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Disconnect and dissent mark a Europe in crisis

Venal governments and weak parliamentary oppositions, along with great social discontent, create serious questions for the left to grapple with, says KEVIN OVENDEN

A FINANCIAL technocrat is to form a government of national unity following the fall of another Italian administration and to avoid elections.  

It could be a decade ago, when EU internal market commissioner Mario Monti was summoned to head a compliant Italian government at the peak of the eurozone crisis following the great financial crash of 2008.

This time it is Mario Draghi, until recently the head of the European Central Bank. Again unelected, he was central to imposing the Europe-wide austerity of the 2010s. 

Behind the multifactional political divisions in Italy is another drive supported by big business to create a technocratic administration to win out of this crisis “anti-reforms” in their favour.

That, and to roll back twin expressions of the popular rage arising from the last meltdown: the far-right Lega and the populist Five Star Movement. 

To do that, however, they have turned to a governmental strategy that contributed to producing those anti-systemic forces in the first place.

It might be tempting to put this down to an exception, with Italy’s history of frequent changes of government and less frequent elections going back over a century to the regime of “transformism.” 

Under that anti-democratic system MPs shifted support regularly. They transformed their party allegiances to back vested interests their voters had rejected.

Leading historians cite it as a reason for Italy’s vulnerability to the fascist takeover in the 1920s. 

But the political strains within and between major European states are far from unique to Italy. 

Indeed, Green Party voters in Ireland could be forgiven for thinking the TDs they elected to parliament had been “transformed,” or demonically possessed, in slavishly backing a right-wing government.

The crises across Europe give the lie to exaggerated claims these last two months that the election of Joe Biden in the US and setbacks for the far right in parts of Europe herald a smooth restoration of the transatlantic centre.

The European crises predated the great recession. They were intensified by it. And this manifold crisis of pandemic and slump is doing the same today.

An especially sharp example is the row about vaccination and vaccine supply that exploded last week. It shows no sign of abating.

The blunder by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in announcing, and then having to withdraw, a plan to impose a hard vaccine border in Ireland splitting north and south looks like having lasting repercussions.

It has allowed what had been the becalmed, shouty unionists of the DUP cynically to find some relevance — this time superficially on the same side of a range of opinion extending from the Irish government to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

They are using that to advance a reactionary resolution of the contradictions built into the Northern Ireland Brexit settlement.

That is to shore up the failing status of the Six Counties as a part of the United Kingdom through themselves pushing for the greater separation from the Irish Republic that they opportunistically accused Brussels of. The result is a worrying rise of sectarianism.

Boris Johnson’s government cares as little about ordinary Irish people north or south as does the European Commission. But Johnson sees how he can use the EU’s arrogant intervention to obtain diplomatic leverage in the rows about relations between Britain and Europe that are not going away.

Brexit and the Northern Irish Protocol have settled neither the European nor the Irish questions.

It is not to give backhanded support to the Tory government to recognise that the EU’s handling of the pandemic and its immediate crisis over vaccination demonstrate it is not the “ruse of reason” and force for good that its high priests have proclaimed.

The British state is out of the EU. In posture towards both those capitalist and imperialist entities the words of the Irish revolutionary James Connolly spring to mind during the first world war. 

Facing direct domination by the British state and a competing continental power, he declared for “Neither King nor Kaiser.”

There is dismay in British pro-EU circles. Only yesterday von der Leyen tried to deflect criticism over the vaccination mess by comparing Britain to a speedboat and the bloc of 27 to a large liner.

I don’t know who writes her lines. But you would be hard pressed to come up with a formulation that more reinforced the Tory-Brexiter, chauvinist delusion that Britain will return to swashbuckling 18th-century form, outmanoeuvring the continental absolutist states on the high seas.

It goes deeper than the interventions of a clumsy Commission president whose erstwhile colleagues in Germany are candid in describing as incompetent.

For 12 of the last 16 years Germany has been governed by a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right. The junior partner social democrats of the SPD have paid the price. At the last election they got their lowest vote since 1948 — 21 per cent.

They now poll at around 14 per cent, with national elections in September. That lies behind SPD politicians suddenly raising the vaccination crisis in an attempt to lift their vote. 

It means amplifying frustrations at the base of society — including over Germany and the EU — which all governments have sought to suppress.

The leader of the hard-right CSU in Bavaria is doing the same in scoping out a bid to be the standard-bearer of the broad right in the election.

The selection last month of moderate Armin Laschet as chair of the main centre-right party, the CDU, and the decline of the fascistic AfD were meant to signal a strengthening of the capitalist centre. It is not at all clear that that will happen.

Underlying the uncertainty is a reality that few outside of Germany sense and that is not captured in polling of voting intention. 

There is a great disconnect between popular sentiment and the political system. It is a consistent feature in surveys across the transatlantic democracies.

It is held to be a reason for the very high levels of vaccine hesitancy that stereotypical thinking would not associate with the industrial powerhouse of Europe.

That is even more apparent in France. Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 was to be the triumph of the technocratic centre — neither left nor right. Instead, there have been four years of a vainglorious and increasingly authoritarian president.

His Boris-Johnson levels of indecisiveness have worsened the pandemic in France. A shock Harris poll last week found that he is only 4 points above the fascist Marine Le Pen in runoff voting intention. It may be an outlier, and the election is a year away.

But every patissier in Paris knows his nationalistic interventions on vaccines and virus are cover for governmental failure and driven by Le Pen breathing down his neck.

Governmental weaknesses, a crisis of legitimacy and the stranglehold of clinging to orthodoxies that have created a decade of resentment mean that in one country after another in Europe grubby attempts at political survival are trumping a rational approach to this crisis.

So the Spanish coalition government has just relied upon what the institutional centre-left paper El Pais suggests is an unholy backroom deal to get through parliament a measure that will draw on the EU’s recovery fund, but at a great price — including attacks on the pension system.

The far-right Vox party unexpectedly abstained to allow it to pass. Its leader then ranted about an invasion by illegal immigrants. 

The social democratic prime minister, however, praised him for a “sense of state and of responsibility” for abstaining on the finance vote.

You could not do more to legitimise the fascist right if you tried.

Across almost all of Europe it is a similar story. Weak, often coalition, governments lacking popular legitimacy, even if polling captures the desperate hope after a year of pandemic that maybe those in power might just turn it around.

That seems very much the explanation in Britain for party polling on the one hand and a volatile mass sentiment on the other. The EU cartel merely transfigures and does not treat these discontents.

Beneath the rival chauvinist bluster (and those refighting the last referendum) is a political reality that is broadly common in Europe and in Britain. 

Venal governments and weak parliamentary oppositions — at the same time as great social discontent.

Which way does that go? This month saw horrible scenes in the Netherlands as outright fascist forces were able to put themselves at the centre of popular frustration and take “anti-lockdown” protests in the most reactionary direction.

We also saw in Greece a revived student movement. It confronted state bans. Not to insist on the libertarian “right” to exhale infected breath on the person next to you but rather to stop the creation of a special force to police campuses and to demand public health measures.

A legitimate wartime comparison is that a year of lockdown has been a little like the world wars in the suspension of normal life and modes of activity and organisation for the left.

The end of both of those conflicts brought an enormous eruption of social revolt and political change.

We are not at the end of this crisis. But already the issue is whether the left will look to those stirrings of revolt. 

They are not to be found in parliamentary chambers or in polling. Just as they were not in the revolts of the last decade. 


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