Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, addresses a Paris crowd. The poster depicts Joan of Arc and says: "No to Brussels, yes to France" ©Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images

Europe in revolt

Across a continent, there is a void between governments and their citizens. Ignoring this vacuum leaves it free for the chauvinists to exploit
December 13, 2016

From the timeless cafés of Vienna, or from the trendy bars of Berlin and Amsterdam, it is easy to dismiss Brexit as a curiously British affair. Did Winston Churchill not describe Europe as “where the weather comes from”? Have Brits not always thought of themselves as an “island nation,” close but quite different from the rest of Europe?

The United Kingdom’s role in the European Union has added to this impression. British governments have made much of their opposition to closer integration in areas such as defence or on issues that threaten the financial supremacy of the City of London. The perception of the UK as an awkward European partner has been so strong that some Europeans welcomed Brexit. Without those truculent Brits, they argued, the European project can finally take off and embrace its federalist destiny.

However tempting this sort of thinking may be for the EU’s supporters, it is a fatal misunderstanding of the meaning of Brexit. Far from being an isolated event, Brexit is a symptom of a much deeper and more extensive crisis of politics. This crisis is not only playing itself out in the UK and in the United States under President-Elect Donald Trump. Across Europe, mainstream politicians struggle to command the trust and faith of voters. Traditional parties are dismissed as belonging to a corrupt and self-serving political elite. In Germany, the “word of the year” in 2010 was wütburger, meaning “angry citizen.” In Spain, protest movements have been organised under the name of los indignados, “the outraged ones.” In France, a pamphlet written by a nonagenarian war hero entitled “Indignez-Vous” (“Time for Outrage!”) became a global hit, selling over four million copies.

Far from being a short-lived response to the hardships of the European financial crisis, this sentiment has hardened. Some malcontents, such as those who are sitting in the Italian parliament as representatives of the Five Star Movement, are taking up the challenge of politics themselves. Others are turning to radical parties on the right and left, from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany to Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The Chinese call this, with a good measure of schadenfreude, “the great revolt.”

This revolt differs from bourgeois and workers’ revolutions of the past. The emotions of anger and frustration prevail over those of hope. No rising force within society claims the mantle of the “universal class.” According to the late Irish political scientist, Peter Mair, politicians in Europe have over the last few decades retreated into the state. Citizens, for their part, have disappeared into the private sphere. What used to be a relationship of representation between governments and citizens has been transformed into a relationship of antagonism and deep distrust. As a result, 21st-century politics in Europe is all about trying to bridge what Mair called “the void”: an absence of any meaningful and legitimate political relationship between politicians and voters.

The EU is not the cause of this void, as is clear from looking across the Atlantic and seeing how the same phenomenon is dramatically reshaping US politics. However, in Europe, the EU appears to many citizens as the primary mechanism used by national governments to avoid tackling this political crisis. Politicians insulate themselves from public disaffection by making policies at the European level. They rely on the complexity of the EU’s institutions and on the technocratic language used by its officials to depoliticise even the most controversial of issues. Successful for many years, this strategy adopted by Europe’s elites has now begun to unravel. We see this most obviously in the UK but, not far beneath the surface, it is happening across the continent.

This breakdown in relations between national political classes and the mass of citizens is engulfing the project of “ever-closer union.” This is not simply a story of rising Euroscepticism, which itself is nothing very new. What is different is the combination of a targeted dislike of the EU with a much broader antipathy towards politics and elected politicians.

The UK is merely a powerful example of a wider trend. Euroscepticism in the UK was for many years associated with the yellow socks and pin-striped suits of Bill Cash, the Conservative MP for Stone, who became known as one of the leading critics of the Maastricht Treaty. In 1997, the billionaire James Goldsmith tried unsuccessfully to transform his Referendum Party into a national electoral force. He ran candidates in almost every parliamentary seat but won only 2.6 per cent of the vote. Ukip made the anti-EU cause its own but floundered for many years on the margins of British politics. There are simply not many votes in running exclusively as an anti-EU party.

Ukip’s breakthrough came when it started to mobilise a wider and growing scorn for the political establishment. The scandal over parliamentary expenses in 2009 led to a dramatic boost in its fortunes. Capitalising on the silence of mainstream parties on immigration, Ukip began to draw in traditional Labour voters. Transforming its anti-EU message into a much broader anti-establishment weltanschauung, Ukip took up the language of sovereignty and democracy in the name of all those ignored by the “Westminster elite.”

