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Europe’s Fragmented Center | The New Yorker

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Angela Merkel, who has been the Chancellor of Germany for nearly fourteen years, has a measuredness about her that can mask a profound optimism, above all about the democratic process. Last week, speaking at the Harvard commencement ceremony, she remembered how, as a young woman in what was then East Berlin, she walked toward the Wall each day on her way home from work. “At the last moment,” she had to “turn away from freedom.” That wall had fallen, but, Merkel said—naming no names—new ones were being built within societies and between nations. Democracy could not be “taken for granted,” but neither, she told the graduates, should people assume that they were powerless: “Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible.”

Both realizations may already be taking shape in Europe. A week earlier, elections had been held for the European Parliament, the main legislative body of the European Union, and turnout was more than fifty per cent, the highest in decades. Populist-nationalist parties won pluralities in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, and established parties of the center-left and the center-right fared badly. And yet, across the Continent, the populists didn’t do as well as many had feared they would. In a number of countries, as it turned out, third or fourth parties—such as the Green parties—who at times defy the old, easy right-left categories, held them back. The situation is far from stable. As Merkel noted, it rarely is. But it would be wrong to say either that the center vanished or that the center held; rather, it fragmented into a loose, jostling mass.

In France, observers pointed out that, although Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally party finished first, with a quarter of the vote, President Emmanuel Macron had soundly defeated her in a head-to-head race in 2017. But Macron’s party, La République En Marche! (the exclamation point is part of the name), is itself an upstart, having been formed just three years ago. Macron has since faltered in his efforts to present himself either as the voice of centrism in France or as a leader for all Europe. His connections are not deep; neither is voters’ trust. Indeed, political rootlessness is an increasingly common condition. It is not so much that the lamps are going out all over Europe (to borrow Sir Edward Grey’s observation from 1914) as that they are being replaced by a string of blinking multicolored lights. No one knows where to look next.

That unsettled mood makes this a dangerous moment, but also a potentially promising one. The Green parties exceeded expectations with campaigns built around combatting climate change. Exit polls indicate that much of their strength came from young voters. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swede who has organized climate strikes at schools, has been a model for expressing the younger generations’ passion. Greens are projected to have sixty-nine of the seven hundred and fifty-one seats in the European Parliament—an increase of forty per cent. Their success is particularly striking, because, in Europe, conservative parties, too, recognize the need to do something about climate change. It now seems that, for many Europeans, it is no longer enough for politicians to just talk about the problem. Merkel admitted, “with a measure of self-criticism,” that they had to “get better.”

The Greens won twenty per cent of the vote in Germany, putting them in second place, behind Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. The Social Democratic Party came in third, with under sixteen per cent, continuing what has been a sustained collapse of center-left parties across Europe. Die partei, one of those satirical parties that Europeans are fond of, vowed to provide “endangered-species status for the S.P.D.” (Die partei will send two members to the parliament—both are comedians.) The far-right Alternative for Germany, meanwhile, managed eleven per cent; the populist threat may have stalled, but it remains.

A similar fragmentation of the center is visible in the United Kingdom’s results, although Brexit has brought with it a distinctive madness. The new Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, which claims that voters who want to leave the E.U. have been betrayed by the élites, came in first, with thirty-one per cent of the vote. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Conservatives managed only nine per cent, given the brutal parliamentary defeats that Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered. (She will cease to be her party’s leader on June 7th; the brawl to replace her has featured bad behavior by almost everyone, especially the shameless Boris Johnson.) Yet, despite the Tory wreckage, Labour, the main opposition party, got only fourteen per cent. The Liberal Democrats, who had been moribund, came in second, with twenty per cent—largely, it seems, because they expressed clear opposition to Brexit, while Labour dodged.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said he believed that the disordered course of Brexit fever had provided “a vaccine against anti-E.U. propaganda and fake news”—an example, that is, of the risks of flirting with populism. Another, more lurid, example came from Austria, where the conservative Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, had bought the support of the extremist Freedom Party by making its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, his Vice-Chancellor. Last month, the German press published a video of Strache in Ibiza, discussing a corrupt deal with a woman whom he believed to be a rich Russian. (Strache called this “an alcohol-related display of machismo.”) Kurz’s government has collapsed.

But it would be risky to depend on the public mortification of politicians as the principal means of combatting extremism. (For one thing, devastating videos don’t turn up on a reliable basis.) Americans are entering into a long Presidential-campaign season, in which one of the contenders will be Donald Trump, upon whom humiliation has had an astonishingly limited effect—it’s barely shaken his support among Republicans in Congress.

The European elections hold other lessons for this country. One is the value of clearly believing in something. Another is that climate change may move to the center of political decision-making here, too, and that—as Greta Thunberg has demonstrated—leadership matters. Perhaps above all, mainstream parties do need to do better, and must offer real solutions. In this country, too, voters who are breaking old attachments may be ready to form new ones. ♦



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