Since the global financial crisis, European politics have fragmented and swerved alarmingly to the right, as voters across the continent have elected nationalists and given far-right parties their largest vote shares of the postwar era. When, in late May, the European Parliament held its first election since 2014, many feared that far-right parties would increase their vote totals; indeed, the far right will see its representation increase by about a fourth, to twenty-five per cent. But that wave was smaller than expected, and left-wing, pro-Europe parties—particularly Green parties—gained significant ground, largely at the expense of the center left. (Center-right parties, predictably, took a hit from the far-right surge.)
Still, European politics remains extremely fragile. In Italy, the coalition government of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the neo-Fascist Northern League has taken harsh anti-immigrant lines, and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League won a plurality in the recent European vote. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (which recently changed its name from the National Front) was the top vote-getter, coming in slightly ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist party, En Marche! In Britain, where the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has announced that she will step down, in early June, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party took a clear plurality of votes, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour lost ground to both the passionately pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the Austrian Parliament ousted the conservative Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who had formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party. Kurz’s coalition partner had been caught on tape offering favors, in exchange for money, from a woman claiming to be a wealthy Russian, which fuelled concerns about the closeness of much of Europe’s far right to Vladimir Putin’s regime. But however clownish or sinister, these parties are not easy to dislodge; it’s not clear that voters will punish either the far right or Kurz in the next election.
To discuss these developments and what they signal for the future of Europe, I spoke by phone with Adam Tooze, the director of the European Institute at Columbia University and the author of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed The World.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Italy’s right-wing turn is so dangerous for the continent, the surprising reasons behind the success of European Green parties, and why the European Union is increasingly fed up with the United Kingdom.
Is your takeaway from this election that the far right did not do quite as well as expected, or is that too sanguine?
Depends where you look, really. The big story is Italy—Salvini did pretty well, really remarkably so. The last number I saw was thirty-four per cent. Italy matters because it is the neuralgic weak spot of the eurozone. It is too big to bail; it is too big to fail. And we are heading, given the slowdown in Italian growth, toward a near-inevitable clash with [Europe] in the fall, and Salvini now really has the whip hand in the coalition with the Five Star Movement. There is some good news about the Democratic Party (P.D.) coming back, overtaking Five Star. But really the story in Italy is the remarkable success of Salvini.
One observer noted—and this is a story across the continent—how granular this has become. So, while it is true that the Northern League scored big across large parts of Italy, the largest city that it won is Venice. And I think that is the tenth-largest city in Italy. So, across the suburbs and countryside in Italy, the right’s very strong right now.
The other places where the right did very well were Flanders, which is going to toss Belgium into a little chaos for a while, and obviously Poland, as well. Law and Justice has really consolidated its grip on the Polish political system. In France, I think Le Pen’s win is more symbolic in that her vote was actually lower than in 2014. The bigger news really is that the Macron breakthrough of 2016–17 has proved permanent. That should not be underestimated. Le Pen’s nationalism is an old political formation; Macron’s is absolutely not. The fact that both the classic conservative Republican Party in France and the Socialists have continued to be marginalized is really very remarkable.
So, across the whole election, the results are mixed. I wouldn’t take a simple sanguine line. It is not as bad as many people expected. In Germany, for instance, the AfD [Alternative for Germany party] made no gains whatsoever [compared to the 2017 federal elections]. In Denmark, the right wing suffered a pretty serious setback. But Italy is strategically important to the future of the E.U. and the Eurobond.
Macron is the incumbent President, and his party got less than twenty-three per cent of the vote. Why is that a success? Just because his party is new, and he has had lots of troubles recently?
He is the President of France thanks to France’s peculiar two-phase electoral system. He won against Le Pen in the runoff, but his score in the first round of the Presidential election was not substantially larger than this. Only when the entire electorate was faced with a choice between Le Pen and somebody else did Macron get the overwhelming majority. But, given a free hand, the French electorate, like that of many European countries, splits into five or six distinct splinters.
How do you understand Salvini’s success over and above others of his ilk, such as Le Pen? Is it the particular conditions of Italy?
I think he is an unusually skillful politician. He has many fewer weaknesses than Le Pen, who, under pressure in the Presidential elections in France, revealed herself to be fragile and, in the famous debate with Macron, came pretty close to coming apart. Salvini is made of much tougher stuff, and he has a genuine genius for self-promotion, with some very clever electronic marketing going on as well on the Italian right.
