The prevalent direction of political movements in Europe until recently seemed to favor an open, multi-ethnic, society. The approach was generally well accepted and was showing its first successes.
Demographic and economic growth have always had the capacity to push social changes, these events contributed in the ages to the development of our democracies, from shy positions into more dominant ones thanks to the superiority of the social model (measured by many different but consistent metrics).
The sharp change we are assisting today in the political preferences of the west coexists with two main events: the important global economic uncertainty and the beginning of retirement for the baby boomers, whose place in the active working groups is taken by a smaller number of adults.
Social mobility supported the general growth of the western world, demography and economic growth always had meaningful impact. If we go back to Plato, we see these same effects on the political balance within Athens and the struggles within the classic Greek world, today we assist to an interruption in the power of this very important engine for our part of the world (even at the time of the Greek expansion there was a moment when Sparta enjoyed a late flash of life). Europe has become evidently sclerotic, the economical impact of our demography starts to be evident. The aging of our population, together with the slow economy that goes with it, are preparing the “conservative” environment that seems to have become prevalent in the old continent. Optimism is fading in such an environment, the search for certainties becomes more important, stability becomes the preferred condition for the majority of the population.
The move from the model of an open society to the one that appreciates the benefits of a closer one starts to be evident. Integration of the different, the new, and the stranger is becoming more difficult. Capacity to integrate was the plus of the successful societies until recently, social closure, rejection of the stranger, the unknown, of anything deviating from the routine was related to a less developed societal model, more typical of the pre-industrial time. What has been labeled as backward might be the new model, very appealing in times of sufferance, when the “old times” are idealized.
The risk we see today in the European Union is a move back in comparison to the difficult path that brought us here, today most of the negotiations on issues relevant to the whole continent are mainly held on a bilateral basis. The preference for bilateral solutions explicitly negates the role of the institutions that were designed to answer explicit requests by the European citizens.
The eastern part of the continent started joining after the west. Giving up part of the national autonomy was the price to reach a greater benefit. The capacity to see the advantages was so widespread that a new problem emerged: a long line of applicant countries willing to become part of the European project.
In a moment of continental economic distress, the lack of a capable leadership becomes very evident. The governance rules of the Union are sometimes not perfect; the de facto leadership is in the hands of an unwilling leader who prefers to “lead from behind” in order to limit the personal political risk, regardless to the meaning of this choice for the interested populations. “Leading from behind” eventually goes in the direction of populism, helping the abandonment of the open society model we were enjoying in times of distress.
“Leading from behind” has been a very efficient leadership style (more for the leader that for the population) whenever change was not promoted, whenever status quo was highly appreciated (think about monolithic, large, organizations prevalent in the eastern European world before the fall of the Berlin Wall). Listening to a concert performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis can help understand the meaning of properly leading form behind (Wynton sits in the back row and leads the band never moving from that position, the effect is unforgettable).
In the end, we know that 2017 will be an electoral year in the old continent: French and German elections were planned, Italy might decide to join. This dysfunctional Europe we are getting used to will for sure be affected by the national political calendars even if nothing is changing in the European parliament. The leading country seems to prefer a “leading from behind” style so passively moving the continent along the path designed by its electorate (increasing this way the personal chances to be reelected), the opposing parties are trying to appeal the masses with even stronger dialectic. We have seen above what the masses like in times of difficulty (the situation was the same with Gerhard Schroeder, the leadership style was different, Mr Schroeder was not reelected but I suspect somebody is today grateful to him in Germany), if we are appreciating correctly what is happening, where will the real difference be when we will need to compare the alternatives? At the moment none of the parties is declaring the will to support an open society model (to be honest, do they declare anything?)
Only for gifted and trusted leaders