domingo, 15 de janeiro de 2017
Brace yourself, Europe: Politics is back
Brace yourself, Europe: Politics is back
As politicians take the gloves off and citizens re-engage with parties, one casualty could be the transatlantic partnership.
By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG 1/12/17, 5:23 AM CET Updated 1/13/17, 8:44 PM CET
BERLIN — Old Europe is witnessing the return of a long-dormant force in its civic discourse — politics.
The barrage of Brexit, the rise of populism and the election of Donald Trump has charged Europe’s political atmosphere, galvanizing the public and politicians across the region.
From the well of the European Parliament in Brussels to the salons of Berlin, the consensus-driven, sleep-inducing debate is giving way to a rawer, nastier, no-holds-barred exchange long absent in Western European democracy.
Old alliances are cracking under the stress of growing voter frustration, and politicians are abandoning the center as the battle of ideas moves from the mainstream to the fringes. Voters, depending on passport and political persuasion, are demanding action on a range of intractable issues, from refugees to Russia to austerity.
With Europe heading into an election year that could redraw the political map from France to Germany, the pistols-at-dawn atmosphere threatens to leave behind a scorched landscape and an even more divided EU — not to mention a tattered transatlantic alliance.
“It’s a much more political landscape than it was a few years ago,” said Jan Techau, director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin. “People are fed up.”
Mainstream politicians are increasingly reaching into the populist toolbox by mischaracterizing facts and resorting to personal attacks.
The collapse of the gentleman’s agreement between Europe’s largest parties over the European Parliament’s presidency is just the latest sign the affable, one-hand-washes-the-other approach to European politics is dying as the political elite sees its future at stake.
For better or worse, mainstream politicians are increasingly reaching into the populist toolbox by mischaracterizing facts and resorting to personal attacks.
While such tactics have been a mainstay of Eastern Europe’s rough-and-tumble politics, they’re less prevalent in countries with more staid political cultures, such as Germany.
Dropping the doublespeak
Just this week, a top aide to Angela Merkel raised eyebrows by saying that the head of the liberal Free Democrats, long the preferred partner of the chancellor’s conservatives, was no different than a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. The takedown appeared to be payback for the Free Democrat leader’s criticism of Merkel.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats and Merkel’s likely challenger in upcoming elections, also went on the attack. Gabriel, who has governed alongside Merkel for nearly four years, blamed her for the rise of the far right, accusing her of trying to “put voters to sleep.”
As populists try to exploit public fears regarding immigrants and security, establishment politicians have been forced to retreat from the center, drop their doublespeak and take a stand. That’s upending the political status quo in countries like Germany and Austria, where years of grand coalitions have left the mainstream parties almost indistinguishable.
Even Merkel, widely viewed as a lonely voice of reason in Europe, hasn’t been immune. Seeking to quell a backlash in her party over her open-arms refugee policy, she came out in favor of banning burqas last month. Her party base cheered the move, but still wants more.
Unnerved by a surge in support for the right-wing AfD, some members of her conservative alliance are demanding a tougher line on asylum, a repeal of Germany’s dual-citizenship law and steps to ensure, in the words of a recent declaration, that “Germany remains Germany.”
In France, former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls is running for president, promising he is a “changed” man. When in office, he advocated reforming France’s labor system by doing away with the 35-hour work week. Now, he says, the Socialists have “yielded too much” to the “forces of money.”
“I’ve matured,” Valls told an interviewer this week.
The leading conservative candidate, François Fillon, is moving in the opposite direction, offering a prescription of economic liberalism — long unthinkable in France — to address the country’s woes.
What’s striking about these moves is the candidates have avoided trying to outrun the populist National Front, promising instead a return to their parties’ founding principles.
That’s because, in the past, when mainstream parties have tried to co-opt populist positions, voters stuck with the original. That was the case in Austria, for example, where both the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democrats have struggled for years to halt the rise of the right-wing Freedom Party.
Some observers are encouraged by Europe’s new political winds. For one, Europe’s citizens, whether out of fear or hope, are becoming more politically engaged.
In Germany, where a couple of years ago the most controversial issue on the political agenda was a proposed highway toll, the political atmosphere has erupted in the wake of the refugee influx and the U.S. elections.
Trump’s surprise victory caused a surge in membership applications to left-leaning parties, for example. Some 1,900 people asked to join the Social Democratic Party in November, more than twice as many as the month before. Most of these new party members were young, with 1,000 of them aged 35 or less.
“All of a sudden, issues like geopolitics are on the political agenda again. With Trump, you have populism in the heart chamber of the Western world and that’s having an impact” — Jan Techau
It’s not just the left that’s benefiting: Across the political spectrum, parties are seeing more engagement from citizens.
“All of a sudden, issues like geopolitics are on the political agenda again,” Techau said. “With Trump, you have populism in the heart chamber of the Western world and that’s having an impact.”
The question is where this new spirit of debate leads. Some see a more worrying side.
Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador to Washington, predicts “serious difficulty” for the transatlantic alliance in the years ahead.
“We will have a new wave of anti-Americanism in this country,” Ischinger predicted.
He noted that leading German commentators have begun to question Europe’s strong ties to America, the cornerstone of the postwar order.
“The hour has come to say goodbye to Americanism, to naïve Atlanticism,” Bernd Ulrich, a one-time aide to former German Foreign Minister and Green leader Joschka Fischer, recently wrote in the weekly Die Zeit.
Naïve or not, such sentiments suggest Europe may soon be pining for the boring politics of old.