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.
On Tuesday, 6 November, Americans went to the polls to elect members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the membership of the Senate, a handful of state governors, a host of politicians at the state and local level, and a series of ballot propositions concerning local rules and finances (like bond issues for school maintenance) across the country. These elections are called mid-term because they are held midway through the four-year term of office of the sitting national president.
The name ‘midterm’ is misleading, however, because it makes these elections sound like a national contest. They are not. Although the election results will have a strong impact on the performance of the national government, the mid-term elections are primarily local contests. Moreover, despite and perhaps even because of the very prominent role played by President Donald Trump in the campaign, these mid-term elections were even more local than most.
The past decade has witnessed a sudden uptick in secessionist movements in Europe. The uptick started on the western side of the continent with the 2009 Belgian elections, where the New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest party in the country; further to the east, we might point to the Russian invasion and partition of Georgia. Flemings, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians rarely fall in the same category for analysis. Nevertheless, there is something they have in common that warrants exploration. Moreover, that something is shared by the Scots, the Catalans, and the Russian-speakers in Crimea and the Donbass region.
The British government faced another crisis in the House of Commons this week over Brexit, having found a way to stave off the crisis it faced the week before. Both the country and its political parties appear deeply divided over whether the remain in the European Union or to leave. As we know from the June 2016 referendum, the ‘leave’ voters have a narrow majority. The ‘remain’ voters lost. And while the facts on the ground appear to point inexorably toward a British exit, the choice is still far from settled. The reason for this indecisiveness is fundamental. As the British have learned over the two years, Brexit is about more than just their relations with Europe. It is about who makes decisions in a liberal democracy.
As the Trump Administration prepares for the G7 meeting in Canada, the bulk of commentary in the press is focusing on how isolated the United States has become. The aluminium and steel tariffs, the renegotiation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the withdrawal from the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) with respect to Iran, and the repudiation of the Paris accords all combine to create tension between the Trump Administration and its G7 partners. At the same time, the Trump Administration seems more interested in courting China, Russia, and North Korea than its traditional allies. Hence the question is not just what the Trump Administration hopes to achieve but also why it is bothering to attend at all. The answer is revealing both for what it says about the Trump Administration’s approach to global governance and what it reveals about the enduring legacies of U.S. leadership during the post-Second World War era.