07/14/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Europe and Its Discontents

The European Union is suffering from a malaise. A mood of disquiet pervades the continent's political elites. Its symptoms are flagging confidence and anxiety about its future viability. The apprehension has taken a sharp edge with the shock outcome of the European Parliamentary elections that saw a breakout by fringe parties -- some with radical platforms. Diverse in tone and modality, they shared a keenly felt Euro-skeptic message that resounded with large segments of disgruntled publics.

A feature of this bleak season is fading belief in the idea of "Europe." The obsessive quest for the collective European identity is running short of energy at the very time when the bonds of solidarity at the emotional level are badly needed to counteract divergent and generally fraught economic conditions. . Rediscovered in the post-war years, it once again is elusive. Among the political class, and the continent's elites generally, the arduously acquired surety of who and what Europe is has been blurred -- a victim of enlargement, of the distancing in time of negative reference points, of success and of failure.

Stricken elites -- in Brussels and national capitals -- literally do not know what has hit them. Hand-wringing and breast beating are the order of the day. The vision of an "ever closer Union" has faded; now the emphasis is on preserving what has been built rather than extensions and additions. A critical piece of that construction, the European Monetary Union, was in intensive care for three years shadowed by prognoses that it was doomed. It has been spared only by drastic actions taken by the European Central Bank that bent the rules so as to buffer the financial institutions of the weaker economies from the attacks by traders and speculators.

EMU seems to have passed through the acute phase -- but hardly unscathed. The structural flaws remain in a system where a single currency prevents governments with different inflation rates from making adjustments through devaluations. Hence, the Mediterraneans, Baltics and Ireland are sentenced to an indefinite term of debt servitude that will keep them on perilous austerity regimes indefinitely. That means a widening of the gap between the wealthy and the poor members of the EU, and between the wealthier strata of those societies and the large majority of salaried workers. This condition is at the very core of Europe's political upheavals. To ignore it is to risk sacrificing Europe's hard-won unity on a cross of economic dogma. A dogma that serves the interests of a narrowing upper stratum while sowing seeds for angry protests that could jeopardize all parties. A dogma that amounts to a Ptolemaic revival.

This is the backdrop and context of the widespread discontent that alienates European citizens from Brussels, from their own national governments in thrall to it, from the mainstream parties whose lockstep thinking and policies have sealed off possible alternative courses. An alienated citizenry naturally becomes prey to emotional appeals that play on other feelings of grievance, on complaints, and on hostility toward available scapegoats. Europe's large immigrant population -- legal and illegal -- serves as the main flashpoint. The immigrant situation has particular features in each country. It is the common characteristics that are most noteworthy and which everywhere spur the dynamic of rejection and denunciation. Cultural integration is at the heart of the matter. Societies that have managed to absorb large immigrant populations from other largely European, largely Caucasian and Christian societies find themselves addressing more distinct and less malleable populations. Culture, race and religion combine -in various mixes -- to widen the distance between native populations and immigrants, and to slow the process of assimilation and accommodation. Immigrant communities from Islamic lands especially stand out. Africans (sub-Saharan), and immigrants from South Asia -- of whatever religion -- present analogous difficulties.

The "terrorist" fear that has permeated Western societies since 9/11 obviously exacerbates anxieties and evokes fears. The participation in a few terrorist acts by citizens of the European countries where they have been perpetrated (England, France, Spain) has given tangible and immediate points of anxious reference to these fears. Together, these developments feed a sense of dread which has become free floating. Dread is part of the broader anxiety people feel of losing control over their lives to forces they little understand and are beyond their reach. Control lost over domestic tranquility, over borders, over the predictability and orderliness of everyday life, over one's individual and collective identity, of regular employment and steady rise in standards of living. Europe, Western Europe anyway, has known only security and well-being for 65 years - that is more than two full generations. Conditions are now changing. The effects are deeply unsettling.

At the heart of this insecurity are deteriorating economic conditions and prospects. The routinized prosperity that has been experienced as the norm is threatened by globalization (carrying in its train a threat to jobs, the outdating of skills and ever keener competition) and, out of the blue, by the prolonged economic downturn ushered in by the great financial crisis. Although the European countries overall are on average as rich as they were in 2007 in terms of GDP, that is only part of the story. Several countries are far worse off. Many in all countries are worse off -- in absolute and relative terms. Moreover, Europe's addiction to austerity has cut back the social programs that serve the needs of common salaried people -- a phenomenon that both reduces net well-being and darkens the outlook. All of these trends are clearly strengthening.

