By Alastair Crooke for Strategic Culture
The crises are running, faster and faster, well beyond the abilities of EU rigid structures and mindsets to respond.
The French election result has again demonstrated the hard-edged rigidities of European society which make the prospect of strong purposeful (i.e. transformative) government, of the ilk of say a de Gaulle, almost impossible to emerge today at national level. However, when such national rigidities are taken in combination with the European supra-national, ‘once size fits none’ institutional EU incapacity to respond to the specifics of complex situations, we get ‘full on’ immobilism – the impossibility to change policy in any way meaningfully, in the majority of EU states.
Europe has chugged along for a decade with its managerial ‘Merkellism’ which can be defined as an ingrained reluctance to take hard decisions; to punt problems off by spreading ‘gravy’ liberally around; and in tilting – one way or the other – to Left or Right accordingly, as the wind blows. It has been a time of easy decisions, on top of easy decisions, and little by way of solving structural problems.
This has however, taken the EU into a blind alley – precisely when it faces war in Europe, and when the fires of grave inflation already have been lit, with flames licking skywards, exposing domestic electorates to their harsh vicissitudes.
Macron is widely unpopular in France. He is viewed as aloof and arrogant, and as having failed to bring about meaningful political or economic shift. Yet, in spite of this, and in spite of securing only 4 out of 10 French votes in the first-round voting, he won the Presidency convincingly. Why? And why, against this backdrop, is it that Le Pen who improved her hold notably across the majority of Communes in France, did not do better in the second round, where she then lost support? She ran a competent campaign and made no notable missteps in the televised debate.
Here lies the structural rigidity (one not confined to France, alone): Le Pen has this ‘label’ stuck on her – she is ‘Far-Right’, the MSM unceasingly insist. Here, it is not about agreeing, or not, her specific policies, but rather it is to point out the paradox that – objectively – her policies, as presented, chime more closely with those of rival Mélenchon coming from France’s new Left, than with those of status quo Macron.
The Left is closer to Right (Le Pen), than to the Centre (Macron). Yet the former two cannot connect – the Left in France is psychologically conditioned to unite with the Centre against the Right, however disparate their programmes. The bought mainstream media invariably connive at this Centrist ‘arrangement’.
Nor was Le Pen’s second-round result principally brought about by her being seen as pro-Putin – on Russia, NATO, Ukraine and Putin, there was little to distinguish her from Mélenchon.
The label was enough: 42% of Mélenchon voters supported Macron in the second round, though mostly they detest him. Identity politics (first invented by the French in the 18th century), and popularised anew by Hillary Clinton in 2016, are the weapon: The Left cannot bring themselves to vote for a ‘Far-Right’ candidate, come what may. The Centre and Left are compelled to unite against her. This is the structural fact of much European politics.
Mélenchon, it seems, wants to prevail in the June Assembly elections, and is thought to have aspirations to be Prime Minister, where, of course, he will co-habit with the status quo President. Parliament may have some stronger representation, but essentially it would be: plus ça change …!
These centrist immobilising tactics by the Euro-élites are widely pursued. In Italy, an unpopular centrist coalition is put together from the electorally weaker parties, which can be counted on to shrink away from the test of general elections. These parties then coalesce with a Left-leaning managerial-professional class of metro-élite cosmopolitans – the Centre – who benefit from the status quo – in order to keep the Populists and the Right down – and out. Macron took the Paris vote 3:1. In Britain, 90% of London constituencies were solid ‘Remainers’.
The result, typically – unpopular European politicians persist with their unpopular status quo state-corporatist politics.
So is it not ‘just politics’ as usual? Yes, but it has its price: immobilism, and rising alienation. Power and money gravitates to the metropolitan centre at the expense of the communes, and from there, it drains to Brussels, impervious to popular disquiet, protest and impoverishment.
Years of exclusionary politics by the status quo practioners have denuded many European states of the prospect for making any significant change. The vessels for purposeful transformation have been deliberately withered; the ‘Centre blocs’ themselves are frequently stale and exhausted; and red-blood politics is disallowed.
Today’s Managerial Integrationism is intentionally set up in direct antagonistic opposition to all forms of nationalism, as if they be anti-European. Yet, there is such a thing as European Culture which somehow does bind us, in our diversity, if only as memory lodged at the deepest layers to our being.
The latter is not the flat steppe-lands of today’s monolithic, concerted EU messaging. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance (extending across the whole of Europe) was born out of the renewal of contact with the spirit of Antiquity (European-wide Culture) – not just to copy it, but as fertile soil in which the new could take root.
Europe historically however, has been at its strongest when diverse states competed culturally.
