(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Contrary to the perception of Europe as an aging, hidebound continent, it’s leading generational change in global politics today, and the implications of that shift for the traditional left-right paradigm are worrying to say the least.
Politico’s Ryan Heath, one of the most knowledgeable journalists covering the European Union today, wrote recently that, for the first time ever, the average European national leader now is younger than 50. That depends on whom you count; the youngest national leader in the world is European: Matteo Ciacci, captain regent of San Marino, is 28, but his tiny nation is not an EU member. If only the leaders (those with real, not ceremonial power) of the 28 EU states are included, the average age works out at 51.28 years; without the U.K.’s Theresa May, who is 61, the average drops to 50.92.
No matter how you calculate, the generational change in Europe is obvious. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is 31, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and his Estonian colleague Juri Ratas are 39, French President Emmanuel Macron is 40, the prime ministers of Belgium and Slovakia, Charles Michel and Peter Pellegrini, are 42. At 63 – not an advanced age given the EU’s average life expectancy of 79.6 years – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis are the oldest leaders in Continental Europe. In the EU, only 71-year-old Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, is older.
In December, 2017, Andreas Beger, a data scientist at Ward Associates, a consulting firm, mapped the age of current national leaders based on a dataset that includes information about 2,300 current and former leaders from 201 countries. He found that the mean age stood at 62, just about the upper bound for today’s EU. One could theorize that Europe has a lot of small countries where it could be easier for a young person to cut through an established hierarchy, but Beger discovered no correlation between a leader’s age and a country’s size. There is one between a country’s embrace of democracy and the leader’s age – they’re younger in more democratic countries – but it’s a weak relationship; some rulers with absolute power aren’t even 40, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who is between 34 and 36, according to different records, or Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, who is 38.
So there’s really no plausible explanation for the relative youth of the men (Merkel, May, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila are the only women leaders in the EU today) running Europe in 2018 other than that voters are increasingly opting for fresh blood at the top. This doesn’t just mean fresh faces: Young politicians benefit from challenging conventions, especially traditional notions of how political forces should be aligned on a left-right spectrum.
That can mean unabashed populism, as in the case of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was 40 when he was elected in 2015. Matteo Salvini, 45, and Luigi Di Maio, 31, who are not on the list of formal leaders but who are the real forces behind the new Italian government, are also firmly anti-establishment. But a certain flexibility and a disregard for the traditional spectrum are another possibility: Macron, with his new right-left party, and Kurz, who has just about erased the border between the center-right and the far-right, are two examples. Albert Rivera, 38, the leader of Spain’s definition-defying but recognizably centrist Ciudadanos party, has a good shot at the prime minister’s job in the next election.
Even when a young leader is an avowed centrist, he doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional establishment mold. Leo Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant, is far from a typical Irish prime minister, and his ascension means a major image change for the country.
One doesn’t need to be young to disrupt traditional political oligarchies – the election of Donald Trump at 70 was evidence of that. But, unlike in the U.S., where the president wields more power as an individual than as head of a party, European politics are, for the most part, parliamentary. So the generational change is accompanied by the destruction of traditional party systems. France’s is now in ruins since Macron’s En Marche movement swept the parliamentary election soon after he won office. Italy’s traditional system is all but gone, too; Spain’s is hanging by a thread, and in Germany, one of the two major post-war parties, the Social Democrats, is in a deep crisis. Elsewhere – as in Poland, for example – the battle lines have shifted: It’s no longer left vs. right but the center vs. the nationalist right.
The voter sentiment that’s lifting the new generation of European politicians to the top is often agnostic of ideological divisions and focused on expectations of change, experiments, different ways of government. It may be interpreted as a rejection of wisdom, professionalism and expertise, but it can also be seen as a protest against business as usual, which in many European countries means cronyism, corruption and an indifference to voters’ core interests. So unusual programs win and unusual policies are tried.
Somewhat paradoxically, the EU’s common rules and member states’ interdependence provide a certain incentive to experiment: Voters know a certain political and economic safety net will be there for them if things go badly wrong. Sometimes, as in Greece, they hate how that safety net works – but they don’t want it to disappear, as evidenced by increasing popular support for the EU.
In the rest of the world, where the safety net is not provided, change may be slower, but what’s happening in Europe can be a useful preview of what will happen to politics in a world run by millennials. Conventions that have held for decades will crumble elsewhere, too, and all sorts of hybrid and extreme experiments will take place. Time to get more comfortable with an unstable, constantly shifting political spectrum.
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