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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Americans might be forgiven for regarding Europeans as a puzzle. And not an intriguing one, but an irritating, what-the-hell-are-they-thinking kind of puzzle. The global survey books by American thinkers this year – Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision, Robert Kagan’s The World America Made and Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself – profess to be in frustration more than sorrow with Europe’s passivity. Why don’t they pay more to protect themselves and to project force? We do. Why can’t they unite into a federal state and get a properly integrated economic policy so they can get over this euro crisis? We did. Why can’t they get over their obsession with immigration – especially since their populations are shrinking, and they need more labour? We have.

Europe, a continent whose elite had long condescended to America, regarding it as a place of extremes and crudities, is now in danger of seeming both effete and weird. The surge in support for Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s election in France – the largest piece of news, since the Socialist François Hollande had been expected to beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round – makes her National Front party, if not she herself, a kingmaker, and deposits her at the centre of French politics.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

She rejoiced in Paris, and less than 400 kilometres away in the Hague, the Dutch government fell – as the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, withdrew its support, citing opposition to a budget that, prompted by the EU’s new fiscal pact, strove to bring the deficit down to 3 percent of GDP. For Wilders, this asked the Dutch people to “pay out of their pockets for the senseless demands of Brussels … we don’t want to follow Brussels’ orders.”

All over Europe, now, parties of the far right and far left see their support grow as they denounce the EU or immigration, or both; as they direct the frustrations of hard-pressed people into channels of blame; as they flatter their supporters by telling them that they, the ordinary folk, have in their common sense and in their experience of life, the real answers to the woes afflicting the countries of Europe. Both on the right and on the left, a fevered populism denounces the experts, the “old” politicians and parties, the self-interested elites, those who are against “us” – us, the people.

There is not a little political charlatanry here: Le Pen and Wilders are educated people; they know well enough that the answers to Europe’s woes are complex, time-consuming and dependent on consensus. But they choose to ignore that. And there is more than a little racism bubbling away, toward Muslims and immigrants of every kind, both of colour and from Eastern Europe. It finds it harder to speak its name now, unlike the Jew-hatred before the last world war – but it’s not less powerful for being partially suppressed. These movements are not, to be sure, fascist armies. But the breakdown of government they may provoke could open up spaces for greater extremes than they.

Yet they need not triumph. There are many causes for the European malaise, but two of the most pressing do not stem from the cynical manipulation of fear, or from subterranean hatreds. They are part of the nature of contemporary European life and of its constitution – and can be fixed, though only with large political will and with time.

First, immigration into Europe in the 2000s is not like that into the wide spaces of North America in the 19th and the 20th centuries (where, even so, many newcomers met with prejudice, and worse). Immigrants to Europe come into densely populated, urban societies, where populations see themselves as having been stable for centuries. The newly arrived often cleave strongly to their faith – and may regard with some contempt the largely irreligious Europeans around them. In the cities of Germany, in the suburbs of Paris, in the former textile towns of Northern England, the newcomers live in areas segregated by choice, by price and by prejudice. Often, the families are large; not infrequently, they are more dependent on the state and the social services than the indigenous whites.

None of this needs to be toxic. It can become so when the immigrants are seen to take more than they give, which is the rule of thumb by which they are judged by their neighbours, who are themselves often in low-cost housing with little to spare. Yet the European governing classes have been slow – and are slow, even now – to make clear to those who immigrate that they have a larger responsibility to adjust to the new society than the society has to them. The lack of that steady pressure – to integrate, to become full and useful members of a society with a culture that, though relatively liberal, has rules and expectations – has caused much of the mutual incomprehension of the incoming and the settled populations of Europe. When we have decided to admit people to citizenship – a large privilege anywhere – we should welcome them: The best welcome is a tough one, making clear what the rules are and the need to observe them.

And second, the European Union – the common whipping boy of the right and left populists – is fundamentally flawed. The flaw has been to create a powerful entity that has large power over people’s lives – yet is divorced from them, hardly known by them, easily seen – as are immigrants – as an alien and tyrannous machine smashing through cultures and customs, licensing and encouraging commercial forces that do so. The new populist parties have an answer for this, and it is a simple one. It is to leave the Union; to return to the nation; to find in the nation what it is to be truly French, or British, or Dutch; to end an artificial order and re-create an older, purer one.

If the euro survives, and the Union itself is salvaged, it will truly betray its peoples if it does not recognize that no construction of this kind, a massive geopolitical work still in its early stages, can take on a human dimension without the most extensive democratization. Europeans must find their way toward seeing each other as common citizens bit by bit, no doubt slowly, in ways both discovered by themselves and encouraged by their politicians.

Europe has torn at itself for centuries. It tore itself to bits within living memory. It is a skeleton of a continent whose emergence as a state – if it is ever to come – will be centuries in coming. That has to be recognized, before the real work can start.

The Europeans are strange people – terribly civilized, as they see themselves, yet extreme in their hatreds and their wars and in many of their actions. In the French election and in the foundering of the government in the Netherlands we glimpse the prospect of a gathering crisis. But it’s not ineluctable. The bad management of good intentions was a human mistake, and human agency can fix it.

John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist.

John Lloydco-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.