Britain’s view of European politics is coloured by Germany’s terrible interwar years. But that period is no model for today.
Until recently — the watershed came somewhere around the millennium — British perceptions of modern German politics focussed not on Germany’s government or its main political parties, which were boringly democratic and law-abiding, but on the increasingly distant Nazi past and on extreme parties of the right, which appeared to some eyes to threaten the return to street violence, domestic authoritarianism and foreign aggression.
This perception said much more about the British than the Germans. In the end, given a helpful push by the seriousness of the financial crisis and by the pragmatic leadership of Angela Merkel, the pfennig has finally dropped. Today, British perceptions now focus where they should have been all along — on the resilience of Germany’s postwar institutions and on the general good balance of its society and economy in dealing with the problems it faces. It is part of what gives me cautious hope about the outcome of any U.K. referendum on Europe.
But the conclusion to that is this: one down, 27 to go. That is because, reading some of what is being written and said about the current state of Europe, it feels as if we have been here before. What used to be said about Germany’s imminent lurch to the right is now often being said about Europe more generally. Well, it was wrong then and, with certain provisos, it is also wrong now.
European Parliament elections
The current focus for fashionable doom-mongering is the European parliament elections of May 2014. These elections, it is said, are likely to see a far-right backlash across many EU countries. Some observers predict the collapse of the EU itself, and even a new dark age of renewed competing European nationalisms.
It would be foolish to dismiss all these possibilities in every respect, not least because a lot can happen between now and the elections. And foolish, too, to deny that across Europe these elections will be a major opportunity for single-issue and extremist parties — not always the same thing — to make a play for the support of insecure, disillusioned and plain angry voters in the 28 member states. Foolish, finally, because Europe has manifestly not dealt with its banking and fiscal crises in either an even-handed or a sure-handed way.
Nevertheless, these warnings about an impending or a continuing lurch to the right simply do not match the facts. For one thing, they assume that Euroscepticism elides into far-right extremism, when sometimes it does not. For another, far-right politics is far from homogeneous. Some parties passionately defend the welfare state, while others see it as unworthy of a strong, manly nation. All in all, though, the warnings about the far right amount to little more than scaremongering.
Take the claim that the far right is prospering because of the economic crisis and the relative failure to resolve it. The electoral evidence for this does not exist. Yes, the National Front took 18 per cent in the 2012 presidential election in France and Golden Dawn twice polled seven per cent in Greece’s two legislative elections last year too. Both results were undoubtedly disturbing and newsworthy, and parties of government in those two countries need to take them extremely seriously. Yet they can hardly be portrayed either as triumphs or, in the case of the National Front, as a high-water mark. They represent a challenge to the system, not a threat. Thus far, moreover, they have been contained.
And look at the main elections in Europe this year, not last. In Cyprus the nationalist anti-immigrant presidential candidate got one per cent. In Germany, the Eurosceptic AFD (by no means a party of the far right) got 4.7 per cent, while the far-right NPD scored one per cent (its vote went down, not up). In Lombardy, the Northern League’s vote declined by 13 per cent. True, the Freedom party took 21 per cent in September’s Austrian general election and put its vote up, while the newly created Action for Dissatisfied Citizens polled 19 per cent in the Czech general election two weeks ago. But the Freedom party has been higher in the past and Austria has survived, and the Czech ADC is a party of the centre right that was formed to protest against indigenous Czech political corruption, rather than the crisis in the eurozone (of which the Czech Republic is not part).
None of this is to say that the elections will not provide an opportunity for the right to do better. Something of the sort is almost certain in an election which few voters take seriously, which favours protest votes and which tends to have low turnouts. Even so, according to Cas Mudde, an academic specialist on the subject, the far right is on course to gain 34 to 50 seats in the European parliament, which is roughly four per cent to seven per cent of the total. That’s hardly a landslide, even if you elide Euroscepticism and the far right together, which I do not.
Focusing on the real far right has an honourable history. But it is deeply rooted in the terrible experience of interwar Germany. That is not a good model for today. The reality is that no country in modern Europe is like the Weimar Republic — and it is time we recognised that the political responses to today’s financial crisis are unfolding very differently to those of the Great Depression.
Contrary to what is said by those who focus on the far right, the most striking aspect of the modern crisis is the adaptability and resilience of existing institutions, including the EU, in the face of huge pressures. That’s not to say the crisis has not had an effect. In some ways it has given an extra push to trends that were already in evidence when the economy was booming. Nevertheless, in most countries, including Britain, most voters continue to vote for traditional political parties, not new ones. And in most countries, also including Britain, most people seem to prefer to give the existing system the benefit of the doubt, albeit often with understandably bad grace. They are wise to do so.
The real choice facing politics is not a grand global showdown between good and evil, the old left and the old right. That’s an escapist fantasy. The issue is whether the existing centre left or the existing centre right is better and more creative at building a coalition of interest around a confidence-inspiring and practicable programme — and then keeping enough support get re-elected. Right now in Europe, the centre right is proving a bit better at this than the centre left. The hard graft for centre-left parties across Europe is to turn this around — not to be a 21st-century Don Quixote forever tilting at 19th- or 20th-century windmills.
— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013