February 17, 2021

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of populism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Politicians and financiers, Macron and Merkel, French bureaucrats and German central bankers.”

As you may have noticed, the above is a slightly modified excerpt from the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Then, as now, the political establishment was faced with an external threat; and then, as now, they didn’t entirely succeed in exorcising it. Populism continues to haunt European politics. Populist governments in Hungary and Poland retain their grip. And far from fading away, populist movements elsewhere are still making breakthroughs. Only this week, Spain’s Vox party made it into Catalan parliament for the first time.

And yet, earlier fears of a wholesale populist takeover were wildly exaggerated. 2016 — the year of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump — was not the end of days after all. Instead, the political establishment has adapted.

In Greece, the power of the European Central Bank proved more than equal to that of the Syriza government. In France, a centrist movement — En Marche — emerged out of nowhere to see off the hard Left and the hard Right. In Ireland, Sinn Féin has surged in popularity — only for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to put aside their historic differences and form their first coalition. In America, the country’s democratic institutions weathered an attempt by a bad loser President to overturn an election result. And in Italy, the populist government elected in 2018 has been replaced by a technical government headed by Mario Draghi, the ultimate establishment fixer.

The establishment has not killed off populism, but it is learning to live with it. There’s a parallel here with the situation in post-war western Europe, when the main challenge wasn’t populism, but homegrown communism. We forget it now, but there were times in the 1940s and 50s when the French Communist Party was the biggest party in the National Assembly. The Italian Communist Party was another major force — peaking in 1976 with more than a third of the vote.

Despite the scale of the challenge, the communists of free Europe were tolerated — though also deliberately excluded from power, in some parts of Italy with the help of the Mafia. Today’s establishment will hope to do the same in regard to the populists; and, so far, they’re succeeding.

But what if the real enemy isn’t who they think it is?

External threats are visible: the barbarian at the gate, the invading army, the rampaging mob. Only last month, in Washington DC, there was a very literal example of what can happen when the gates aren’t adequately guarded. But not every enemy is to be found outside the city walls — indeed sometimes the threat is from within.

I’m not talking about a fifth column, but rather when a ruling establishment is captured by one of its own — and subsequently remade in the new leader’s image.

The classic example is that of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman Republic. Here we see the quintessential features of the internal authoritarian takeover. Firstly, Caesar was a man of action — conqueror of Gaul, invader of Britannia. Secondly, he was already in a senior position of leadership — as part of the first Triumvirate (along with Pompey and Crassus). Thirdly, he posed as the champion of the people — even though the system he would establish was even less democratic than the one it replaced. Fourthly, the new system masqueraded as a continuation of the old. The Roman Republic was not formally overthrown; there was no return to the Roman monarchy and Julius’s successors did not style themselves “emperor” , but rather as princeps — “first among equals”. And finally, once securely established in power, Julius’s heir — Augustus — posed, hypocritically, as a conservative: a champion of stability and of old-fashioned Roman virtue, while ending the republic.

Joseph Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Union followed a similar pattern. He was one of the leading revolutionaries — and one among a number of senior figures vying for influence after Lenin’s death. Stalin won that power struggle — not least by presenting himself as a true man of the people against the Bolshevik intellectuals. Once his rivals had been crushed, he maintained and secured the outward forms of the USSR, while remaking it from within.

Given the horrors he unleashed, I hesitate to call him any sort of conservative, but there’s no denying that his totalitarian system was overtly patriotic in character. It was also, in some respects, socially conservative — earlier revolutionary attempts to redefine fundamentals like the family were dispensed with. To bolster morale in the Second World War, Stalin even co-opted what remained of the Orthodox Church. At the same time, just as Augustus expanded the borders of Rome, so in Stalin’s Russia industrialisation took place on a massive scale and Moscow’s rule was extended far beyond the borders of the old Russian empire.

A third example of the Caesarist phenomenon — and the one most relevant to Europe today — is the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Again, we see a man of action, a supremely gifted and successful military commander. Again, we see that the regime he loyally served was unstable — power shifting back and forth between different factions and individuals. Again, we see a man of the people acting in the name of the people to restore order — and in the process grabbing all the power for himself. Again, there’s no return to the ancien regime, but rather the establishment of a quasi-monarchy with himself as monarch. And again, there’s a weird, but effective, mixture of conservatism and ruthless modernism. While Napoleon had no time for the Jacobin excesses of the early revolution, he also saw it as his mission to cleanse Europe of feudalism and other unenlightened remnants of the past.

