The Centre cannot hold — European Edition

Notre Dame burns.

As “the Continent” braces itself for a heat wave expected to be worse than the 2003 one which killed 20,000 Europeans, the headlines of last May showed alarm in varying degrees, from the European press to the titans of the New York Times and Washington Post.  The elections for the 751 seats in the European Parliament had just marked disturbing gains for both European Green parties and the anti-immigrant nationalist parties identified with the Far Right.  American Greens were delighted:

European Greens surge … voters abandon old parties over climate!

The rich and powerful were less thrilled.  The pattern of Left/Right advances revealed a sudden instability at the Center, especially in the European bulwarks of England, France and Germany:

German SPD reels from double defeat in EU and regional vote.
Merkel and Macron at Odds over New EU Leader.
Macron’s liberal group in damage-control mode.
Le Pen defeats Macron amid Green surge.
Europe’s populists can’t be defeated — but they can be contained.
Germany Slides Toward Instability.

Populists now hold more than a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament and run governments representing more than a quarter of the (post-Brexit) EU population.

Recent developments:

  1. Having failed to negotiate any kind of acceptable Brexit deal to minimize the pain of taking Britain out of the European Union (EU), Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would be stepping down after her final Brexit deal was shot down by members of her own party.
  2. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) says she will not run again for chancellor next year.  Her CDU lost 11% of the vote, down to 27%, in the last election, and the CDU’s ally, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) dropped 11% to about 20%.  She may not finish out her term.
  3. French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche was beaten by rightist Marine La Pen’s National Rally which got 23.31% of the vote to Macron’s En-Marche-led Renaissance 22.41%.  Macron is a “liberal,” but in Europe, Liberal means “unbridled free market and austerity.”  The European Green Party’s Écologie Les Verts rose from 8.9% to 13.47% of the vote.
  4. Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), resigned as vice chancellor after a video was leaked showing the “depth of his corruptibility.”  The scandal has threatened to take down the entire Austrian government.

The major centrist parties such as the British Conservatives, the German CDU and SPD, the French Socialist Party (PS), and now Macron’s Renaissance List still hold the upper hand, but they face a wave of opposition to the EU from European nationalist and rightist parties across the board.

Parliamentary government.

The way a parliamentary government works (unlike “winner-take-all” in the U.S.) is that with a multi-party race, the “winner” generally needs to form an alliance with smaller parties to form a working majority in Parliament (i.e., “form a government”).

The UK has 5 major parties and an endless array of minor ones, including the “Official Monster Raving Loony Party.”  Even with fewer major parties, its ability to form a governing coalition is shaky at best.

France has about 6 significant parties and more than 8 others.  The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) have recently entered the electoral business.

Germany — Europe’s most populous nation with its biggest economy — has 8 majors and a half dozen smaller parties.  Germany’s Christian Democrats (center/right) is the largest party in the EU.  But the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a rising power in the Bundestag (German Parliament). The CDU and their Social Democrat  (SPD) center/liberal allies hold only a tenuous majority.  The centrist bloc needs about 40 more seats from about 7 other groups.

This is the general pattern throughout Europe, as this upsurge on their left and right flanks makes the center’s ability to form a stable parliamentary majority more tenuous.  The “other” parties now have the power to threaten to create a parliamentary crisis by leaving.  This gives them leverage.

What’s left of the Left?

At the start of World War I, Labor, Socialist and Social Democratic parties were considered quite revolutionary.  (Lenin’s party, for instance, was known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party).  But the World War ripped off that veneer.  The Social Democrats of the great powers had vowed that should war break out, working class brother would never fight against working class brother.  Then war broke out.  The respective parties went and voted for the war credits for their respective governments.  They then marched off to fife and drum to play their parts in the ensuing mutual slaughter.

Only Lenin’s Bolshevik faction held fast.  They made a revolution instead.  That revolution became the foundation of what became Stalin’s Third International, or Comintern.  During the Great Depression, the Socialist and Communist parties of Europe had become a force to be reckoned with.  But on the verge of World War II, Stalin’s Communist Parties formed what was known as the “Popular Front” to defend the Soviet Union against the Nazi menace.

In the U.S., the Popular Front took the form of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) joining the Roosevelt administration (in fact, if not formally).  When John L. Lewis successfully took the coal miners on strike in 1943 (“You can’t mine coal with bayonets.”), the CPUSA even denounced him as an “agent of the Fascist powers.”  Such collaboration with Roosevelt and the Democratic Party cost it a significant part of its militant base, setting it up for the ravages of the McCarthy era.

Since then, these union-based left parties have functioned as junior partners of the major ruling parties, generally supporting NATO and acquiescing to austerity.

Their predicament is exemplified by events in Greece.  With Greece facing a financial crisis, Alexis Tsipris, leader of the Syriza Party, became Prime Minister in 2015.  He campaigned hard against the austerity measures demanded by the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF.  Once in office, he announced a referendum on whether Greece should accept stringent conditions for Greece to get a bailout.  The Greek people voted a resounding 61.3% No.

