For many who look at Europe from afar, its politics seem interesting only when conceived as a Trumpian spectacle: strongman blowhards attacking hollow liberal elites, a migration crisis at the border, a seemingly unstoppable right-wing international at the gates of power in capitals across the continent. In the months leading up to the elections for the European Parliament in late May, this was the narrative that purported to explain the stakes of the vote. “The European Union, a unique, shared project underpinned by peaceful cooperation, is under threat from forces who wish to destroy what we have achieved together,” read the official EU announcement of the vote. Add a cameo appearance by Steve Bannon, and the all-too-familiar plotline begins to write itself.
On one side, there is the self-appointed defender of the citadel: Emmanuel Macron, the young, photogenic French president, who dons an armor of crisp white shirts and spotless navy suits to tilt at the windmills of nativism and nationalism. Macron’s weapons of choice in this fight tend to be literary allusions—to Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs, a favorite, or Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. One or the other is cited in nearly every speech he gives on Europe, the message of which is invariably that we are all sleepwalking to our doom, and no one—except Macron—is saying anything. Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, is something of his Sancho Panza, tweeting feel-good platitudes about the European project, sometimes with the flexed bicep emoji, sometimes with the heart-eyed smiley face.
On the other side of this seemingly epic battle for the “soul” of the continent, there is the rowdy trio of transnational nationalists—Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and France’s Marine Le Pen. They ramble on about migrants who “say they have escaped from war and then go around…with a baseball cap and a cellphone and sneakers to sell drugs in the parks” (Salvini), about a “Soros empire” run by a Jewish billionaire apparently keen on destroying “Christian Europe” (Orbán), and about “taking back power” for “the people” (Le Pen). Like all the best cartoon villains in public life, they see themselves as world-historical. I spoke with Le Pen shortly after the parliamentary elections, and she assured me that the results were tantamount to “the recomposition of political life.”
The irony is that both the globalists and the nationalists have sought to portray European politics as a Manichaean struggle that ultimately becomes a yes-or-no question. “The question to ask is whether you are a globalist or not, whether you are for borders or not, whether you are for the regulation…
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