THIS much we know: Europe is divided, with parties of the right in conflict with those of the left, populists against progressives, protectionists against globalists, pro-Europeans against Eurosceptics.

It’s about differences over policies and objectives, about diverging goals and ambitions. It’s about the future of Europe, migration and what on earth to do about Africa.

Well — not really.

Most of Europe’s mainstream parties and politicians may appearto hold distinct views on the key challenges of the day.

But dig a bit deeper and — with a few exceptions like Europe’s Green parties and French President Emmanuel Macron on a good day — European politicians exhibit a troubling convergence of views on most issues.

Future of Europe? “Elitist” EU needs a large-scale revamp. Anti-European populists who once wanted “Nexit and Frexit” now realise their voters actually want to stay in Europe so have shifted to a more pro-European stance. But like pro-EU politicians, they also want reform and change.

Migration? There’s agreement on the need to keep out the huddled masses, build “disembarkation” centres and do dirty deals with neighbouring nations. And oh yes, don’t forget to ban burkas and burkinis.

Africa? Also keep out the huddled masses but this time also talk about a new alliance for investment and jobs and focus on providing home to the continent’s growing number of young people.

There are differences over detail of course. Some want more Europe, others less. Some are vocal about violations of human rights and the rule of law, others less so. Some worry about fiscal austerity, others do not.

But differences between political families are becoming blurred as a mind-numbing group think takes over.

And that unexciting sameness of Europe’s political landscape — the talking about connecting with citizens and the “same old, same old” rants and fear-stoking against outsiders — doesn’t bode well for voter turnout at next year’s elections to the European parliament.

And that’s why Bono and Bannon are important.

Bono, the U2 singer is a rock star with a political message. Co-founder of the ONE campaign against global poverty, Bono’s decision to come out as a passionate Euro-romantic this summer cheered up Brussels just when the debate over Brexit was getting especially toxic.

Steve Bannon, the far-right hero, is feted across America and Europe for bringing Donald Trump to power, and is now embarking on a crusade against liberal Europe.

The two men offer two starkly distinct visions of Europe.

As they lined up like excited teenagers for a handshake and selfie with Bono last week, MEPs, commissioners and others heard the Irish rock legend and anti-poverty campaigner extol the virtues of Europe.

Promising to play a role in romancing the idea of Europe and seeing it as something warm-blooded and real, Bono insisted that Africa is “an incredible opportunity” and called for a new partnership with the continent where Europeans and Africans could “sit together as equals and conquer the world”.

“While we grow older and our hair become greyer, they become younger and more vibrant,” Bono said of Africans. Instead of nationalism, Bono said he was excited by the rise of internationalism.

“Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling and I am, as an artist, in service of that.”

Bannon has a very different vision. The man who designed Trump’s America First strategy in 2016 — is on a quest to forge a continent-wide populist movement that will triumph in next year’s European parliament elections.

His Brussels-based project, known as the Movement, wants to undo the EU and has found friends and allies among Italy’s new leaders and illiberal such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Bannon’s project may or may not take off. For one, many European populist parties are reluctant to associate with any movement led by an American. However, if he succeeds, Bannon’s Movement could change the face of Europe for decades to come.

Importantly, Bannon’s European campaign appears to have galvanised Europe’s hitherto rather complacent politicians.

France’s Macron and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands are exploring the establishment of a progressive pro-EU party to woo voters next year.

And European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called on Europe to “stand up” to the far right, saying it was important to make a distinction between “those Eurosceptics who have questions to ask and opinions to make and the stupid populists”.

Adding to the mix, Alexander Stubb, Finland’s former prime minister, foreign minister, and finance minister has thrown his hat in the ring as Europe’s centre-right candidate for the job of European Commission president.

His main rival to be the centre-right EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, for the European parliamentary elections in May is Manfred Weber, a German MEP and the group’s parliamentary leader.

In Brussels last week, Stubb promised to stand up for European values of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law, warning “if we go illiberal, it will be very difficult to go back”.

Also joining the race is Frans Timmermans, a European Commission Vice-President, who has launched a campaign to lead the Party of European Socialists in the elections and has taken a lead in the battle against the illiberal policies of the Polish and Hungarian governments.

Yes, Europe’s political landscape is getting exciting. And ironically that’s thanks both to the positive passion of Bono but also the real danger posed by Bannon.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2018


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