Niall Ferguson on European Populism, By Richard Miller (London)

Leading historian Niall Ferguson, in his interview with UnHerd's Freddie Sayers, after discussing the Sovietisation of American culture, and the threat posed by China, turns to give his take on European populism. The interview took place before the second runoff of the French elections, where to counter Le Pen's National Rally, Macron and the Left cooperated, by dropping candidates who may have divided the vote, leading to the Left winning, and Macron's own party coming second. Any sacrifice to keep the Right down.

Ferguson's response to the rise of European populism is somewhat predicable for received academics. On immigration, for example, he points out that Europe has an ageing population, but also wants generous pensions, and this is not possible without mass immigration; he talked of," big fiction that you can somehow turn the clock back socially or culturally, but magically maintain the welfare systems, uh, that no longer work without large scale migration." "So the Front National taps the sense that la France profonde has been short-changed by people like Macron, you know, worked for Rothschild, is part of the elite, lives in Paris. You've kinda been short-changed by those people and what you really want is a sorta better version of the old France, but you can't have it. Because you just can't run that kind of a welfare system with your demographics and yet you don't want the immigration."

That seems naive, since the immigrants coming to Europe from Africa and Muslim countries are not trained rocket scientists, but are mostly unskilled, and ultimately welfare recipients, who are unemployed at a higher rate than locals, and who will not contribute to supporting pensions; in fact quite the opposite. This is the same ideology made by the immigration lobby and the Left, which has long been technically refuted but they trot out the argument anyway.

We see with Ferguson's remarks below, and his general dismissal of populism, the same sentiment that characterises the New Class intellectuals across the West. There can be, they think, no alternative to globalism and open borders, at least for the West. They are set to see that even if populists fail, this system will ultimately self-destruct.

"Freddie Sayers: Let's move the focus to Europe. We've just had the French elections and it feels like a lot of the political rebellion that is happening across Europe... We've seen obviously Giorgia Meloni in Italy. There is a resurgent right-wing party in Germany. Hungary has just had a slight step back, but it's still a majority properly right-wing government. And now France looks like it might well have a prime minister, Bardella, come this time next week and may have a president, Le Pen in three years' time, both of those are not clear, but the movement is definitely clear. First of all, do you think those same factors you just described for the US, uh, economic weakness, a lack of addressing the hard reality of their situation, are almost more true of Europe?

Niall Ferguson: I think it's different. First of all, I don't think there's a clear trend. I mean, if you look at the European parliamentary elections, actually the center-right won. And Ursula von der Leyen will be, I think, almost certainly re-elected, re-appointed as president of the European Commission. And a lot of the journalistic commentary engaged in elision. France clearly swung to the right, I don't think Europe did. So that's the first point I'd make. The second one I'd make is that you don't have the same crisis of public health and, and morale in, in European countries. Something different is going on here. Let me try and characterize it. European societies are aging, uh, relatively rapidly. Uh, they're all aging, some faster than others. And yet, uh, they, they require, uh, immigration to off-set this aging process. That's the one thing that European voters really don't like. And European voters' interesting because they are relatively elderly in two ways. Uh, one, the demographics, two, turnout. They just turn out more these older voters. So older voters want, uh, a mid-20th century welfare state to carry on, uh, paying out, allowing them to retire relatively early, uh, and live, uh, comfortable and prolonged retirements. Uh, but what they dislike is that for this to be possible there has to be quite large scale migration, which obviously changes, uh, the, the atmosphere in there, in their towns and cities.

Part of what happened in France is revolt of the provinces. La France profonde has swung, uh, to the Rassemblement National and against, uh, President Macron. Uh, Macron who, in a sense, was attempting, uh, his own version of Blairism... That is to say, a kinda center-left-ish trend combined with center-right-ish policies. Uh, that game is up, just as he was up in Britain some time ago. But I don't think there's any easy way to square the circle in European politics because if you really take the action that you say you'll take on immigration, uh, you actually blow your older voters up, uh, with in- with higher inflation. You blow them up with, uh, with the Na- National Health Service not having sufficient staff to function, in the British case, or it's French equivalent. So I think there's a real contraction at the heart of European politics that the right talks, uh, the talk about immigration, it can't really deliver the restrictions without, uh, in some way hurting the interest of these, of these elderly voters. So, I guess, a slightly different story.

