Twenty years ago, the argument that the EU would nurture extremism seemed academic. The Maastricht Treaty, averred Britain’s fledgling Eurosceptic movement, would create disaffection. As powers were concentrated in Brussels, there would be a backlash – precisely the sort of nationalist backlash, paradoxically, that the European project had been designed to forestall. By sneeringly dismissing all opposition as “anti-European” or “xenophobic”, Eurocrats were ensuring that their words would eventually come true.
And so it has come to pass. Let me stress that plenty of the Euro-critical parties that triumphed at the weekend are moderate: you won’t find a more respectable or likeable bunch that Germany’s AfD, for example, most of whose leading figures are economists or professors. Some, though, are altogether darker. In France, in Spain, in Greece, in Ireland, the big winners of Sunday’s poll were the politicians who combined attacks on Brussels with attacks on free markets, foreign companies and global finance (it looked, for a scary moment, as though Ukip might lurch in that direction, opposing the Pfizer bid and railing about low wages; but, I’m glad to say, the party’s liberal instincts seem to have reasserted themselves).
Anti-Brussels feeling has risen fastest in the countries immiserated by monetary union. It’s not just that the euro has caused preventable poverty and joblessness; it’s that the politicians responsible are still in denial. As recently as 2012, Guy Verhofstadt claimed that “the creation of the euro has certainly boosted the economies of the participating states, and is therefore irreversible.”
You can hardly blame voters for wanting to lash out. The trouble is that they’re not lashing out only at the Eurocrats and politicians who got them into this mess. They are lashing out, too, at the blameless Germans, whose only offence is to be bailing out more profligate countries than their own. They are lashing out at foreign workers, at bankers, at speculators, at the entire market system.
Sadly, the EU’s response is to dole out more of the medicine that sickened the patient in the first place. As a general rule, politicians react to bad election results by 1) saying that they must take the result on board and then 2) insisting that this means doing more of whatever they were doing before. European leaders accordingly spent last night’s summit dinner telling each other that the EU must “do more” to address people’s concerns, “do more” to create jobs, “do more” to show that it is relevant in people’s lives. In fact, what voters have just signalled is that they want the EU to do less.
If the EU truly wanted to arrest the rise of xenophobic, protectionist parties, it would slim its bureaucracy, reduce its competences, return power to the national capitals, cut its budget and open its markets to the rest of the world.
None of these things will happen, though. The EU will continue gobbling up new powers, as its officials assure one another that voters have been led astray by Eurosceptic demagogues and filthy tabloids. As Brecht put it, “Wouldn’t it be easier to dissolve the people and elect another in their place?”
Opprinnelig i The Telegraph den 28. mai 2014.