Voters Rebel in Europe’s Big Three

tags: Angela Merkel, Brexit, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron

Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College, a Distinguished Fellow in American Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute, and The Wall Street Journal's Global View columnist. He formerly served as the Editor-at-Large for The American Interest, where he directed the popular Via Meadia blog. Professor Mead currently serves as a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Bosch Stiftung, and previously was the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The past week has seen the leaders of the three most important European states fighting for their political lives. In London, Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to hold power as opinion in Parliament moves against her Brexit agreement. In Paris, a firestorm of public rage has humbled President Emmanuel Macron and forced him into an undignified retreat before street protests he previously vowed to ignore. Even Berlin experienced its share of political drama as Chancellor Angela Merkel officially stepped down under pressure as leader of the Christian Democratic Union. Her preferred successor was able to eke out only a narrow win over anti-Merkel challengers. 

The turbulence in these countries, pillars of European and indeed world order, isn’t just about particular leaders. Their entire political systems have come under strain. In the U.K., even before the Brexit referendum, the rise of the Scottish National Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s victory over the moderate wing of the Labour Party had already transformed the political system. In France, Mr. Macron came to power as the existing party system imploded. In Germany, the antiestablishment Left and Alternative for Germany parties have been steadily gaining strength as centrist parties falter in the polls.

It’s one thing for political systems to face populist revolts when times are bad. President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil came on the heels of a deep recession and a massive corruption scandal. Voters turned against a political establishment that was corrupt and economically inept. Italy’s populists came to power in a country where, a decade after the financial crisis, gross domestic product has not yet returned to 2008 levels. Persistent crime and poverty helped elevate a left-wing populist to the presidency in Mexico.

But that is not what is happening in Europe’s Big Three. The German economy under Ms. Merkel is the envy of much of the world. Britain’s economy has also done relatively well, with unemployment low and declining despite uncertainty from Brexit. And while growth in France is slow, it is real; average wages as reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rose more than 1% a year between 2007 and 2017. Any material grievances voters may have are not extreme by historical standards.

The discontent shaking Europe’s governments, and the anger reverberating through American politics, comes as times are about as good as they get. The crash of 2008 and the Great Recession are far behind us, and most countries are at the peak of their business cycles. Conventional political science suggests this should be a better environment for incumbent politicians. People normally get cranky when the economy is doing badly but mellow out as things improve. Now a long period of steady if not exceptional growth is in the rearview mirror, but voters are in revolt across much of the West. ...

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