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4th Mar 2024

Column

What Europe's 1848 revolutions can tell us about 2024

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"All governments face insoluble problems — that is what governments are for. It is in the nature of political problems that they cannot be 'solved'."

This quote could refer to climate change, the war in Ukraine or any other of the major crises local, national and European authorities grapple with today. But it does not.

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  • The real new story distracting us from the current crisis mood had better be about what Europe and its member states really need: strong European defence, a cleaner continent, social equality and economic prosperity

No, these intriguing lines come from a book that, instead of dealing with the present, describes events that happened almost two centuries ago: Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 by Australian historian Christopher Clark, published last year.

This is one of those history books that, by zooming in to events in the distant past, illuminate political dilemmas confronting us today.

Clark, a Cambridge professor, pulled off a powerful historical parallel earlier with his influential book The Sleepwalkers, which describes in minute detail how European nations stumbled in to World War I.

This time, he examines the revolutions that rocked large parts of Europe in 1848-1849. During those fateful years, many crises came together in a deeply unsettling cascade: economic exploitation, social malaise, crop failures, famines, and so on. Governments could not even begin to solve all these problems at once, partly because they were distracted by revolutionary movements that emerged all over Europe simultaneously.

Initially, they tried to respond to the unrest by introducing social and political reforms and opening up the economy. Thanks to some of these modernisations, Clark writes, they got the situation under control again — which enabled them to turn back the clock and consolidate their firm grip on power.

Switch and bait

How did they manage this? How did Europe's governing elites get away with it? His answer: they pulled it off by focusing on new horizons, so it looked like they had moved on and left the old problems behind. In reality, they rather ignored most of those problems and left them unsolved, by choosing a new narrative and drawing attention to future developments and opportunities.

So, instead of tackling the multiple crises plaguing them, Europe's old establishment managed to distract agitated citizens with a new political focus, giving them the impression things had finally changed for the better.

The main distraction was a new, nationalist narrative. Nationalism struck a chord in all corners of a continent where so many real and imagined nations lived. And it did because they wanted to believe in something fresh and powerful, something promising new horizons. With these horizons came a new jargon as well, that could inspire people. And sure enough, slowly, the word 'nation' became a key word of the post-revolutionary era, the path to a new future. It was a word, Clark writes, "through which time flowed".

This raises the question: in today's Europe, equally plagued by several crises, what will be our new diversionary narrative? Which new narrative will be able to pump fresh air into politics and society? At many levels of governance — locally, regionally, nationally and at European level — politicians and administrations are bogged down in complex problems for which they are not always responsible themselves, from inflation and high energy prices to illegal migration or a shortage of affordable housing. Yet citizens judge them harshly because they don't provide quick solutions.

Some believe that the path to the future once again lies in nationalism. Characterised by hyper-connectivity, complexity and a return to national strongman politics, the world is again becoming an unpredictable, unsafe and sometimes dangerous place. Citizens seek shelter in small communities, yearning for protection. Many blame their fears and misfortunes on globalisation and foreigners, and fall back on what they know and trust.

Contemporary nationalists try to make good use of this. As multiple crises converge again, like they did in 1848-1849 — war, inflation, social inequality, recession — sometimes resulting in economic, social and political stagnation, these new political entrepreneurs seek to benefit.

In many countries, they criticise governments from the opposition benches for failing to solve problems. In others, they enter into (coalition) governments, becoming responsible for solving the problems. Often, they fail just as much as their predecessors did. Giorgia Meloni or Viktor Orbán need to use distraction tactics themselves. They stoke conflicts with 'wokism', migrants, independent institutions or 'Brussels'. Centrist parties, unfortunately, increasingly ape this.

There is one substantial difference with 1848-1849, however: this is not a new story. National leaders who say they want a 'Europe of nations' know very well that they have already had this for a long time. It is national leaders who take all important decisions in Brussels, often blocking real European solutions for problems and anything else they do not like.

The reason why none of them are talking about exits from the EU any longer, not even far-right populists, is precisely the realisation the fact that their power is actually increasing in Brussels. Most of the crises Europe faces today are playing out in areas without real European competence, such as foreign policy, security or defence.

Here, heads of state and government decide among themselves. And they would like to keep it that way, because it gives them power to not just run their country (which they were elected for) but also Europe. Thanks to the EU, European countries have more power than they would have without it — a point Alan Milward made already back in 1992 with his formidable book The European Rescue of the Nation-State.

The real new story distracting us from the current crisis mood, then, had better be about what Europe and its member states really need: strong European defence, a cleaner continent, social equality and economic prosperity. Good long-term projects that give European societies a new sense of direction and empowerment, and diminish citizens' feelings of fear and insecurity that keep souring the political debate. It is time to make the pitch, now.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column for NRC.

Disclaimer

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

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