The Centre Cannot Hold

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

In the swelling volume of apocalyptic analysis regarding the future of the euro, the European Union and Europe itself, the line above from Yeats is probably the most-often quoted. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, the poem is genuinely apocalyptic, as its title suggests, not in a positive, let alone triumphalist sense, but rather the opposite.

In any event, the idea that “the centre cannot hold” is what seems to have caught the eye, the ear and the mind of many analysts, from a spectrum of social sciences, when they observe the developments in Europe over the last few years. The phrase is being used in a political context, with the terrible example of the collapse of the political centre in most European countries in inter-war Europe very much in the analysts’ minds.

Rightly so. Last weekend may mark the point at which the centre began to collapse and, if so, will be noted by historians as a turning-point in the history of modern Europe. The key development, as discussed in this column last Friday, was the French presidential election, which kicked off a hectic election season that will encompass Greece and Ireland, before returning to France in June for parliamentary elections.

As everyone who follows news reports will know, the first round of the presidential election generated a result close to that predicted by the polls in advance: the centre-right candidate, Sarkozy, narrowly beat the centre-left candidate, Hollande, with each man garnering some 28-29%. These two will now shape up for the final showdown in the second round, in May 6. But the more dramatic outcome was the showing of the far-right candidate, Marine le Pen, who took almost 18% of the vote and thereby exceeded her father’s success in the 2002 election.

The headlines and commentary highlighted this “best-ever showing” by the extreme right, and the parallel weak showing of the major parties which, as noted, managed only little better than half the votes between them. However, as so often with instant analysis, the spotlight was too narrowly focused and thereby missed much of importance. The following points put the current results into better focus, by comparing the first round of the 2012 elections with the parallel round of the elections of 2007 and 2002:

  • If we combine the extreme parties into one block – because much of their platform, especially relating to the EU, is the same – then the total extremist vote was 31% this time, compared to only 19.4% in 2007. But – and this is important and also very interesting. The extremist showing in 2012 was actually LOWER than that of 2002, when it reached 35.3% — far more than this year.

  • The main difference between 2012 and 2002, on the extremist side, was the poor showing of the extreme-left, whose four candidates – led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, who managed only 11% — cobbled together 13% this year, whereas the five extreme-left candidates in 2002 achieved a total of 16%.

  • However – and this is the surprise – even the extreme-right did worse than in 2002. True, le Pen Jnr. surpassed le Pen Snr., but in 2002 there was another extreme-right candidate and the total vote for him and le Pen was 19.2%, compared to 17.9% for le Pen Jnr this year.

  • The Greens are not included in the foregoing “extreme-left/ extreme-right” groupings, although that is obviously a matter of opinion. But the Green vote in 2012, at 2.3%, whilst much higher than the 1.6% of 2007, was less than half of that recorded in 2002, when the party’s candidate won 5.2%.

These items will suffice to show that the extremist showing, whilst impressive and therefore frightening, was actually well below that of 2002 – on all fronts, left, right and Greens. In light of this broader picture, what conclusions can and should be drawn from last week’s voting.

A case can certainly be made that, worrying as the extremist vote is, the fact that it has not reached 2002 levels, when the economic situation in France, Europe and the world is far worse today than ten years ago, provides a measure of comfort. Just as France survived the recession, riots and social unrest that marked 2002-2005, so it can do so again.

Regular readers of this column will know that I don’t subscribe to that soothing lullaby. The severity of France’s own economic, demographic, social and political problems is not that much less than those of its southern neighbours, Spain, Italy and Portugal. But the real shocker last weekend came not from France, and not from the PIIGS, but from Holland – a country which, until a decade ago, was perhaps the most committed to the European vision and to making the EU and its agencies work.

Last Saturday, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, led his party out of the governing coalition, thereby bringing down the government and forcing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s resignation on Monday. The issue at stake was the effort to cut the Dutch budget sufficiently to meet EU target levels, which Wilders regards as ‘dictates from Brussels’.

The wider picture, therefore, is that the centre is crumbling right across Europe, not merely in basket cases such as Greece, but in the core countries of the EU, such as France and Holland. The crisis is expressed via financial and economic data, notably the gulf between income and expenditures, but it is ultimately a political one, where the gulf between the elites and the general public has become unbridgeable.

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