The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the ‘establishment’ with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced wth a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against ‘the system’ is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.
As we approach another round of talks on the third Greek bailout package, I thought it would be appropriate to share two thoughts on the importance of debt forgiveness and on Europe’s preparedness in case this all goes wrong. My basic line is that debt-forgiveness is the only pragmatic choice. I also worry that Europe is not as prepared for the alternative as it should be.
The election of Emmanuel Macron is the triumph of populism and not its demise. His direct appeals to French voters were more compelling than those of Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, the strategy of the two second-round candidates was much the same: play to emotions and identity; circumvent the established traditions of party politics; run against entrenched elites as much as against the other side. Now comes the hard part of converting a populist movement (En Marche!) into a political party capable of governing the institutions of state (La République En Marche!). Macron’s supporters no doubt realize this is important but are understandably still glowing in the confirmation that their France can embrace hope and change. Thinking back to the last successful hope-and-change candidates, however, it is necessary to stress how things can go wrong.
The political landscape of Europe is changing rapidly and in ways that are hard to interpret. The recent Italian referendum is a good illustration. Matteo Renzi inherited an agenda to reform the Italian constitution when he became prime minister. He negotiated an agreement with the centre-right on the precise details of the package. He shepherded the agreement through two majority votes in each of Italy’s two chambers of parliament. He then brought the agreement to a popular vote as per constitutional requirement and with an electorate broadly disenchanted with politics and therefore favourable to reform. Nevertheless, virtually every party outside the government opposed the reform package and Renzi lost the referendum vote by a spread of twenty percentage points. Now Renzi is out of office. Italy is without a viable electoral system because of changes made in anticipation of the (failed) constitutional reforms. And it is unclear whether the new government headed by Paolo Gentiloni has sufficient support in the Senate to pass a new electoral law. Most Italians did not want Renzi’s constitutional reforms and yet they are not happy with the status quo either. Disillusionment with politics has grown as a result.
On 30 August 2016, the European Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, announced that ‘Ireland granted undue tax benefits up to EUR 13 billion to Apple.’ Those benefits distort competition within the European marketplace and so the Commission instructed Ireland to recover the unpaid taxes. This announcement ignited a storm of protest from Apple and from the Irish government. It also sparked a wider debate about how multinational companies are taxed and about whether some form of tax harmonization is essential to the functioning of Europe’s internal market. Although some general principles have emerged from the conversation, the deeper implications of the controversy remain unclear. The debate here is less about the treatment of a single company than about the way European governments have tried to promote regional development and how the United States has relied on multinational corporations to exert influence in the wider world.
The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) has introduced a new political dynamic in Europe. For lack of a better term, let’s call it ‘disintegration’. The problem is that we know very little about the many different motivations and other forces at work. Disintegration is not integration in reverse. We cannot simply take the many different models or interpretations of what brought European countries together and run them backward to understand events as they are unfolding. We cannot use past experience as much of a guide to anticipate future events or developments either. Lacking a coherent theory of disintegration, we are left to rely primarily on guesswork. Given how most commentators performed in forecasting Britain’s vote to leave the EU, my suspicion is that much of that guesswork will prove inaccurate. We are still sailing in uncharted waters.
The center left in Europe is ceding ground almost everywhere. The British Labour Party not only lost the May 2015 elections but then threw itself into the arms of Jeremy Corbyn. Barring a Brexit debacle for the ruling conservatives, Labour is unlikely to return to power in the next decade despite Corbyn’s success at recruiting new party activists. The Spanish socialist workers party (PSOE), having been weakened by widespread corruption, jettisoned its leader and looks ready to offer tacit support for a minority government led by the conservative Popular Party (PP) to avoid facing the voters this December.