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Welcome to Napoleon’s Euro Zone

The Church Is at the Forefront of the European Construction

European Union 2014

Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff - published on 05/26/14

The three problems that lie behind the recent European vote.

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You would have to go back to Napoleon to find a time of such anti-European feeling, one Liberal Democrat politician thought upon seeing the results of the recent European elections in Britain. As a pro-European, his comment was paradoxical given the outcome of the Napoleonic contest. For, as Margaret Thatcher once pointed out to France’s President Mitterrand, in a moment of unwonted candour: “Wellington won.”

That victory attested a British spirit of independence that stretches far back to the demise of the Spanish Armada and now, once again, it goes forward today and fuels the rise of the UK Independence Party. It won the vote and forced Labour into second place and the Tories, for the first time ever, into third. But while the British have never been convinced that they want to be ruled from abroad, what is important now is that these elections show that the populations of many other parts of Europe agree with them. There is a deep fatigue with the grand projet Européen

Clearly, as the spectre of the Two World Wars begins to fade, there is a feeling that those appalling catastrophes, which sealed the fate of Europe’s global hegemony, cannot be used forever to justify the current political processes of contrived unity, whatever the cost. The nations of Europe are still just that, even after decades of rhetoric about “ever closer union.”

The desire to do things differently and to run their own affairs runs deep. So deep in fact, as a popular sentiment, that the guardians of Europe’s grand design have wisely been rather shy about asking for consent. This latest poll tends to show they are right, and confirms the evidence of those painful sagas when certain countries a few years ago had secure popular consent to the Lisbon Treaty — when there was the embarrassment of having to go back and get the Irish to vote again after they failed to vote the “right” way the first time.

Then again the founding countries only really agreed upon the basis that they assumed things would be run “their way.” The French only agreed because they thought they could pull the levers behind the scenes and get their own way by cozying up to Germany. But now Germany looks askance at the financial basket-case that France has become and fears France might yet, single handed, revive the European debt crisis through its encroaching insolvency. 

Moreover, the financial crisis that very nearly sank the Euro is a major and more general factor making for electoral contumacy. Take the case of Greece, where the consequences of the crisis have been so dire. If the Greeks had not been in the Euro zone they could have devalued the Drachma rather than face the wrenching fiscal constraints and destabilizing social upheavals unfolding now. 

It is true that Germany has enjoyed the rewards of prudence, but she has also been able to export at vastly reduced prices as compared with those which would have prevailed if she still had the Mark. And as the Euro slowly recovers, her very high but concealed production costs may yet bring a toll there too.

All of which points to three critical problems that lie behind the excitements of this vote.

On the one hand a currency union that entails huge stresses, as a common interest rate and monetary policy has to be applied to economies that are massively diverse and operating according to different cycles. It must be open to doubt if the vast capital transfers such a union must entail can be sustained and in the case of Germany they may soon be ruled to be actually illegal.

Secondly, the preferred option of operating the EU through a managed consensus, sustained by simply avoiding an offer to the electorate of alternatives, must in the long run, not simply create a “democratic deficit,” but actually invite an emergent politics of extremes. For eventually, new parties must arise that respond to the overlooked political frustration that builds up with nowhere to go, if mainstream parties refuse to differ.

Exactly that is what is driving the rise of not only Eurosceptic Parties, but more extreme parties. Thus there is the victory of the Front National in France (which is on the right) and now has the largest number of French seats in the European Parliament — defeating both the Gaullists and the Socialists. While the Syriza party in Greece (which is on the left) has won an estimated 27 percent of the vote, four points clear of the center-right’s New Democracy, which is headed by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. 

Greek unemployment remains the highest in the Eurozone which at 25.3 percent is just above that of Spain. And once again, the main legacy parties there suffered major setbacks. The People’s Party of Spain narrowly defeated the Socialists in the vote, but the real interest lay with the smaller insurgent parties which won two out of every five votes cast. In the words of Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos (“We Can,” a political movement that emerged amidst the rage of Spain’s indignados) which earned 7.9 percent of the vote and 5 seats: “We can’t talk about the end, but we can talk about the beginning of the end of bipartisanship. We have to throw them out because they’re the ones who have ruined the country.”

It will not suffice now for the political elites of the European establishment merely to look down from their lofty bowers upon the vulgar masses, in the manner of French aristocrats of 1789 upon les sans culottes. After all, we know how that ended — and they lost their heads.

The mere contrivance of stifling dissent by withdrawing choice on the basis that an enlightened consensus of the wise is so much better, cannot be sustained. The cut and thrust of true policy debate, which offers the electorate true alternatives is surely the best antidote to extremism. This will, however, be a hard lesson for Brussels to learn. Already, within the European Parliament, the talk is of a form of agreement whereby the center-right and center-left parties will simply form grand coalition to shut out all the new vulgar Eurosceptic arrivistes. At its heart the Brussels bureaucracy, which underpins all the structures of the Union, sees itself as the guardian of an elite and rational vision worthy of the philosopher kings of Plato. As a professed meritocracy it has the assurance that comes with a deep sense of entitlement which is dangerous, in such times as these, insofar as it stands opposed to the politics of change.                                                                   

It was Marx who said of Napoleon that he “swept away everywhere the establishments of feudality” and that is surely the spirit of this election too, which points to the further fact that truly popular political reality must drive any true integration for Europe, or it will not work at all. It can never be a thing of mere elites and economics. To borrow a phrase from The Mind of Napoleon, “A form of government that is not the result of a long sequence of shared experiences, efforts, and endeavors can never take root.”

So it seems that Napoleon had a point after all.

The Rev. Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Senior Advisor to the King Abdullah Bin Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and Director General of the World Dialogue Council.

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