Plus, there's no superpower dimension to this. The truth is, we know that Europe is not a superpower because when the US stopped supplying (laughs) Ukraine with aid for six months Europe could not, uh, fill the gap. Europe relies on the United States for its security, period. There's no path to strategic autonomy that's credible. So I think European politics has a slightly smaller scale feel, a kinda provincial feel to it. And at heart of it all is this, I think, big fiction that you can somehow turn the clock back socially or culturally, but magically maintain the welfare systems, uh, that no longer work without large scale migration.

Freddie Sayers: You said there wasn't a, a drift to the right. I mean, I think it is definitely factually true that within the European Parliament the left-wing block and the Greens lost and the center-right and the hard-right blocks gained. So there was a move to the right, even though, as you say, there was some complicating moves underneath the surface. And to me the thing that is striking is, is that the big economies of Western Europe are the ones leading that move. So France, Italy, and a little bit Germany is coming up. And it would've been-

Niall Ferguson: Yeah.

Freddie Sayers: ... unthinkable-

Niall Ferguson: But this is wrong way to think, Freddie, about European politics. The way to think about European politics is that the center-right and the center-left, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, created post-war Europe and they created it at the national level, uh, where they wanted to make sure that the far-left and the far-right could not make a comeback. So they would create welfare states that kinda bought the allegiance of voters to a democratic order, which had completely collapsed, remember, in nearly every country in the 1920s and 1930s. And the same Social Dem- Democrats and Christian Democrats of the European project and that European project was to create at least the rudiments of a European federation. And therefore to call the right, the center-right plus the far-right is a completely misleading framing. That the hard or far-right are people who question both aspects of the Christian Democrat, Social Democrat settlement, the national welfare state, uh, plus European integration. If you are looking at what they're offering, uh, in the Le Pen Rassemblement National, it is to undo Macron's reform of, uh, the age of retirement, to get... to allow people to retire-

Freddie Sayers: I think they've gone soft on that recently.

Niall Ferguson: Of course, because it's completely fiscally indefensible.

Freddie Sayers: Mm-hmm.

Niall Ferguson: And the markets will kill him if they tried to do it. But this is the problem, you're, you're really dealing in nostalgia, that's what you're selling in provincial France. I had a very interesting conversation with one of Macron's ministers about this. He said, "You know, we've created the best rail system, uh, in, in Europe, if you are a wealthy Parisian with a nice house in Provence. But if you live in Clermont-Ferrand, if you live in provincial France, the railway system's actually worse than it was in the 1970s and you know it." So the Front National taps the sense that la France profonde has been short-changed by people like Macron, you know, worked for Rothschild, is part of the elite, lives in Paris. You've kinda been short-changed by those people and what you really want is a sorta better version of the old France, but you can't have it. Because you just can't run that kind of a welfare system with your demographics and yet you don't want the immigration. So I think all of these right-wing projects, whether it's the Alternative für Deutschland, who didn't do that well in the European elections, but they did okay or-

Freddie Sayers: They made gains.

Niall Ferguson: ... or your Fratelli d'Italia. Now let's, let's-

Freddie Sayers: Mm-hmm.

Niall Ferguson: ... take Meloni and Meloni's really interesting-

Freddie Sayers: Right.

The Taming of Meloni

Niall Ferguson: ... because since being elected, this person who was described in the British media as far-right, you know, even f- post-fascist or crypto-fascist, has been entirely moderate in practice. Uh, even an attempt to take on the banks was very quickly abandoned when the markets went "yuk". And in truth, uh, Giorgia Meloni is on the phone to Mario Draghi for tips on how to be prime minister of Italy. Now, the word that they now use in Paris when they look at, uh, young monsieur Bardella is, [foreign language 00:28:44]. Can he be Melonized?

Freddie Sayers: Mm-hmm.

Niall Ferguson: In other words, can he be tamed the way Giorgia Meloni has been tamed in Rome? And that remains to be seen because I think the f- Rassemblement National is actually in some ways seriously populist. But my hunch would be that there's so little fiscal (laughs) room for maneuver that they will Melonize Bardella if, and it's still if, he becomes prime minister. I'm not convinced that he's a [inaudible 00:29:09]-

Freddie Sayers: It feels like he's already being Melonized. I mean, lot of the policies has been-

Niall Ferguson: Oh, yeah. Process has begun.

Freddie Sayers: ... watered down, his rhetoric about the EU has changed. There's a lot of caution.

