Voters blow the elitist lid off European politics

(Dublin)  In the course of a meandering journey through three vibrant capital cities- Paris, London, Dublin – interspersed with cycling ventures from the sun-drenched banks of the Seine to the wild bleak cliff roads of the Aran Islands, and made solemn by walking Normandy's windswept Omaha Beach and the nearby American military cemetery – it was possible for this traveler to form some impressions, albeit unscientific, of the changing tone and tenor of Europe.                      

From the mix of old friends and new acquaintances- 'ex-pats' and 'natives' alike- there was a prevailing mood of unease and uncertainty that commonly attends a period of historic transition.  This mood was also easily perceived by even a casual sampling of print and television media.                                                           

Americans ran the gamut from nominal Republicans who detest Trump and the rightward drift of their party to nominal Democrats who simply couldn't abide Hillary or the leftward drift of their party.                                                                                  

British similarly divide between those who view Brexit as the liberation of their national identity to those who echo a New Statesman writer who describes Brexit as a "crime against human progress".                                                              

While among both Americans and British there is a fringe clamoring for impeachment or a Brexit "re-vote," most recognize that a political world that very recently had seemed stable and comfortable is now being transformed in unpredictable and even alarming ways.                                                                           

What all concede is that elements of the population in many Western countries- heretofore largely ignored- have forcefully asserted themselves electorally and can no longer be ignored.  What is surprising to many is that these elements have been shown by recent elections to be much larger than previously thought and actually have the electoral clout to reshape politics in several countries.                   

The dam of denial burst with the German elections in September, which administered a stunning rebuke to Angela Merkel stemming from a broad-based rejection of her policies on immigration.  Her problems in forming a new government were further compounded by her party's recent failure in the regional elections in Lower Saxony.                                                                                    

Perhaps the most instructive election was that of Austria on October 15th where the two conservative parties (People's Party and Freedom Party), running on opposition to the immigration policies of the ruling Social Democrats, captured 62 % of the vote and will now likely form the next government.                                         

What is most striking in Austria is how dramatically the political landscape changed since the last election in 2013.  This shift -very similar to what occurred in neighboring Germany- is clearly a response to the "immigration shock" triggered by Angela Merkel in 2015.                                                                                                            

A further symptom of tension around the issue of immigration is the conflict between EU leadership in Brussels and the Visiegrad group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) regarding the German-inspired attempt to assign immigrant quotas to other EU member states.                                                            

Finding meaning amidst all this turmoil is difficult, but two broad patterns stand out.                                                                                                                                               

First, the socialist parties- long ascendant throughout most of Europe- have suffered stunning electoral reverses as large segments of their traditional working-class base have fled to other parties that seem more responsive to their needs and beliefs.  This partisan "migration" is reshaping the structure of politics all across Europe.                  

Second, the long-running attempt by the traditional parties to suppress genuine debate on divisive issues such as European integration, globalization, and most volatilely immigration has failed. 

Now, in different ways in different countries the political class is painfully and awkwardly trying to reconnect with those voters who fled to various upstart parties that have been more responsive to the will of the people. 

This is a very healthy development because history shows that when chasms grow between elitist and popular opinion, bad things can happen.                                   

These conflicts have a North-South and an East-West dimension and a generational and cultural dimension as well, and it is far from clear how all this will turn out.  Hopefully those characteristic strengths of these remarkable peoples can be marshaled in a manner that will conclusively prove that the greatness of European civilization is not something to be seen only in the rear-view mirror.

Bill Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.