The latest reason for pessimism is Germany, which from being the undisputed leader of Europe has suddenly descended to being the basket case. The latest blow: Angela Merkel’s struggle to keep control of the government after her struggle to cobble together a new ruling coalition collapsed last weekend.
Merkel, a leader of apparent modesty and inexhaustible good sense, now must choose between another exhausting round of coalition negotiations, a minority government or fresh elections.
Meanwhile, Britain is leaving the European Union, and the vast task of disentangling nearly 45 years of unity at times seems beyond the UK’s weak Conservative government. But the people spoke in a referendum on Brexit, and no one can grab the wheel and turn the country around. Italy’s right, revived by gains in regional and local elections and leaning heavily towards the right, even far right and euro scepticism, is now the favourite to win a general election early next year.
Spain dismissed the government of Catalonia and rules it directly because the region, Spain’s richest, voted for independence in an unconstitutional referendum. Ironically, Madrid’s action will likely increase that very support for independence. In Poland, an increasingly authoritarian government headed by the Law and Justice Party now trades barbs daily with the EU, the latest salvo coming from European Council President Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland.
And that’s just the larger countries. In the ranks of the middle and small members of the EU, matters are as bad - worse, in some cases. Belgium, according to some of its ministers, will cease to exist in less than a decade, split between the now largely autonomous Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and Walloon (French-speaking) regions. Hungary, with the ruling Fidesz party buoyed by its adamant opposition to taking immigrants, now defies a European Court ruling that it must do so.
In Austria, coalition talks between the Conservative leader Sebastian Kurz and the far-right Freedom Party in Austria got off to a “very good start” last month. If they succeed, Kurz’s People’s Party and the Freedom Party will form a bloc hostile to immigration and sceptical of Brussels, certain to press for powers to return to the members’ capitals.
Parties in the Netherlands took seven months to cobble together a coalition which gives it a one-vote majority in parliament, and which is widely expected to fall apart in the next few months. In the Czech Republic - another member state which has refused to take in migrants - coalition talks got nowhere after the election last month, and the leader of the winning ANO party, Andrej Babis, has said he will form a minority government. Babis himself faces fraud charges over a $2.36 million EU subsidy, and any minority government is expected to bring political turmoil and no agreement on a budget.
To count a couple more ways, President Donald Trump, regarded everywhere in Europe as an unstoppably loose cannon, likes the EU no better than he ever did, and thus will not help countries accustomed to being called the United States’ closest allies; they must learn to fend for themselves. The EU’s hostility to Russia – amply reciprocated, boosted by the seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and continued sponsorship of the anti-government rebels in the eastern Donbas area – remains an untreated, and apparently untreatable, sore.
And thus to Germany, the moderate port in the storm of turbulence, led by a woman lauded at home and respected abroad. But this week in Germany, the popular tabloid Bild is screaming from the newsstands – “How long can Merkel Stay in Power?” The centrist paper of record, the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, ran an incendiary interview with the leader of the socially liberal Free Democratic Party Christian Lindner – which walked out of the coalition talks on Monday.
Merkel’s conservative CDU-CSU coalition won the most parliamentary seats in the September elections, but its heavy loss of support from its previous numbers forces it to seek unlikely coalition partners. The social democratic SPD, itself greatly reduced, saw continuing a coalition with Merkel as a recipe for more decline – although it now says it will return if its members give their consent. Merkel has tried, in past weeks, to cobble together a government with the pro-business FDP and the leftish Greens, both of which increased their vote substantially in the national vote. The weekend breakdown threw the country’s politics into crisis; everywhere in Europe, the leading state’s floundering was seen as more poisonous to the union than any of the other ills now besetting it.
European nerves may be over-strained. A case can be made that German politics need a shake-up, and that a second election – Merkel’s preferred alternative if SPD members reject another coalition – will produce a renewed polity.
It may. It may also produce – and this is the fear of liberal Germans, left and right – a stronger Alternativ fur Deutschland, the far-right party which surged from no representation in the Bundestag to the country’s third-largest party. It is violently against immigration, and in the election campaign marked that most powerfully with a poster showing a white, heavily pregnant German woman with the slogan – “New Germans? We make them ourselves!”
With such divisions, Germany does not just face a season of choppy politics; it threatens to head out of the zone which its politics have occupied for most of the post-war period. That is, an agreement that the center will hold, and that anti-fascism is an attitude shared by all, part of the fabric of German society, its re-entry into the democratic world.
It points to something else too. The European Union, in its negotiations with the UK on Brexit, presents itself as a united bloc of 27 dealing, reluctantly and severely, with an errant 28th. In fact, it is a Union in urgent need of frank talking, of confrontation with its own inner and outer weaknesses and challenges, and evident incapacity to move to a more closely integrated bloc, let alone a federation.
The present decline of Germany may be brief, since the country remains the most successful economy in Europe, and one of the best governed. Merkel remains the most popular politician, and her reputation for rational, careful government is well deserved. She has promised the EU that Germany continues to have a government committed to the union.
But the latest developments should prompt reflection and action. If the ever-closer union is a chimera, what form of union is sensible for the 21st century? And when one can be imagined, and agreed, a new framework for a diverse Europe, no longer straining after a presently impossible dream, should be brought into being.