Where is the Euroskeptic Revolt?

by Andrew Stuttaford

In the course of an enjoyably indignant piece on the disaster that has been inflicted on Europe in the name of the EU’s single currency, the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne ponders one of the more surprising developments (or non-developments) in European politics: how quietly, for the most part, the continent’s voters have taken it:

In defiance of logic, the expected anti-European revolt is simply not happening. Take the example of Spain, which has suffered terribly during the past five years and where youth unemployment is more than 50 per cent. One would expect a revolution – and yet there are no anti-European parties that are worthy of the name. Exactly the same applies to Portugal, which has suffered almost as badly during the eurozone crisis.

A paradox is at work. It was only towards the end of the last century that Spain and Portugal emerged from dictatorships, while the former Iron Curtain countries have emerged from Communist rule even more recently. For them, the European Union represents a deeply cherished respectability. These countries seem happy to exchange the formal apparatus of dictatorship for the European Union’s emerging anti-democratic system.

“Happy” overstates it, but there’s something to that.  Turning his attention to the upcoming elections for the EU’s parliament, Oborne writes:

Next month’s elections will see a surge of support for anti-European parties, but for the most part they articulate national concerns and do not walk together. Mr Farage’s Ukip, for example will have nothing to do with Mme Le Pen’s National Front. There is no common anti-European agenda – which is an important reason why the established parties will continue to dominate the European Parliament after next month’s elections.

That’s true, but Oborne continues:

[E]lites can only survive for so long as they are trusted – and the political class that governs Europe has made a spectacular mess. Next month’s elections may not amount to a revolution, but we will certainly see the greatest rebellion yet against a politically bankrupt system.

True again, but will that be enough to take what really may be needed – a euroskeptic revolt within the elite? Almost certainly not, but here and there there are hints that something is stirring, perhaps, most interestingly, in the case of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a new political party (founded in 2013) that is likely to win seats in the EU parliament. 

Germany’s (English-language) The Local has an interesting interview with Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former head of IBM Europe and one-time president of the German Federation of Industries who is now one of the AfD’s most prominent figures. It’s well worth reading in full, but here are some key extracts:

Henkel wants to clear up one common misunderstanding about his new party. While certainly sceptical of the euro, the party is not “Europe-sceptic. “We are a party advocating a more democratic but leaner Brussels”…

While committed to preserving the European common market and most of the core EU institutions, the AfD opposes what it sees as a wave of centralization sweeping over Brussels as governments try to save the euro at all costs. Aiming to placate capital markets, the EU has introduced measures like the European Stabilization Mechanism and the Banking Union, while the ECB has pursued a lax monetary policy. Henkel’s party rejects these measures. He calls them a “socialization of debts,” requiring German taxpayers to take on the liabilities of the crisis economies. And at the centre of the problem lies the euro.

The single currency, Henkel says, is too strong for southern economies like Portugal, Spain and Greece, and too weak for Germany. “It’s a crazy system which requires the different economic and fiscal cultures of Europe to change in order to fit the requirements of a single currency. Our proposal is the opposite. We should make currencies fit the cultures which exist rather than the other way around.”

One size does not fit all. In fact, Henkel is (and has been for a long time), a supporter of something that looks a lot like the Northern Euro.

“We should have an agreement between four countries – Germany, Austria, Finland and the Netherlands. They will leave the eurozone and leave the euro where it is.”

The interview concluded on a, well, striking note:

…Henkel is a great supporter of the role Britain plays in EU institutions as a champion of decentralization and liberal economics. This is why he is so afraid of the British referendum on EU membership in 2017.

“For me the idea that Britain could leave the EU is the worst scenario I can think of… If Britain is gone then we are lost, then the whole continent is lost. We will be running toward a EUSSR. This is not a great exaggeration.”

I have never liked the term “EUSSR”, not least because it implicitly downplays the horrors of what the Soviet Union was. There will never be a Geulag. That said, the project of “ever closer union” has always been a profoundly anti-democratic project, and it is no coincidence that the last decade or so of deeper European integration has also been a period of growing ‘soft authoritarianism’ on the part of those in charge. Post-democracy is well on the way. 

AfD is far from perfect (and, as the article reminds us, it has its divisions), but, for now, it’s the best choice there is for Germany’s voters.