Europe is sleepwalking into oblivion and its people need to wake up before it is too late. If they don’t, the European Union will go the way of the Soviet Union in 1991. Neither our leaders nor ordinary citizens seem to understand that we are experiencing a revolutionary moment, that the range of possibilities is very broad, and that the eventual outcome is thus highly uncertain.
Most of us assume the future will more or less resemble the present, but this is not necessarily so. In a long and eventful life, I have witnessed many periods of what I call radical disequilibrium. We are living in such a period today.
The next inflection point will be the elections for the European parliament, in May 2019. Unfortunately, anti-EU forces will enjoy a competitive advantage. There are several reasons for this, including the outdated party system in most European countries, the practical impossibility of treaty change and the lack of legal tools for disciplining member states that violate the principles on which the EU was founded. The EU can impose its laws on applicant countries but it lacks sufficient capacity to enforce member states’ compliance.
The antiquated party system hampers those who want to preserve the values on which the EU was founded, but it helps those who want to replace those values with something radically different. This is true in individual countries and even more so in trans-European alliances. The party system of individual states reflects the divisions that mattered in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the conflict between capital and labour. But the cleavage that matters most today is between pro- and anti-European forces.
The EU’s dominant country is Germany, whose dominant political alliance – between the Christian Democratic Union and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union – has become unsustainable. The alliance worked as long as there was no significant party in Bavaria to the right of the CSU. That changed with the rise of the extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In last September’s länder elections, the CSU’s result was its worst in more than six decades, and the AfD entered the Bavarian parliament for the first time.
The AfD’s rise removed the raison d’etre of the CDU-CSU alliance. But that alliance cannot be broken up without triggering new elections that neither Germany nor Europe can afford. And the ruling coalition cannot be robustly pro-European while facing the AfD threat.
The situation is far from hopeless. The German Greens have emerged as the only consistently pro-European party in the country, and they continue to rise in opinion polls, whereas the AfD seems to have reached its high point (except in the former East Germany). But now CDU/CSU voters are represented by a party whose commitment to European values is ambivalent.
In the United Kingdom too an antiquated party structure prevents the popular will from finding proper expression. Both Labour and the Conservatives are internally divided, but their leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, respectively, are determined to deliver Brexit. The situation is so complicated that most Britons just want to get it over with, although it will be the defining event for the country for decades to come.
Collusion between Corbyn and May has aroused opposition in both parties, which in the case of Labour is bordering on rebellion. May has announced a programme to aid impoverished pro-Brexit Labour constituencies in the north of England. And Corbyn is accused of betraying the pledge he made at Labour’s last party conference to back a second Brexit referendum if he can’t trigger a general election.
The chances that May’s deal will again be rejected by MPs are growing by the day. That could set in motion a groundswell of support for a referendum – or, even better, for revoking Britain’s article 50 notification.
Italy finds itself in a similar predicament. The EU made a fatal mistake in 2017 by strictly enforcing the Dublin agreement, which unfairly burdens countries, such as Italy, where migrants first enter the EU. This drove its predominantly pro-European and pro-immigration electorate into the arms of the anti-European League party and Five Star Movement in last year’s election. The previously dominant Democratic party is in disarray. As a result, the many voters who remain pro-European have no party to vote for. There is, however, an attempt to organise a united pro-European list. A similar reordering of party systems is happening in France, Poland and Sweden.
When it comes to trans-European alliances, the situation is even worse. National parties at least have some roots in the past, but these alliances are entirely dictated by party leaders’ self-interest. The European People’s party (EPP) alliance is the worst offender – almost entirely devoid of principles, as demonstrated by its willingness to embrace Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in order to preserve its majority and control the allocation of top EU jobs. Anti-European forces may look good in comparison: at least they have some principles, even if they are odious.
It is difficult to see how the pro-EU parties can emerge victorious from the May elections unless they put Europe’s interests ahead of their own. One can still make a case for preserving the EU in order radically to reinvent it. But that would require a change of heart within the EU. The current leadership is reminiscent of the politburo when the Soviet Union collapsed – continuing to issue edicts as if they were still relevant.
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognise the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilise it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become a 21st-century nightmare.
George Soros is the chairman of Soros Fund Management and of the Open Society Foundations