The challenges facing Europe have not vanished

French president-elect Emmanuel Macron, center, and current President Francois Hollande, left foreground, shake hands to veterans during a ceremony to mark the end of World War II at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Stephane de Sakutin / AP Photo
French president-elect Emmanuel Macron, center, and current President Francois Hollande, left foreground, shake hands to veterans during a ceremony to mark the end of World War II at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Stephane de Sakutin / AP Photo

There has probably been more than enough said about the French election. Suffice it to say that it is good news that the French electorate voted against a far-right presidential candidate, but it is concerning that a third of the vote still managed to go the way of that candidate.

Any honest assessment must recognise those two crucial points. But there is a larger question involved here. Against the backdrop of the rise of the populist far-right, what has happened to the genuine alternatives? Or, to put it another way: where, indeed, have all the good men and women gone?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a dearth of inspirational and decent political leaders on the European continent at present. There is a real paucity. It isn’t that good people don’t live in Europe any more, but either they’re not going into political life as much as they might have once upon a time, or they don’t have the same opportunities to thrive in politics as they have had before.

That paucity happens at the same time as the populist far right is marching, but is it a coincidence or are these two phenomena intrinsically linked?

Angela Merkel of Germany is perhaps one of the last, if not the last, representatives of a certain political era. Mrs Merkel became politically aware during the final years of Soviet-era East Germany in the mid-1980s. She entered politics against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of 1989.

It’s perhaps one of the reasons she remains a formidable politician. It’s a calling, a vocation. That’s not to say she’s been right about everything in politics. But she deeply believes and has taken highly unpopular decisions because of that conviction.

But for many of those politicians who came of age after the end of the Cold War, the imperative is rather less pressing. And that seems to be the beginning of many European politicians in today’s world.

Perhaps the times are changing and maybe Mr Macron’s victory is a part of that. Because there is, indeed, a great challenge facing the European continent today. There is an external threat, and there is an internal one. Terrorism does play into that, both home-grown and external, but terrorism doesn’t threaten the very nature of Europe, or its survival. Radical Islamist extremism isn’t going to bring down the edifice of Europe. The greatest threats lie elsewhere, but it is inwardly that European citizens and politicians must look to see a much more invasive and deeper threat – the rise of the populist right, and its challenging of basic European values.

Perhaps that challenge will be the contemporary rupture that will entice decent Europeans to get stuck into the political arena – to face down the threat that this kind of phenomenon poses. If so, then Mr Macron may only be the first of many previously unknown politicians on the horizon. The intervening generation of politicians, between the end of the Cold War and the last few years – their era may rapidly be coming to an end. Either they will join the populists or they will strike out to find another way forward. It’s not likely to be very pretty either way and there could be a lot of rifts and breaches along the way. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the dismal state of the current Labour party in the United Kingdom epitomises that kind of fracturing – but out of those cracks and breaks, perhaps something far more inspirational may yet come.

There is an adage in the Arab world, which is “Al Siyasa najasa”, which means “politics is filthy”. It is undoubtedly true, but perhaps precisely because it is true, it requires a certain noble quality of human being to at least minimise the damage that politics can do. Europe certainly stands in need today of far more decent political figures and minds to extricate it from the many minefields that lie in front of it.

Hopefully, Europeans will not need yet more catastrophies to see how important it is to sort out such problems. Otherwise, they can look forward to far more Le Pens gracing the top lines of their political realities. Remember, a third of the vote went her way this time. Who knows what it could be next time.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in ­London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: May 10, 2017 04:00 AM

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