But, above all, I would point to Italian conditions, which continue to be quite extreme. This is a country that has experienced economic decline since 2007. Italy’s G.D.P. is below its pre-crisis levels and has very high youth unemployment. Although the refugee crisis is well past its peak, Italy remains on the front lines of the refugee problem in Europe, which provides Salvini with endless grist for his mill. There is no European solution to the refugee problem any more than there is to the stagnation of growth in Italy. So I would point first and foremost to those conditions. He isn’t, after all, sweeping Italy with some fifty, sixty per cent majority. What has happened is that a previously regional party has broken out into the mainstream as a thoroughgoing, nationalist alternative. If you add up all the right-wing parties, the really nasty ones further to the right, you end up with forty per cent, and that’s not counting Silvio Berlusconi. So I think it is really a matter of Italian conditions. And that’s what really makes it worrying. Those conditions are real. This crisis is not imaginary.
Are there really no solutions for the economic conditions of some of Europe’s member states, which would be helpful for those countries and also helpful for the E.U. as a whole, because it would lessen the support for people like Salvini?
Oh, yes, in the abstract, hypothetically, well-meaning technocrats of all stripes from all the European countries could come up with solutions. The question is really whether the national governments, and the new European Commission that has to be elected, and the new leadership of the European Central Bank that has to be appointed, are willing to embrace the difficult trade-offs that those involve. They may, in the end, be positive sum, and be better for everyone, but in the short run they require the Germans, for instance, to take or share responsibility for comprehensive banking reform and to be willing to absorb some of the risks and bad loans in the Italian banking system. So while we, as farsighted as we are, can be Monday-morning quarterbacking this, it is very difficult, concretely, to make that kind of breakthrough.
You call yourself an expert on Europe, and you are using the phrase “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep affection for American football.
Q. & A.
An Indian Political Theorist on the Triumph of Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalism
By Isaac Chotiner
A Political Economist on How China Sees Trump’s Trade War
By Isaac Chotiner
A Philosopher of Law on the Dangers of Trump’s Plan to Pardon American War Criminals
By Isaac Chotiner
A Journalist on How Anti-Immigrant Fervor Built in the Early Twentieth Century
By Isaac Chotiner
A Supreme Court Reporter Defines the Threat to Abortion Rights
By Isaac Chotiner
A Times Reporter Documents the Horror of Syria’s Torture Sites
By Isaac Chotiner
There had been a lot of fear that center-left parties would collapse, and in their wake those votes would go to the far right. But, instead, the Greens rose. That seems like a continent-wide phenomenon, no?
I do think the rise of the Green parties is the surprise of this election. In Britain, they came out ahead of the Tories. That is an astonishing result for the British system, which is so conservative in its party structure. And the big news of the night is that, in Germany, the lead of the Green Party over the Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.) held up. And they are now—across large parts particularly of West Germany, but, above all, in all the cities of Germany—if not the leading party then the leading party of opposition to [Chancellor Angela Merkel’s] C.D.U. [Christian Democratic Union]. So this is a truly dramatic transformation.
Whether or not it is actually working-class voters who are transferring from the S.P.D. or the French Socialist Party to the Greens, that is not at all obvious. In terms of the total vote share, that’s true. If you look at the combined vote share of the Greens and the Social Democrats in Germany, the combined vote share is basically unchanged. What happened is that, in the early two-thousands, Die Linke broke away and split the S.P.D., and that means that, although Germany has a progressive majority quite a lot of the time, it is very difficult to put that into a governing coalition. But, over all, I do think the rise of the Green party—and the extraordinary salience that climate politics has achieved in Europe in the last several years—means there is a real awareness of the significance of this issue.
In terms of their ideology, you see that the Greens and the Liberals have a great deal in common.
It’s generally true. Macronites and French Greens have quite a lot in common. It’s a politics of trying to escape the old left-right divisions. If you were cynical and speaking from the left, you would say they are often both neoliberal. Sociologically speaking, their support tends to come from educated people: lawyers, doctors, people with university educations. And, unfortunately, as in the United States, there is quite a lot of fearmongering, which positions blue-collar workers against Green politics.This is true in Poland.
What do you mean by neoliberal? This doesn’t seem obvious to me.
Because it is, broadly speaking, not demanding social transformation as part of the Green package. As I said, this is the view of the left on the Greens, and the Greens themselves would no doubt hastily deny this, but many people on the left, in Europe and the United States, suspect that behind Green politics is what we would call the agenda of markets, individualism, and modernization. Certainly, in Europe right now, the radical transformation they are demanding is not socio and economic. It is technical—a matter of life styles, if you like. And if you locate your politics essentially as a matter of life-style choice, you are speaking the language of choice, and consumerism, even if it is a criticism of consumerism. It’s a bit like people saying yoga is a neoliberal preoccupation. [Laughs.]
