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Europe’s Elections, its Golden Age, Socioeconomic Miracles, and How They End

Europe’s Elections, its Golden Age, Socioeconomic Miracles, and How They End

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing fantastically well. Here’s a big hug from Snowy to shake off those early week blues, welcome new readers, many thanks old friends, and a Big Thanks again to all who’ve climbed aboard this little starship so far. 

Today we’re going to discuss…

The European Elections

It’s fateful, chilling, and a little sad that it happened this way. Just days after the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings and D-Day. The far right reshaped the European political landscape in force at last.

That’s the proper lens through which we should begin to understand the significance of what just happened. I’ll come to the whys and wherefores in just a moment, but pause to consider the sweep and import of history.

The EU was created to prevent precisely what just happened: the far right taking power again. The reason should be obvious: the last time it did, it ended in disaster for precisely the nations which allowed it, pursuing a path that led into the abyss. Now, I’m not saying “that’s what’s happening now.” But I am saying that something just broke, and it’s sort of important that we all really pause to understand that.

The EU is—was?—one of human history’s most successful…three things. Experiments, projects, and miracles. Think about the idea of it for just a moment, the sheer audacity and brilliance and unlikelihood of it all: nations which had been warring, in various ways, for millennia, from kingdom to empire, over colonies, resources, land, all the rest of it—they were come together and form a union. And that union had a purpose, an explicit and beautiful one: peace.

Not just “peace” as in the absence of violence, which we might call thin peace. But something truer, harder, and deeper. Peace as in the presence of equality, dignity, and prosperity, the more genuine preconditions for the absence of conflict. That’s the philosophy, and it matters a very great deal, because the rest—political machinations and agreements and who gets how many council seats on what—are sort of secondary. And it matters for an even bigger reason than that, which is that all that is the negation and refutation of the politics of spite, hate, and violence, which are sweeping the world again, in which every nation is for itself, and only power and resources and aggression count for much.

So to see the far right resurging in Europe is a Very Big Deal. Historically? Little, in our era, could go more wrong. Again, that’s not a political point, though it might sound like one, as in, about “my” politics—it’s about what the point of the EU was, why it was created, and exactly what it was meant to contain and withhold and prevent. To the founding fathers of the EU? The events of the last few days would have been an existential disaster and a nightmare.

Now, of course, the far right’s been gaining power in Europe, from nation to nation, but to see it surge to power in the union itself is another matter entirely, a greater one, in many ways, and for the first time, I think, it really has a proper power structure inside the guardrails of the very institutions meant, as I said, to contain and prevent it. And that’s what we're going to discuss next: how much does all this matter?

The End of the European Miracle

There are many ways to interpret what just happened. One is the way that the “center right” in Europe is doing, which won more seats and votes still, and retained, for now, a kind of delicate balance of power—the center’s holding (I put that in quotes because in Anglo countries, that’d still be way, way left, by the way.) Another is that it’s not a Big Deal, because for many countries, alliances of left and center or what have you still won the day, and an example of that is Sweden. In the bigger picture, we might even say that the EU’s very fragmented politics—so many parties—split the vote and when all that’s consolidated, the side of democracy didn’t do so badly.

All of those can be, perhaps, are, in their own ways, true. And yet it’s hard not to feel that, like I said, to anyone acquainted with history in even elementary ways, that something’s gone wrong here, because of course, this is precisely what, let me say it again, the entire point of the EU was meant to prevent.

So my interpretation’s a little different. 

I said that Europe was three of history’s most successful things: a project, an experiment, and a miracle. And I often speak of the “European Miracle.” 

What does that mean? 80 years ago today, Europe was…nothing. Ashes. Dust. Blown to bits. Bankrupt, desolate, covered in shallow graves. And today, just one human lifetime later, it enjoys not just the world’s highest living standards, but also history’s. That’s a breathtaking accomplishment. 

We’ve never seen it happen before, not at any point, really, in history—from nothing, to the highest living standards of all, period, in one lifetime. That’s why I call it the “European Miracle.” From the Mycenaeans to the Romans to America, nothing comes remotely close. Of course, you can plot the causes, and sure, Europe had a a little help from its friends, by way of a thing called the Marshall Plan.

But Europe also had a radically different vision for what its societies were to be. Equitable, with generous access to public goods for all—the renowned social contracts it grew famed for: from healthcare to transport to…the example I often use is that Harvard will cost you probably close to $100K today, while the Sorbonne’s…free.

This vision was radical and different because it came from a radical and different place philosophically: existentialism. The existentialists, famously, claimed that we were all equal in the eyes of existence, mortal, wounded, fragile. And that held profound political ramifications, because if you took that seriously, as the EU’s founding fathers did, then you’d have to design radically different social contracts for it, too. 

That’s how the EU became what it was, and it was revolutionary in its own way. Marx’s revolution never happened—but the EU really did become a place where a miracle of progress took place nonetheless.

Of course, none of that came easy, or was sort of universal. Portugal and Spain were dictatorships until the 1970s. Etcetera—the criticisms and caveats are well known, and I won’t dwell on them.

My point is to help you understand how remarkable and how unique this idea of Europe, of what a society, set of them, an entire continent, could be, was. And how it led to this dramatic, breathtaking material consequence: a miracle in human progress, at least for those lucky enough to inhabit its shores.

And today, we have to ask: does that idea still exist? In what form? Is this the end of the European Miracle?

You see, the European Miracle happened because Europe developed a very special set of economics—ones different to anywhere and anywhen else in history. High levels of investment in public goods delivered these expansive social contracts. As they continued, year after year, remarkable and special things happened for Europe: its living standards rose explosively. “Growth” happened, but not the empty growth of America, where the middle class was left behind, and the gains only accrued to the mega-rich. Rather, Europe’s working and middle classes were the central beneficiaries of the Miracle.

And that Miracle happened because social investment in public goods created higher and higher levels of surplus. America’s theory was just the opposite: there were to be no public goods, no public anything, and of course, by now, you can see the consequences of that particular experiment, too.

So what went wrong? Many things did. Around the turn of the century, Europe itself struck a few foolish deals to limit investment, and sort of crippled the virtuous cycle at the heart of the Miracle. The working and middle class saw stagnation. The world plunged into a cost-of-living crisis. Waves of migrants arrives, and it has to be said that some seemed to share little of proudly modern European values of public life and secularism. And all that undid even Europe’s deep-seated belief in itself.

How Socioeconomic Miracles End

What happens now, to Europe?

I was talking to the head of a newsroom, and his take on it all surprised me: cynically, he said, “Ah, the EU’s a useless institution, anyways, so what?” How sad a thing to believe, to not understand the Miracle. Because the EU had the power to create a miracle, sadly, this version of it, too, will have the power to uncreate one.

I won’t bore you with machinations, suffice it to say that just as in America, the far right in this particular setup has the power to stall, obfuscate, withhold, and forestall, and all that is precisely more than enough to undo the miracle, and sort of turn the EU into a kind of dysfunctional version of—see how America’s fanatics have derailed Congress?

Miracles end like that—not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with the din of chaos. 

The best analog for what happens to Europe is probably just what Macron seemed to warn about—that it goes British. Brexit Britain is a place where—for heaven’s sake—clean water is a dubious proposition. The once proud NHS and BBC are in tatters. The economy’s in ruins. Brexit destroyed Britain’s future faster and harder than even its critics claimed, and today’s Britain bears no resemblance to the modern, functioning nation that used to exist just a decade ago. 

All that’s in the cards for Europe, unfortunately—this sort of sad, limping, downwards trajectory into failure and chaos and ruin, accompanied all the way down by Brexit-like cheers of nationalist manias and hostility and rage. 

Brexit Britain teaches us that, yes, it’s possible to wreck the most modern societies humankind has ever built, at light speed, faster than anyone might have imagined—a decade, even less. Europe should be profoundly wary of entering this abyss. But of course it’s hardly likely to be, because right now, the feeling is triumphant, at least in the perverse way that it’s extreme side has triumphed over the EU’s founding fathers themselves, at last, and once again, in a kind of grim crescendo of folly.

So where does all that leave our world? Not in a particularly good place? 

Britain’s coming out of it’s Brexit-mania phase, and soon enough, it’ll have a Labour government—but it’s too late, really, to change much of the future, which is now spent. Still, that’s something. In America, perhaps, Trump’s conviction is beginning to register, and Biden’s pulling ahead, a little. So perhaps we see a scenario where Anglo nations are—surprisingly, and for the first time in contemporary history—leading democracy and progress forward, as Europe slides backwards, into its own regressive phase.

Worse would be a situation, of course, where a far right Europe meets a Trump Presidency, because then all bets for global stability, whether financial, economic, political, or social, are off the table, fast.

To see Europe do this to itself, I think, more than anything, at least to me, hurts. Like I said, Europe was these three great things in history—miracle, project, and experiment. The project continues, but one part of it has clearly failed: can we keep the forces that led us to disaster last time out of the political mainstream, and again, those aren’t my politics, but the EU’s own founders’. The experiment goes on, but one element of it has foundered: can we embrace a closer union, and advance progress, over the decades, expanding this radical, existentialist notion of equality and dignity for all, or must human affairs be mired in conflict, spite, and even hate? 

And the miracle? I feel that it’s time is now coming to an end. One human lifetime. That’s what it took even beautiful and wise Europe to forget its own greatest lessons. Not just the lessons of war and ruin. But also those of revival, reinvention, of coming back to life, of how to not just defeat but transcend the old demons plaguing humanity since time immemorial. 

Those are bitter lessons to forget. And these are bitter times, in which bitter seeds reap only black harvests.

❤️ Don't forget...

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