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How the EU hierarchy is losing supportive governments

March 8th, 2018

One of the less attractive aspects of British Euroscepticism (a keenly-contested category) is the willingness of many supporters to see the imminent collapse of the EU with every electoral development around the continent. Last year, Eurosceptics were salivating at the prospect of Geert Wilders’ party topping the poll in the Dutch election. Thwarted on that front, nearly nine out of ten Leave cats who expressed a preference decided that Marine Le Pen’s election as French president would be best for Britain. But the French electorate stubbornly refused to go off the reservation.

People who should know better (Andrew Neil, I’m looking at you) breathlessly live-tweeted every development in Germany before, during and after the German election on the basis that nation was about to suffer imminent collapse. The Catalan referendum briefly became a Eurosceptic cause – oddly, getting proxy support from some who were horrified at the idea of Scottish independence. And so on.

At the end of it all, the schadenfreude remained corked. Spain is still riven over the question of what to do about Catalonia, but it is a problem whose solution does not look as though it needs to be found this year. The Dutch have a right of centre government, the French have an energetic if hubristic young centrist President, the Germans have a grand coalition for the next few years. There may come a day when France or Germany forsakes their EU friends. But it is not this day. Purgatory has been postponed.

Italy is the latest sensation. The two most Eurosceptic parties have done well in the election, far better than expected, and the composition of the new Parliament is going to make forming a government tricky. But Italy has always had weak government – 67 governments since World War Two and four Prime Ministers in the last five years. You might be forgiven for concluding there’s not that much new about that either.

Yet the EU undoubtedly looks more fragile politically than it did even two years ago. Hungary and Poland are openly promoting an illiberal ideology and Austria has far-rightists in government. Greece continues in subdued hostility. Over it all hangs Brexit.

It is important not to get carried away. Inspired by the Corbynites, I have prepared a table of EU member states as a Eurocrat might regard them all. As with all such tables, the labelling of individual states is open to argument. I’m more interested, however, in the overall picture.

For there are two conclusions I draw in particular, one positive for the EU, one negative. The positive conclusion is that, contrary to the perception of the more belligerent British Eurosceptics, most member states’ governments are still onside. The negative conclusion is that the drift rightwards across the columns in the last few years is undeniable.

The trend is complicated by a general drift towards political fragmentation in many countries across the EU. Hard-right populists like Lega, AfD and the PVV have picked up some support, but this is only part of a wider trend against mainstream parties in countries with proportional representation. In countries with far right and far left parties that are seen as untouchable coalition partners, this means that the remaining parties are dealing without a full deck when seeking to put together stable coalitions. As well as Germany and the Netherlands, this has affected Irish, Belgian, Greek and Swedish politics in recent years. Such governments creak and groan under the strains, making it essential for them to be carefully brokered on all bar flagship policies.

Where does this leave the EU? On the one hand, the Brussels hierarchy can count less on a feeling of inter-government comity than they have for many years. On the other hand, the weakness of many governments is actively of assistance to them – in many countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, a fuzzy pro-EU stance is one of the threads that binds the coalition together, enabling Brussels to rely on a pro-EU approach being the line of least resistance in such countries.

Even as pro-EU forces are weakening within member states, the governments of many of those states are potentially more amenable to following the very pro-EU lead given by France and Germany, and indeed that weakening may have provoked it. The long run risks of following such a course are obvious.

But in the short run, these trends have implications for the Brexit talks. Weak pro-EU governments contending to hold themselves together are not going to pull themselves apart opposing the Brussels line. This means that, within their remit, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker have an unusual degree of power in the negotiations. So perhaps Leavers who want a constructive deal should start being a bit more pleasant about them. No need pointlessly to alienate those who have taken control, is there?

Alastair Meeks