May 21, 2013
Tanned, blonde and toweringly tall, the leader of the Dutch far-right and emblem of European xenophobia could not believe his sudden bad luck. Never having experienced a drop in the polls before, Geert Wilders last week found himself facing a miserable electoral score as the rain poured down outside, his grand plan to pull Holland out of the eurozone kicked into touch by his country's mild-mannered electorate.
Just as the ancients Romans espied flocks of birds and animal intestines, the European establishment was keenly watching the Dutch poll for its portents. As it turned out, the message received could not have been better. Two traditional parties devoted to the euro, with mainstream pro-EU platforms, the Liberals and the Labour Party, soared to a dominant position in the Dutch Parliament, paving the way for a left-right coalition.
All the other clutter of a parliament packed with 11 parties, including groups representing the over-50s, evangelical Christians and the interests of the animal kingdom, as well as Wilders' far-right and a Socialist Party historically rooted in Maoist convictions, were rendered colourful accessories to the dominant centre-ground.
Gone were the stress lines that have for the past two years contorted the faces of each European summit into the style of high Cubism. On Friday, the finance ministers of the eurozone indulged in a meeting that finished early, and ended in mirth. From the sheer despair of June, when the imminence of a Spanish rescue package appeared to threaten the solvency of the group, the road ahead now seems well signposted. The European Central Bank will soak up sovereign debt of countries at risk without limit, so long as they apply for emergency EU treatment. And the surgery that comes, brutal as it may be, will work so long as membership of the euro is the electorate's supreme desire, as it seems for now to be.
This is precisely where, against the expectations of many, the pull of the centre has proved so steadfast. Time and again in recent months, radical parties of left and right have braced themselves for epochal ruptures of the political crust.
First came the euro-baiting Syriza alliance in Greece, a surprise success in May and widely thought to be on the cusp of victory in an election one month later, only for the cool hand of the centre-right to steal the day.
The same story may be told of Marine Le Pen from the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the left in France's elections in May; both flattered themselves in opinion polls, both deceived.
But nothing compares to the summer-time dreamboat of the Dutch Socialists. In the middle of August, polls suggested the party, which is firmly dedicated to rejecting most Brussels-based limits on economic policy, would become the country's largest party. Not apocalyptic, maybe, but certainly enough for the markets to doubt Northern Europe could ever conform to the rigid planning of a currency rescue strategy. In the end, they scored less than half what those early polls had indicated, and gained exactly the same number of seats they had before.
Here then, we have a trend. Slashed budgets and spiking taxes bring out the tents of Occupy, the multitudinous throngs of protesters, and the shock troops of the hard right. Carried along, hard-up citizens pledge limitless and bloody vengeance on their leaders by the third beer. Print and digital media race to excite the deadened life of political news with the prospect of massive change, of style and substance — Obama cloned with a bone of Che Guevara. Then, with merely a few days to go, the public collectively take a pause for breath: things as they are suddenly seem far superior to whatever they might become.
The switch occurred in the Netherlands through tactical voting. Instead of acting upon their feverish impulses, voters seem to have decided that their first duty was to halt the enemy, be it Wilders, Mao or meat-eating neo-liberals. An initial wave of voters stomped to the centre, hoping they would stop such a radical government from slipping into power. Soon, daily polling registered the shift, and in the last days the solid mass of the undecided, estimated at 40 percent of the electorate, decanted for one of the two winning parties.
There is something terribly expressive about post-war Europe in this preference for the quiet life. Revolutions, the historian Arno Mayer has argued, are a vortex of deepening violence, in which a celebration at the end of a regime gives way to successive waves of counter-revolt and bloodshed, which he calls “the furies”. The eurozone, on the other hand, is a monument to the protection of one’s living standards. Political stasis can be boring. But, like a good carpet, it stains yet never spoils.
So the era of the centre moves on, veering to the moderate left for now, possibly nudging to the right in another two years. No country has yet broken with the will of Brussels, with the possible exception of Hungary. No nation has yet cast the first stone.
Yet all the while, these subtly shifting governments of the centre, thrown up from periodic encounters between people and a ballot box, are seeing their life span cut ever shorter.
Holland was holding its fifth general election in 10 years. French President Hollande, elected four months ago, has seen his support nosedive. Denmark's centre-left government has attained a national record for unpopularity, all of a year after it took power.
The centre has held, but only by running on the spot.