Britain stands teetering on the verge of leaving the European Union on 29th March. It is possible that date is pushed back a bit. It’s possible that a second referendum will emerge as the only way to break the deadlock in parliament. The fact is that as the law stands now the UK will be an ex-EU member at one-minute past 11am on 29th March 2019. All is still confusion and division at Westminster. Anything could happen in the weeks leading up to Exit Day. Out on 29th March is the most likely conclusion.
In May this year, elections to the European Parliament will take place in every EU member state (not of course in the UK). Great questions of global importance arise from the EU elections and the UK leaving the EU. It is in which political direction will the UK and the EU go? The answers matter greatly to the security and stability of the planet.
70 years of consensus politics
For over 70 years the political nature of Europe has been dominated by an alliance of social democrats on the Left and centrists parties of the Right. It was a form of consensus politics that even Margaret Thatcher, who ended the post-World War 2 consensus in Britain and championed free market economics and the small state, was content to leave alone. Centrism was and is the essential ingredient needed to make work what has become the EU.
Centrism meant finding routes to give capital and labour each a reasonable slice of the economic cake. It meant nations pooling some sovereignty in order to win the benefits of trade from open borders, common regulatory standards and the free movement of people. At its very root is the idea that the more the nation states of Europe are bound together by economic and social ties the less likely is war between competing states.
The evolution of the EU, from its genesis in the late 1940s to the 28-member EU of today, has been an enormous project and, many would argue, one of the most successful political exercises in all of history.
But can consensus politics survive? New forces have sprung up, characterised by the rhetoric of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-immigration, small government and dislike of rules-based international order as represented by organisations like the EU, UN, IMF and OECD.
In France, the “Yellow Jackets” – an alliance of the unhappy from Left and Right – has weakened President Macron’s authority and his broadly centrist, pro-EU, political position. The French tradition of street protests has morphed the Yellow Jackets from a loose grouping of the disaffected into an actual political party in the mold of Donald Trump populism. The rise of the far Right has devastated the architects of modern Germany, the Social Democratic Party. The ruling Christian Democrats have suffered too, leading to Chancellor Angela Merkel agreeing to stand down in 2021. For 18 years, Mrs Merkel led Germany and was seen by many to be the leader of the EU and of the free world.
Similar political upheavals are happening to a greater or lesser extent across Europe, though particularly in Austria, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Poland and Hungary. In some places, democracy, civil rights and judicial independence are seen as expandable luxuries. Historians of Europe look on and fear the rise of the sort of politics that brought Hitler and Mussolini to power. The dark days of the 1930s may not be repeated, but there are echoes and too few seem inclined to take the warnings of history.
The EU Parliament elections will be the biggest test the liberal EU consensus has faced. The biggest test the EU has faced.
Europe is creaking. The joints of ever closer union are less malleable. The great successes of post-World War 2 prosperity and stability have never been less valued. The fruits of 70 years of international cooperation and integration never less appreciated. Liberal centrism never weaker.
The UK’s battle of ideas
In the UK, the post-Brexit world is squaring up to be a battle between the Conservatives, the oldest political party in the democratic world, and the 100-year-old Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s a fair bet that whoever leads the Conservatives into the next election (it won’t be current prime minister, Theresa May) will come from the virulently anti-EU far Right of the party. That wing looks little different from the young parties of the Right in Europe. The Conservative grandees may own country estates, dress in Savile Row suits and have gone to Eton College and Oxford University, but they are broadly similar in outlook from their perhaps less rich, less elegantly dressed fellow travelers in Europe. The difference is that one group has the wealth to cushion them from any economic shocks significant change to the established political order would bring. The other group does not and may be dreaming of sunlit uplands where only cloud and storm actually exist.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is the most left-wing leader the party has had. Where Tony Blair was a classic pro-EU, business friendly, social democratic, Corbyn’s Marxism holds no brief for the EU. His politics sees increased public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, heavy personal and corporate taxation to enforce wealth redistribution, and foreign and defence policies disfavouring NATO and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. In power, a Corbyn government would distance the UK from American entanglements in other lands.
Momentous times lie ahead for the UK. Indeed, it may not last the course as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scottish independence is back on the Caledonian agenda and in Northern Ireland support for reunification with the Republic of Ireland has never been greater.
The Titanic Brexit battles in the British House of Commons have been only partly about the country’s EU membership. They are also about the type of society Britain will be in 10 or 50 or 100 years. We are witnessing a clash of ideas the like of which we have not seen since the 1930s. That is not to say that we are on the edge of descending into a dark political pit. Britain is still a free land where the law protects minorities and the freedom of speech. But like the EU, Britain’s engine of democracy, the Mother of Parliaments, is coping badly with the conflicting ideologies vying to win the day.
Ken Clarke MP, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and the UK’s longest serving Member of Parliament, is widely regarded as a wise and sober voice. He is though a worried man. Recently, after another day of fractious indecision at Westminster that brought a resolution to Britain’s Brexit dilemma no closer, Mr. Clark wrote,
“If this shambles goes on much longer I hate to think where populism and extremism will take us next in this democracy.”
He might easily have been speaking of all of Europe.
Martin Roche is a graduate of the great and ancient University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he read politics and international relations. He began his working life on a daily newspaper in Scotland and has since written for many newspapers, magazines and radio stations in the UK and internationally. As a communications consultant, he has advised political and business leaders in over 20 countries.