Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


What America can learn from Europe’s discontent

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a competent official to be inspirational. But that is what’s called for; these are extraordinary times.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holding a news conference following a Christian Democratic Union leadership meeting in Berlin, Germany, on Monday.
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Elections have consequences. They offer lessons, too. As this year’s U.S. campaign comes to an end, anyone with the vaguest notion what a TV remote control looks like has once again had that message drilled into them.

But it’s also clear that Americans aren’t alone; they are part of a global phenomenon. Many countries are going through a rethinking of their values and self-image — expressed at the ballot box, and leading no one quite knows where. Brazil’s election last Sunday of populist Jair Bolsonaro is the latest case in point.

Europe is rife with populist discontent, as well, stretching from Hungary and Poland in the east, south to Italy and west to the U.K. It preceded – may be the model for — the election of President Trump in 2016, and shows little sign of abating. Sometimes it’s easier to see the weeds in someone else’s yard than in your own. So what can Americans learn from Europe?

First, successful politics is more than an uninspired slog down a path of policy points. That may be OK in quieter times, but it will catch up with you when voters are more concerned with values and identity. The poster child is Europe’s most powerful political figure, Angela Merkel.

Article continues after advertisement

Merkel, Germany’s leader for the past 13 years, announced last week that she will step down as head of her political party and that she won’t seek another term as chancellor when this one expires. It’s an open question whether she can survive that long.

Germany’s economy is strong, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the country’s other traditional centrist parties have faltered badly. They lost ground in last year’s general election and the process continued in state elections this fall. While the anti-immigrant far-right Alliance for Germany has rightly gotten much attention, leftist parties also have gained.

Any elected leader who has been around a long time, no matter how dominant, eventually runs out of steam. Merkel always has been more a competent pair of hands than an inspiration. Analysts say she has come up short when Germans, and Europeans generally, needed her most – to express a new vision of Europe after the Greece financial crisis, to challenge authoritarian governments in EU members Hungary and Poland, to define Germany in a way that would have discouraged support for its anti-immigrant, nationalist right.

She undoubtedly displayed political courage and vision by opening Germany to a million refugees in 2015. Many Germans showed great compassion for the refugees. Merkel was correct, as far as she went, in telling Germans that “We can do this.” What was missing was a sustained pitch making clear why they should. It might have been obvious to the pastor’s daughter. To many others, in retrospect, it wasn’t.

The second lesson is largely the opposite: Avoid the inspiring road to nowhere, which is exactly what Brexit appears to be.

Brexit was sold to voters on a number of faulty premises, among them a vision of restoring British sovereignty in the face of EU red tape and a flood of foreigners. It has come down to endless bickering in the Conservative Party, growing demands for a revote and concern about the need to stockpile food and medicine.

One of the stickiest sticking points, still unresolved, is the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, which is an EU member. Complicating the matter is that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government depends for its survival on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the hardline Protestant party once run by Ian Paisley — described in one memorable phrase as the “political wing of the 17th century.”

By insisting on their own vision of what it means to be British, Brexiteers and the DUP risk making the country less than what it was – including, says Richard Seymour in this essay – exacerbating the regional differences that nearly led Scots to leave the UK several years ago.

Finally, be wary of politicians whose program amounts to “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The case study is Italy.

One of the leaders of the populist coalition elected in March, Matteo Salvini, wants to cut taxes. The other, Luigi Di Maio, wants to guarantee a minimum income for the unemployed. Both policies would increase Italy’s deficit, and both sides hate the other’s idea. The solution, as Erik Jones writes, was to avoid a hard choice and do both. That precipitated a crisis with the EU, which wants Italy to reduce its deficit.

Article continues after advertisement

Maybe the Italians wanted to challenge the EU all along. But if global lenders start worrying more about Italy’s debts, Jones says, borrowing will become more costly for everyone in Italy. The banks still are suffering because of the last downturn, and the pressure on them has increased since the new government took over. The EU says it will help them only if the government agrees to a bailout, which Salvini and Di Maio reject. The game of chicken continues.

It’s never unfair to expect better than hollow, utopian promises or pandering that avoids hard choices. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a competent official to be inspirational as well. But that is what’s called for; these are extraordinary times.