The EU​ appears to be having a good war. Ursula von der Leyen misses no opportunity to tout member states’ unity in opposing Putin. Eight million refugees have entered the union, but so far there has been no mention of a ‘migration crisis’ and not nearly so much of the ugly xenophobia seen in 2015. Despite anxieties about a winter of discontent – gas prices have risen sevenfold since the last cold season – we have yet to see the ‘riots’ predicted by Germany’s foreign minister earlier this year. The decision to make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership has given the bloc a much needed psychological boost after the low and often dishonest years of Brexit and Trump, when the EU and liberalism more generally seemed to be on the losing side of history. But the real tests are still to come, and European unity isn’t nearly as strong as PR from Brussels would have us believe.

Even if liberals’ newfound self-confidence is misplaced, it might shift the parameters of realpolitik. For years, pundits and politicians have been fixated on a wave – or as Nigel Farage once put it, a ‘tsunami’ – of populism. But there was nothing inevitable about this. While election results for far-right populist parties have improved over the last two decades, only in Italy have these parties come to power without the collaboration of mainstream conservative forces. What has made the difference is conservative defeatism. Partly because the self-designated centre-right is so bereft of ideas – witness Truss’s zombie Thatcherism – it has defaulted to embracing far-right positions or joining hands with previously ostracised parties. In mid-February, Valérie Pécresse, the Gaullist candidate in the French presidential election, lent her approval to the conspiracy theory of the ‘grand remplacement’ of real (read: Christian) Europeans by Muslims. Since then, Swedish conservatives have lifted the cordon sanitaire, forming a coalition that includes the Sweden Democrats. And in Italy, the far right has won on its own.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, one of the parties in the new ruling coalition, is these days presented as a responsible centre-right force which is capable of restraining Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini. In the early 1990s, Berlusconi was a pioneer of right-wing populism: Forza Italia, based on the model of a football supporters’ club, was an early example of what marketing experts could create out of nothing. Crucially, Berlusconi broke a postwar taboo by entering into a coalition with the Alleanza Nazionale, the successor of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which in turn was the successor of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia are only the latest generation in this family). Berlusconi was also instrumental in bringing down Mario Draghi’s national unity government this summer. He recently boasted to Forza Italia members that he was one of Putin’s five real friends. This is the man whom Europe’s centre-right parties see as the reliable person in the new government.

None of this proves that the far right is unstoppable, or that adaptation guarantees survival for opportunists like Pécresse. Mel­oni gambled that staying out of Draghi’s all- minus-one coalition would pay off elect­or­ally, since the only way malcontents, from those dreading high gas bills to economic victims of the pandemic, would be able to register protest was by voting for the Frat­elli. But protest is not the same as a whole-hearted endorsement of far-right positions. Meloni may have warned France and Germany that ‘the party is over,’ but the Fratelli are condemned to continue the ‘reforms’ started by Draghi: if Italy doesn’t meet 55 ‘milestones’ by December, Brussels won’t release the billions the country desperately needs for its post-pandemic recovery. Forced to stick to a technocratic economic programme, Meloni’s government will have to prove its far-right credentials by mistreating migrants and sexual minorities.

If Meloni sticks to her official support for Ukraine – in a country with multiple far-right parties, showing the distinctiveness of one’s brand is crucial – and continues to comply with Brussels, von der Leyen’s claims of European unity will seem to be confirmed. Yet the reality has been different all along. Putin’s ally and star pupil, Viktor Orbán, has worked assiduously to end sanctions on Russia. Hungarian state TV and radio channels spout propaganda that might as well have been created in Moscow (‘Ukraine is not a real country’). The country’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjártó, has made a show of deviating from the EU consensus, meeting the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and sitting happily among sanctioned Gazprom functionaries during Moscow’s Russian Energy Week 2022.

None of this should be surprising. For years Orbán promised voters he could play off East and West and get the best deal for plucky Hungary. Budapest also tried to punch above its weight ideologically: Orbán advertised his kleptocratic autocracy as a bastion of genuine conservatism. His propagandists at home and abroad claimed that the likes of Angela Merkel had sold out to the liberal mainstream – capitulating in the culture wars over same-sex marriage, accepting an allegedly endless influx of Muslim migrants. Orbán, with his self-declared ‘illiberal state based on work’, was the last man standing. Hungary has become a destination for intellectual tourists in search of a far-right Disneyland (there are now three cafés named after Roger Scruton in Budapest, with ‘Scruton Bödön’ – don’t ask – on the menu). It will only become more attractive now it’s no longer salonfähig to voice support for Putin as a defender of ‘traditional values’. As well as becoming a global beacon of ‘illiberalism’, Budapest has perfected the art of getting all the benefits of EU membership while flouting most of the rules: Orbán was granted an official exemption from the EU’s embargo on oil imports from Moscow.

