Bleak times, these. If the lights are not going out all over Europe they are, at least, flickering. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, revanchism and nationalist resentment are back in fashion. The theory of marginal gains, long championed by liberal democrats and guardians of what the first President Bush optimistically deemed the “new world order”, no longer feels like manifest destiny.
Most of the world really has never had it so good. Globalisation has been a wondrous, if still incomplete, success for billions of people in Asia and Africa. But gains in the east and south have come at the expense of the west and north. Increasingly it feels as though the postwar era, for all its troubles, was an exceptional period. At least, that is, if you were a member of the aspirational classes in western Europe and North America. Then parents expected that their children would have better prospects than they had enjoyed themselves.
Old certainties fray everywhere. The United States is pivoting to the Pacific when it isn’t busy turning in on itself and ripping up the rule books that govern international affairs. With the transatlantic relationship imperilled, Europe also looks nervously eastwards and doesn’t much care for what it sees. Suddenly the old world feels ancient.
No wonder the Continent feels left out and left behind; no wonder democracy seems weaker than it has in years, hollowed out from below by populist surges of disgruntlement and suppressed from above by the European Union’s penchant for always knowing best. Liberalism can confront one of these forces; battling both seems to be beyond it.
So in Hungary and Poland, nationalist governments threaten the rule of law; in Italy and Germany and Austria and Greece, parties of the extreme left or right return record election results; in Spain Catalonia still threatens secession while in Sweden polls suggest the far right may win 20 per cent of the vote in elections later this year.
In Germany, the Continent’s indispensable nation, Angela Merkel’s leadership is more rickety than ever before. Peace and prosperity are not enough if the rewards of that happiness are not believed to be shared equitably. A third of the far-right AfD’s 2.2 million votes came from Germans who had not voted in the 2013 election.
Longer-term trends are, if anything, more depressing still. We too easily forget that democracy is a recent development in much of Europe. It is barely 25 years old in the east and only in early middle age across much of the Mediterranean.
According to a Pew survey of global attitudes published last autumn, a fifth of Spanish and Greek citizens think representative democracy a bad way of governing their countries. In Italy, 29 per cent of voters approve of government in which “a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”.
Lest you think that this is an unsurprising commentary on more than half a century of political dysfunction, consider that 26 per cent of Britons are equally soft on autocracy. According to research for the Journal of Democracy in 2016, almost 40 per cent of British millennials no longer think democracy vital. Democracy may not be dying, but it is sick. An Ipsos-Mori survey last year of 2,000 Britons under 30 reported that 44 per cent of them had never voted.
The only thing in Europe’s favour is that the United States has it even worse. Only 30 per cent of American millennials believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, a proposition now being tested on a tweet-by-tweet basis by President Trump. By contrast, 75 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s think democracy essential. But if Mr Trump’s supporters and enemies agree on one thing, it is despair. His election can be understood as rage directed against an American twilight. “Make America Great Again” is predicated on a deep and perhaps irretrievable sense of loss.
Challenged by these forces, the EU responds as it always does; by doubling down on the very forces that help to provoke and then sustain the protest. Italians, for example, have previously seen the EU as a bulwark against Italian politics and politicians. Contracting out as much as possible offered stability and reassurance and even the possibility of better government. But politics is Newtonian in as much as every action spawns a reaction. Too much of one thing — in this instance the Europeanisation of Italian politics — increases the appetite for another thing. The European project was founded on anti-nationalist ideals; it now spawns nationalist revivals all across the Continent.
In Britain, meanwhile, politics is at an impasse. Theresa May cannot beat even Jeremy Corbyn; Mr Corbyn cannot even beat Mrs May. Voters crave direction but they also want inspiration, and they can hardly be blamed for not finding it in the House of Commons.
Still, the best argument for Brexit was the democratic one. As many as possible of the decisions that most intimately affect Britain should be made here, not in the European Commission or the council of ministers. If this meant some pain, some forfeiture of prosperity, then so be it. The essence of the matter was little different to the most persuasive argument made by supporters of Scottish independence in 2014. It was time to take back control.
Looking around Europe today, it is hard to deny that the Leavers had a point, just as if you look at a UK offered the choice between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn you can surely feel some small sympathy for the 45 per cent of Scots who thought they too might be Better Off Out. Scotland was a warning, even if few people chose to hear it. That British crisis has not been settled either, merely postponed for a future reckoning.
Against this, fine speeches by Tony Blair and Sir John Major seem like abandoned relics from a distant age. Their time has been and gone. Their analysis might be persuasive; their prescriptions seem impossible when they’re not simply irrelevant. Yes to a reformed capitalism and a square go for the ordinary Joe. Yes to a renewed spirit of citizenship and democratic engagement. Yes to this and so much else besides. But, as ever, the nagging question “how?” lurks behind the splendid talk of reform and renewal. Unless an answer is found to that, Europe’s crisis of confidence and identity can only worsen. No Iron Curtain, perhaps, but a shroud of gloom.
Alex Massie, journalist.