After the Second World War, a centrist political consensus in western European nations made elections polite affairs. The issues involved were relatively mundane. The solutions were pragmatic.
After all, existential regime changes, which are often matters of life and death, were not at stake. But that may be changing, and when that happens, elections become a form of warfare – often including actual violence.
All this is affecting the future of the European Union, which emerged in the 1950s as a modest six-nation economic vehicle.
Back then, political elites could count on the passive consent of their populations as long as the peoples in the common market could regard it as being in their economic interests.
But as the decades passed it gradually became much more than that. After the collapse of east European communism and with the entry of many new members, the EU began to consider itself a community of values, and decided to become an ever-closer union among its peoples and member states.
But these post-national ideals are now being challenged by state nationalism. The estrangement from politics in a Brussels run by technocrats has left the ordinary voter keenly aware of the democratic deficit.
The 2008 financial crisis deepened these divisions. All over Europe the economic recession brought about social anxiety and opportunities for populist anti-globalization parties to reach supporters and voters.
The refugee crisis and the growing threat of terrorism led to a search for more security at the national level, while the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom illustrated the disenchantment with EU politics. For “leavers,” the EU had become a hyper-bureaucratic pseudo-superstate.
This has led to claims by national governments to defend their self-determination. Populist nationalism on the far right has significantly increased across the continent.
These forces capitalize on anti-globalization and perceived threats of multiculturalism, immigration and political corruption. Even Hillary Clinton has suggested immigration was inflaming voters in Europe and helping right-wing populists.
A gulf now exists at the European level between the opinion of national electorates, on the one hand, and the policies adopted by EU technocrats to solve pressing problems, on the other.
As the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas stated back in 2013, “national citizens see their political fate being determined by foreign governments who represent the interests of other nations, rather than by a government that is bound only by their own democratic vote.”
A recent example is the threat by the EU to punish Italy, which is now led by populist and anti-establishment forces, for flouting EU fiscal rules by insisting on a heavy-spending budget that fails to bring down the country’s burdensome debt.
“With what the Italian government has put on the table, we see a risk of the country sleepwalking into instability,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission vice president.
That’s what empires do: they penalize recalcitrant regions. But willItaly and other European states say “enough is enough” and rebel?