Europe’s squeezed center-right looking for space and purpose
Tucked between the Bay of Biscay and some beautiful hills, the city of San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque), which is internationally renowned for its circular bay, pristine white sand beaches and neoclassical architecture, could be the poster city for the immense benefits that can come from being part of the EU. After all, this Basque city in the north of Spain has, since the end of the Franco dictatorship and Spain’s subsequent membership of what would become the EU, been transformed into a sought-after tourist destination and an important center of commerce. It was selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2016 and its film festival is one of the world’s most prestigious.
This might help explain why the European Ideas Network (EIN) chose to hold its summer university in San Sebastian. The EIN — a center-right think tank sponsored by the European People’s Party (EPP) and based in the European Parliament in Brussels — is looking to generate ideas and new thinking on the key challenges facing the countries of the EU. It is seeking to revive its fortunes as the largest political group in the European Parliament after it lost more than a fifth of its seats in last month’s elections. Over two days full of thought-provoking debates, discussions and chats over coffee and pintxos, it became apparent that Europe’s center-right feels under pressure and squeezed between the populists, the conservatives, the ultranationalists, the greens and the center-left. It feels that its space for political operation is constantly shrinking.
To be sure, if Europe’s center-right wants to remain a force to be reckoned with, it should be looking for new ideas on how to revive a free market economy that will support a modern welfare state. If the entire European odyssey is heavily dependent on a sustainable free market economy that creates well-paid jobs and supports cutting-edge modern public services, economic growth is the main source of political oxygen for the European center-right. However, this is just not happening at the moment. Europe’s economy is expected to grow in 2019 for the seventh consecutive year, but it is a sluggish expansion, as the European Commission recently revised down its forecast of growth from 1.9 percent to 1.3 percent, while next year’s figures are not expected to show any marked improvement. It is the middle classes — the backbone of support for the EPP — who feel insecure and squeezed by the protracted economic stagnation, and they are looking for alternative political homes.
There is a further conundrum for the EU, and especially for free marketers. Levels of employment among the member states are very high, though uneven, but so much of that employment is part-time and low-paid. Consequently, it cannot supply the sought-for economic boost. There was a general sense among the participants of this workshop that the EU is lagging behind other emerging markets when it comes to innovation and productivity. The more pessimistic view is that the economic miracle of the second half of the last century is on the wane due to structural failings, a lack of appropriate strategies, poor leadership, no mechanism to ensure that necessary skills are taught at schools and universities, insufficient use of freedom of movement, and too much sitting on past laurels instead of empowering young people to release their entrepreneurial abilities. Europe is watching idly as a bystander and not a major player, while innovation and creativity move to other parts of the world.
The middle classes — the backbone of support for the EPP — are looking for alternative political homes
A further massive challenge for the EU, and especially the center-right, is transatlantic relations. Europe has always had a complex relationship with the US, and some EU countries are keener on Washington being the leader of the free world than others. There is a strong conviction, not only that Europe should devise its own policies, including foreign and security policies, but that it should not be afraid to challenge the US position on issues of major international importance, especially as Washington has adopted a belligerent foreign policy and lacks diplomatic subtlety. For the center-right, having a Republican in the White House has always been a source of comfort, but that building’s current occupant is an exception to the rule since his respect for Europe, its values and outlook is in short supply. When it comes to cooperating on collective security, Donald Trump sees European nations as a bunch of freeloaders whose financial contributions to NATO are far too low. More generally, the US is turning its attention to the East, and an affinity with Europe based on values and history does not dictate Washington’s foreign policy, most definitely not under the current administration.
No gathering of politicians, nongovernmental organizations and analysts these days can avoid addressing the ills of populism and its main tool of fake news, which terrifies everyone who produces and disseminates knowledge and information, or asks the public to vote for them. The recent European elections again demonstrated, even if not on the scale that most expected, that populism is on the rise and that there are more than enough unscrupulous wannabe politicians out there who thrive on spreading baseless information with little or no connection to reality, as long as it gets them elected. To the more responsible and honest politicians, this is one of the major challenges of winning elections and having to execute more complex, albeit consensual, policies. The saga of Brexit and the UK’s inability to resolve it is strongly connected to this phenomenon and has left many Europeans bewildered.
For some newly elected MEPs, the gathering in San Sebastian was an introduction to the magnitude and complexity of the issues that will confront them in the European Parliament. The election campaign is over and they need to roll up their sleeves and supply some answers for a future EU that will be economically sustainable, able to influence world affairs, show tolerance and be at the forefront of defending and advancing human rights and, most urgently, will keep this political bloc intact. It might be the only recipe for holding the EU together and eradicating the menace of ultranationalism and populism.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg