Analysis The Center Can Hold

Europe’s Political Center Is Holding Just Fine

Critics assume Europe’s mainstream parties are incapable of change when they are nothing if not flexible.

David Cameron Angela Merkel
British prime minister David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel answer questions from reporters in Berlin, May 29, 2015 (10 Downing Street/Arron Hoare)

Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues in The National Interest today that Europe’s center cannot hold. A “far too cozy and smug consensus between ostensibly moderate parties” is breaking down, he writes, as the continent’s mainstream political parties fail to cope with the crises of the European Union and immigration.

We beg to differ.

Wheatcroft is an old Tory patrician looking for events to vindicate his long-held mistrust of insipid career politicians. He never liked the whole EU to begin with, so he is eager to see it fail. He never cared much for the middle-of-the-road policies of Tony Blair’s Labour Party and the Conservatives under David Cameron, so he welcomes the rise of populist outsiders.

He ends up reading too much into challenges to Europe’s political center.

Weak insurgents

Wheatcroft points to France where Marine Le Pen’s Front national has been on the rise. It has — but it has consistently placed third in recent elections, behind the mainstream Socialist Party on the left and the Republicans on the right.

Wheatcroft writes that it is “by no means fanciful to suppose” that Le Pen could win the 2017 presidential election. But it is. If Le Pen did make it into the second voting round, the other two-thirds of France would almost certainly rally around whoever stands against her.

And France’s is far by the strongest insurgent party in Western Europe.

Wheatcroft mentions the Five Star Movement in Italy as another example, but the ruling Democratic Party there is not anxious. It won 40 percent support in the last European Parliament elections.

Wheatcroft somehow finds evidence of a weak center in Germany where the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats between them have 503 out of 630 seats in parliament.

To be fair, the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland party has been rising in the polls — but it still only gets around 10 percent support. This website has warned that Germany’s mainstream politicians risk a backlash if they fail to take concerns about immigration seriously — but they are starting to.

Finally, Wheatcroft takes a look at his native England where he can only point to falling turnout to make his case.

The avowedly centrist Conservative Party there after all won the election in May, claiming an absolute majority for the first time in two decades.

The Labour Party, by contrast, has lost more and more votes as it veered further and further the left while the United Kingdom Independence Party on the right has managed to get just a single one of its members elected to Parliament.

Muddling through

So it rather seems the center is holding.

Wheatcroft’s mistake isn’t that he sees things that aren’t there. Elites have been complacent. Mainstream parties introduced a single currency in more countries than they should have. They did ignore or downplay for too long the very real economic and social problems that immigration from non-Western societies caused.

His mistake is to assume that Europe’s mainstream parties are incapable of (or unwilling to) change when their adaptability is exactly what has kept them in power for so long.

The reason David Cameron was able to see off a more serious UKIP challenge is that he accepted some of the right’s criticisms of the EU and immigration. So have the conservatives in France. Angela Merkel in Germany has recognized that multiculturalism has failed and is now forced to backtrack on her generous immigration policy.

If the past is any indication, their parties will make sure they remain on the side of the majority of voters. Sometimes they need to be pushed in one direction or the other by loud voices on the left or the right. But in the end, they’ll muddle through. It’s what they do.