Weekend Roundup: The Battle For Europe


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The battle for Europe is on. No sooner had the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, beaten back the populist challenge in his country with a vigorous pro-European integration campaign, than elections in Germany dashed the momentum. His putative partner in rebooting the European project, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, suffered its worst showing since 1949 in a vote last Sunday. One statistic reveals the stalemate that divides the body politic in the core of Europe: The centrist CDU received nearly 33 percent of the German vote — virtually the same share of the French vote (34 percent) that French politician Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front garnered in that country’s elections months earlier.

Worse, for the first time since the Nazi era, a far-right party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, gained enough support to enter the German Parliament. As Nick Robins-Early reports, the AfD did best in the region that used to be communist East Germany, where anti-immigrant and anti-European sentiment is strongest. 

Sylvie Goulard, who was the French minister of defense in the first Macron cabinet, sorts out the prospects ahead. Much depends, she says, on whether Merkel can assemble a coalition government that is pro-Europe, and if Macron can allay German suspicions by putting French finances in order and renovating the country’s virtually sacred labor code. “If bold reforms are implemented in France,” Goulard writes from Paris, “German skeptics lose their strongest argument: the lack of a reliable partner.” Goulard pins her hopes on Macron’s pragmatic approach to implementing a reinvigorated European vision, which he outlined in a major speech this week. 

In that speech, Goulard notes, the French president “insist[ed] that concrete issues need to be tackled urgently,” including “unemployment, security, border control [and] innovation.” For Macron, she says, Europe should not be regarded “as a bitter medicine you have to swallow, nor as a set of procedures. Instead, he sees it as a new frontier, a way to enjoy the benefits of scale and diversity, including from a cultural point of view.” As Goulard sees it, “while Macron’s pro-European plea represents a quantum leap forward, it does not close the debate. It opens it. In the coming months, the main challenge for European politicians will be to take risks and shake up the old ways of thinking.”

Also writing from Paris, Sébastien Maillard, who heads the Jacques Delors Institute, a European think tank founded by the former president of the European Commission, sums up the French-German dance this way: “The current political situation in Europe is wobbly. On the one hand, there is an impatient, clear-minded French president crafting ambitious proposals through visionary speeches … On the other side of the Rhine, there is a weakened German chancellor, trapped in long domestic negotiations to come up with a fragile governing coalition.” Moving forward on European integration, Maillard argues, requires both countries to advance in tandem. But, he notes, they “are not ready to move together at the same pace.” 

Centrifugal forces are also challenging the very idea of shared sovereignty elsewhere in Europe. On Sunday, Catalans are primed to vote in a referendum on whether to secede from Spain, which the national government in Madrid has pledged to prevent from taking place. Guillermo Rodríguez outlines what is at stake. 

Writing from Madrid, former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez calls the Catalan referendum “a mockery of democracy.” He does not hold back. 

“This is a seditious break with the democratic legal order,” he argues passionately. “It is perpetrated by politicians with total disregard to the very norms that give them legitimacy and with the sole purpose of imposing their will on all Catalans and all Spaniards. While sentiments of belonging to a unique culture are understandable, I fear we are witnessing the emergence of forces of nationalism similar to those that led Europe into the catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century.”

Gonzalez, who skillfully shepherded Spain’s fledgling democracy in the early years after Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, sees a larger issue and a parallel situation in the Catalonia story. “We must be vigilant whenever democracy is put above the law instead of being guaranteed by the law,” he says. “A situation comparable to this referendum can be found in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro convened an election this year for a National Constituent Assembly as a way to rewrite the constitution and cling to power.” Gonzalez continues: “Similarly, the intentions laid out by the authorities of Catalonia lack any legal foundation — be it in their own internal legal order, in that of the European Union or even in the realm of international law.”

Parag Khanna, on the other hand, sides with the secessionists. “Devolution — not democracy,” he declares, “remains the most powerful political force of our age.” Writing from Berlin, he argues that “treating devolutionary movements merely as narcissistic tribal nuisances ignores their very legitimate, tangible grievances.” Khanna in particular cites the Iraqi Kurdish referendum this week, which saw Kurds in that country voting overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq. He continues: “There is nothing regressive about the Scots, Catalans and Kurds. As smaller polities, they know their local circumstances better than far-off national capitals and are often less corrupt and more fiscally prudent. They are more capable of making rational cost-benefit calculations about their investments and bootstrapping where necessary to fulfill their potential.” Khanna concludes that, “for all the fear that the world is falling apart through civil wars and secessionism, the world is actually coming together as never before into a network of connected countries and cities.”

As we noted in last weekend’s roundup, the Berggruen Institute hosted a salon recently with Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. In an interview from that gathering published in The WorldPost this week, Gandhi draws parallels in India with the populist surge in Europe and America. “Economic insecurity about finding work and anxieties over identity are being aggressively exploited by [India’s] right-wing,” he tells Berggruen Institute’s Nicolas Berggruen. Gandhi particularly criticizes the exclusivist politics of Hindu nationalists allied with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying, “Dalits and Muslims are simply being told by the ruling party that they cannot be part of India’s vision.” The great-grandson of India’s first prime minister also expresses the country’s worries over neighboring China’s expansive new Belt and Road Initiative: “It is an attempt at redesigning the world,” he posits with some alarm. “I don’t see a clear response to it, however, and I am not one of those that underestimates their capability to pull it off.” 

Other highlights in The WorldPost this week:

Nathan Gardels, Editor-in-ChiefKathleen Miles, Executive Editor Dawn Nakagawa, Vice President of OperationsFarah Mohamed, Managing Editor Peter Mellgard, Features Editor Alex Gardels, Video Editor Clarissa Pharr, Associate Editor Rosa O’Hara, Social Editor Suzanne Gaber, Editorial Assistant

MISSION STATEMENT: The WorldPost is a global media platform published by the Berggruen Institute that aims to make sense of an interdependent yet fragmenting world. We publish news, features and first-person voices from all corners of the planet, looking around with a global perspective rather than looking out from a national viewpoint. Follow us on Facebook (and TwitterInstagramYouTube and LinkedIn).

EDITORIAL BOARD: Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Eric Schmidt, Pierre Omidyar, Arianna Huffington, Juan Luis Cebrian, Walter Isaacson, John Elkann, Wadah Khanfar, Yoichi Funabashi

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Moises Naim, Nayan Chanda, Katherine Keating, Sergio Munoz Bata, Parag Khanna, Seung-yoon Lee, Jared Cohen, Bruce Mau, Patrick Soon-Shiong

ADVISORY COUNCIL: Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei Kudrin, Pascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon Musk, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel Roubini, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter Schwartz, Amartya Sen, Jeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry Summers, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Zheng Bijian, Marek Belka, Tony Blair, Jacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar Issing, Mario Monti, Robert Mundell, Peter Sutherland, Guy Verhofstadt