downward.
Could a truly marginal, non-elite politician in the style of Trump become a dominant force in France? Those who have attempted to do so from the hard right—two generations of Le Pens, for example—have failed to come close. The hard left regularly wins elections in Latin America but its standard-bearer in France, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has fallen below Zemmour in popularity. French institutions are rigid, and the French electorate, as I noted, is very old-fashioned in its tastes. It expects presidents to look and sound like Charles de Gaulle and not like a man or woman of the people.
All of this means that change, when it comes, will be sudden and surprising: more like a dam bursting than a rising sea. The rigidities of the Fifth Republic are now exposed to the violent turbulence of the digital era, the alienation of millions in the “peripheral France” that spawned the Yellow Vests, the ritual repudiations of the hard right and hard left, the cultural divorce of immigrants’ children and grandchildren and the disenchantment of the elites themselves. Sooner rather than later, some politician or movement will weave these threads together into a new institutional context, compounding the instability in an already rudderless Europe.
Mario Draghi and the Cure for Populism
“Populist” is an elite word signifying that something is popular when it shouldn’t be. To the minders of our institutions, populism is failure of democracy. They may be right, though in ways they would never acknowledge and are unable to understand. In the context of contemporary politics, the term describes an individual who is selected by the public to express its repudiation of the established order. That was the case with Trump. He was a symptom of an underlying malady, an effect, never a cause.
Populism in power faces an immediate dilemma. If the populist perseveres in a nihilistic attack on the institutions, he risks economic chaos and general unhappiness; but if he comes to terms with the elites, he will be abandoned by his political base. Alexis Tsipras, a populist of the Marxist variety elected prime minister of Greece in 2015, tried each approach in turn. Neither worked, and he was unceremoniously swept out of office in 2019.
The same drama is now playing out in Italy, only with an unexpected twist. As elsewhere in Europe, the traditional parties have lost their hold on the public; eccentric new alignments crowd the electoral arena. To the shock of the elites, two populist parties won 50% of the vote in the last general election, which took place in 2018. When the two joined in a coalition “government of change,” Italy appeared to stand on the threshold of a new political era.
The charm of populism is that it speaks the public’s language and often addresses the public’s concerns. The power of the institutional elites is derived from the fact that, sooner or later, one must turn to them to get anything done. The Five Star Movement, poetically named senior partner in the coalition, espoused direct democracy and empowering ordinary citizens but had no idea how to bring these worthy goals about. Because Five Star lacked leaders with national stature—the party’s founder was a comedian who called himself “Beppe Grillo,” after the Jiminy Cricket character in “Pinocchio”—Giuseppe Conte, a law professor, had to be recruited to head the government. That was a telling early moment in the drift from populism to elite mastery.
The “government of change” managed to enact a basic income law; beyond that, the main change was in the names of the politicians jostling for position. In August 2019, after much wrangling, Five Star dropped its anti-establishment coalition partner for an alliance with the old-school Democratic Party. The government was now an unstable fusion of populist and not.
The final act of this political morality play began in January 2021, when the vagaries of the parliamentary system forced Conte to resign. After solemn consultations, the political class determined that Mario Draghi should head the next government. Draghi was the eminent economist and international banker who had recently served as president of the European Central Bank, the EU’s Fed. Nicknamed “Super Mario” by admirers and voted the world’s eighth most powerful person by Forbes, he personified the virtues the elites wished to see in themselves.
So here was a remarkable turnaround. In 2018, Italian voters clearly endorsed the egalitarian impulse represented by populism. By 2021, they were governed by an unelected czar who belonged to no party and was associated with no particular program. Despite lacking an electoral mandate, with the approval of a cabinet composed of cats and dogs from every corner of the political landscape, Draghi set about to impose a harsh Covid-19 lockdown regime and reform Italy’s financial and criminal systems. The forms of democracy were maintained, true—but the democratic principle itself had been surrendered.
I said there was a twist. Draghi currently enjoys extraordinary levels of popularity among the Italian public, with approval ratings of up to 70%. The reasons aren’t hard to grasp. The public doesn’t care about the finer points of democracy. It has shown a dislike of the country’s political class—hence the appeal of populism—but it approves of strong leaders who at least seem to get things done. The nonpolitical “Super Mario” meets both qualifications.
In seeking to explain his popularity, some analysts have labelled Draghi a “technocratic populist,” but he is nothing of the kind. He’s an unusually able member of an elite class notoriously lacking in talent, who is holding together, by personal effort, a system that is bound to fly apart the moment he weakens or departs.
Draghi, 74, could ascend to the presidency later this month, if he so wishes. Otherwise, whenever the next election is called, he will have to climb down from Olympus, align himself with some party, and thus become just another politician—or else he will be out in the cold. Either way, Italy is likely to resume the old merry-go-round of weak and short-lived governments. The sickness of democracy there, as almost everywhere in Europe, is structural and abiding, and won’t be made whole by the utopian cure-alls of populists or the desperate triage of technocrats.
Europe and the Puzzle of Post-Pandemic Politics
On top of the physical suffering, social paralysis and economic damage, Covid-19 had a curious warping effect on politics. Sometimes it felt as if time itself, the medium of history and change, had been disrupted by the pandemic, so that we existed in tedious slow motion interrupted by brief outbursts of incomprehensible frenzy—the Black Lives Matter disorders, for example, or the January 6 riot in Washington, D.C. In general, the moment favored the elites—Joe Biden, Mario Draghi—and the forces of reaction. The institutions wrapped themselves in the mantle of science, and a public in a blind panic craved protection rather than revolt.
In most of Europe, that strange parenthesis appears to be coming to an end. The public is weary of lockdowns and sick of being told what to do. Forty thousand angry citizens in Vienna marched against the Austrian government’s punitive measures against the unvaccinated. The measures were withdrawn soon after. Tens of thousands of anti-vaxxers took to the streets in Brussels to protest the restrictions imposed by the Belgian government. “We live in Western Europe, and we want to be free, how we were before,” one protester said.
Online conspiracy-mongering helped spark two nights of violent anti-vax riots in The Netherlands; five persons were shot by police. As the balance between fear and anger shifts, the warping effect must wear off—and Europe will re-enter internet time.
What happens next is unknown, since we have never before experienced a post-pandemic politics. The continent confronts drift and crisis at the EU and national levels. Economic life depends on energy flows that have become prohibitively expensive—this may well spark the next explosion of outrage. The public’s pre-pandemic loathing of the political class hasn’t been banished by appeals to science. It still simmers in the depths. I have no idea whether Europe will tackle these challenges or be overwhelmed by them. Those are not the only options, in any case.
Hollywood would script one of two dramatic resolutions to the predicament of the hero clinging over the cliff: A rescuer appears unexpectedly to deliver a happy ending, or the hero plunges into darkness and tragedy. History provides a third, less satisfying possibility: The hero just hangs there virtually forever. All things must pass, but sometimes they take an unconscionable time to get there. Byzantium impersonated the Roman Empire for a thousand years before it fell. Europe is no longer a great power, and is unlikely to return to that status any time soon. Europeans have shown little knack for innovation in the digital age. At the same time, they haven’t yet lost their tenacious will to cling to what they’ve got.