Niall Ferguson: Yeah.

Freddie Sayers: It feels like they are already positioning themselves roughly where Meloni was.

Niall Ferguson: And let's not forget, the populists have all walked away from exit. I mean, Brexit killed exit for all the continental populists. Nobody now talks about leaving, certainly not leaving the euro. So, uh, in a way the [foreign language 00:29:35] process has been going on since around about 2016. But that's why I'm skeptical about Europe swings to the right. Really?

Freddie Sayers: Just to be clear, would you call Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National far-right?

Niall Ferguson: You know, I struggle with this term because, I mean, it, it's right in the sense that they are to the right of, uh, Les Républicains. Or at least some of Les Républicains who split after the European results came out. But far-right I think is often used as shorthand by journalists in the English-speaking world to imply they're practically fascists, but they're not fascists. And I've been saying this since 2016 to try to explain the difference between populism and fascism. The fascists, if you could take a time machine back to the 1920s and '30s, march around the streets in uniforms and are quite keen on, on war. Populists are quite different, populists essentially say, "We've got too much immigration, too much globalization, we need to do something to kinda get back to what we used to be." But they're not in, in uniform and they're not talking war. So I think this is really populism. And the problem about populism, as was true in the United States in the late 19th century, is that it's quite difficult for it to deliver meaningful results to the people who support it.

Freddie Sayers: So perhaps the Italian population are content to have a leader who is sort of nominally a little bit edgy and right-wing, and she does what... some things around family policy, that are a little bit shocking to kinda liberal centrists. She talks about immigration in a different way, although it's not yet clear whether she's succeeding in reducing numbers.

Niall Ferguson: The operative word in your sentence is talks. So it bec- [foreign language 00:31:23] means you still get the speeches, you still get the language, you still get appeals to a, a traditional way of life, but you don't get any of the actual costs of turning the clock back. And that, I think, will be what happens, uh, in, in France and in other European countries. Of course, in some countries, in Scandinavia for example, you see the established parties just moving themselves rightwards, particularly in the immigration issue.

Freddie Sayers: Yeah.

Niall Ferguson: Take... Greece is a good example where Kyriakos Mitsotakis is clearly a product of the Greek elite with an elite US education. But he is managing to run a center-right government which is tough on immigration, very tough in some ways, um, and that's working because he's delivered economic results. And I think delivering the economic results will always transcend making great speeches. I mean, if you aren't delivering economically then it doesn't matter how good the speeches are, you're in trouble. Meloni's managed to avoid what really bedeviled more recent Italian governments, which is the bond market going, "Oh, God," and the banks getting into trouble. So I think that will be the same constraint on Bardella, if he becomes prime minister. He's gonna have to be very careful not to cause a spike in French borrowing cost.

Freddie Sayers: Again, the Brits provided the warning there with the Liz Truss-

Niall Ferguson: Lizz Truss.

Freddie Sayers: ... episode. Exactly.

Niall Ferguson: You know, you'd rather be Meloni than Lizz Truss.

Freddie Sayers: Mm-hmm.

Niall Ferguson: That would be my kind of analysis of anybody who finds themselves prime minister in a European country.

Freddie Sayers: Just to make sure we're not underplaying the victory by the Rassemblement National, it, it's true that some things would change if they have meaningful power in French politics. That the standoff with the European Union could go up a few notches, there could be budget scraps that would definitely add a, a sort of insecurity in the European structures. And there can be some things on immigration. It is possible the that they can at least slow the pace of immigration. Those things might be considered-

Niall Ferguson: When you put-

Freddie Sayers: ... victories to their voters.

Niall Ferguson: ... when you put it like that, the word far just doesn't seem really appropriate 'cause this is all kinda m- mildly a bit to the right of the center-right, not far to the right of the center-right. And I, I, I'd a- argue that if, if one looks ahead to the second round, it's not clear yet, uh, given the complexity of the French system, that, that, that, uh, the Rassemblement National actually gonna have enough seats to form a government. It could be a hung parliament even now because of the strange way the French electoral system works. And the same will apply when it comes to the presidency, the two round system is designed, it's intended to keep, uh, political extremes out of power. It'll, it'll still be quite hard for, for the, the RN to get the prime ministership and, and the presidency. And even if they success they will be constrained in the way that we've described, by the fiscal and the financial market pressure." 



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