The British ruling class once governed the world; now they struggle to govern the United Kingdom. The political parties are splintered, the people are divided, the institutions are in conflict, and the gap between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland continues to widen. Worse, the British government has once again failed to negotiate to secure a majority in parliament to exit the European Union or to come up with a convincing plan for how to leave without one. Now the British head to the polls in the hopes that the people will deliver a clear verdict on how they want to proceed. The results may prove decisive. The worry is the voters may return another hung parliament — leaving the British ruling class to sort out what to do next.
Seasoned observers of Italian politics will tell you that there is a fairly consistent pattern to political crisis. The pattern starts with infighting among the governing coalition; it accelerates suddenly when one of the coalition partners ‘pulls the plug’ on the government; and then things slow down again as the various stakeholders realize how much is at stake for them personally if they let things fall apart. Parliamentary seats are prestigious, the salaries are high, and the pensions are generous provided the members just stay in post long enough to qualify. More important, real crisis comprises a lot of work with very uncertain pay-offs to be gained from an often-fickle electorate. Meanwhile, bad things can happen to the country’s economy, particularly vis-à-vis the banks and bond markets. In such a context, it is only reasonable to expect that cooler heads will prevail. Given the possible threat that an Italian meltdown would pose for the future of the euro (and hence also the European Union), we should all hope these observers are right. Nevertheless, there are four good reasons to believe that this time is different.
The European Parliament that will sit for the first time on 2 July 2019 is very different from the assemblies that came before it. More Europeans voted in the 2019 elections than ever before and with a higher rate of participation than we have seen since the 1990s. More votes were cast for parties outside the two main formations, the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats. More new political parties have won representation, both from the right and from the left. And more uncertainty surrounds the group formation process and coalition building dynamics than we have seen since the first direct elections in 1979.
The European Parliament that will be elected in 2019 will be different from the one it replaces. The two main political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will both lose seats. For the first time since the parliament began direct elections in 1979, those two groups will be unable to form a parliamentary majority together. They will have to enlist the support of the liberal democrats (ALDE) to control the legislature, perhaps with the support of Emmanuel Macron’s movement, but that grand coalition will leave significant representative gaps.
Extending the Brexit process would create difficulties for the rest of Europe that have not received sufficient attention. The EU might seek to resolve these difficulties in ways that create further problems for the UK.
On 4 December 2018, United States (U.S.) Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo gave a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels about ‘restoring the role of the nation-state in the liberal international order.’ At the core of that speech, he posed a fundamental challenge to world order: ‘Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.’ He insisted that: ‘nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.’ And he went on to explain: ‘Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them.’ In the language of the most recent U.S. national security strategy, this perspective on world affairs is characterized as ‘principled realism’. Pompeo describes it more simply as ‘common sense’. While Pompeo is right that his view is common, he is wrong to believe in its realism or even that it makes sense.