Hunger Games, Europe edition

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Rob Ford might seem like an odd place to start a post on the ongoing European Parliament elections, but bear with me. One of the explanations for the Fords’ continued popularity in some quarters is (or so I have read on Internet fora) that they are very good at “retail politics” or at least projecting that image. By this, people mean to say that Rob and Doug are the sort of politician you get in touch with in order to get something done. Like yelling at some hapless bureaucrat to push through your license application more quickly, or getting the authorities to give you whatever bylaw-y/writ-like/easement-y thing that you feel you’re entitled to, or even denouncing that property-value-reducing autism home opening down the street or what have you. Even the phrase “retail politics” sounds a bit grody, with the faint odor of petty corruption and favoritism and rules-bending around it.

This is what came to mind when I read this Der Spiegel International Edition article on the EU bureaucracy in Brussels and how it’s reacting to the little niggling feeling it’s starting to have that it might be under siege. A bit. This is a bureaucracy whose leadership does not see its distance from the European public to be a weakness, but instead a sign of its neutrality, strength, and professionalism. To be fair, they’re in a bit of a bind: they have to simultaneously appease a gaggle of disparate national politicians and governments and not step on too many official toes. But still: it seems to me that their inability to conduct any “retail politics” at all leaves them in a position where they become only ever perceived as obstacle rather than facilitator because that becomes their visible interface. And make no mistake: bureaucracy is necessary to facilitate an organized industrial society.

I bring this up because Europe is in the process of voting on its next set of MEPs, and this time the voters of many countries choosing to send a message. And with the EP being mostly a toothless talk shop, voters feel that it is possible to do so cost-free! And right now, politicians have little to lose and much to gain by railing against Brussels, fair or no, and some EU officials are going to find their seats a little hotter in the near future, even if they are insulated from real consequences by the Commission.

We got a foretaste of this in the last French municipal elections (France being a unitary state has no provincial elections to give intermediate indicators of the lay of the land; it’s municipal or national). Marine le Pen’s right-populist Front National made unprecedented gains, taking for the first time the leadership of some France’s town governments. What is one of the first things that Queen Marine ordered her victorious troops to do? To cancel the provision of non-pork meals in elementary school canteens, provided for the benefit of Muslim (and Jewish, but who are we kidding, although there is an anti-semitic portion of the FN apparently) children at these schools.

This was a dog-whistle to a core base of support. You can just hear her supporters cackle to themselves “haha that’ll teach those 8-year-olds to not be born in France!” while dreaming of connecting every French Muslim to a pork blood drip or however it is their vicious little minds peregrinate — there probably aren’t very many Muslim kids in those areas anyway, I haven’t checked. But actually, while she decided to throw a bone to the troops, the main source of her success and further likelihood of doing well in the MEP elections is justified French disgruntlement at how France’s role in Europe has evolved since the introduction of the single currency. It turns out (surprise!) that money and monetary policy is not neutral or abstract, but instead lines the fissures and faultlines in the political economy.

A turn to right-wing populism happens when people feel powerless. Starting with Greece, the reaction of the European political elite has been to evade or crush any attempt at left-wing populism, and for those of them who might have honestly wanted the EU project to succeed, they are reaping what they sowed.

Not very long ago in France, they soundly threw out Merkozy and installed a Socialist president, Hollande, with the very clear expectation that he would chart a different course and demand that the single currency be run on principles that don’t presuppose that every country can be German-style export machines. But Germany called Hollande’s bluff, and he folded: France is even more committed down the vicious cycle of austerity than it was before. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, hardly a socialist of any sort, expresses his disappointment in the Telegraph that Hollande is not more Socialist. (Now Sarko is back with some rather stupid suggestions.) The popularity of Marine le Pen is directly dependent on this more than it is on the anti-immigration and Islamophobia agenda.

But this form of right-wing populism is by no means a way out of the crisis. It takes at face value the logic of austerity, and responds instead by drawing the circle tighter. It promises its supporters that it will restore the old benefits of the in-group by attacking the well-being of disliked outgroups, a socially destructive version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The vicious cycle of contraction bringing further contraction continues, a society in labour waiting to birth a disaster.

In some parts of Europe (such as Greece), there are signs of life among left-wing populist movements, but it remains to be seen whether this can overcome the xenophobic tide. For my own part, I sort of share Wolfgang M√ľnchau’s feeling of being a “chagrined Europhile” (link in German). The events in Ukraine are a reminder that Europe is one of the chessboards on which Russia and the USA play their games, and the only way to escape this is by building a unity of common interests, which, like it or not, requires economic and political integration to be “real” (to prevent the use of economic and cultural wedges). But one source of the apparently intractable flaws in the EU project is that too many of the architects of the EU suffer from a bad case of Grand Politics and Deep Thought, and not enough appreciation for the grody retail politics that gives the citizen the knowledge that membership has benefits.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on May 23, 2014 1:05 PM.

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