The final of the three political earthquakes of 2016 is over. First Brexit won, then Trump won and yesterday, Matteo Renzi’s referendum has failed spectacularly. The proposals designed to stifle debate, curtail regional representation and weaken Italy’s famously pluralistic multi-party democracy, will never be implemented.
Matteo Renzi’s political career in Italy is likely finished and he may well bring the electrical fortunes of other neo-liberals with him, into oblivion. One could venture to say that his career in Brussels may begin soon, as Brussels careers are often the perfect refuge for politicians no longer respected in their own countries, but too greedy to alight from the political gravy train.
The paranoid warnings about currency markets and stock markets appear thus far to have been exaggerated. That notwithstanding, the long term fate of the Eurozone which has been uncertain for years, has just been shaken further.
Referenda are curious phenomena insofar as they allow people to vote on a specific issue or in the case of Italy, a set of issues. However, many see such instances as opportunities to express votes of confidence in the wider political system. As it was with Brexit, Italian voters have said they are fed up with a system that puts the needs of career politicians over general public welfare.
The big question now is, where does Europe go from here? There are four options:
After Brexit, many Europhiles said that the solution is more federalisation rather than less. The rationale for this is that if Brussels works to create an EU monolith that the likes of Jean-Claude Junker salivate over, there will be not opportunities to ‘go back’ apart from open revolt, something many in Brussels discount to their own detriment.
The reality is that further European entrenchment simply cannot work. The people do not want it, they never did and after years of seeing their economics fail, their living standards fall and their political and social culture become diluted, they are becoming increasingly vocal. Still though, some in Brussels will argue that the very reason for Europe’s problem can somehow be the solution.
- Heads In Sand
There are some Europhiles who are so out of touch, they are almost endearing. They see the EU wide frustration at the status quo as something Harold MacMillan might have described as ‘a little local difficulty’. Many of these people simply think that Brexit, the Italian ‘no vote’, the surging popularity of Wilders in The Netherlands or Le Pen in France are just ‘fads’ which like an irritating pop record will be forgotten after a few months.
Such people may point to the Austrian Presidential election re-run which was won by Alexander Van der Bellen. Van der Bellen is the kind of figure whose presence reassures Europhiles. He’s the kinder, gentler, putatively left-wing face of ultra-federalism who saw off a formidable challenge by the Eurosceptic right in the form of Norbert Hofer.
The reality is that the role of Austrian President is ceremonial and hence the election for all its controversy, is largely irrelevant. This contrasts sharply with the Italian referendum which was a clear endorsement for anti-EU parties, all of which were on the ‘no’ side and a rejection of the neo-liberal factions in Italy who threw their weight behind the now former Italian Prime Minister.
The Eurosceptic surge on both the left and right, cannot be ignored or dismissed, but watch carefully for EU politicians attempting to do just that.
- Blame Vladimir Putin
No explanation required.
- Listen, Learn, Reform
This would of course be the best option for EU politicians who actually do care about the EU. If the EU is reformed from within, Euroscepticism would necessarily lose some of its popularity. Most people in Europe are happy not to pay customs duty on products going between borders and are equally happy not to have to go through border checkpoints between small nation states. If the EU made itself something of an Austrian presidency, a kind of ceremonial gatekeeper for the only things European’s actually want from the EU, it could perhaps preserve itself.
But when the EU regulates business with one size fits all solutions, there will necessarily be a backlash amongst those who are ill suited to such broad based rules. When the EU forces a currency tailor made for industrial, cold weather economies on Mediterranean Europe, people will not be complacent forever. When unelected officials in Brussels tell countries like Hungary or Poland how many supposed refugees they must let into their states, people will not stand for it. Most shockingly, when Brussels thinks having an army to wage war on neighbouring regions is more important than trying to understand why the peoples of Europe are engaged in political rebellion, it means that Brussels may be beyond redemption.
When Willy Brandt became Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, he changed the course of his predecessors. He accepted the reality that the two German states could life side-by-side and in peace rather than under the threat of constant confrontation. In doing so, he changed the trajectory of West German ambitions for both itself and Europe as a whole; he chose reconciliation over inevitable conflict.
Unless a Brandt like figure emerges in Brussels to change the collision course the EU has decided to take vis-à-vis its relationship with those they govern, it will mean that the EU will have become worse than useless, it will become an expensive, undemocratic, political liability.