July 10, 2023 - 4:00pm

There they were, three centrist dads in a boat with their Mutti Merkel. The year was 2014 and the three men were Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister of Sweden; David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain; and Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. They were the moderate, modern leaders of a moderate, modern Europe. They were the future. Or so they thought.

Within a few months of that fateful boating summit 10 years ago, its host Reinfeldt had gone, kicked out by voters in favour of a former trade union man from the Left. Then, two years later, Cameron followed suit as Britain voted not simply against his government but the entire European system he was trying to defend. This left only Merkel and Rutte, but now both of these old hands are gone, too: Merkel, first, in 2021, after 16 years in power, and then finally Rutte, who announced his shock decision to leave politics altogether today. The era of centrist dadism is well and truly over.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. Reinfeldt, Cameron, Rutte and Merkel were supposed to be the leaders of an era, driving Europe in a new, more liberal direction, injecting a sense of energy and dynamism into the continent’s turgid economy. They had come together that summer’s day at the Swedish Prime Minister’s summer retreat in order to “set a new economic course for Europe, based on free trade, liberalised markets, research and deregulation,” the Financial Times reported. And the general presumption was that this agenda was indeed Europe’s future. Certainly, nobody was looking to the one man so conspicuously absent from that summit — France’s President François Hollande — as the representative of an alternative European future.

In 2013, the Economist declared that Reinfeldt’s Sweden would be “the next liberal supermodel” of the continent. By that point he had been prime minister for seven years and Cameron and Rutte, both elected in 2010, were following in his footsteps. All three, of course, were following Merkel, too. Together, the four leaders were a genuine force to be reckoned with, even though they did not see eye-to-eye on many issues (including the other great theme of the lake summit — Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid to become European Commission president).

But fast forward 10 years and it’s worth pausing to reflect on what is left of this moderate, modern conservatism. In Sweden, politics has moved decisively to the Right in the decade after that centrist summit in the countryside, with the once untouchable Sweden Democrats now part of a governing alliance pushing for ever stricter controls on immigration. In Britain the era of liberal Cameroonism now feels like a distant memory, while in Germany the old era of Merkelism carries with it a stain of staggering complacency, exposed by the war in Ukraine.

After Merkel’s departure, Rutte was the last survivor from this old centrist summit — the exception which suggested that perhaps there wasn’t as much uniting these disparate leaders as we once assumed. Perhaps they were all just products of their own national circumstance and nothing more. 

And yet, look a little closer and there is one, obvious destabilising factor uniting them all: immigration. Rutte announced his intention to leave politics today after failing to bridge the fierce divisions in his own government about how to reduce immigration. The same concern lies behind the rise of the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, who have gone from 5.7% of the vote and 20 MPs in 2014, when Reinfeldt lost power, to 20.5% and 62 seats today. In Britain, meanwhile, it is obviously impossible to understand the 2016 EU referendum without taking into account the backlash against free movement over the previous decade or so.

Look across Europe today and immigration is one of the defining and enduring issues, rearing its head at almost every election and in every country, from Giorgia Meloni’s Italy in the south to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in the east. Far from being the representatives of Europe’s future, those four leaders who came together on Reinfeldt’s boating lake 10 years ago now look like visions from a failed past. Today’s Europe is not theirs, but something altogether more fractious and hard-edged, no longer demanding “free trade and liberalised markets” but protection. The era of the centrist dad is over.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.