This afternoon our friends at the Heritage Foundation hosted a fascinating discussion of European politics with CEI Vice President for Strategy Iain Murray. This event, “The Future of the EU: Understanding the Roots of Political Fragmentation in Europe,” also featured the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy and Heritage’s own Ted Bromund and Nile Gardiner.
Host Bromund, a Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations, set the stage for the discussion thusly:
Across the Atlantic, support for populist, antiestablishment parties is on the rise. Concern about political fragmentation in Europe is gaining steam. In France, Marine Le Pen of the Front National is a leading candidate in this spring’s Presidential race. In Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned in December after losing a public referendum, and in June 2016 the populist 5 Star Movement won mayoral elections in Rome and Turin.
But the symptoms of today’s increasingly fragmented political scene in Europe have been frequently misdiagnosed. The European Union’s ruling elites still see the solution as more Europe, not less, with a relentless drive towards ever closer union and the centralization of power in Brussels. They ignore the fact that the European single currency is increasingly unpopular in many EU member states, and that a deep-seated disenchantment exists across the EU with the direction it is moving.
Iain opened his remarks with a historical perspective on the different political and historical traditions in the United States and Europe:
It is my contention that much of what is called European populism is actually a phenomenon of resurgent nationalist conservatism thanks to separate crises in the continent’s two other dominant ideologies – socialism and liberalism. Yet that is not something American conservatives should necessarily cheer, and, indeed, European conservativism is itself going through a crisis of its own, one that may have lessons for American conservatives.
Before I explain further, I should first of all state that European conservativism is, and always has been, different from Anglo-American conservativism. For the Anglo-American conservative, our heritage is liberty. Anglo-American conservatives defend economic freedom, political freedom, and civil liberties. It was two great conservatives – William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln – who ended the slave trade and freed slaves in America. The American Revolution was a conservative revolution, aimed at protecting ancient rights from arbitrary power. Conservatives today look back at our heritage and says that those old freedoms must be protected. This is why I believe that Brexit was a conservative revolution in itself.
No such tradition of liberty exists in European conservatism. We should not forget that it is within living memory that most of Europe was dominated by dictators of one sort or another. Member states of the European Union itself were ruled by dictators in the 1970s, and by communist politburos in the 1980s. This has profound implications for what we are seeing now, and I will come back to that later.
Read the full text of Iain’s prepared remarks here. Iain’s recommendations for a post-Brexit Britain, written with The Freedom Association’s Rory Broomfield, can be found in the study Cutting the Gordian Knot: A Roadmap for British Exit from the European Union.