The year of the new Europe

Marine Le Pen, April 2nd 2017. Photo: Facebook / Front National Marine Le Pen, April 2nd 2017. Photo: Facebook / Front National

Recent election trends in Europe and abroad have been worrying. America voted for Trump, Britain for Brexit. European fascists and quasi-fascists seek to gain political power. Alex Stargazer, our new English-Romanian editor, analyses these developments. What will become of Europe in 2017?

It will suffice to say that Europe has had more than enough of the new politics. Some of it — be it Syriza, Podemos, or, of greater familiarity to a Dutch audience, GroenLinks — has been novel, perhaps even welcome, depending on your politics. But 21st century European politics has also resurrected phantoms we thought consigned to history. Britain lies under the spell of nationalism — a toxic mix of petty grievances, ignorant xenophobia, and even the echo of misty-eyed Imperialism. In Eastern Europe the iron fist of authoritarianism seems poised to fall once more. And even in France, the Netherlands, and Germany — the bastions of liberal democracy in the EU, and perhaps even the world — there are parties that border dangerously close to fascism.

Antoine Mellies, member of the National Front Youth, youth party of the Front National. Photo © 2011 G. Bouchet/Front national
Antoine Mellies, member of the National Front Youth, youth party of the Front National. Photo © 2011 G. Bouchet/Front national

The Fascist Menace

In France, one fascist party lies worryingly close to attaining real power. I am of course talking about the Front National: the brain-child of Jean-Marie Le Pen— a convicted Holocaust denier and war criminal — now lead by his daughter Marine Le Pen.

Some would accuse me of hyperbole; fascism is a strong word, the critics say, and I use it too liberally. And perhaps they would be right — to an extent. The likes of UKIP or the PVV are children in this game, merely flirting with that dark past. The AfD wasn’t originally founded as a full-blooded nationalist party; instead, it began as the only real Eurosceptic party at the fringe of German politics. And yet, I would contend that to describe modern extremist parties in such parlance as “far-right” is to be euphemistic; in politics, it must be remembered that language matters, and euphemisms are dangerous.

Dangerous Optimism

Supporters of the French party En Marche! Photo: EM
Supporters of the French party En Marche! Photo: EM

But maybe 2017 doesn’t have to be about pessimism. Maybe it can be about optimism. France is a strange contradiction in this respect: not only does it have the largest European fascist party, but it also has what is perhaps the largest insurgent party. En Marche!, led by former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, is new to the field. It was created months ago, and somehow — in an unprecedented state of affairs — Macron is the favourite to become the next French Président.

How did it come this, you wonder? How can a months-old political movement break an established system? And how can Macron — a man who espouses social liberalism and sings praises to the EU — be facing off against a woman who wants France to return to 1939?

One feature that the two forces share is political anger. The electorate is not happy—politicians are corrupt, they think; the economy is struggling; there’s too much immigration, and the “establishment” doesn’t give a damn about it. In the case of Macron, the anger manifests itself not only as a desire to kick the old order in the balls, but also as a fragile hope. In the case of Le Pen, of course, the anger manifests itself in the age-old desire to scapegoat foreigners, minorities, and external powers for the faults of one’s country.

The German Exception 

Martin Schulz from the SDP. Photo: Susie Knoll
Martin Schulz from the SDP. Photo: Susie Knoll

Curiously, however, Germany seems largely immune to this… condition. The AfD remains a minority party, almost insignificant even: its vote share has plunged from its high of 13% to a more orderly 6%, according to polls. It is not the anti-refugee, anti-euro party that Merkel needs to worry about; rather, German voters have become enamoured with Martin Schulz.

The man may be new to some of you, so allow me to provide a little background. Schulz has become the Social Democratic (SPD) nominee for the position of Chancellor. He was previously the head of the European Parliament; this is despite having never achieved a degree and doing badly in school. Though he faces off against Merkel — a seasoned politician with a PhD in nuclear chemistry — the polls are putting them neck-and-neck, with Schulz’s popularity ratings through the roof.

Schulz would indeed be an interesting choice as Germany’s leader and a major EU figurehead. When it comes to Europe, he thinks much the same as Macron, and he’s not that different from Merkel: he supports refugees, defends the EU, and is none too fond of the orange moron across the pond, either. His slogan is “Make Europe Great Again”.

There is one difference between Schulz and Merkel, however, and it is an important one. Merkel is and remains largely pro-austerity; Schulz, on the other hand, thinks otherwise.

Austerity has gone somewhat out of vogue as of late. When Greece was under close media scrutiny and seemed poised to go bankrupt, austerity was the word that was on everyone’s lips; but now the focus has shifted onto populism, the “far-right”, and the rise of xenophobic sentiments. It would, however, be a mistake to forget austerity. Greece has not recovered from the crisis; Portugal is in dangerous straights; and Italy had to bail out another large bank.

Nor can it be assumed that the two phenomena are unrelated. In Britain, part of the reason why Brexit happened was economic: regions in the periphery of the UK, such as coastal towns, post-industrial regions in the North, and deprived areas of Wales were significant leave-voting areas. Years of economic stagnation led to resentment — a resentment that ended up directed at immigrants and the EU.

For this reason, a Schulz chancellorship would matter. Greece is a time-bomb only momentarily defused. Moreover, the EU needs someone like Schulz: a man with integrity, blessed by the common touch. It has been too easy for sly populists to brand EU figureheads as delusional bureaucrats.

Martin Schulz, the man Europe needs? Photo: Plumpaquatsch
Martin Schulz, the man Europe needs? Photo: Plumpaquatsch

Finishing Thoughts

So we come full circle. This year may well be when the fate of Europe is decided. 2016 was just a prelude, a setting of the scene, with a madman across the Atlantic, a Russian revanchist to the East, and a bitter group of Little Englanders across the Channel. But 2017 will be a fight for the heart of Europe. In France, a Europhile will face off against a fascist. And in Germany, the Chancellor’s leadership will be tested to the limits.