Macron has won convincingly – and will be off to Brussels as the clear primus inter pares, particularly with Germany in its present weakened, and factious state. There, he will find that though dominant, the problem is that not every country in the bloc shares Macron’s vision of Europe. As one diplomat put it: Macron’s European credentials have never been in doubt; rather the contrary: he can be more ‘European than Europe’ (after his election victory, it was the EU anthem that played).
It’s just that for French politicians over the years, ‘Europe is La France’, albeit writ large. And Macron likely will continue in this Jupiterian vein.
Macron embraced early the initiative to embargo Russian oil and gas. A move, following the termination of Nordstream 2, that portended the de-industrialisation of Germany – and its stark de-coupling from Russia. Germany, as a result of Biden’s Ukraine project, has been ushered into Washington’s court, as a shadow of its former self (even if it keeps access to cheap Russian gas a mite longer).
Now France will be pre-eminent and will hope to build out the military structures within the EU to give it military-security predominance too, as the only nuclear-weapon power and permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Whether Macron achieves his lofty goals will hinge on his ability to convince and cajole fellow leaders to follow his lead, to forge consensus, and broker concrete deals, rather than merely agitate and argue. Among the obstacles Macron may face in the years ahead is collective instinctive resistance to the prospect of French hegemony.
And this is where the second order of structural rigidity plays its part. Europe faces two major crises: Ukraine and inflation (with its fires already burning bright). And these rigidities will very much limit the EU chance of managing these issues competently – or, if at all.
In respect to the latter (inflation), the Treaty of Maastricht conferred absolute independence on the European Central Bank, which operates without any of the counterweights – Congress, the White House, the Treasury – that surround the U.S. Fed, embedding it in a political setting where it is publicly accountable. Unlike any other central bank, the independence of the ECB isn’t merely statutory, its rules or aims alterable by parliamentary decision – it is subject only to Treaty revision.
Even if ‘the introduction of the Euro into a fundamentally flawed currency zone was a huge mistake, the same applies to any undoing that mistake’, since the dissolution of the Eurozone would be ‘equivalent to a tsunami of economic as well as political regression’. Hence the ‘trap’ Europe is in: It can neither move forwards, nor backwards. The ECB cannot end Quantitative Easing (without creating a crisis for Italy and France), nor can it raise interest rates to combat soaring inflation (without creating a sovereign debt crisis, known as ‘lo spread’).
In respect to inflation, France plays the part of being one of the ‘sick men of Europe’ (the over-indebted). It is not therefore best placed to lead – and, in any case, real reform would require EU Treaty re-negotiation which is a ‘no-no’ for most states.
What sets the EU apart as a political structure unlike any other, however, is the presumption of consensus (and the protocols that flow from that) a system designed to exclude the unpredictability of public debate or political disagreement. The same pattern holds higher up as decisions are passed to the Council, where the resulting decision must be anointed with family photographs and unanimous communiqués.
The imperative of consensus is all. This explains why EU policy-making is so secretive, and lacks what is elementary to political life at the national level – open and normal political dispute. It is also why the EU is so rigid, and incapable of fundamentally reforming itself.
It is at the Council that Macron would need to tread lightly. He will not be able to take ‘consensus’ on an emotionally charged issue such as Ukraine or on Russia for granted. Though all member states are technically equal, and can block decisions in line with national interests, the reality, of course, is that with vast disparities between countries, Germany and France de facto command the proceedings by reason of their size and power. Since they do not always agree, and when they do, may not always insist, not every decision of the Council is a translation of their will. Nothing is ‘a given’.
The Ukraine conflict in particular, highlights a further rigidity. As George Friedman has made plain, on security policy issues, Washington doesn’t deal with ‘Europe’ – it by-passes it: ‘We deal rather with states: with a Poland or a Romania”: We don’t do collective ‘Europe’.
Tricky! The U.S., together with certain European states, are pouring (or at least trying to pour) heavy weapons and missile systems into Ukraine. Yes, these states are widening the conflict, too, creating ‘hotspots’ in Transnistria, Moldavia, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan – to distract Moscow. And deepening the proxy war (claiming, inter alia, that their real-time intelligence input brought down a Russian troop-carrying aircraft – ‘killing hundreds’).
In short, they are setting the war’s course. Does the EU have meaningful agency in such a situation? Probably not.
These crises are running, faster and faster, well beyond the abilities of EU rigid structures and mind-sets to respond. The EU institutionally ‘functions’, if at all, best in ‘fair-weather’. It is being stress-tested to break-point, by the onset of foul-weather, for which it simply is not adapted either at the supra-national or national level.
Events, events dear boy, are in command.
Alastair Crooke – Former British diplomat, founder and director of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum.