Monday, May 26, 2014

The European Tragedy

As I survey the wreckage across Europe, I keep thinking back to May 2012, when there was still hope of renewal. I trace yesterday's dismal outcome back to the original sin of the Hollande presidency: Hollande's reneging on his promise to renegotiate the TSCG. This is what his voters expected. He had told them he would do it. And then he didn't. It's as simple as that.

Consider the counterfactual. Suppose he had bucked Germany on the TSCG and hence on austerity. Even if he had failed to persuade the Germans, he would have taken a stand, and because he would have shown some backbone, things would look very different today--even if he had failed to persuade the Germans in 2012 (as he undoubtedly would have failed). With Matteo Renzi's strong showing in Italy and unexpected stirrings on the left in Spain, Hollande could have joined forces with progressive elements to the south to exert renewed pressure on Germany. Instead, his presidency is a flamed-out wreck, and Renzi is left without the support that a feisty France could have provided.

It is clear that voters across Europe want change. Instead, they will get Juncker and a reinforced Merkel--the twin pillars of the calamitous status quo. And Hollande has now committed himself so deeply to austerity that a change in course will only make him look weaker still. He has no choice but to dig in. Of course Valls might rebel, might deliver an ultimatum to the president that he will resign unless he is allowed to stake out his own European policy. In which case Hollande might as well abdicate. But if he persists on his present course, he is doomed to impotence for the foreseeable future. His territorial reform has countless enemies whom he cannot defeat in his weakened state. His spending cuts will increase unemployment, sending still more of the working class over to the FN. His efforts to divert attention to Africa will look more and more ludicrous as Europe crumbles around him. And the justification of all this--to maintain the Franco-German alliance that is at the heart of European union in Hollande's estimation--will become more and more hollow as the Union is threatened with disintegration as a consequence of Franco-German policy choices.

Hollande has modeled his whole career on that of his mentor, Mitterrand. But Mitterrand when elected in 1981 kept his promise to nationalize, even though many advisors told him it was unrealistic. And it was, in the narrowly economic sense, but it was an act of pure political realism to satisfy the deep desire of those who had elected him for a concrete commitment to a change of direction. True, the price paid for the education of the electorate by bitter experience was high, but it was necessary. Hollande wouldn't even have had to pay such a high price for putting up a fight in 2012. Germany's responsibility would have been clear. Instead, he made German (and UMP) policy his own, and now he cannot escape from his identification with its failure.


Thomas Holzman said...

It is hardly surprising that everyone wants out of a Europe that Germany is running for its own benefit and no one else's.

René said...

I voted for Hollande because of what he promised about this renegociation. I voted against Sarkozy because of this stupid (for me) Merkozy austerity. Two weeks after the election, when Holland surrendered without even having tried to negociate, I knew his presidency would be a long disaster. We're in and I don't know if he can finish his 5 year presidency

brent said...

Let me take your counter-factual a step further: beyond the clear triumph of the center-left in Italy, and signs of life in Spain, you could mention Greece, where Syriza now clearly leads. And Ireland, where Sinn Fein is poised to play a leading role in both North and South. You could also consider some local resurgence of Greens, notably in Flanders, parts of Germany, and in producing the one distinguished, future-looking personality of the Commission election: Ska Keller. In short, the dim possibility of a red-green EU coalition is just visible in these results--and there would have been plenty of support in France for such a coalition among left Socialists as well as Greens and radical leftists--though the Socialists are still (barely) held in check by party discipline. Had the PS been able to produce any sort of leader for this left coalition, even a Renzi-style pragmatist who could count his cards, Europe this morning would be seeing a countervailing force to the rising far right. As is, Le Pen and friends are made to seem the only alternative to the status quo, depressingly embodied in Merkel/Hollande/Juncker. Hollande has missed his historic cue, and Europe will pay a heavy price.

Mitch Guthman said...


I agree completely. I think yours is the best appreciation of how we came to this sorry pass. I also share what I take to be your bleak assessment of the future.

I can only hope that the left in France can find its De Gaulle around whom to rally and rebuild a PS that is prepared to do what is necessary to preserve Europe and everything that has been achieved since the end of the war.

George Ross said...

Right on Art. I remember vaguely a conference in Brussels in 2012, just after the election, and a conversation that I had there with an in important PS intellectual who had been on a panel with me. About the treaty and Hollande's pledge and vague talk about it, I asked him "do you think that Hollande has the tripes to stand up to Merkel," knowing that Monti was prepared to stand up as well, but needed someone more powerful to take the lead. The intello in question responded, "yes, I think that he has." And here we are now. The deeper question is indeed tripes, which Mitterrand had, along with sinuosity and the other stuff. How could a slick paper-pusher like Hollande become PS presidential candidate? When we can answer that I think that we will be able to assess the PS's future, if it has any after yesterday.