Citizens across the rest of the EU will recognise Ukip’s transformation and the success of its political strategy. In the Netherlands, the arrival of the flamboyant Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s was a political earthquake. His attack on politically correct and out-of-touch elites struck a chord: many Dutch voters no longer knew who represented them or what it meant to be Dutch in an era of globalisation and European integration. Fortuyn was shot by an animal rights activist in the Dutch commuter town of Hilversum, days before his party won the second largest share of the vote in the 2002 general election.

Fortuyn’s role in Dutch politics was short-lived, but his successor, Geert Wilders, is here to stay. Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV), founded in 2006, has forced concerns about immigration, Islam and the EU on to the political agenda. Dutch liberals have tried to silence him through electoral pacts and through the courts. This has only helped Wilders, giving credibility to his claim that traditional political elites are excluding him and his party from power. Elections in the Netherlands are scheduled for 2017 and there is every chance that the PVV will pick up enough seats to demand a central place in the governing coalition.

In France and Italy, a similar story is playing itself out. The Front National is a formidable political machine, perhaps the most organised and coherent of France’s political parties. In 2002, when the party’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, found himself in the second round of the presidential election, the sense of shock was palpable. Journalists, who had rarely ventured beyond the boulevards of Paris, jumped on trains to the provinces in search of these mysterious Front National voters. It is quite different today. Of the dozens of figures who have declared their intention to run in the French presidential election next year, Marine Le Pen is one of the most likely contenders to reach the second round. The real question is whether François Fillon, the centre-right former prime minister and the most likely person to run against her, can keep her out of the Elysée Palace. The language of the Front National has become the language of French political debate, and a run-off between Fillon and Le Pen rather accurately captures the state of French politics today.

In Italy, marginal parties have become key actors in the country’s political drama. The main opposition is the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Northern League, both of whom were leading architects behind the victory of the “No” campaign in Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform held on 4th December. The M5S, founded by the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, is viscerally hostile to the Italian political establishment. He believes that ordinary citizens are far better qualified to run the country than professional politicians. His most quoted phrase is “vaffanculo,” which means “fuck off” and which he directs with gusto at the country’s political class. The M5S’s early electoral successes were at the local and regional level but in elections in February 2013 the movement gained the largest number of parliamentary seats of a single party.

The M5S today runs some of the country’s biggest cities, from Rome to Turin, and polls suggest it may win more seats than the governing Democratic Party in the next general election. The Northern League has traditionally been a separatist movement, campaigning for the independence of the rich Northern regions. In recent years, it has become a regular feature on the national political stage. Opinion polls suggest it may even get more votes than the main centre-right party, Forza Italia, in a future national election. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, has become a national political figure and is spearheading opposition to Italy’s membership of the single currency.

In Europe’s bastion of political stability, Germany, changes are also afoot. The dominance of the traditional parties—the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Liberals—has given way to a much messier political map where even “grand coalitions” represent fewer and fewer voters. Much of the anger in the country is being channelled to its margins, to Die Linke on the left and to the AfD on the right. A prominent challenger to Angela Merkel from within her party, the outspoken gay politician Jens Spahn, recalls the figure of Pim Fortuyn. Spahn has made his homosexuality the basis for an attack on what he sees as the intolerance of Muslim immigrants, much as Fortuyn did a decade and a half ago.

Even in those instances where the “great revolt” seems to have been temporarily halted, such as in Austria, the details betray a more complex reality. In the re-run of the country’s presidential elections on the same day as the referendum in Italy, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor who ran as an independent candidate but was backed by the Austrian Green Party. Van der Bellen’s success was fêted by liberals as a victory of the establishment against its critics.

The reality is rather different. Austria’s presidency has, since 1945, been filled by a member of either of the Social Democrat party or the People’s Party in a remarkable division of political labour. These two parties have dominated Austrian politics for generations. The real significance of the run-off between Hofer and Van der Bellen is that the candidates from both of these main parties were defeated. The monopoly over power traditionally held by the centre-left and centre-right has come to an end, a sign that anti-establishment feelings are as powerful in Austria as elsewhere.

Europe’s “great revolt” augurs badly for the future of the EU. The Brexit vote did have some very British roots. With its open and flexible labour market, where growth has come from expanding the labour force rather than through increases in productivity, the British experience of free movement within the single market has been a source of division and tension. However, only the most naive Europhile can assert with confidence that “it could never happen here.”