The European Commission knows it’s dealing with an autocrat who uses European taxpayers’ money to enrich crony capitalists and entrench one-party rule. What oil is for Middle Eastern sheikhdoms, EU subsidies are for Orbán’s regime: a free resource with which to buy political support. But the model is beginning to show signs of strain. With Merkel’s departure last year, Orbán lost his key protector. She had tolerated his antics because Budapest provided the German car industry with what a Hungarian observer once called ‘Chinese conditions’: low wages, no troublesome unions or annoying environmental regulations, and subsidies from the Hungarian state. (According to Szabolcs Panyi, a prominent investigative journalist, the car manufacturers can call Szijjártó and even Orbán whenever they have a problem, and the politicians don’t find it beneath them to argue for lower emissions standards in Brussels.) The EU has amassed plenty of evidence of corruption; in September a clear majority in the European Parliament declared Hungary an ‘electoral autocracy’; the Commission has proposed suspending a large chunk of the EU funds allocated to the country; and some European leaders, who are usually protective of their own vis-à-vis the uppity Parliament and the unelected Commission, are tired of Hungary using its veto, still sacrosanct in the supposedly ‘ever closer union’.

Brussels ought to have leverage: Orbán needs European money at least as badly as Italy. He showered the electorate with gifts before the parliamentary elections in April, and inflation is now at 20 per cent. Since 2013, he has made low utility prices a symbol of his party’s concern for ‘ordinary people’, and every utility bill highlights how much money the government is saving consumers in the name of eliminating ‘energy poverty’ (despite this, and unlike Poland’s far-right populists, Orbán has slashed the welfare state, declared homelessness a crime, and effectively written off the bottom third of society). His wheeling and dealing with Russia didn’t prevent him being forced in August to lift some caps on energy prices.

In the name of unity, however, the EU is likely to agree to a rotten deal. Budapest is establishing a Potemkin ‘Integrity Authority’ tasked with keeping public procurement clean; legal analyses have shown that it is ultimately controlled by Orbán’s chums. While Brussels can’t force any state to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, that would be the obvious thing to ask of Orbán, to prove that he’s serious about tackling graft – but why would he be serious about it, when one of his childhood friends, trained as a gas fitter and never displaying any particular entrepreneurial talent, is now the richest man in the country? Brussels could also demand more information about the deal with the Russian state corporation Rosatom to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant; from the little that is known, the agreement will leave the country dependent on Russian financing and expertise for decades. But even if the Commission were to push hard, the European Council – made up of the leaders of member states – will probably give in, over fears that Hungary might default. Meanwhile, following a serious rift over Ukraine, Warsaw and Budapest appear to have reconciled and again present a united front. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the EU’s centre of gravity has shifted from Paris and Berlin to the east, Warsaw and Budapest have no common vision beyond domestic illiberalism; other than that, they share a ruthless determination to veto EU actions such as establishing a minimum corporate tax. They might wish for a much looser – dare one say more British – EU, but lack the clout to force other states to join a Peripherieuropa.

Much more than the Eurocrisis, which got all the headlines over the last decade, the slow rotting of the EU from within puts into question Europe’s ability to live up to its post-Cold War promises. Euro-cheerleaders liked to contrast the American way of promoting democracy – invade countries and make big profits for US companies – with the European one: make membership irresistible for neighbouring states, then peacefully transform polities from within (while making big profits for Western European companies). This sort of gloating stopped a while ago. Serbia, key to the accession of the Western Balkan states to the EU, is following the Hungarian model, as Aleksandar Vučić, another politician skilled at balancing Moscow and Brussels, consolidates his grip on the country. It’s only a matter of time before the union’s sketchy record on enlargement becomes a source of political conflict.

