But if the test of Europe’s unity feels like a test for liberal democracy, it’s a mistake to see it only in those terms. It is also a struggle of nations against empire, of the Continent’s smaller countries against German mastery and Northern European interests, in which populist parties are being elected to resist policies the center sought to impose upon the periphery without a vote. And the liberal aspect of the European system wouldn’t be under such strain if the imperial aspect hadn’t been exploited unwisely by leaders in the empire’s German core.
This disastrous imperial dynamic was first manifest in the fiscal policy imposed on Southern Europe in the wake of the Great Recession — a policy that manifestly made more sense for Germany’s economy than for Italy’s or Spain’s or Greece’s, even as it was confidently presented by German bankers as a hardheaded necessity that no merely national government could be permitted to reject.
Then the same dynamic repeated itself on immigration, when Angela Merkel took it upon herself to make migration policy for the Continent, in atonement for Germany’s racist past and in the hopes of revitalizing its aging society. The resistance from other Europeans to her open door to refugees and migrants, the refusal to let the German chancellor and her admirers determine immigration policy, is one reason among many that populists won the Brexit referendum and find themselves on the cusp of power in Italy — and it’s the major reason that populist parties rule today in Budapest and Warsaw.