Europeans watching the American presidential campaign, a tradition that typically provokes eye-rolling disdain, are instead experiencing a rare and uncomfortable emotion: envy.
For all the absurdities spouted in the primaries and caucuses; all the lies bellowed out with every sign of sincerity (“It’s pointless to fact-check Trump”, Michael Kinsley wrote recently), all the slashing aggression which seems real and the cloying affection (“We love you New Hampshire!”) which seems manufactured – for all of that, the vigour which pours out of the process, the relentless energy which powers the candidates, many of then sexa- or septuagenerians, can’t but impress.
To be sure, the prize – the White House – is huge. But there must also be a belief: not just in self, which is patently necessary for sustenance through months of this stuff, but also in the country, in its manifest destiny. A belief which impels retired neurosurgeons, New York property billionaires, former chief executive officers, governors, senators and members of Congress, all with many years behind them of high achievement (or at any rate achievement, and high net worth) to get out there and endure the likelihood of defeat, or the excision of private life which will be the consequence of victory. The country must be worth it, after all.
The astounding expenditure of dollars and drive still strikes Europeans as a marvel. And American enthusiasm prompts envy. For where the election campaign shows passionate intensity, we appear to lack all conviction. Europe drifts, among the many sharp rocks that now surround it.
A plaster has been put over Greece, though it probably won’t hold. Its public debt has risen to 190 per cent of national output, causing the IMF to suspend all further lending because it doesn’t believe it’s sustainable. Italy’s growth is almost invisible, and the IMF’s best forecast is an anaemic increase of one percent a year for the next three years, on current policies. Not just growth, but improved productivity also eludes it: and the radical labour market changes deemed necessary are at best half done, with the most unpopular – lower wages for many – yet to come.
France may manage a 0.4 per cent growth in this year’s first quarter, better than the 0.2 per cent in the last quarter of 2015: but the European Commission doesn’t believe that it can get the public deficit down below 3 per cent (as euro zone rules dictate), and unemployment remains very high. Poland and Hungary have elected governments which profess more scorn than affection for an EU they once clamoured to join: Natalie Nougayrède, the former editor of Le Monde, wrote that “united by an authoritarian, nationalistic streak, Poland and Hungary can now work on spreading their political alliance to neighbouring states, where populism is on the rise”.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week that Russia was preparing for war: meanwhile, his economic minister resigned, saying he would not be “a screen for brazen corruption” in the Ukraine government. The EU thought it could adopt Ukraine: now it can’t find room for it.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed army is pushing more thousands of Syrians out of the country, mainly to Turkey – now threatening to pass them all on to Greece, according to a Greek website quoted by Reuters. At least 27 migrants, including eleven children, died last week trying to reach Greek territory from Turkey: now an almost daily occurrence. All plans for resettlement have foundered on the member states’ refusal to accept the quotas proposed.
Each of these matters is complex, the stuff of venomous exchanges and inconclusive all-night sittings of ministers and leaders. Yet had the EU a sense of momentum, a dynamo which keeps churning to produce the power needed to make of it a United States of Europe, able to act as a rich and powerful state of 500 million people, a second great power within the democratic west – the founders’ vision – then the problems would diminish in size and the respect accorded to it grow.
That won’t happen for many good, mainly democratic, reasons. Thus much available time and strength is spent on inter-nation dealing and bickering. The EU has become a drain on political forcefulness, not a reservoir for it.
For now, friends, foes and neutrals alike regard it with despair – or rejoice at its drift. Were Britain to vote against continued EU membership in a referendum, likely to be held in June this year, the wound might be mortal. We are witnessing the great dream turn into a nightmare, from which there is no awakening.
In a recent piece of reportage for the Reuters Institute on how the EU is being represented in the news media, the Italian journalist Cristina Marconi and I interviewed dozens of correspondents in Brussels – many attracted to the beat by their own conviction that a united, peaceful, dynamic Europe was being created. One of the most passionate was the influential German commentator Dirk Schuemer, for many years on the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, now with Die Welt. In recent years, he has passed from passion to sour disillusion, writing that “the political life of an organisation once built on solidarity and integration is degenerating into a contest of grasping populists and blackmailers: Europe as the front garden of a pensioner who will defend his little plot by force if need be…there is no parliamentary control – no voice of the people – even the senior bureaucrats agree with this. The situation is not hopeless, but it is desperate”.
When the idealists lose their ideals, then problems become insurmountable. That is the position in which Europe now finds itself – watching across the
Atlantic, its customary disdain for American electoral razzmatazz undercut by a stab of futile envy.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.