The political centre of Europe might hold after all.
Established parties of the democratic right and left have experienced unusually good news over the past few weeks.
The most significant came in mid-March, when the governing centre right-liberal party in the Netherlands, the VVD, beat the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in the country’s presidential election.
In France, liberal presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron had a strong performance in the first debate on March 21. He beat Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who shared third place with the centre-right Francois Fillon – who has been wounded by allegations of corruption.
The leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) was second in that debate, and in the next debate on April 4 Melenchon came in first, with Le Pen in fourth place after Fillon. With a pugnacious, at times witty style, Melenchon – a former Socialist party minister who found the party too far to the right – may now push Le Pen out of the first round of voting on April 23 and face Macron in the final vote in May.
Like Macron, Melenchon created his own party: the likely losers in France will be the parties that have governed the country, under different titles, since World War Two.
In Austria, the ruling Social Democrats have gained the lead in opinion polls, beating the far-right Freedom Party – whose candidate for presidency narrowly lost the run-off election last year. Austria has its parliamentary election next year, but divisions in the governing coalition may force a snap poll, which the Freedom Party had thought it would win. That’s now an open question.
In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Frauke Petry has talked of resigning, less than six months before national elections. The party has plummeted in opinion polls, down to seven percent from 15 percent last summer. The AfD was never likely to be in national government: if it falls further it may not even gain seats in the national parliament, which has a five percent qualification threshold.
Against this background, the European Union seems to be recovering. The assumption that Brexit would motivate other countries to leave the Union has not materialised.
Growth is averaging 1.6 percent this year and is expected to rise to 1.8 percent in 2018. Unemployment is likely to fall from 10 percent last year to 9.6 this year, and 9.1 percent next. These are not stellar figures – unemployment is still considerably above pre-crisis levels – but they are much more hopeful than they were in the first years of this decade.
Germany in particular has never been healthier, showing a record 252.9 billion euro ($270.05 billion) trade surplus for 2016.
German strength illuminates Mediterranean weakness, the big “but” when heralding EU recovery. Greece, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain and France all have debt levels that are higher than the EU average. Greece, with debt nearing 180 percent of GDP, is now in talks on yet another bailout which, if it fails, may mean default. Italy, still faced with an unresolved crisis with 360 billion euros ($383 billion) of problematic loans in the banking system, has stubbornly slow growth, forecast to be 0.9 percent this year, with unemployment at 11.6 percent, much higher among the young, and debt rising to 133.3 percent this year.
There’s more on the “but” side: the long and perhaps rancorous Brexit negotiations ahead; the increasing distance the Central European members – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia – take from the liberal politics of the EU (although not from the billions they receive in support); the possibility of an anti-EU government being elected this year or next.
The larger issue, rarely raised, is how extensively the Union can address its arcane and undemocratic politics, its tendency to centralise power, the fragility of the euro and the widening gulf between the Union’s official adherence to “ever-closer union” and the need to devolve responsibilities back to elected governments.
In Rome last week, EU leaders gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding treaty and declared that “Our Union is undivided and indivisible”. It isn’t. It needs radical restructuring: had its members adopted such an approach last year, Brexit could have been avoided. Perhaps, in the course of Britain’s long withdrawing roar, some of that lesson will be learned.