The unprecedented measures initiated on Saturday by Spain’s government, aimed at thwarting Catalonia’s secession, are but the latest expression of a developing, Europe-wide crisis of identity and political legitimacy. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, was reluctant to resort to direct rule from Madrid, but faced by the stubborn and, in his view, illegal defiance of the Catalan leadership, he clearly felt he had no choice. Rajoy’s intervention could defuse the situation or, by triggering a formal declaration of independence, render it even more unstable.
The drive for a separate Catalan state has causes specific to that region’s history and culture. But it has also been fuelled by the perceived failures of national political leadership. Inconclusive elections in 2015 and 2016 shattered the traditional dominance of the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties. Rajoy’s conservative Popular party has been damaged by corruption scandals. The Socialists registered their worst ever performance last year amid record low turnout. Yet would-be mould-breakers such as Podemos failed to achieve a breakthrough.
This rejection of politics as usual, and the consequent fragmentation of the body politic, finds powerful echoes across Europe. Everywhere, or so it seems, newly minted or reviving political forces, sometimes benign, more frequently not, are attempting to fill the vacuum. This weekend’s elections in the Czech Republic are a case in point. Polls suggest the ruling, pro-EU Social Democrats face defeat by the upstart populist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Action of Dissatisfied Citizens led by a pro-Russia billionaire. In prospect is a coalition with the rightwing Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which wants to quit the EU.
Events in Prague recall in turn last week’s Austrian elections, which brought victory for the youthful conservative People’s party leader, Sebastian Kurz, whose cynical tactic was to ape the extremist, xenophobic outlook of the far-right Freedom party. Kurz now looks set to form a governing alliance with a party whose neo-Nazi origins and ideology led the EU to boycott Austria in 2000, when the Freedom party first entered government. It is a measure of how Europe has become more accepting of, or resigned to, far-right activism that no repeat boycott is mooted in Brussels. More than half the Austrian electorate backed parties fiercely opposed to immigration, integration and multiculturalism. Muslim and Jewish citizens are understandably alarmed.
Now switch focus to northern Italy and, again, anger over political failings at the centre can be seen combining, negatively and corrosively, with fears about personal and regional identity. This weekend’s referendums on increased autonomy for Lombardy and the Veneto have at their heart distrust of the Rome government and resentment (and there are echoes of Catalonia here) at the way the poorer south is supposedly subsidised by wealthy, industrialised Milan. But in its tribalism, micro-nationalism and sociocultural exclusivity, the biggest regional party, the Northern League, nurtures many of the unsavoury prejudices displayed by similar groups across the continent.
It would be easy, but facile, to dismiss these phenomena as little local difficulties without bearing on the bigger picture. So what if fringe minorities in the Basque country, Flanders, Transylvania, Corsica or Bavaria are unhappy with their lot? All situations are different. And Europe, in any case, is ultimately an enriching patchwork of like-minded peoples immutably linked by shared values and beliefs. Or is it? As recent votes in France, Germany and Britain show, the crisis of legitimacy and identity extends deep into the heartlands of Europe’s big powers. Emmanuel Macron’s triumph in this year’s French presidential election was taken, for example, as proof that Europe’s nationalist, populist tide was on the turn. It was nothing of the sort. The Front National performed better than ever before. Marine Le Pen stands poised to strike the killer blow next time around, if Macron fails.
Who can save Europe from this fatal fragmentation, this pernicious, creeping dissolution of its ideological, democratic and territorial unity? The threats to solidarity do not come solely from within. Russia plays the stealthy provocateur along the eastern flank. With EU funding for migration controls running out fast, prospective new waves of African and Middle Eastern refugees require an effective, collective response that has been lacking hitherto. The return of Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria is another pressing challenge. Authoritarian Turkey is a growing problem. So, too, is Donald Trump. Meanwhile, rightwing leaders in Poland and Hungary are at odds with Brussels over basic principles of law and civic rights.
There was a time when all eyes would have turned for leadership and inspiration to Angela Merkel, Germany’s iron chancellor. But last month’s elections left her badly bent out of shape. Her CDU party recorded its worst result ever. The populist Alternative for Germany stormed into the Bundestag. As of today, Merkel is still trying to form a government. Yet this is the weakened, buffeted leader on whom rest Theresa May’s hopes of rescuing Brexit. Forgetful of its historical role as European exemplar, arbiter and guarantor, a diminished, inward-looking, self-obsessed Britain just does not get it. Europe is slipping ever deeper into an existential crisis all of its own. It is us who should be helping them.