The reason Napoleon seems particularly relevant today is because of the parallels between Revolutionary France in the late 18th century and the European Union in the early 21st. Note that I say parallels and not convergences. Obviously, we don’t have guillotines slicing up and down in public squares. Those who fall foul of today’s progressive orthodoxies may find themselves consigned to a “basket of deplorables”, but not to a basket of severed heads.

However, if you take away the violence and focus instead on the underlying power structures — the parallels between Napoleon’s time and our own become apparent. To begin with, the European project is revolutionary in nature — it seeks to replace a long-established system of government (the nation-state) with a jarringly different system (a federal superstate). “Ever closer Union” is not just a slogan, it is a political programme of world-changing significance.

Admittedly, as revolutions go this is a slow one. But, from time-to-time, it takes another lurch forward. The creation of the single currency is the most important development so far. Other lurches include the last year’s decision to empower the European Commission to borrow hundreds of billions of euros, and the transformation of the Frontex agency into a quasi-military border force.

A further example is the vaccine procurement strategy. That this has gone so badly wrong doesn’t just expose the administrative weaknesses of the EU, but also its democratic deficit. Ursula von der Leyen and has not been held democratically accountable for the very good reason that she doesn’t have a democratic mandate. She doesn’t even have regular, EU-wide approval ratings to worry about — after all, what would be the point?

In any case, we shouldn’t forget that she’s not the head of government (to the extent that that EU even has a government). Infamously, the EU doesn’t have one President, but five (of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union and the European Central Bank). Even without the complications of incomplete integration, authority within the EU is divided — and thus any hope of clear accountability frustrated.

Coincidentally, the governing body that Napoleon usurped in 1799 — the Directory — also had five members. Only weakly accountable to the elected legislature and divided among themselves, the Directors were in a poor position to cope with the foreign and domestic threats to the revolutionary state. It became clear that authority would have to be placed in the hands of an effective leader or the revolution would collapse — with the restoration of monarchy as the most likely outcome.

Currently, the EU has more room for manoeuvre. Its member-states still retain sovereign control over most policy areas. But the further Europe goes down the path of integration, the harder it will be to retreat to national competences. Crisis situations will have to be dealt with at a federal level — the actions of decision-makers facilitated by untested institutions.

The EU’s future will not be an easy one. The vaccine fiasco is still far from sorted, and there’s the post-Covid economic recovery to navigate — and the impact of “long lockdown” restrictions on international travel. Populism has not been defeated and will feed on the economic hardships that lie ahead of us. A renewed migration crisis cannot be ruled out — only this time inflamed by fears of coronavirus variants from outside the EU. On immigration and other issues, the challenge from the Hungarian and Polish governments has not been resolved — and indeed could multiply if the hard-Right advances in western European countries like Italy or France.

And, underlying everything, there’s the fact that the engine of EU integration — the single currency — is also a ticking time bomb. We’ve already seen that the EU will do “whatever it takes” to stop the eurozone from collapsing. It is a reminder that, beyond a certain point, integration passes a point of no return.

Okay, but can we really imagine a Brussels Bonaparte taking control of the EU’s evolving federal structures? It needn’t be anything so dramatic as a military coup — and, assuming the continuing absence of a European Army, it couldn’t be. But a consolidation of power within a democratically dubious system of crisis government? That certainly can be envisaged. Indeed, it’s happening in Italy right now.

So a technocrat, then, not a soldier — but a technocrat with broad popular appeal built on a record of “getting things done”.

Would the EU establishment tolerate such a figure — and indeed facilitate the centralisation of authority around a single, undisputed leader? It all depends on the alternative. If the other choices are a chaotic meltdown of the entire system starting with the single currency — or a hostile takeover by a Viktor Orbán-style populist, then a Brussels Bonaparte would be the least worst option.

And that’s the trouble with constructing a novel and weakly democratic system of government. Sooner or later, the question of “whatever it takes” boils down to “whoever it takes”.