New dividing line in Europe is Merkron versus Orbvini

Be prepared: the defence of liberal Europe will be a long struggle

Timothy Garton Ash
(Tanjug/AP, file)
(Tanjug/AP, file)

One of the most memorable book titles in the English language is The Strange Death of Liberal England. Are we now witnessing the strange death of liberal Europe? As anti-liberal populism grips the very heart of Europe, threatening the survival of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, the danger is in plain view.

There is a new political dividing line in Europe, at least as important as the line old between left and right. It splits existing parties and throws up new ones. It opens new fronts between nations as well as parties. On the one side, there is the camp of Merkron, on the other, that of Orbvini.

For all the important differences between Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on issues such as the Eurozone, they both favour liberal, European solutions, based on international cooperation, inside the EU and globally. Hence Merkron. For all the differences between Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and the Italian populist Matteo Salvini, they both advocate illiberal, national solutions, scapegoating, excluding or expelling ethnically or culturally defined 'others'. Hence Orbvini. Spain's socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez and European council president Donald Tusk clearly belong in the Merkron camp, while the Bavarian CSU, the Austrian Freedom Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland, and some (though not all) Brexiteers belong under the chequered standard of Orbvini.

The battle between Merkronismus and Orbvinismo will shape European politics over the next year. As politicians limber up for next summer's European elections, the biggest party grouping in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) is shamefully clinging on to Orbán's Fidesz party, and has even been making furtive overtures to Poland's PiS, for fear of the Orbvini camp forming a new alliance to compete with it. Playing off the name of his party, the Lega (League), Salvini threatens 'a League of the Leagues of Europe'. It's been a long time since a European election was so unpredictable.

By no means all the fractures inside the EU can be situated neatly along the Merkron-Orbvini axis. Disagreements about the Eurozone and the next European budget, for example, fall more along national than political lines. Brexit is 27 countries against 1. But in terms of the way national democratic politics play into European politics, this is the new game in town.

At the moment, team Orbvini is clearly on the advance. Team Merkon looks tired and defensive, like the German and Spanish football teams in the World Cup, doggedly playing their systems but not breaking through to score. Merkel's own future is very uncertain, while Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has become a pivotal midfielder, currently playing for Orbvini.

The issue of immigration, around which team Orbvini gathers its supporters, is at once real and symbolic. Following what the dissident balladeer Wolf Biermann vividly calls Merkel's 'wonderful mistake' in 2015, a great many refugees did come to Germany in a very short space of time. More than 2 million East Europeans did come to Britain after EU enlargement in 2004, and real concerns about pressures on housing, employment, healthcare and schools contributed to the Brexit vote. Italy, Spain and Greece have genuinely been struggling, with little help from their North European partners, to accommodate large influxes of both classic refugees and people who risk a watery death in the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life in Europe.

But immigration is also a symbolic issue, gathering concerns about culture and identity like metal filings around a magnet. Levels of uncontrolled immigration into the EU have fallen dramatically since 2015, but that does not assuage people's feelings about how their countries have already changed. In a poll conducted by the Bertelsmann foundation in 2017, an EU-wide average of 50% of those asked agreed with the statement 'there are so many foreigners in our country, sometimes I feel like a stranger'. In Italy the figure was 71%.

George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, argued that the Liberals declined in early 20th-century England because they failed to respond to large new forces, including the movement for women's suffrage, the Labour movement and Irish nationalism. A hundred years on, the crisis of liberal Europe is mainly a result of forces that liberalism itself has created. Liberalisation, Europeanisation and globalisation have between them produced rapid, visible change in European societies. For too many, it has felt like change for the worse. Exploiting these discontents, the populists tell a simplistic story about how pulling up the national drawbridge and 'taking back control' will result in the restoration of an imagined golden past of good jobs, happy families and a more traditional national community. Meanwhile, the digital revolution, now advancing through machine learning towards artificial intelligence, means there will be even more disruptive change and insecurity, especially in the workplace.

The liberal fightback in Europe now has a formidable task-list. It will be difficult enough to find rational, practical answers to the real problems of inequality and insecurity. We are only at the very beginning of working those answers out, and we face a rapidly moving target, because of the pace of the digital revolution. Radical policies such as a universal basic income or a basic job guarantee will probably be required. Even if you have a new John Maynard Keynes, it takes time to get from the intellectual work of a Keynes to the election-winning programme of a Labour Party under Clement Attlee.

Beyond this, liberal Europe has to find ways of addressing those deep emotional needs for community and identity which populists exploit. As we can see in every World Cup football crowd, national identity remains an incomparable source of passion and belonging. For the foreseeable future, no transnational or supranational identity will compete. So, while doing everything we can to strengthen a shared European identity – and a global one, which the World Cup in some sense also represents – we cannot abandon the nation to the nationalists. To complement Europeanism and internationalism, we need a positive, civic patriotism, of the kind Macron is promoting in France.

Then you have to weld all this into an election-winning programme, and then you need a party to win the election with that programme. But we don't have many of those parties either. Macron, with his République en Marche movement, is the exception that proves the rule. Everywhere else, liberals have been losing out to more illiberal tendencies in mainstream parties of centre-left and centre-right, including Britain's Labour and Conservatives. Or centre-right parties have only retained power by appeasing the more illiberal approaches of their populist coalition partners, as in Austria and the Netherlands.

All this leads me to conclude that the fightback of liberal Europe will take quite a few years. Things will probably get worse before they get better, with more victories for Orbvini and setbacks for Merkron. No, I don't believe we are witnessing the strange death of liberal Europe, but we must gird ourselves for a long, hard-fought recovery.

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he leads the project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World. Twitter: @fromTGA

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