There is a big conversation brewing about the deepening East-West divide in the European Union. Much of this conversation started long before the pandemic. Social scientists like R. Daniel Kelemen have been worried for a long time now about the diverging trajectories in democratic institutions and about the possible roles that European Union (EU) institutions may have played in supporting that evolution. More recent scholarship shows how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that tension. This raises questions about whether such developments were always likely to happen, and about how we can better understand East-West relations in Europe. Fortunately, three brilliant new books promise to help in that understanding. The first, by Larry Wolff, examines the role of Woodrow Wilson in help shaping the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. The second, by John Connelly, explores the evolution of East European nationalism. The third, by Lenka Bustikova, examines the problem of extreme right mobilization. The conclusion I take away from these books is that there are important political dynamics at work in Eastern Europe that need deeper understanding; it is not that East and West are fundamentally different. We can learn a lot from the study of Eastern Europe as we struggle to interpret developments elsewhere as well – Western Europe very much included.
The European Council decided during a summit organized to address the COVID-19 crisis on 23 April to confirm a European Commission program to support national insurance systems. They also approved a program by the European Investment Bank to support lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, and another by the European Stability Mechanism to make loans available to national governments to pay for health care expenses related to the pandemic. Finally, the Council asked the Commission to set out a roadmap for the creation of a ‘recovery fund, which is needed and urgent’. Supporters of the decision hailed it as an unprecedented leap toward a Europe of solidarity; critics decried it as vague and insignificant. They are both wrong and right at the same time.
The European Council will meet by video conference next Thursday. When it does, the three main items on the agenda will be to approve the recommendations made by the Eurogroup on 9 April, to push forward the conversation about a European Recovery Fund, and to restart and restructure the talks about the upcoming multi-annual financial framework. In English, that means the conversation will be about money. Like any conversation about money it will be difficult. The opportunities for misunderstanding are everywhere. Now is a good time to sort out some of the issues.
During her first address to the Conservative Party as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in October 2016, Theresa May made it clear that: ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the word “citizenship” means.’ Moreover, this was not an off-the-cuff remark. As she explained at the top of the speech, May was setting out her governing philosophy. And central to that philosophy is what she called ‘the spirit of citizenship’, which she defined in terms of ‘the bonds and obligations that make … society work,’ ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you,’ and ‘recognising the social contract’ in a way that puts ‘local’ people ahead of people from ‘overseas’. That sort of thinking is attractive, but dangerous — now more than ever.
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.
Europe needs a ‘new narrative’ if it is going to move forward rather than falling back into crisis. That narrative cannot be a collection of policy initiatives or institutional reforms. New policies are important; so are new institutional arrangements. But politics and institutions do not by themselves speak to a democratic electorate – and particularly not to an electorate that has focused its attention on legitimate grievances of its own. Only politicians with a clear vision of the future can wield influence with voters in such a context. If the politicians with the best ideas are too afraid to forge a vision, they should not be surprised when voters attach themselves to politicians who run off in the wrong direction. Europeans deserve better political leadership; so does Europe.
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.