‘Good news for Europe,” read the first line of the analyst note. If I tell you it was from an investment bank that backed eurozone austerity to the hilt, you might guess what the good news is. Yes, François Fillon (the French Thatcher) stands poised for a runoff with Marine Le Pen (the French Mussolini) in next year’s presidential election.
What could be better news for the investment banking community than having all non-fascist voters, left, right and centre, obligated to vote for a politician who wants to slash the welfare state, sack workers and extend the working day?
Berenberg, the German private bank that issued the note, could not wait to celebrate Fillon’s success in the primary. “With luck,” its chief economist, Holger Schmieding, assured clients, “2017 could be more of an opportunity … than a risk.” The “opportunity” is for a Fillon government, with no credible socialist opposition, to enact “pro-growth” measures – attacking wages, hours and welfare, and enriching the people who hold €40bn in the private bank. It is symptomatic of the huge political miscalculation that the European political elite is making.
The European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told an Austrian newspaper on Sunday that there would be no letup on federalising Europe; no national opt-outs from the stagnation economics administered from Brussels.
Next Sunday, we get to see whether European centrism’s “double-or-quits” strategy will pay off. In Austria, where far-right populist Norbert Hofer is neck and neck with a Green candidate in the re-run of the election for the ceremonial presidency role, the left and centre are frantically trying to mobilise party-loyal working-class voters. They may fail.
In Italy, on the same day, the centre-left government looks set to lose a referendum designed to strengthen the power of the executive over parliament. If the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, steps down and the markets crash, and Europe imposes a bank rescue plan that raids ordinary people’s savings, then you could get both a domestic banking and a eurozone crisis by Christmas.
To complete the pattern of wilful idiocy the International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to Greek government sources, chose this week to press Greece for yet more public spending cuts – on pain, again, of the enforced collapse of its banking system. Oblivious to the neo-Nazi assaults on migrant camps in the Greek islands, the IMF in Washington – like the commission and the ECB – can only see rules and balance sheets.
It feels, in short, as if the European centrist elite has developed a death wish. And once you understand European culture this morbid possibility is not so far-fetched.
In his 1912 novel Death in Venice, Thomas Mann portrays the death-wish of cosmopolitan European culture through the love-obsession of a sick old man. The protagonist, Aschenbach, checks himself into a cosmopolitan hotel in plague-ridden Venice, to fulfil his wish to die. Writing two years before European cosmopolitanism did indeed die, Mann was already on top of the reasons why it might.
In the novel, city authorities deny the existence of the plague – and, in so doing, create the conditions for its spread. Often read simply as a parable about love and loss, the novel in fact deals explicitly with the self-destructiveness of what Mann called the “European soul”. Mann’s settings in this and other novels – the Lido hotel, the Swiss sanatorium – emphasise the fragility of a transnational culture once crisis breaks out.
For Mann, the carefully crafted polycultural world of the hotel lobby – where the Poles speak French, the Italians dress in Parisian fashion, and the band plays selections from Hungarian operetta – is a fragile illusion. When just one piece of it falls apart, everything does.
Today our polyculturality is not so fragile as in the belle epoque. The Schengen freedoms are, for white people at least, real. The Erasmus programme, the EU’s student-exchange project, cross-pollinated the lives of more than three million students. Alongside the staid and worthy “city of culture” programme, Europe’s young people have been creating the real thing: in the Berlin arts scene, in massive music festivals such as Benicàssim in Spain, in the wild nightlife of contemporary Belgrade.
But even this grassroots culture of globalisation is breakable, if you try hard enough – because it can only exist in a space sealed off from official politics. At the typical European bar, beach or coffee shop, tolerance exists because educated people leave their nationality and religion at the door. The assumption among the young – implicit but strong – is that all politics is bullshit and does not matter.
Now politics and nationality have begun hammering on the door. And initially they have produced mainly paralysis and fear.
When I asked the young people I met in Ferrara, in northern Italy, in September how they would respond to the new xenophobic wave, many spoke about “genuino clandestino” – a back-to-the-land movement that advocates disconnection with the official economy as a survival strategy against austerity.
“It’s over, it’s impossible, the right has won,” are responses you will hear everywhere among the young, once you stop speaking to activists and listen to small-town kids wasting away their 20s in their grandmother’s spare room.
So Fillon v Le Pen is not “good news for Europe”. Neither is Juncker’s promise to double down on all the mistakes that led us here; nor the IMF’s insistence that Greece should destroy its democracy some more; nor Renzi’s decision to play shit or bust with the Italian banking system.
This is no longer a confident, transnational elite, revelling in Samuel Huntingdon’s famous description of national governments as “residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”. And they are now up against a far-right international movement – Trump, Farage, the Breitbart media folks – whose coherence waxes as the globalists’ coherence wanes.
We can stop this. But only if we reject the incessant demand for austerity, privatisation, longer hours, lower wages and the theft of a young generation’s future. That’s why the centre-left, in the short time available, must find the French people somebody better than Fillon.