In the Netherlands, it was the determination of some Dutch citizens that forced the government to hold a referendum in April 2016 on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. The government lost the referendum and those involved in organising the “No” campaign spoke openly about it being a “warm-up” event for a referendum on the country’s EU membership. Under Dutch law, referendums with constitutional implications can only be organised if a two-thirds majority is secured in parliament. The far-right leader, Wilders, tried to pass such a motion this year but failed. Next spring, when the composition of the parliament could be quite different, he may try again.

In France, Le Pen has made no efforts to hide her negative views of the EU. She has been a vocal proponent of “Frexit”—a French exit from the EU—and has committed the Front National to organising a referendum on France’s EU membership. The Italian opposition is scathing about the euro and has promised a referendum on eurozone membership. The M5S has been vague about its position in such a vote but Grillo has for years demanded a return of “monetary sovereignty” for Italy. Leaving the euro would be far harder to engineer and to manage than the UK’s exit from the bloc. There is no legal basis for it (unlike Article 50 for Brexit) and were any eurozone member state even to think seriously of returning to a national currency, all those with euros in that country would take them abroad. This would mean a bank run, and a crisis for the currency far more serious than that which Greece presented in the summer of 2015. Brexit is nothing compared to this messy unravelling which is why the eurozone is likely to limp on for some time.

The “great revolt” is already transforming the EU from within. In a referendum on 2nd October, Hungarians were asked to vote on the EU’s refugee quotas. A vast majority of those who participated rejected the EU’s policy, but the turnout was extremely low—so low in fact that the result was not binding on the government. This reminds us of another important characteristic of “the void”: the withdrawal of citizens into their private spheres, resulting in apathy and disengagement. Nevertheless, the rising popularity of national referendums is injecting politics into the EU’s institutional structures, which for so long have thrived on the opposite logic of depoliticisation. The apathy that we see in Hungary may mean the EU is off the hook for a while, but it would be wrong to confuse such acquiescence with actual support for the project of “ever closer union.”

Beneath the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism and its challenge to the EU lies a deeper transformation in the very structure of political competition in Europe. The 20th century was characterised by the victory of party democracy as the dominant model of politics: parties, often with sizeable memberships, would compete for votes on the basis of very different programmes. Politics was a clash of ideas and political traditions: social democrats, Christian democrats and communists would argue with each other about their visions for the future. Other actors, such as the church, trade unions, business associations, were part of the debate. Individuals mattered but ideas mattered more.

Today, people have become sceptical not only of the ability of politicians to represent them but of the very idea that there is some kind of public interest out there. In response, politics has become dominated by individuals who claim to be authentic and genuine. Nigel Farage’s popularity was built on his image as an ordinary bloke. Jeremy Corbyn’s toxic relationship with the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party is taken by his supporters as proof of his authenticity and evidence that he has not been captured by the so-called Westminster bubble.

Both sides in the UK’s EU referendum campaign sought to exploit this dominance of personalities over issues. Remainers presented staying in the EU as the only socially respectable position. As one poster put it: “If people like Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Nick Griffin and Marine Le Pen want Britain to leave the EU, where does that put you?” In the final days of the campaign, celebrities took over altogether. We saw this with the infamous boat-off on the River Thames, where Farage’s Brexit flotilla was ambushed by a boat commandeered by the ageing Irish rock star, Bob Geldof. In an image that sums up this form of unmediated and personalised politics, Geldof, flanked by a group of like-minded friends, swore and stuck his two fingers up at the Ukip MEP.

The same tension between issues and personalities is being played out across Europe. In Spain, the emergence of the new party on the left, Podemos, has been subsumed under the personality of its leader, Pablo Iglesias. A familiar presence on television, Iglesias is a media celebrity. Aware that voters knew him but not the party, Podemos put a picture of Iglesias on the ballot paper in the European elections of 2014. In the party’s most recent manifesto, Iglesias was photographed watering the plants on his balcony, the manifesto itself modelled as a stylish Ikea catalogue.

In Italy, Matteo Renzi rose to the top by attacking his own centre-left party for its out-dated attachment to left-wing ideas. Targeting the sclerotic political and administrative establishment, Renzi always saw himself as a figure of unceasing energy. He based his own political identity around the idea of change which is why he associated himself so closely with the constitutional reforms that were rejected by almost 60 per cent of Italian voters.

