Europe, Resist! Trump’s Poisonous Politics Need Not Infect Us All

After the Brexit vote last June and the election of Donald Trump four months later, there has been a despondent acceptance that this virus of isolationism and protectionism will infect the whole of Europe.

Look, people say, there is Geert Wilders building support in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen is leading opinion polls for the French presidency, and the authoritarian right has control in Poland and Hungary.

There is no doubt that the European consensus around openness, inclusiveness and social welfare is under threat in a way it has not been in the 60 years of the life of the European Union.

And it is true that this has caused real wobbles in the financial community. As Stephen Lewis, the City economist and Disclaimer contributor, has pointed out, tensions have been rising in the euro zone over the past month.

One indicator of increasing anxiety has been the widening in yield spreads between 10-year sovereign bonds in Germany, on the one hand, and in those eurozone member-states which are perceived to be in less robust financial condition, on the other.

But none of this is any reason why right-thinking Europeans need to add to the problems by talking up the prospect of nationalism sweeping across Europe.

Part of the problem is a misdiagnosis of the problem - and more specifically the idea that the same diagnosis applies to the US, the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The common theme is not rejection of globalisation, but of globalism

Many observers have said that the problem is economic and is a kickback against the process of globalisation that has opened up countries in the West to competition from low-wage economies in the East.

That may be true in some sectors such as metal bashing in the US and the UK, which were probably already fatally wounded before globalisation. But it does not explain record-high employment in the UK or a jobless rate below 5% of the population in the US.

In fact, it probably does, as economic research has shown that free trade encourages countries to specialise in what they are good while lowering tariff barriers leads to higher trade volumes and exports.

Neither France nor Holland looks in great danger of their economies being swept away by globalisation. Indeed the eurozone economy is growing steadily while the UK and US economies are powering ahead.

The common theme is not rejection of globalisation, but of globalism - the neoliberal creed behind a move away from cultural and national values - and of politicians who have remorselessly continued to drive through these values in the face of recession and growing inequality.

So it is not economics, stupid - it is the three Ps of politics, populism and polarisation that anti-establishment parties are using to attract support.

But those upstart parties come from both right and left. Sure, taken together Trump, the Brexiteers, Wilders, Le Pen, Poland’s Justice and Law party and Victor Orban looks like a leftwinger’s nightmare.

But this needs to be offset by the enthusiastic embrace of Bernie Sanders in the US, the momentum of Emmanuel Macron and EnMarche! in France, the peculiar popularity amongst Labour members of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the election of Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras as Greek prime minister

Last and definitely not least is the emergence of Martin Schulz, the centre-left former president of the European Parliament, as the man who could end the 10-year reign of Angela Merkel in Germany.

What links all of these movements is novelty rather than a particular brand of economics and politics. They are all new, or at least newish, voices.

DEFEAT OF THE CENTRE-LEFT AND CENTRE-RIGHT IS NOT INEVITABLE

This is worrying to the extent that it implies disenchantment with the whole democratic process. Research by the World Value Survey shows that while there is still widespread support, there has been a decline in satisfaction with democracy that correlates with a fall in trust in the established system.

Populist politicians have captured this by adapting their language to attack their opponents, whether Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, the two Francoises Hollande and Fillon, or Merkel as being emblematic of an elite that has run the political system for its own benefit.

Established political parties can fight back but they need to find the language and the approach that can attract voters looked to give the established bodies a poke in the eye.

Schulz, Macron and Tsipras did that from the left and Trump and Wilders have done that from the right. But the strength of Macron and Schulz in particular and the appeal of their centrist politics show that all is not lost. Perhaps one of the saddest points is Corbyn should have been able to do that but instead appealed to the language of another failed dogma from the 1970s and 1980s.

Defeat of the centre-left and centre-right is not inevitable although its demise might be accelerated by the combined ululating from the grief-stricken supporters.

Trump is not Hitler and nor is Le Pen. The democratic system is working in the US by striking out the President’s flawed ban on Muslim countries. Even if Wilders and Le Pen win their elections, they will fail to gain the parliamentary support to put their vole programmes into action.

This is not complacency but an opportunity to point out that the established parties that have so much progress in America and Europe need to find new leaders and new language to rouse people out of their apathy. For every Trump, there is a Macron.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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