Caught in existential dilemmas, how is Europe’s political thinking shaping up?

Europe is caught between the left and right, antisemitism and Islamophobia, accepting asylum seekers and pushing back boats. The time for a delicate balancing act may be over. This is the second column in our Year End Special series on making sense of the biggest economic and geopolitical shifts and what they signal

Sir Graham Watson

[From Unsplash]

Through December, we will publish a series of essays that offer fresh insight into the Events That Shaped Our World in 2023. You can follow the series here. 

There can now be no doubt that the pendulum of European public opinion has swung towards the populist right. Or at least that the manipulation of opinion—by those with large budgets, clever algorithms and a right wing or anti-EU agenda (including foreign government agents)—and lifestyle choice expressed on social media continues to swing election results. First felt with Brexit, the change is now regularly observed across Western Europe. In parliamentary elections in Finland and Bulgaria in April there was a notable swing to the right. This was mirrored in Slovakia in September; and in November in the traditionally liberal Netherlands a right-wing populist topped the poll. This mood will undoubtedly have contributed to the EU’s latest rebuff to Turkey’s appeal for closer relations. It could harbinger a shift in the balance of power in the European Parliamentary elections next May.

A deeper analysis of public opinion suggests that the majority still seek social-democratic solutions in an ever closer union with their neighbours, but with a few exceptions (such as Spain in July and Poland in October) the political parties promoting this agenda seem incapable of doing so effectively. 

Fear is a stronger emotion than hope; and in what many regard as a poly-crisis in which the next generation will fare less well than their parents’, solace is sought in the old certainties of blood and faith. Anti-immigrant sentiment remains a factor in Europe’s politics. Islamophobia and anti-semitism were both inflamed by the events of October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel’s reaction.

Two financial crises within two decades plus a pandemic and wars on Europe’s borders have shaken confidence in the continent’s 20th century democratic institutions (despite the remarkable ability of those institutions to protect their citizens from the worst effects of these challenges). Backsliding on commitments to counter climate change (Germany’s plans to reopen coal mines and the UK’s decision to slow down the transition from fossil fuels to renewables are perhaps the most blatant examples) has also disillusioned many, particularly among the young. Meanwhile, its impacts are felt ever more violently, including through extreme weather events and the hottest summer on record in parts of the continent.

Can an ageing Western European polity whose economy is losing competitiveness prevent a widespread despair which might consume it? The omens are not auspicious, but it may yet surprise us. As both Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shown, the idea of political union through democracy and a commitment to the respect of human rights remains the single most powerful idea to have emerged on the continent of Europe in the past 100 years.

Dig Deeper

1. How the Far-Right Won the Dutch Election—and What Comes Next for the Netherlands | 

2. Turkey’s European Goals: Prospects and Impediments as Seen From Brussels | Carnegie Europe

3. The Guardian view on the impact of the Israel-Hamas war: UK minority communities need support | The Guardian    

4. Germany approves bringing coal-fired power plants back online this winter | Reuters    

5. Brussels sounds alarm about EU's rapidly ageing population, recommends migration to fill vacancies | Euro News

6. Extreme weather wreaks havoc in Europe | DW 

The next question in this series:

Does the current US-China detente signal a thawing of relations between the two global superpowers?

On Friday, December 15, we will publish G Venkat Raman's take. He is Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Indore. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University (Virginia, USA).

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About the author

Sir Graham Watson
Sir Graham Watson

Distinguished Visiting Fellow

University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy

Sir Graham is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. He is former Member of the European Parliament, European Union.

Sir Graham has published ten books and has written numerous papers and articles on politics, history, energy, the environment and security policy for national newspapers, think tanks and academic journals.

His forty-year professional career has spanned interpreting and translation, educational administration, banking and—predominantly and most recently—politics. He served for twenty years as a Member of the European Parliament, chairing its Committee on Citizens Rights, Justice and Home Affairs (1999-2002), leading its Liberal Group (2002-09) and chairing its delegation for relations with India (2009-14). From 2011-15 Sir Graham was the President of the European Union’s Liberal Democratic Party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. His story is told in the book Building a Liberal Europe, published in 2010 by John Harper Publishing. The following year he was knighted for public service in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He is also the recipient of honours from The Republic of China, Georgia and Gibraltar.

Sir Graham has long been active in the Liberal International, the world union of Liberal parties. He was instrumental in the creation of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. In 2022 he was invited to draft and present the major theme paper for the 75th anniversary congress of the Liberal International. He is also a founder member and twice Chairman of a network of legislators committed to climate action called The Climate Parliament. He currently serves as a Board Member of the European Cyclists’ Federation and as Chairman of the World Cycling Alliance and is researching to write a biography of Lord Russell-Johnston for Birlinn Books.

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