It seems like the center left and center right keep falling away, even if individual economic conditions are O.K. I know that isn’t true in certain countries. In Austria, the center right did well, and—
And Spain. Spain is another key country. Once the U.K. leaves, it is the fourth-largest country within the E.U. And in Spain we see a reassertion of the social democratic Socialist Party, and it even looks as if the [center-right] People’s Party is coming back. So it is a very motley picture. But, to your point of what is going on with the center left and center right, I think that is indeed the core question. Part of the problem is that the center right was tempted to move away from its positions. It moved either to the far right, in the case of the French Republicans—they basically adopted a nationalist agenda—or, as critics of Merkel would say, she turned the C.D.U. into something more like the S.P.D. In terms of the agenda Merkel’s government has pursued, it is actually quite close to a social democracy, and, indeed, even the Green Party on various points. So that adds up to an incredible blurring of the lines. Certainly what has happened is the ability to silo a particular social constituency, a particular set of cultural values, a particular set of economic programs, even regions of the country, and say, “This is S.P.D. territory,” or, “This is Christian Democratic territory”—that’s gone. And so what we have are lots of different parties fishing in what, in many ways, is a soup of agenda items.
And if you combine that with anger at the status quo, it doesn’t seem like a good recipe for traditional parties.
Exactly. There is a branding issue. The most striking numbers that came out in the whole election in Germany are the age profile. Among voters under the age of thirty, the Green Party attracted more votes than the S.P.D., the C.D.U., and the F.D.P. [Free Democratic Party] put together. They completely dominate the youth vote. The S.P.D. is attracting seven per cent of voters under the age of thirty. That is what I mean about it being a branding issue. No one doubts that, on welfare issues, on social insurance, on pensions, the Greens could pursue a policy every bit as social-democratic as the S.P.D., but why would you vote for a party as tired as the old social democrats look when labor unions aren’t really a factor for most of the voters involved, and the key issues are more to do with the environment, Europe, and migrants? On all of those [issues], the Greens look more credibly progressive than the S.P.D. does.
And that’s the move that Macron basically made in the center ground in France. He turns out to be a right-of-center, market-reforming politician, but he wasn’t going to do that within the framework of the French Socialist Party, let alone the framework of the French conservatives.
What did you make of the collapse of the Austrian government?
The Austrian right-wing party is a very dangerous political formation. It didn’t actually get wiped out. You would have thought it would have suffered a catastrophic implosion, like the Tories did in Britain. I think it went down a couple percentage points. If you speak to any liberal Austrian who has read the avalanche of reportage on the inner workings of the party over the years, nothing is going to surprise them. It really is a cesspool. It is a gathering place for a remarkable range of far-right, nationalist, and neo-Nazi or Nazi groupings.
The real question is what kind of a price do more mainstream right-wing parties pay [for their collaboration], and the answer in the European elections was nothing. Obviously, without his coalition partner, Kurz doesn’t have a majority in Parliament, and the government falls. So there will probably be new elections, and I would be surprised if the result was much different from the last time.
What about in terms of Russia and its possible closeness to some of these parties?
If this is some sort of program of influence rather than disruption, it is spectacularly unsuccessful. If the idea is actually to infiltrate and manipulate governments in the West, this is not the way to do it. If the idea is just to create instability, then we are wide open. If we are generating politicians of the type that we do in the United States or in Britain or in Austria right now, then accidents are going to happen, and people who are in the business of causing disruption will find it incredibly easy to do so, because the people they are dealing with are half-wits and extraordinarily naïve and tactically maladroit.
The United Kingdom is about to get a new Prime Minister. Do you think there will be any willingness in Europe to make the next British Prime Minister’s life easier, or does the E.U., understandably, have no reason to go any easier on Britain?
Oh, I think there is absolutely zero probability of any kind of concessions from Brussels. One should never say never in politics, but I think that is a very unlikely outcome. I have been in Europe a lot recently, and I was really struck by the indignation across the board that the Brits were participating in these elections. There are going to be more Farage M.E.P.s in the Parliament than representatives of Merkel’s C.D.U. [The latest results show that they will have an equal number of seats.] And that is outrageous. That may have sealed the deal, in that that group of parliamentarians can’t be allowed to sit in Parliament for five years.
Would that then imply that maybe Europe will give concessions to get them out of there, though?
No, because there is a no-deal Brexit option, and that would be bad. But the government is quite likely to be Boris Johnson, to whom the Europeans are unlikely to want to give any favors. I was incredibly struck by how indignant everyone I spoke to was about this ridiculous situation. They have other fish to fry, and bigger things need to be decided, and they need to move on to doing those.