Europe: Countdown to the Point?

How the Old World’s political system evolved and whether it will give birth to a new one

Europe is clearly on the threshold of a radical overhaul of its elites and its party and political systems. Voter fatigue, the numerous crises of the last 10 years, and the total relative degeneration of European establishments are slowly but surely prodding the Old World towards a new political reality. In some cases, we will be faced with the radical regeneration of the ruling classes and their adjustment to the dictates of the times, in others with their replacement by new leaders and parties.

But this process is not new for Europe. For example, right after the Cold War, Italy’s political system underwent a radical overhaul, with parties that had ruled since the late 1940 sidelined and squeezed out by new forces. But at that time, the Italian case was rather unusual. The existing parties in other EU countries used the end of the bipolar confrontation as a pretext for strengthening their hand and gradually transiting to a new political style focused on retaining power as such, rather than on promoting their political ideals. Hence major parties’ drift towards the center and renunciation of expressly ideological rhetoric. A real champion in this regard was the former British PM Tony Blair.

He, like, for example, Angela Merkel became perhaps the most outstanding representative of the outgoing generation of “winners’ children,” the European politicians who thrived in the post-Cold War era and stepped into the boots of veteran opponents of the USSR, such as Helmut Kohl or François Mitterrand, who saw the collapse of their antagonist but were not destined to enjoy their victory for long. Instead, nothing but sheer enjoyment was the lot of their replacements. For Europe and the West as a whole, the mid-1990s was a time of jubilation without bounds.

The last decade of the 20th century was an era of almost unlimited profits and this carefree existence gave European politicians an extremely flippant attitude to such crucial matters as war and peace. Invasions were easily staged when they seemed economically and politically advantageous. Several countries were dismantled, including within Europe itself, where a big country like Yugoslavia was torn down for its disobedience to the new masters. It was finished off by direct bombing raids in the spring of 1999, with its leaders demonstratively put behind the bars. Incidentally, the Hague Court itself became a symbol of the absolute power of the West and Europe, which were filled with an ecstatic sense of victory in the already outgoing epoch.

But after 2008, times began to change. First, while enjoying its successes, Europe made numerous strategic mistakes and became embroiled in a series of crises. Second, the growing China and Russia, which had not been curbed in 1991, were challenging the Western monopoly with increased energy. And, finally, the situation itself, where Europeans had no serious problems, led to a dearth of leaders and leadership. Power was handed to individuals, who, to put it mildly, were not up to the mark. David Cameron, Jose Manuel Barroso, Carl Bildt, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, and others like them, were empty in themselves and created a void around them.

The “strategic frivolity,” or readiness to create dangerous international situations in order to achieve insignificant goals, was highly characteristic of the European politicians. The deplorable and tragic outcome of this includes the civil war in Ukraine, refugee flows from the Middle East, and a profound crisis in relations with Russia. The above-mentioned characters have been consigned to the dustbin of history, soon to be followed by Angela Merkel, the only one of that generation of leaders who was at least able to formulate a more or less coherent, if not unambiguous, agenda for Europe. Unfortunately, her main political legacy will include the North-South split in Europe and down-to-zero relations with Russia, rather than the Eurozone stabilization mechanisms.

New European politicians will be coming of age in a situation where Europe and the West as a whole will no longer enjoy a monopoly of influence on international affairs. For the time being, the United States is unwilling to put up with this prospect and hence the fierce surge of internal political strife and growing aggressiveness towards the outside world, as symbolized by Donald Trump. Because of their traditionally more vulnerable status, the Europeans will start adapting much earlier than the Americans. A new-generation politician, Emmanuel Macron seems more inclined to make advances to China than to lecture to the country. Another representative of the new generation, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is clearly displaying a conscious desire for a rapprochement with Russia, and so for that matter is Christian Lindner, leader of the influential Free Democratic Party of Germany. The earlier the new political leaders come to power in Europe, the sooner the Old World will be adequate to the new realities.

But it is not yet clear how soon the elites and political systems will be renewed in Europe. Neither is it evident what consequences are in store for European integration, the main European project of the past fifty years. The need to respond to the electorate’s increasingly conservative demands will make the ruling political forces shift to the right, which is in itself bad news for the integration at the heart of EU philosophy, based on mutual openness and unity in diversity.

But there will be no more cases like the scandalous Brexit. The remaining 27 EU members have a vested interest in keeping the union alive, each for its own reasons. But this does not mean that they, as individual states, will work to consolidate the EU. Quite the contrary, the need to keep power at home will generate increasingly utilitarian and selective attitudes to the shared European home. They will expect the EU to provide benefits but will not wish to sacrifice their national interests for its development.

Are the ruling Polish or Hungarian nationalists eager to leave the EU? Of course, not! They want to stay in the common market and receive funds from the EU. But they have no intention whatsoever of complying with the obligations of membership which contradict their doltish political views or populist policies. In a sense, these two countries were the first to go the full cycle by replacing the politically emasculate politicians of the early 2000s with strong, if not quite European, leaders of the new epoch. Brexit is a shining example of the utilitarian attitude to United Europe. In a sense, it enabled the traditional British political elites – the Conservatives and Labour – to co-opt the agenda that was earlier promoted by the radicals. Thus, the British ruling class sacrificed EU membership for the chance to perpetuate its hold on power at home. No one in Britain today calls into question the popular vote at the June 2016 referendum. But the UK Independence Party, which was promoting the EU walkout idea, is currently deep in crisis despite its purported victory.

It is more likely that Russia, China and other partners of Europe will benefit from the upcoming change of leaders. It will not be easy dealing with outstanding personalities like Macron or Kurz. But it was even more difficult to have truck with outgoing Europe – self-loving, sitting on a bag of money, and listening only to itself. That means there is a chance for resuming a meaningful dialogue. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.