A Step Back From the Brink

I’ve been a worried about Europe.

The Continent faces a whole host of challenges, but of late my rising concern has been the broad-spectrum breakdown of the attitudes that make the European Union possible. Brexit is the loudest and sexiest example of this, but it is hardly the only one.

After nearly two decades of stability (admittedly the vigorous hand-gesture, prime minister-hosted orgy version of stability that only Italy could produce), Italy’s government is returning to a chaotic morass. Spain and Belgium are barely able to form governments. The Netherlands and Austria seem perilously close to going off the rails. Hungary’s executive seems to find democracy mildly offensive. Poland is now ruled by a team espousing the worst characteristics of Trump, Clinton, Pope Innocent III and Kanye.

But all is small fry in comparison to what has evolved this year in the two core countries: Germany and France.

The two Continental heavyweights are not just the European Union, they are Europe. When opposed, the only result is war. When united, something better can take shape. After World War II the French took over the Continent. They could do this because the defeated Germans were not allowed to have a foreign or strategic policy of their own. German defense planning was run from the Pentagon, while the Élysée Palace took care of most everything else. The result was the forging of the European Union and the harnessing of German economic power to elevate France to global relevance. Road bumps abounded but all in all it worked pretty well.

With the Cold War’s end, Germany has slowly evolved its foreign policy beyond “I’m sorry” and found its own voice. Germany and France now run the EU together. There is certainly tension (and the French aren’t happy about the Germans rediscovering their spine) but no breach is imminent. Good thing too. Any break between the two means the end of the EU writ large.

Yet nowhere in the Western world has been immune to the populist rise.

In France, President Francois Hollande is so delightfully out-of-touch that he’s dreaming idly of maybe returning to George W. Bush popularity lows; Hollande is now right at about 5% approval. With Hollande’s Socialists nearly as unpopular as he is (and even less organized), the only question for 2017’s presidential contest is who else will run? As of November 1, it looked like the race would be between former President Nicholas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the National Front is fairly…horrible. Critics call it anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, anti-European, anti-Arab, anti-market, and a fair number of other things you wouldn’t want folks to put on your Twitter feed. Sarko, as part of his effort to break back into national politics, has taken a hard turn for the fences and enumerated a not-short list of topics that normally are not considered part of the European mainstream. The race was shaping up to be a run between someone who wants to chip Muslims in the hundreds of thousands and put them in internment camps…and a racist.

That just leaves German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the only powerful, competent, relevant, moderate statesperson of note in the Union. Unfortunately, she is under siege from all sides. Her decision on purely humanitarian grounds to admit nearly 1 million Syrian refugees has cost her much of her political capital. It has emboldened not just the hard left and hard right, but it has also threatened the core of her own political coalition. Her term is up in 2017; the personalities testing the waters to replace her are, in a word, Trumpesque. Say what you will about Trump in the U.S., but the slogan “Make Germany great again” should make everyone a bit twitchy.

This week things brightened a bit.

In France, the conservatives’ primary delivered Sarko a crushing third place finish, leading the former president to announce his permanent retirement from politics. The two top place finishers — François Fillon and Alain Juppe — are both former prime ministers. There is much many undoubtedly dislike about both, but both are economic reformers and avowed Europeanists. They’d aim to regenerate France, but within the European rubric without any revanchist challenges to French or the European system. Whoever wins the second-round primary vote will easily defeat Le Pen to become the president of the Fifth Republic.

In Germany, the shift might prove to be even more substantial. Merkel decided to stand for re-election. Like Fillon and Juppe, not everyone is a fan of Frau Merkel, but even her opponents hail her as being a steady, consensus-building leader in troubling times. Barring some catastrophic event that involves her personally, it’s hard to see her losing the ability to lead her party coalition. The German socialists are nearly as disarrayed as their French peers, making Merkel a shoo-in for a fourth term.

At a time when everything in Europe is on a downward slide, it seems that these two critical countries are taking at least one small step back from the brink. Will it be enough? Hell no. As I began, Europe faces a whole host of problems:

  • America is ending the global trade order and there is no EU or modern, open, democratic Germany without it.
  • America’s commitment to NATO is nearly gone and without it the Germans must rearm, triggering a whole new avalanche of security problems throughout the Continent.
  • The European financial crisis is worse than ever, and has now been joined by a European banking crisis. Both crises are so deeply structural that recovery is impossible without a political reckoning and/or revolution.
  • The civil wars in Syria and Libya are only the leading edges of a broader Middle East and African breakdown; the refugee waves we’ve seen so far are just the beginning.
  • Europe is imploding demographically, not only making Europe more dependent upon the dissolving global trade order and exacerbating the financial and banking crises, but also soon putting zero percent economic growth out of reach. The ongoing existence of several European countries as modern societies is no longer assured.
  • And let’s not forget that Russia is only in the beginning stages of its Hail Mary effort to secure its western sphere of influence (i.e. control of parts of the EU’s eastern periphery) before its own problems overwhelm it.

But I’ll take my good news where I can get it these days. There may still be a trigger-happy platoon full of guns aimed at Europe’s head, but as of this week there are two less.

For now at least.