Remember when soap-opera politics used to be the preserve of what was contemptuously described as the ‘third world’? No longer. The topsy-turvy world of Western politics is providing an even more interesting spectacle to a watching world.
For proof, look no further than recent unpredictable developments in Washington, London and Paris.
US President Donald Trump remains mired in a bitter battle with the ousted head of the FBI, James Comey, over alleged ties between Russia and the Trump administration.
In London, a discredited and weakened Prime Minister Theresa May is clinging on to power despite having failed miserably to win the massive parliamentary majority she expected to help her engineer a hard Brexit.
And in France, the ‘revolution’ sparked by Emmanuel Macron continues as the French President’s La République En Marche party looks set to dominate the National Assembly.
These and other changes in three key Western democracies have obvious and important repercussions for their own citizens – but they also impact strongly on Europe and the world.
“The topsy-turvy world of Western politics is providing an even more interesting spectacle”
Here are some quick and easy lessons to keep in mind as we navigate new and sometimes choppy waters.
First, after almost a year of talking down Europe it’s time to be upbeat about the future. The energy generated by the French elections should be quickly channelled into serious discussions about giving shape to the European bounce-back through change and reform.
Second, even as we mourn America and Britain’s slow slide into irrelevance let’s seize the moment to make Europe matter even more on the global stage on key issues like global governance, security and climate change. In a quick-moving world, nobody is stopping for America. And as Global Britain behaves more like ‘little England’, it inspires little respect.
Third, let’s celebrate the power and political nous of young Europeans and ‘citizens of the world’, including ethnic minorities, who turned out in huge numbers to vote in the British elections, giving a bloody nose to the ruling Conservative Party in the process. Macron’s success is also proof that building a new and more vibrant Europe is about reaching out to all citizens, regardless for age, colour or faith.
Fourth, it is possible to defeat populists and populism – but only if the politicians who take them on are authentic, passionate, social media-savvy and strong enough to fight fire with fire. Europe needs a new narrative based on openness, inclusion and compassion. Both France and Britain have shown that there is limited appetite among voters for racists and hate-mongers. Let’s keep that in mind, especially ahead of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament.
Fifth, the EU’s political muscle-building is being paralleled by significant shifts in Britain. There’s an undeniable shift in the UK government’s approach to Brexit, with its previous stance on a ‘hard Brexit’ due to be significantly softened. The upshot of the election is that the House of Commons is back in control.
“The politicians taking the populists on need to be authentic, passionate, social media-savvy and strong enough to fight fire with fire”
Robbed of a majority, the Tories’ hard Brexiteer ministers will have to submit all the necessary enabling legislation to parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the MPs are reckoned to be anti-Brexit, but were cowed into silence by the referendum result.
Sixth, the pro-EU membership Tory and Labour MPs will no doubt gain in confidence and assertiveness once the Brexit negotiations get under way next week. Mrs May’s battle cry of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has already been abandoned, and the growing likelihood is that David Davis, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, will be forced by circumstances to acknowledge that Britain should stay in the single market.
That would mean accepting the EU’s four freedoms of movement – for capital, goods, services, and crucially labour – leaving voters in a possible second referendum to ponder the question of what Brexit is really all about.
Although it’s probably a stretch to ascribe the British electorate’s negative verdict on May’s appeal for a stronger Brexit mandate to shifts elsewhere in Europe, French voters’ massive rejection of populism by electing Macron to the presidency and giving him a landslide parliamentary majority has certainly been echoed in Britain.
If populism can best be described as the triumph of dangerously simplistic and short-sighted solutions to complex long-term problems, then the populists are being routed on both sides of the English Channel.