It always surprises me how easily some pundits get carried away, as if they’re politicians trying to frame the debate along lines they prefer. Give them a few “new trends”, let them compare these trends with some rather questionable “benchmarks” and hey, we wake up in a bright new world, with a ‘new golden decade’ just around the corner. Whether these commentators are gullible, badly want to believe what they proclaim or are just too “socialized” in a certain way of thinking, I don’t know.
In any case, it’s clear that since a few weeks, and certainly since the meteoric rise of Macron in France, plenty of analysts begin to wonder whether the “post-populist era” has well and truly arrived, argue that the EU is finding its groove again and ponder that more and more citizens and voters want to go beyond the “stale” left/right ideological cleavages of old – instead, they’d just want their country to be properly run, 21st century style (whatever that may mean). We need “a Macron” everywhere, they seem to imply. I suspect many in the global health community embrace this line of thinking (and even more so if they’re from the UK). It sounds optimistic, it looks good and smart, and against ‘benchmarks’ like the UK under Theresa May & the US under “you-know-whom”, it’s perhaps an understandable line of thinking.
However, it’s far too early to say that the populist era is over. Yes, the fact that Trump et al show, every day, what damage populist leaders can cause (with the ramifications of the Brexit as a clear case in point), certainly works as a sort of ‘wake-up’ call to many potential populist voters, also on the continent. But the root causes of the anger in many Western countries (including in the EU) have not yet been tackled. It will take more than some pimped up election results from Macron to change that. In short: as long as a majority of citizens don’t get a sense that our economic systems are becoming fairer again, and work for everybody, we’re not out of trouble and our democracies will remain vulnerable. (For instance: as long as ‘leveraging’ of private capital rhymes with “loopholes” for multinational corporations 🙂 ).
It’s not impossible that the new Franco-German axis inspired “roadmap for the EU” will materialize in the coming years, as this op-ed put it: “in the next two to three years, as France carries out structural economic reforms to boost its credibility, Germany will step up much-needed European financial solidarity and investment mechanisms, and embrace a new role on foreign policy, security and defence.” It sounds like a renewed (this time European-level) social contract, and in a way, this is what you’d expect from politicians like Juncker, Macron & Merkel, whom I all consider as centre-right politicians with a ‘heart’ (even if I have my doubts about some of their lieutenants).
Whether it will work in the 21st century, though? Hmmm. As migration & climate change prove, we already live in a global system, not a European system. A European version of a Rhineland capitalist model fit for the globalized era (with some security focused & investment policies across our borders) probably won’t suffice to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, and that’s not even taking into account the many political roadblocks Macron et all will meet – not sure everybody in France will be that pleased with many of these ‘structural reforms’ for example ….
Moreover, before you get too carried away by Guy Verhofstadt’s tweets (yes, Martin McKee, that’s one for you – fyi: Verhofstadt has about the credibility of Tony Blair in Belgium 🙂 ) it’s not because we don’t exactly envy you your Brexit related troubles, here on the continent, that we wouldn’t envy you Corbyn’s movement. Corbyn has shown the model now for many social democrat parties on the continent, what’s left of them, or their radical-left opponents. Either they’ll go for that (just like Blair inspired a wave of ‘third way’ clones across the continent end of the nineties), or they’ll perish.
In other words: I don’t think the left-right distinction will disappear any time soon. So before the global health community jumps (too) eagerly on the Merkel-Macron bandwagon, hoping that “MM” will turn the EU once again into “a continent defending liberal democratic values and a rules-based international order” (including global health public goods), let’s be clear: far more than just the ‘new European centre’ will be needed to make this happen.
After all, even Barça has “MSN”, with the ‘S’ actually prepared to bite an opponent’s ear off, if need be.