The near uniform neglect of this maelstrom of social trends by the mainstream parties -- conservative or social democrat alike- leaves a large slice of the population feeling powerless as well as insecure. They feel abandoned by their elites. In this, they are correct. Hence, today's adverse conditions, and the growing support for fringe right-wing parties it engenders, can rightly be laid at the doorstep of Europe's leaders -- at the EU level and the national level; in office and out; among politicians and non-politicians of the political class.

This represents an epochal shift in European public life. The historic social contract of the post-war decades is being revoked. Under the cover of the austerity dogma, the network of policies and programs that has made Europe the model of enlightened rule is being unraveled. Powerful forces have converged to replace an ethic of solidarity and mutual responsibility with an imitation of the American model. Abdication by the great social democratic parties of Western Europe to the purveyors of the so-called "conservative" philosophy, which in fact is little more than a rerun of the stale orthodoxies of the discredited past, have facilitated this quiet revolution. Faced with a phalanx of traditional parties that have crossed their shields in defense of the omnipotent Establishment, voters understandably are confused and frustrated. Some have been co-opted. Some are drawn to the demagogic New Right that channels their anger into anti-immigrant passions and mindless neo-nationalism. Only exceptionally has a new leftist party arisen to fashion these diffuse discontents into a force that challenges the Establishment and the intellectual status quo. Greece's Syriza is the outstanding example. There, the veritable fusion of the two mainstream parties into a union to promote austerity made the breakthrough possible. Across Europe the politics of rejection and alienation most often has coalesced in Right wing parties of various stripes -- self-declared anti-establishment parties tinged by anti-immigrant racism.

Why has "Europe," the Brussels elite and EU institutions, become the main negative pole of repulsion? The answer is straightforward at the level of practical policies. It is "Europe" that is seen as opening the doors to cheap labor and supposedly social parasites (the Roma) from the poorer, "backward" countries of Eastern Europe. It is "Europe" that places obstacles in the way of tougher measures to keep out even poorer immigrants from the rest of the world. It is "Europe" that has imposed draconian austerity measures on honest, hard-working citizens who are blamed for systemic economic breakdown when the real culpable parties - the big banks, the monetary authorities, the "Establishment" -- escape unharmed and still call the shots. It is "Europe" that inflicts the discomforts of endless petty regulations while leaving under regulated the financial powerhouses. It is "Europe" that has taken on the responsibility to guide member economies through the tricky currents of the globalized marketplace, and yet has failed in visible ways to protect the well-being of salaried workers. And it is "Europe" that eludes accountability through its exploitation of technocratic powers which have by-passed elected national officials.

This last calls attention to Europe's weak bonds of solidarity and common identity. There is a disconnect between the shift in actual decision-making power to Brussels/Frankfurt, on the one hand, and the traditions, history and emotions that still attach people to their own country, on the other. Those latter feelings obviously are less potent than in earlier times and lack the xenophobic element. Compared to the near complete absence of counterpart feelings at the European level, though, they highlight a key weakness in the EU construction. There are no sentiments that can buffer EU institutions, policies and leaders from ardent expression of disaffection among the citizenry when hard times hit. They become the lightening rod that attracts all the static electricity in the air; they are the convenient scapegoat - whether a particular criticism is valid or not. National governments closely associated with Brussels suffer collateral political damage.

Gone is Europe's sense of purpose and direction. Continental European polities have been suspended somewhere between a national past and a truly supranational future. Now regression rather than progression is looming. For European elites have forgotten why and how the great construction of post-war "Europe" was built.

The Social Compact that underlay and legitimized post-war Europe's politics of solidarity was a civilizational act of historic dimension. Today's new order constitutes a counter revolution against the epochal transformations that brought 65 years of domestic tranquility and prosperity such as the world never has seen. Almost every feature of the Social Compact forged then is either being rejected or called into question: social equity, containing disparities in wealth distribution, ensconcing government as the legitimate and necessary guardian of the public good, giving everyone a piece of the action as well as a piece of the pie, valuing compromise and conciliation at the EU level.

Small wonder that we now are witnessing the politics of disaffection.

Is it conceivable that short-sighted and callous elites feel so outclassed by their accomplished predecessors as to undercut what has been built - and thereby leave their mark on the world by the only achievement of which they are capable? For this generation of leaders has shown little talent to create and to build. Destruction may be its legacy.