The bankers threatened the economic destruction of Greece.  Saying it was a choice between “staying alive or suicide,”  Tsipris decided he had no choice but to become the EU/IMF enforcer of austerity on the Greek people.  Syriza’s popularity has nose-dived.

Italy faces a similar fate.  On June 6, Politico Europe wrote:

“The European Commission on Wednesday took the first step in launching a disciplinary process against Italy over the populist government’s defiance of EU spending rules. … But the Italian government — made up of the far-right League and the anti-establishment 5Star Movement — sounded a defiant note, saying higher public spending is necessary to reboot Italy’s struggling economy.”

Matteo Salvini’s League scored big in the European election, and Salvini is among those seeking to turn Europe’s “Euroskeptics” into a coherent force.  Luigi Di Maio’s 5Stars plummeted to 17%, their previous support cut in half.  It is reported that 5Stars is seeking alliance both with Britain’s Brexit Party and Salvini’s League against the EU.  The forecast for Italy is ominous.

The “Greening” of Europe?

The Green Party in Europe, a relatively newer force, is in the same bind as its leftist predecessors.  It can best be characterized as an Environmental/Liberal party or, as Pepe Escobar puts it, “humanitarian imperialists.”  But the German Greens in particular are riding high (especially among younger voters), in large part due to their emphasis on Climate Change.  But growth brings challenges.

The British Guardian sums it all up:

“Greens are part of a cohesive and powerful bloc in a newly fractured European parliament in a grouping with progressive regional and “pirate” parties of the European Free Alliance … Two centrist groupings – broadly conservative and social democrat – had between them controlled the parliament since it was formed, but their stranglehold has been broken.  They will now need support from other blocs to pass legislation and appoint the powerful commissioners and other top posts.”

Germany’s Der Spiegel writes:

“In the European Parliament elections at the end of May, at least, the Greens didn’t just emerge on top among first-time voters. … with 20.5% of the vote, the Greens almost doubled its result relative to the 2014 European elections. For the first time, more unemployed voters cast their ballots for the Greens than for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). …

“There are also policy questions for which the party must now find convincing answers.  It is solid when it comes to climate change and the environment, but what about those issues that haven’t generally been considered classic Green Party concerns?  Things like foreign and defense policy and social questions, for example, along with domestic security. …

 “One year ago, Green parliamentarian Kerstin Andreae established an advisory committee to work more closely with the business community. …  When assembling the committee, Andreae spent virtually an entire summer on the phone, ultimately managing to recruit such luminaries as the CEOs of BASF and the pharmaceutical concern Roche. … She says the primary focus of the advisory committee is not the climate but on how to make Germany and Europe a more attractive place to do business. …”

The German Green Party says Nord Stream 2 — an offshore natural gas pipeline from Vyborg in the Russian Federation to Greifswald in Germany controlled by the Russian state company Gazprom — not only perpetuates Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas producer Gazprom but also undermines European sanctions against Russia’s government.  (Trump is trying to quash Nord Stream 2 in order to be selling American gas to Europe instead.)

They justify things like supporting the ongoing Cold War with Russia, by saying they are “more pragmatic” and that “continuity is necessary for Germany’s reliability.”  Whatever they are, the European Greens are not revolutionaries.

In summary, the Centre is not holdng.

Their growth is matched by developments on the Right.  Der Spiegel doesn’t quite know what to make of all this.  Their May 24 edition wrote with alarm on the “Right-Wing Populist Plan to Destroy Europe”:

“They are working hard to destroy the European Union from within its own institutions and the European elections may show how close they are to success. … Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, had assembled a pan-European festival of right-wing populists and radicals.  Marine Le Pen had come in high spirits from France, Geert Wilders was there from the Netherlands, Jörg Meuthen from the Alternative for Germany party, along with Bulgarian, Slovak, Austrian, Flemish, Danish, Finnish and Estonian nationalists, 11 parties from Europe’s right-wing periphery who want to form a ‘super group’ in the next European Parliament.”

Yet they conclude by trying to whistle past the graveyard, concluding:

“[T]he planned right-wing ‘super fraction’ is nothing more than a typical populist mélange of braggadocio and canniness. … the planned right-wing ‘super fraction’ is nothing more than a typical populist mélange of braggadocio and canniness.”

Europe does still have some legs.  However, it is cracking, already riddled with its own internal contradictions.  Exacerbating everything is the disintegration of America’s dreams of a 1,000-year New World Order that was proclaimed after the fall of the Soviet Union (cf. Fukuyama’s 1989 “End of History”).

The U.S. is now in a state of economic war with most of the world.  Trump flings sanctions in every direction as the empire tries to defend its over-extended and deteriorating position.  These sanctions are bad for European business.  A new World Order is emerging, centered on Russia and China.  But this new World Order is not yet strong enough to allow the Europeans to defy America’s might at will.

Europe is the monkey in the middle, and Europe is not happy.

— Jeff Roby
June 28, 2019

To be continued …

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