When Mike Campbell is asked in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises about his money troubles, he vividly describes how one becomes bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.” The same is true in banking and in politics. Both are in mortal fear of a run on themselves.
While the Eurosceptic parties did not prevail, their strong showing in the 2019 European Parliament elections is a signal that the risk of the EU’s run on itself is not over. As I watched the lead-up to the elections, I couldn’t help but think about a humorous line from a nonsense story that I recall from my childhood: “Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
Lord Ronald is the average European voter. He wants change, but that desire can manifest itself in very different ways. In the Netherlands, for example, voters in provincial elections in March came out to support an anti-migration, right-wing party. The same month, Slovaks elected a liberal woman as president after many years of their country being regarded as an unbreakable populist stronghold. In Spain, after a year of never-ending political crisis, the winner was the centrist Socialist party.
It is not that the mainstream is moving to the fringes. Rather, voters are moving in all directions – from left to right, from anti-establishment to mainstream. The ideological borders are the least guarded borders in Europe today.
European voters are angry, confused and nostalgic. Many believe that the world was better yesterday than it is today, but they are unsure when that glorious yesterday was. They fear that their children will be worse off than they are, but they do not know how to prevent it.
The epidemic of nostalgia in the last decade has been one of Europe’s most dramatic changes. Founded on the ruins of World War II, the EU was initially a project of societies that feared the past and longed for the future. At present, Europe is populated by societies nostalgic for the past and fearful of the future.
Economic crisis, ageing populations, demographic fears and a sense that the old continent is not the centre of the world any more may all provide some explanation for the fever of nostalgia.
So, the biggest challenge for Europe today is to learn again how to court the future.