The recent European elections saw a significant lurch to the far right, which took many by surprise.
From a cultural perspective this was entirely predictable.
The colours of that end of the political spectrum are those of the national flag, and the emotions it thrives on are feelings of helplessness, anger and a fear of the unknown.
In difficult times like ours, when people have lost their jobs, feel political power is out of their control (Brussels), and that the cultural landscape of their own country is changing (immigration), it is easy to cling to what we first learned – our national values and beliefs – and to reject violently anything ‘other’ which threatens that.
W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming sums up the apathy (low voter turnout), which can lead to the passionately intense seizing power:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The EU is based on the principle of closer and closer union, but a union of nations with widely divergent values. These divisions can be at the deepest philosophical level: compare French rationalism and German theory with British pragmatism, and you can see why the UK has never felt at home in a political construct built on Franco-German foundations.
We can live with such differences while it is ‘business as usual’, but when crisis hits, and when it hits the pockets of the citizens of Europe, those who can afford it may shrug their shoulders and not bother voting, while many of those who can’t will retreat into their national enclaves and defend their unique values to the death.
There are no simple answers. But the EU needs to examine its first premises and consider whether closer and closer integration is the right goal, given the cultural differences within Europe. It can then either decide to scale down its ambitions, or come up with such a compelling alternative, such a message of hope – ideally embodied in an Obama-like figure – that it appeals to and unites the whole of Europe….
But something must be done to avoid a ‘Second Coming’ like that of Yeats’ poem where a ‘rough beast … slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’. It has happened before in Europe, and history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.