Finding the Right Right for Europe

That thud you just heard is the other shoe—the right one—dropping in Europe. The story of the past decade has been the collapse of center-left parties, which face extinction in France and Italy and are fading into irrelevance in Germany. Now the center-right ruling parties are in crisis, too, in Britain and Germany.

Can anyone run this place?

Certainly no one can run Britain. From its start in 2016, Prime Minister

Theresa May’s

government has been harried to the point of derangement by Conservative Party infighting over Britain’s impending departure from the European Union. Things may come to a head soon with the release of a formal plan for the nation’s future relationship with the EU. The most extreme euroskeptics in Mrs. May’s party probably won’t like it, yet none can build a popular consensus behind the hard Brexit they want.

Matters are little better for Chancellor

Angela Merkel,

who this week barely survived a rebellion within her own coalition. Here the flashpoint is migration. Mrs. Merkel seems perpetually surprised that her humanitarian instinct to welcome more than a million economic migrants starting in 2015 isn’t shared by more politicians in her Christian Democratic Union and especially not in its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union. Yet the CSU also lost support among its constituents when it staged a grand showdown with Mrs. Merkel last month over migration policies.

A few observations: The conventional wisdom that “it’s all about identity, stupid” is true but incomplete. Voters do seem less interested in the left vs. right debates about economics that used to sort mainstream parties. Yet what “identity” voters want from politics remains a mystery, perhaps even to them.

Voters supposedly want to return to a sense of nationhood as against the overweening EU in Brussels. If you think that’s clear-cut, however, surprises abound in the European Commission’s spring Eurobarometer poll. Europeans on the whole trust the EU more than they trust their national governments, by 42% to 34%, and the margin is widening slightly. Although only 40% of Europeans have a positive view of the EU—down from 52% in 2007—only 21% have a negative view.

This point gets lost when examining noisy popular movements in places like Italy, Greece and Spain. Voters there know their domestic political classes are incompetent, corrupt or worse, and that the EU acts as a check. That’s why Greeks decided to keep the euro in 2015, and why Italians voted for antiestablishment parties only after they promised not to leave the common currency.

Immigration is another surprise. Asked what worries people about the EU, it tops the list, cited by 38% as a problem. Yet asked about the biggest problem facing their country, the most common answers are unemployment (25%) and welfare (23%). While immigration, and by implication security and cultural identity, weighs heavily on some countries—notably Germany—it’s not clear Europeans in general share the preoccupation. The freedom to travel, live and work anywhere in the EU remains the single most popular feature of the bloc (82% support) even though it requires that national governments cede considerable border sovereignty.

One can start to guess why the center right is down but not yet out. The fervent euroskepticism of Europe’s insurgent movements may strike many voters as a second-best alternative to a more convincing mainstream right. The better option would be a right capable of talking about nationhood but not hostile to the EU, and also able to deliver economic growth and security. If this is true, surely voters’ main frustration with the center right at the moment is with its parties’ tendency to follow voters stumblingly to the fringes—whether with Brexit absolutism or the CSU’s showboating on migration—rather than offering alternatives.

Contrast that with how Europe’s most muscular mainstream politician,

Emmanuel Macron,

managed to trounce one of Europe’s most muscular europhobes,

Marine Le Pen.

He described economic reforms in terms of national identity—France will be a great nation again by cultivating a strong economy. In this way he has demonstrated political leadership rather than panicked followership.

That kind of leadership has not been characteristic of Mrs. May and is less and less a hallmark of Mrs. Merkel, which is one reason their countries’ and their parties’ political traumas drag on.

Appeared in the July 6, 2018, print edition.

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