I wrote the other day that it hadn’t been a good week for Robert Mugabe, a man my mother, a County Antrim woman, would have described as a “silly old coof”. But, in truth, it hasn’t been much better for many of the world’s leaders, especially in Europe. For reasons not entirely due to economic difficulties, or even mass migration, there has been a general breakdown in the consensus that for the last 20 years has kept Europe’s show on the road.
The latest casualty is Angela Merkel, who we all thought would somehow pull a coalition government out of the hat at the end of two months of talks involving the Free Democrats – once routinely the junior partners in administrations led by the Christian Democrats – and the Greens, riding high in the Bundestag, with no fewer than 67 seats.
But it didn’t happen. The Free Democrats weren’t happy with the pro-immigrant stance of the Greens and pulled out on Sunday night, leaving Merkel high and dry, in office, but with her power on hold, unable to propose anything radical lest it be shredded on the floor of the Bundestag.
Suddenly, “Mutti” looked more like her mentor, Helmut Kohl, during his final, accident-prone period in government, when his achievements were all behind him and he was running pretty well on empty.
Can she recover? Possibly. She is a trooper and holds more of the middle ground than any of her opponents. But there can be no question that she is weakened and that her aura of invincibility is gone.
On paper, France’s Emmanuel Macron is in a much stronger position. He won the presidency at a clip in May, and his newly-formed movement, La République En Marche, triumphed in the parliamentary elections that followed. Yet he, too, faces mounting dissent, not only from the usual suspects – the Far-Right, the trade unions, bourgeois begrudgers – but from scores, even hundreds, of his own deputies, many of whom feel that their leader is displaying alarming Mugabe-like tendencies.
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Macron is far and away the brightest President France has had since François Mitterrand – and he knows it. But his elevated sense of his abilities has led him to issue pronouncements rather than proposals. He sees himself as Moses, destined to lead his squabbling, ill-disciplined fellow citizens to the Promised Land of his devising, knowing that they’ll thank him later (i.e. in 2022). This week, Edouard Philippe, his dogged and, thus far, faithful prime minister, has been unveiling his master’s strategy for an ambitious reconquête industrielle, bringing together tax cuts, easy-to-follow business regulations and changes in the laws governing employment.
On the face of it, there is a lot going on. But parliamentarians, including those of En Marche, fear that they are being side-stepped and used primarily as a legislative rubber stamp. Macron – dubbed the Président des Riches – is fortunate that both the Front National and the Socialists are in disarray and that the unions are in two minds about which strategy to pursue. But that won’t last. If the President starts to run out of steam without producing the goods, he will find that there are few electorates more unforgiving than the French.
Elsewhere in Europe, the governments of Italy and Spain are much preoccupied with their own internal troubles. In Rome, makeshift prime minister Paolo Gentilone is having to deal with a raft of problems, including calls for Italy to sideline the euro, protests against the awarding of citizenship to migrant children and the impact of last month’s referendums in Lombardy and Veneto, in which the two powerful northern regions came down in favour of increased autonomy. The country’s general election is just five months away, and facing an upsurge in support for populist candidates led by the absurd Beppe Grillo, of the Five Star Movement, and (astonishingly) former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Gentilone can do little more than tread water.
Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy is meanwhile embroiled in the ongoing Catalan crisis, which shows no signs of going away. He may feel that, by standing firm, he has drawn some of the poison released by last month’s illegal independence referendum in the nation’s richest region. But the risk is that if he does not give Catalan leaders and their supporters some of what they are demanding – not least the liberty of a group of former ministers now languishing in jail – the contagion could spread to the Basque Country and Galicia. Rajoy doesn’t need this. Spain has been emerging, fitfully, from the effects of the 2008 financial crash. Youth unemployment is falling and economic growth has resumed. The centre-right Government cannot afford to be sidetracked by an unnecessary existential dispute.
And it doesn’t end there. The Belgian state is more and more a sham, in which its two main constituent parts, Flanders and Wallonia, plus the multicultural, omninational capital area – a territorial no man’s land – are like a married couple who have grown bored with each other and live largely separate lives, but can’t quite steel themselves to sue for divorce. The Dutch government, led, if that is the word, by Mark Rutte, is a lash-up, which, alongside the centre-right Liberals, features D66 – a supporter of LGBT rights, same-sex marriage and euthanasia on demand – and the Christian Union, whose stern, puritanical outlook on social and sexual matters makes Ulster’s DUP look positively agnostic.
In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have coalesced into the so-called Visegrád Group, which opposes Muslim immigration claims to stand, overtly, for white, Christian civilisation. The V4 take billions of euros in aid each year from Brussels, but resist all attempts to make them conform to the liberal EU stereotype.
What can we usefully take away from this litany of continental self-indulgence? Two things. First, the heads of government of these countries – and there are others – have a cheek lecturing Theresa May about her ineptitude and the divided, and divisive, nature of British politics. At the next EU summit, there should be a photograph in which all those attending manage somehow to ignore everybody else, not just Mrs May.
Yes. A little humility on the EU’s part could go a long way in building a better Brexit.
The second thing to take away is that the European Union, in spite of all the accusations hurled at it by the Leave camp, is not a faceless, homogenous bureaucracy, in which all energies are directed at securing Ever Closer Union. On the contrary, it is alive with sedition, driven by competing egos. It is more like the Holy Roman Empire than the Fourth Reich. Member states may (or may not) accept certain givens – the Euro, the Schengen agreement, the Common Agricultural Policy – but everything else is either up for grabs or else ignored by governments that, first and foremost, are struggling with their domestic agendas.
The wonder is that the EU gets anything done at all. But the thing is, it does. And it will again, once the present anxieties subside. The façade of unity that is presented at the end of most summits is not entirely false. It may conceal disputes, but it also reveals the central truth – that the member states prefer to hang together than hang separately.
Britain never understood this. Its conceit was to believe that if the EU was to function properly, everybody had to obey the rules, or else make their objections crystal-clear in the appropriate forum, whether it be the European Council, the Commission or – God help us! – the Strasbourg Parliament. It never learned that there were ways round everything and that the thing, ultimately, that held the edifice together was a well-bred fear of what would happen if it fell apart.
But too late now. Just think how David Cameron, still in his pomp, could have stood high in Europe if Remain had won the referendum. He could have pointed out all sorts of ways in which Britain had got things right and would have been seen as the natural third member of a governing triumvirate, alongside Emmanuel Macron and (if she survives) Angela Merkel. William Hague could have been appointed Europe’s next High Representative; Nick Clegg could have served as Britain’s first multi-lingual commissioner. The mooted European Intelligence Agency could have set up shop in London, next door to the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, both now leaving these shores. Who knows? The UK, as a key member of the European alliance, might even have held on to its seat on the World Court or, in the years to come, its place on the UN Security Council.
The Tories fancy that Britain is about to go global – whatever that means. But what if our fate is to become just another small-to-middle-sized country whose best days are behind it?