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30th Jan 2023

Column

To avoid war, enforce the centre

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"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world". These were lines William Butler Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming in November 1920.

At that moment, no fascist party had been part of any election in Europe. However, the end of the First World War was also the end of four more or less stable empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The world was in chaos and it was indeed the start of the end of the political centre.

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Some 100 years later, on 7 January it took Kevin McCarthy 15 voting rounds to be elected as speaker of the US House of Representatives. He won at last on a margin of 216 against 212.

However, he was not backed by a majority of the House. He could only be elected as six members of his own Republican party withheld their votes, not supporting McCarthy, but also not voting for another candidate. The main reason why McCarthy couldn't find a majority was the fact that several hardliners in his party didn't want him to engage with president John Biden, even not in matters essential for the future of the country.

It is clear that although the Republicans have won a majority in the House, it will be an unworkable majority. The last time a speaker needed more than nine rounds of voting was in 1859, two years before the American Civil War started devastating the country.

True, history is not repeating itself, but it remains good to learn some lessons from it. One of these lessons is that more divided and polarised countries risk more domestic violence. They usually are also bound to be incapable of taking fundamental policy decisions. In other words, where the centre disappears, instability kicks in.

Fragmenting Europe

Obviously, this is not just an American phenomenon. One could wonder if there is still a political centre ground in Russia, India or Brazil?

In Europe too, the centre is disappearing.

What remains of the centre in Italy, one could ask? Parties like the 5 Star Movement, League and the fascist party of prime minister Giorgia Meloni, the Brothers of Italy, have marginalised all other parties. In Hungary, the middle ground evaporated many years ago. The only stance one can take is in favour or against prime minister Viktor Orban.

The centre is also shrinking in Belgium and The Netherlands where liberals, social democrats and Christian democrats barely have a majority of the votes in parliament.

With almost every election the centre is fragmenting more and more. The consequence is that the same parties have to govern together in order to keep the extremist parties out. But as these parties become smaller, governments become less workable coalitions that are unable to find a consensus on necessary reforms.

This European tendency is of course reflected in the composition of the European Parliament where the European People's Party and the Socialists & Democrats have lost their decade-long domination.

Now the liberal Renew party or the Greens are needed to find workable majorities. From a democratic point of view this might not be a bad evolution.

On the negative side, however, we see much more infighting than ever before. If this fragmentation continues, it will also affect the working of the European Commission, as it already makes decision-making more difficult in the European Council.

Ideological desert

One of the reasons the centre cannot hold and more extreme parties are growing is that the old ideologies have become obsolete.

Conservatives, socialists and liberals are often fighting battles of the past against each other. Their ideological differences were pertinent in the 19th and a great part of the 20th century.

The question is if these old differences are still pertinent today? We do live in a different world with new challenges and new problems, and the old ideological paradigms are hardly useful for the answers these need.

Because of historical reasons the old parties are often fighting old battles, weakening each other and the centre ground. It makes me often think of the eternal fight between the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire in the 6th and 7th century.

After centuries of battles, they had both completely exhausted each other. When Islam was born in 622 and started conquering both empires, the two were unable to resist. I do not want to compare Islam to extreme parties. The historical similarity is rather the one of two old empires fighting and weakening each other, just like to old parties of Europe are doing today.

Isn't it time to put old divisions behind and work together on a new story? Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals have been the parties that have built the European Union since the very beginning. If they want a less polarised Europe, they need to work together structurally all three of them, and perhaps also with the Greens.

They need to write a new, common ideological story that strengthens further European integration. This is not the time for things to fall apart, as Yeats wrote. One war on our continent is more than enough.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is distinguished adjunct professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels and president of the board of EUobserver.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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