Now,​ of course, the fractures are economic as well as political. In September, Olaf Scholz announced what has come to be known as the Doppelwumms (double whammy, but with positive connotations): a €200 billion package to help German consumers and companies to cope with higher energy prices. This includes ill-conceived measures such as reimbursing all households for their December gas bills. The package is being advertised, rather oddly, with the Liverpool FC anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (in English). States in a weaker position feel that they are walking alone, and complain that the measures give German firms an unfair advantage in the single market. The Doppelwumms seems to be another example of Germany’s hypocrisy. During the Eurocrisis, its economy flourished by importing cheap gas from one autocracy, and selling machines and luxury cars to another; now that Russia is being cut off and the China boom may have ended, it can still afford to resist European efforts to raise funds collectively (a precedent for this was set during the pandemic). Its new Doppelwumms debts are hidden through accounting tricks Germans would once have considered worthy of Greece in the late 1990s. Scholz, who campaigned in 2021 as Merkel 2.0, is happy quietly to abandon orthodoxies at home, while still vociferously opposing what his compatriots fear will lead to a Schuldenunion – an EU with ever greater debts, the frugal perpetually subsidising the profligate.

Making Germany dependent on Russian gas was Merkel’s convenient solution to the complications resulting from her Energiewende – the transition to clean energy announced in 2010, with nuclear power abruptly subtracted from the plan after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The decision also had an intended side effect: it provided Merkel’s Christian Democrats with more political options. At one stroke the main obstacle to coalition with the Greens, who emerged from the anti-nuclear protest movements of the 1970s, was removed, and such coalitions now function smoothly in German federal states. The Energiewende itself remained a muddle throughout the last decade of Merkel’s chancellorship. Energy issues in Germany are inextricably bound up with moralising. While everyone says they want to protect the environment, Bavarians in particular won’t stand for wind turbines being put up near their homes. It’s now mainly the Greens – especially Robert Habeck, the charismatic economy minister and the party’s de facto leader – who are trying to clean up the energy mess, while also pushing for a new ‘moral foreign policy’ vis-à-vis China. The Green base has been up in arms about the extension of the lives of three nuclear power stations until next spring, after unseemly squabbling between Green leaders and the neoliberal Free Democrats (the third and smallest party in the ‘traffic light coalition’). Scholz deployed a special competence of the chancellor – used only once by Merkel and never by Helmut Schmidt – to make the pro-nuclear decision binding on the government. Unsolicited advice about the benefits of le nucléaire has been coming from west of the Rhine, where smaller and safer reactors are being touted as the solution to long-term energy needs (there are few answers forthcoming to awkward questions about the long-term fate of nuclear waste). Even fracking, regarded until now as an American abomination, is on the agenda. Habeck and Scholz are proud of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) deals with Canada and the US (which might account for 40 per cent of European gas imports by 2030); they have also been begging Qatar for supplies, but are less likely to shout about this. Despite a global shopping spree, no long-term plan has come together. Industries like chemical manufacturing fear their economic Modell Deutschland might be done for.

Putin calculated that Europeans would revolt against belt-tightening for the sake of a faraway country about which they knew nothing. This seems to have been a miscalculation: anger has been prompted less by having to sacrifice for Ukraine than by the sense that burdens aren’t being shared fairly. Von der Leyen has proposed that the EU negotiate gas prices as a bloc. Her last attempt at deploying united European purchasing power – to buy Covid vaccines – yielded mixed results. The EU wasn’t particularly competent at procurement; rather than celebrating European solidarity, national governments blamed Brussels for anything that went wrong, even if it was their own fault; and a mysterious criminal investigation into how the EU got its vaccines continues (speculation is rife that it might involve messages between von de Leyen and the head of Pfizer). In theory, states could also lock themselves into long-term bilateral deals to bring down LNG prices, but that would create new dependencies and risk slowing down the transition to renewables. The EU has also declared that gas and nuclear plants can receive green investment funds. Plenty of uranium and rare earths lie in the soil of autocratic states; clean energy and a clean moral stance don’t always go together.

Although she started with a weak mandate, von der Leyen has strengthened the role of the Commission, which had diminished steadily during the Merkel years. Germany can still throw cash around, but the days of diktats about debt are over, despite the complaints of the country’s neoliberal finance minister, the Free Democrats’ Christian Lindner, who has so far been the worst performer in the coalition. Meanwhile, Macron remains lost in dreams of French leadership and glory on the global stage; domestically, having been traumatised by the gilets jaunes and now faced with a largely hostile parliament, he has little room for manoeuvre. His new European Political Community, which includes Britain and shining examples of petro-authoritarianism like Azerbaijan, is unlikely to make good on his long-standing goal of European ‘strategic sovereignty’, although Europe’s dependence on the US has become painfully obvious during the war on Ukraine. Paris and Berlin are weakened, having failed several times to engage Putin diplomatically; the EU as a whole has failed so far to display moral (let alone military) Wumms.

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