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Opinion | Europe Is About to Drown in the River of the Radical Right

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When Machiavelli reflected on the crises of his time — among them conflicts between major European powers, discontent with public officials and the collapsing legitimacy of the Catholic Church — he turned to the Roman Republic for inspiration. When there is skepticism about values, he wrote, history is our only remaining guide. The secret to Roman freedom, he explained in the “Discourses on Livy,” was neither its good fortune nor its military might. Instead, it lay in the Romans’ ability to mediate the conflict between wealthy elites and the vast majority of people — or as he put it, “i grandi” (the great) and “il popolo” (the people).

While the inherent tendency of the great, Machiavelli argued, is to accumulate wealth and power to rule the rest, the inherent desire of the people is to avoid being at the elites’ mercy. The clash between the groups generally pulled polities in opposite directions. Yet the Roman Republic had institutions, like the tribunate of the plebs, that sought to empower the people and contain the elites. Only by channeling rather than suppressing this conflict, Machiavelli said, could civic freedom be preserved.

Europe has not heeded his advice. For all its democratic rhetoric, the European Union is closer to an oligarchic institution. Overseen by an unelected body of technocrats in the European Commission, the bloc allows for no popular consultation on policy, let alone participation. Its fiscal rules, which impose strict limits on the budgets of member states, offer protection for the rich while imposing austerity on the poor. From top to bottom, Europe is dominated by the interests of the wealthy few, who restrict the freedom of the many.

Its predicament, of course, is not unique. Businesses, financial institutions, credit rating agencies and powerful interest groups call the shots everywhere, severely constraining the power of politicians. The European Union is far from the worst offender. Still, in nation-states, the semblance of democratic participation can be sustained through allegiance to a shared constitution. In the European Union, whose founding myth is the free market, the case is much harder to make.

The transnational character of the bloc is often supposed to be behind Europeans’ dislike of it. Yet those who resist the current European Union do not do so because it is too cosmopolitan. Very simply, and not unreasonably, they resist it because it fails to represent them. The Parliament for which Europeans will be voting next month, to take one glaring example of the bloc’s lack of democracy, has little legislative power of its own: It tends to merely rubber-stamp decisions made by the commission. It is this representative gap that is filled by the radical right, turning the problem into simple binaries — either you or them, the state or Europe, the white worker or the migrant.


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