Much can change in five years. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who forged his reputation as a dynamic no-nonsense Interior Minister, was viewed by many as France’s best chance in a generation to break away from the country’s hyper-interventionist economic policies and the left’s suffocating monopoly of French cultural life. Now, however, Sarkozy has been discarded by France’s electorate in favor of one of the driest socialist career-politician apparatchiks ever to ascend to high office in Europe.
In one sense, there’s nothing surprising about Sarkozy’s demise. His first years as president were consumed by the soap opera-like dramas associated with his messy private life. Sarkozy’s penchant for behaving as the most gauche of nouveau riche during a major economic downturn needlessly alienated thousands of France’s voters. In policy terms, his reform agenda turned out to be minimalistic and wholly inadequate for equipping France for life in a global economy.
Sarkozy’s consignment to history and the return of France’s left to power reflects, however, a wider European trend: a crisis of identity and purpose that presently afflicts much of Europe’s center-right.
Any objective analysis of Europe’s “non-left” soon indicates the depth of their problems. In Italy, the center-right is struggling to shake off the legacy of endless scandal associated with Silvio Berlusconi. On 22 April, almost half of France’s right-leaning electorate voted for Marine Le Pen’s Front National: a movement that rivals the left in its embrace of protectionism and other economically–interventionist policies. Across the Rhine, the junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition government, the pro-business Free Democrats, are so unpopular that they may fail to meet the 5 percent threshold required for representation in the Bundestag at Germany’s next federal election.
It’s true that Spain’s mildly-conservative Partido Popular recently acquired office. But the PP was primarily elected because it wasn’t the thoroughly-discredited Socialists. While the PP’s leader Mariano Rajoy has continued his predecessor’s austerity measures, his government has yet to implement any substantive economic liberalization (austerity and liberalization being quite different things).
The same might be said of Britain’s Conservative government. More than one commentator has suggested David Cameron’s Tories seem to be in thrall to their Liberal Democrat coalition partner (often described as a parody of inner-city latte-drinking left-liberalism). Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything especially conservative or free market about most of Cameron’s policies. The thumping received by the Tories at last week’s nation-wide local council elections has been partly attributed to anger by Conservative voters at the distinctly un-conservative positions pursued by Cameron’s administration.
The reasons for this widespread disarray on Europe’s right are partly structural. Many European electoral systems are designed to prevent any one party from governing in its own right. Many center-right parties consequently find themselves in coalitions with left-leaning groups. This blunts their ability to challenge left-wing social and economic policies.
Tendencies to tepidness are accentuated by the fact that European politics is dominated by career politicians to an extent unimaginable to Americans who don’t reside in Chicago. European center-right politicians are consequently even more focused upon acquiring and staying in office than their American counterparts. That means they are extremely risk-averse when it comes to challenging the European status quo — such as becoming associated with proposals for substantive economic reform or confronting the intolerant leftist hegemony that dominates European educational institutions.
A far deeper problem facing Europe’s center-right, however, is its intellectual-ineffectiveness. By this, I don’t mean that there aren’t any intellectually-convinced European conservatives and free marketers. In fact, there are plenty of such individuals. Their impact upon the public square, however, is minimal.
Such ineffectiveness has several causes. First, most non-left European think-tanks are explicitly associated with existing political parties and usually government-funded. Hence, the willingness of people working in such outfits to criticize their own side for failure to promote conservative principles — something many American think-tanks often do — is limited, if not non-existent.
A second crippling factor is the extent to which most European center-right intellectuals and parties (especially those from Christian Democrat backgrounds) are committed to promoting the European Union in its present form. The problem is that many of the assumptions, structures, and policies associated with the EU have long assumed a decidedly center-left character. Many center-right politicians subsequently end up defending positions they might otherwise oppose because such policies are considered “the” pro-European view.
One side-effect of these problems is that many on Europe’s right concerned about Brussels or fed up with the lukewarmness and careerism of mainstream center-right parties end up voting for nationalist movements, despite strong reservations about such groups’ often-xenophobic tendencies. Not everyone who voted for Le Pen’s Front National is instinctively anti-immigrant or a fierce protectionist. It’s just that they can see few other ways of registering their dissatisfaction with various EU policies or the status quo-ism they associate with established center-right parties.
The obstacles to revitalizing Europe’s right are thus considerable. Here, however, are two concrete suggestions for a way forward.
The first is for Europe’s right to present visions of Europe that represent serious alternatives to the top-down, bureaucratic, egalitarian-obsessed, hyper-secularist mindsets that dominate today’s EU. There is no reason why thinking about Europe’s future should be confined to the ghetto of the present model. Indeed, if constructive alternatives to the EU’s present form and emphases are not articulated, the likelihood of more Europeans turning in frustration to extremes of left and right will increase.
A second step would be for Europe’s non-left thinkers and political leaders to spend less time networking and instead immerse themselves in the works of the primary founder of modern Western conservatism, Edmund Burke. In Burke’s writings, they would discover an array of ideas that represent a powerful alternative to both Social Democracy as well as the blander-than-bland positions espoused by most European center-right parties.
Burke was, after all, a fierce critic of the centralization promoted by the French Revolution, a promoter of Adam Smith’s economics, a relentless exposer of government corruption, an advocate of strong civil societies, and a defender of constitutional freedom against over-mighty princes and Jacobin bureaucrats. In short, Burke’s ideas challenge key features of today’s grey European reality, but without embracing any of the more odious parts of the far right’s agenda.
But however Europe’s non-left decides to proceed, the rise and fall of Nicolas Sarkozy should remind them that long-term political success must involve more than simply winning office in order to mildly impede the European left from getting everything it wants. As Burke once wrote, “The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts.” Grasping that truth — and a powerful dose of intellectual and intestinal fortitude — would go a long way to restoring the right’s fortunes throughout Europe.