The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

Europa triumphans

Noel Grima Sunday, 8 September 2019, 08:29 Last update: about 13 days ago

It was never like this. Europe, or rather the EU, was always an unfinished work, uncertain whether it had a future, squeezed between the US and Russia with no army of its own and with a currency that was always on the brink of extinction.

Now, in the space of just a week, it has pulverized the government of the UK and has brought down the government of Italy, putting its chosen parties at the top.

We have long seen this coming.

In Italy, it was Matteo Salvini’s hubris that led him to pull the plug of the Conte government, certain that an election in autumn would crown him prime minister. He had long burned his boats with his rabid xenophobia, his aggressive stances against the boat people, his constant criticism of Brussels and his populist championing of Catholic icons, such as the Rosary.

The EU had long suffered in silence his outbursts and his populist declarations.

Then a window of opportunity presented itself: the other partner in the coalition, the 5S, which had long suffered tongue-lashings by Salvini (and which was seeing its popularity crumble) tried the unthinkable – a governing coalition with the Left – the Popular Dems.

At first, people were sceptical; it looked like a long shot. But then 5S put it to the test – the new democratic tool through which the party can poll its supporters and members on any major decision and rather surprisingly almost 80 per cent of its members agreed with a coalition with the Dems.

Salvini, true to form, claimed they were all dreaming of ministerial posts, which is why remaining in government was so attractive (it was equally attractive to the Dems, who have been having withdrawal symptoms ever since they lost power).

The end result is the Conte II government, firmly Europhile, obeying the rules, removing Salvini’s worst blemishes with regard to migrants, and attempting to do all this with a cabinet full of newcomers, many without executive experience and with key ministries in the hands of technocrats.

Long may it sail, but I have my doubts, especially when it comes to the squaring of the circle which is to keep the deficit down and get growth back.

Salvini still has the edge – he remains the most popular politician in the country and the most visible one. And sooner or later, an election must be held (although the past weeks have seen his popularity decline).

Nevertheless, so far, the EU has triumphed and ousted a eurosceptic government,

In the UK, the EU, without doing much of anything, has seen Boris Johnson and his government crumble and disintegrate.

Johnson has become a figure of fun, a caricature, with his tousled hair, his mumbling speech, his crab-like gait – the “clown prince”, The Guardian called him.

His relations with the truth and veracity are complicated at best. He has lost the trust of many with his shutting down of parliament for five weeks and his insistence the UK must exit the EU on Halloween with an agreement or without it.

Like Theresa May, he has not attempted to negotiate with the Opposition, but only with the extreme Brexiteers in his own party, the leader of which sprawled across three seats in the Commons and was widely ridiculed for this lack of respect to the House and the peers.

The EU keeps Britain to the agreement signed with May, but the House of Commons has rejected this time and again and does not seem likely to change its mind.

All bluster, Johnson has tried to get a majority to back him up but he has now lost the slim majority of one he began the week with. And he lost that one seat backing him in the most choreographed and humiliating scene – a former minister crossing to the other side in the middle of one of his speeches.

And while the pound slides and the economy falters, the rest of the EU looks on aghast at this great country paying the price of daring to question the EU’s principles.

It is Europa triumphans, no doubt – doubly triumphant, at that. Whether it is a good thing or not to humiliate a founding member or a world-class member remains to be seen. In other times, the Soviet Union would send in tanks and soldiers to snuff out dissidence in rebellious states like Czechoslovakia. The EU is certainly not the Soviet Union but the logic of a continental block coming to face an internal rebel is surprisingly very similar.

History tells us, nevertheless, that many times monolithic blocs have been undermined and split aside by smaller units within themselves. The Europa triumphans is, in other words, doomed to change.

 

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