It is two years almost to the day since the people of the UK dramatically voted to leave the EU. Since then Brexit has been a constant backdrop to political discourse in these islands, and a dominant one when it comes to the discussion of international affairs.
The Brexit headache shows no sign of easing for the Irish Government as another ‘make-or-break’ summit this week seems set to see the can kicked down the road yet again.
The tone of the debate on this side of the Irish Sea has been highly critical of the UK; much of this criticism is well merited as the sight of the British government arguing with itself over what exit terms it wants, never mind arguing with the EU, continues unabated. However, one side effect of this seems to be that the Irish public is blind to an ongoing and increasing crisis in Europe and to the EU’s very poor response to it.
Much Irish energy has been expended on attacking the various pronouncements and gaffes of the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, but a look across the channel to the rest of the EU would give a glance at a list of unsavoury characters who would put Messrs Johnson and Gove in the ha’penny place.
Recent years have seen some disturbing developments in parts of Europe. Insider speaks of the growth of fringe parties, mainly of the right, and more particularly of a drift towards authoritarianism across a number of EU countries. Initially this began to manifest itself in some of the newer member states in eastern and central Europe; not only has this trend accelerated but it has now spread to some of the larger, more established EU member states. Even Scandanavia may soon be impacted - and this on top of the ongoing migrant crisis which has bedevilled the EU for much of the last few years.
Following Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, there was a fear of far-right advances in elections in France and The Netherlands in spring 2017. The threat fizzled out somewhat in the Netherlands, while in France the National Front’s Marine Le Pen made the second round as anticipated, but was well beaten by the centrist Emanuel Macron [pictured above].
There was a sense of misplaced euphoria across Europe at President Macron’s triumph. Not alone had he beaten the far-right, but together with Justin Trudeau in Canada, and even Leo Varadkaar in Ireland, here was a young, more centrist, liberally minded leader coming to power. This ignored how fractured the vote was and how close the French came to having a final run-off between the National Front and the Communist Party. Much of the commentary also overlooked the unusual circumstances in which the election was held, the ruling Socialists having imploded and the centre-right having nominated a candidate who was badly hampered after being caught up in a financial controversy.
Advances in the east
Since then things have taken a more sinister turn. We have seen over the past few years eastern Europe take a turn towards authoritarianism and this process has accelerated of late.
In Poland we have seen a government that not only seems intent on following a very nationalistic agenda, but also seems determined to take control of all levers of law and governance; we have seen the EU express concern over this process and recently the Irish High Court putting a freeze on the extradition of a Polish national in order to refer to the European Court of Justice whether the independence of the Polish judicial system is so compromised as to potentially deny him a fair trial.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban [picturd above] and his Fidesz Party was re-elected in April to another term with a super-majority after running a campaign widely seen as leaning heavily on xenophobic themes. Since then he has ramped up the anti-immigrant rhetoric and made life very uncomfortable for various minorities in the country.
In Austria we have had the re-emergence of the Freedom Party. Under Jorg Haider at the turn of the millennium this party caused ripples across Europe when it managed to get into government. Late last year when it returned to power as a coalition partner to the traditional centre-right Austrian People’s Party, the reaction of many across Europe was to shrug their shoulders. That in itself tells a tale.
Austria also saw the traditional centre-right (under Europe’s youngest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz ) shift to a more hard-line approach to issues such as migration, a trend that has been manifesting itself across Europe’s centre-right – including in the UK where the Tories shifted to the right in response to a threat from UKIP with some far-reaching consequences – and even amongst some social democrat parties.
Germany and Italy - the virus spreads
We are also seeing successes of varying degrees for these types of groups in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. While seeing these trends manifest themselves across newer member states across central and eastern Europe is worrying, what is really alarming many people is seeing them emerge in some of the marquee EU countries.
In Germany we now have a situation where the far-right are the official opposition. Surely that sentence should be sobering. The AFD Party did especially well in the old East Germany, targeting ‘left-behind’ voters – a common theme in the advance of these groups across Europe – but also did reasonably well in economically prosperous traditional Christian Democrat strongholds such as Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria.
'Further integration and pooling of sovereignty seems like the last thing that will appeal to people who have turned to these new groupings or who are motivated by a visceral dislike of the establishment'
In the latter in particular, Angela Merkel’s sister party the CSU has been pushing for a more nationalistic approach and a harder line on migration in response to the advance of the AFD. The issue of migration continues to bedevil Frau Merkel and recently came to within an inch of collapsing her ruling coalition. Imagine the ramifications of this for Europe and for the Brexit process amongst others!
Italy of course has long been a country known for political instability, even if the frequency of elections has eased off somewhat this millennium. There has also been a sense that a significant minority of the population still hankers after the certainties and strong governance promised by fascists and communists. Nevertheless, the recent election which has seen the far-right League – a rebranded version of the separatist Northern League that wanted secession for parts of wealthy Northern Italy over the years – enter coalition with the chaotic populist Five Star Movement cannot be simply laughed off as ‘that’s Italy for you!’.
The EU reaction – or lack thereof
Insider is increasingly alarmed at the reaction of the EU, which increasingly resembles that of the talking heads of an Irish summer school, talking to, and persuading themselves that it will be alright on the night. Their attitude is one of fixation on the need to press ahead with the 'European project', and hope the people come to their senses in due course. At least that is the sense one gets.
There have recently been murmurings from various MEPs that action needs to be taken against some member states whose governments are flouting EU values. Talk of stripping voting rights off Hungary and Poland abounds, but as these measures require unanimity they stand little chance of passing as these countries will back each other up. However, should the EU continue funding rogue member states?
Insider also wonders if the weak response to Prime Minister Orban’s actions in Hungary are unrelated to that party’s membership of the European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament and the one to which FG and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, amongst others, belong?
A problem for the EU is that if it takes significant action it runs the risk of further fuelling the sentiments which have given rise to these trends across Europe. In that regard they must tread a fine line and some caution is understandable but not the ostrich-like approach that we have seen to date.
There is also the fear that many in positions of influence in Brussels see ‘more Europe’ as the solution. Further integration and pooling of sovereignty seems like the last thing that will appeal to people who have turned to these new groupings or who are motivated by a visceral dislike of the establishment.
As Insider has previously said, the future of Europe throws up questions for Ireland that will have to be addressed post-Brexit and which are perhaps being overlooked in the midst of the Brexit crisis. Recent developments across the continent add another layer to this.
Insider also suspects the lack of attention and low awareness of the problems across Europe among the Irish public is partly attributable to our Anglo-centric world view. Of course Brexit carries a special urgency for Ireland, give our close geographic and cultural ties with the UK, and it is to be expected that it overshadows other aspects of global affairs for us. However, the Irish mindset is still set by default to think of the UK and US when international affairs are mentioned and the continent is somewhat overlooked.
In light of the changed order post-Brexit, and if Ireland is intent (as virtually all parties in the Dáil agree it should ) on continuing to be a fully-fledged and increasingly committed EU member state, a greater attention will have to be paid to these issues.
We live in dangerous times and we should not be blinded to the variety of threats we face.