Italy used to be described as a partitocrazia, rule by the political parties. Today, as a legacy first of Silvio Berlusconi and now of Renzi, parties have become vehicles for individual ambitions. This is another reason why Renzi tied himself up with the referendum. The details of the reform were themselves complex and it was not obvious that they would lead to the streamlined decision-making in the way Renzi had promised. However, since he had made so much of his super-human talent for getting things done, the reform became a symbol of his personal ability to deliver on his promises. Renzi announced his resignation following his defeat in the referendum and it is now up to the President of the Republic, the softly-spoken Sicilian judge Sergio Mattarella, to decide on how the next government should be formed. Waiting in the wings are the country’s unconventional opposition forces, emboldened by their victory.

The rise of unmediated politics challenges the EU at a number of different levels. There was a time when European citizens tended to trust EU institutions more than their own national governments. Distrust now extends itself to the whole edifice of European government and politics, and especially the EU-wide dimension whose claim to represent the European interest is greeted with scepticism and derision.

Political life has become quite unpredictable. People’s loyalty to a party or to a set of ideas cannot be assumed. This is as true for those at the top of society as for those at the bottom. In the UK’s Brexit vote, there was little by way of solidarity among the country’s ruling class. One establishment figure told me that he was considering voting Brexit in the hope of making London property affordable for his children. Given the EU’s reliance on the authority of its member state governments, this unravelling of traditional social and political alliances at the domestic level have left the EU paralysed, unable to move forwards or backwards. This broader crisis of politics connects Brexit to the rest of Europe; it is the iceberg, of which Brexit is simply the visible tip.

But if the EU is not the direct cause of the “great revolt,” where has it come from? Part of the answer lies in the way global economic integration has reshaped European societies, unevenly distributing gains and losses. Economists regularly tell us that globalisation has transformed the way income and wealth is distributed across society. A growing Chinese middle class and an explosion in incomes of the top 1 per cent in the rich countries has been accompanied by a squeeze in income for Europe’s working and middle classes.

Class resentment is, however, very far from being the whole story. Many leading pro-Brexit campaigners came from the same privileged background as the former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In France, one of the figures spearheading anti-establishment sentiment is Emmanuel Macron. Former finance minister and once a banker for Rothschild & Co, Macron has founded En Marche, a new movement that is trying to push aside mainstream parties in the name of a new citizen-led politics. Some of the leading voices in this revolt are found in parts of Europe that have done relatively well in economic terms, such as Poland. What we are witnessing is not just a conventional revolt of the poor against their rich masters.

"Why has the crisis hit Europe at this moment? The answer lies in the uncoupling of liberalism from democracy"
At issue are long-term transformations in the structure of our societies. The decline in membership and participation of the very institutions that forge our sense of collective self—what sociologists call our social capital—is common across all European societies. The social structure itself is marked by the growing atomisation of labour markets: agency working and zero-hour contracts generate little by way of a sense of community. Under these conditions, most organisations are seen as being in it for themselves, defending their own selfish interests. But why are these deeper trends making their entrance on to Europe’s political stage today?

The answer lies in the uncoupling of liberalism from democracy. We have taken the convenient umbrella term, “liberal democracy,” for granted but liberalism and democracy are not identical. It is the consequences of confusing one with the other that are transforming political life in Europe and beyond.

Liberalism as a doctrine is focused on controlling the state and government. The rights of individual citizens are paramount, to be defended via independent institutions such as the courts. Often, liberalism is invoked as an antidote to the dangers of majoritarianism. Liberals argue that majorities do not always make good decisions and a society needs to protect itself from the “tyranny of the majority.”

The political order established in the wake of the demise of traditional social democracy in Western Europe was clearly a liberal one. Grandiose projects of social transformation, that took society as a whole as their starting point, were given up in favour of a defence of individual rights. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the new left in Western Europe embraced this turn to rights and celebrated diversity with the feminist slogan, “the personal is the political.”
"Brexit had some British roots. However, only the most naive Europhile could assert 'it could never happen here'"
With this ideological shift, we have seen growing support for institutions designed to protect individual rights against decisions by political majorities. The power of parliaments was eroded by the creation of new regulatory bodies, from fiscal councils to empowered constitutional courts. Before the 1990s, the vast majority of central banks were controlled by governments and interest rate decisions were at the core of macro-economic policy-making. Given the significant winners and losers they create, it was considered quite inappropriate that such decisions should be handed over to unelected technocrats.

Over the last 20 years, macro-economic policymaking has been thought of in terms of rules that bind the hands of profligate governments. Central bank independence became a global norm and was made a requirement for membership of the European single currency. This post-political settlement placed economic issues beyond the reach of politics. In Europe, the EU’s treaties have long functioned as a de facto economic constitution, policing the boundary between what is (and is not) acceptable economic behaviour. However reasonable these boundaries may appear, their connection to the will of national majorities is weak. They also have distributive consequences which have reshaped the social structure of our societies.

This victory for political liberalism in Western Europe was mirrored years later in the east. The conditions for joining the EU were exactly those of the construction of a liberal polity, with specific provisions made for minority rights and other constitutional guarantees of individual liberty. In principle, the political systems put in place were based on majority rule but over time domestic populations in Eastern Europe chafed against a sense of being able to change the governments but not the policies. This sentiment did not disappear after membership of the EU in 2004, it only increased. The version of the “great revolt” under way in Eastern Europe is not particularly aimed at EU membership as such. The target is the edifice of liberal politics built after 1989.

The Brexit vote brought out starkly this conflict between liberalism and democracy, ignored for so long by those who took liberal democracy for granted. Many Remainers voted in favour of EU membership precisely because they see the EU as the best way of locking-in policies which they liked. Anyone arguing for Brexit from the left was accused of risking the dismantling of workers’ rights by the current and future Tory governments. Few Remainers believed in the left’s ability to use the rules of majority government to secure its own programme.

It is not only in the UK that the language of democracy and popular sovereignty has been abandoned by the left, in favour of locking in individual rights through constitutional rules. In France, popular sovereignty is the ideological terrain of Le Pen, in Poland it belongs to the shadowy Jarosaw Kaczy´nski and in Hungary Viktor Orbán. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Europe’s social democratic left made a Faustian pact with the EU, trading majority rule for the hope of a politically unassailable “social Europe.” Today, the much-heralded “social Europe” is more distant than ever before. The EU has become a symbol of the victory of constitutional rules against the wishes of democratic majorities.

In spite of this, Europe’s left is not going back on its Faustian pact. In Spain, the new left-wing party, Podemos, has developed an anti-austerity agenda that has surprisingly little to say about the EU. Where the left has moved, it has copied rather than challenged the language of the radical right. In Germany, Social Democrats have seized on discontent with Merkel’s liberal refugee policy to make their own case for restrictions on immigration. Criticisms of the eurozone’s one-size-fits-all policies have come from left-leaning German intellectuals but politically these ideas have only been taken up by the AfD. Syriza’s failed attempt in 2015 to rewrite the terms of its own bail-out deal with European creditors, through a high-stakes plebiscitary game, has strengthened the view that there is no future for the left outside of the embrace of the EU and its single market.

What makes it most difficult for the left to return to majoritarian politics is its own uncertainty about what it would like to propose to voters. Parties such as the Front National have some idea of how they would like to tackle problems of globalisation, inequality and the movement of people. There is no such clarity on the left. One reason for this is the distance that separates mainstream social democratic parties from their traditional working-class electorate.

In the UK, the gap is glaring but it is also evident in France, Spain and in Italy. Centre-left parties have become urban, middle-class parties. When they formulate policies, they think of working-class voters as a rabble: frustrated, prejudiced, racist and impervious to the facts. For this reason, the easiest route is to emulate the political right in arguing, for instance, for tighter rules on immigration. Figures such as Corbyn, who buck the trend, are dismissed as unelectable madmen.

But there is another reason why the European left is struggling so hard to come up with ideas and policies that can provide answers to the challenges European societies face today. Ideas do not come into the world fully formed, from the heads of national civil servants, from technocrats employed by international institutions or from ivory tower academics. Programmes for government are products of society and of political conflict. By positioning itself as unequivocally in support of supranational policymaking at the European level, the left has isolated itself from the very process that generates the kinds of ideas and policies it so desperately needs: that of representative democratic politics at the national level.

To furnish itself with a programme, the European left must reclaim the language of democracy and popular sovereignty from the likes of Le Pen and Wilders. This will go some way to bridging the void between governments and citizens and make it possible for politics to become, once again, a source of ideas about what sort of common life we would like to lead. But doing this will come at a cost for the left: a complete reassessment of its embrace of “ever closer union.”