Some years ago I lived in Rome and was visited there by my friend Roberta. Inspired by the meditations on ruins at John Keats’s old house, we decided to brave the crowds and tour the Colosseum. And it was in this apt setting that Roberta (who knows a thing or two about such matters) explained to me W B Yeats’s obsession with gyres.
In maths, a gyre is a whirling movement that traces the form of a cone, spiralling outwards and upwards until it reaches its apex, where it twists and retraces its path downwards and inwards.
Partly inspired by the likes of Keats, his muse, Yeats saw in this motion the geometry of history, in which the very moment of maximum chaos and decay contains the impetus for rebirth and resurgence. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”, begins his 1919 poem “The Second Coming”, best known for its line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”.
Rome lends itself to such reflections. Tourist hordes, decadent citizens and forlorn immigrants meander through peeling squares and overgrown ruins in a city sporadically perfumed by rotting rubbish and given over to pleasures carnal and carbohydrate. It can feel like the epitome of a paunchy, dysfunctional old continent in economic and demographic decline.
But it was to Rome that 27 heads of government, excluding Britain, repaired on 25 March to discuss the EU’s future after Brexit. The summit marked the 60th anniversary of the Union’s founding in Michelangelo’s Palazzo dei Conservatori, wedged between the grassy Roman forum and the grotesquely oversized, Mussolini-era Altare della Patria.
Here they were, Europe’s leaders, gathering under an anti-terror lockdown and amid the splendours, nightmares and detritus of past centuries, as police clashed with students and anti-EU protesters on the scruffy streets outside.
The tableau summed up the Europe that Britain voted to leave. In the months before its EU referendum last year, eurozone turmoil, institutional sclerosis, terrorism and the refugee crisis seemed to substantiate Brexiteer claims that Britain was just too rational, dynamic and stable for the EU. To remain would condemn Britain to being “shackled to a corpse” or “a hostage, locked in the boot of a speeding car”. (What is it with Tory grandees and bondage metaphors?)
Best forge a new future among the sensible Anglo-Saxons. “The social model is wrong, the economic model is unsustainable . . . that’s their tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be Britain’s,” intoned Daniel Hannan, of “the elderly, creaking, sclerotic economies of the western tip of the Eurasian landmass”.
Particular attention was paid to the nationalist wave sweeping the continent. The populists – Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Geert Wilders, Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Marine Le Pen – were routinely characterised as governments-in-waiting.
The political obituaries of Angela Merkel were numerous. And all the time, nods to “The Second Coming”. “The centre is falling apart across Europe”, ran an Observer headline. An essay in Foreign Policy noted that the continent’s politics seemed “lifted from William Butler Yeats’s poem”.
And yet, invoking Yeats, these accounts were more accurate than they knew. Because today, not long after Europe’s manifold crises reached their apex, the continent is spiralling back.
In recent months Eurosceptic populists have been defeated in elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France. In the past few days alone, they have dropped out of Finland’s government and suffered losses in Italy’s municipal elections. In Germany, support for the AfD has collapsed and Merkel is soaring towards victory in September. Emmanuel Macron, so pro-European that he walked out to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on winning the French presidency, is on track for a landslide in the second round of French legislative elections on 18 June.
And while Britain posted the lowest growth rate in the EU for the first quarter of 2017, business confidence in France and Germany is surging. Unemployment is falling, not only in the eurozone core but on its periphery, too. Greece is still in crisis but the prospect of Grexit has subsided. Tentative optimism is taking hold.
To be sure, this recovery is fragile, the populists are not defeated and the EU is still fractured. Yet in Merkel and Macron, Europe now has a duumvirate of domestically strong, like-minded leaders, committed to reforming the eurozone and to amplifying the continent’s voice in the world. “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over,” Merkel told a crowd in Munich last month.
She was of course hinting at the Anglosphere. Every week, Donald Trump inflicts fresh humiliations on his country, and with it the special relationship. And even before the British election campaign, London’s treatment of EU nationals and the jingoistic tone of its public debate were raising eyebrows on the Continent. Then came Theresa May’s catastrophic gamble. “Oops they did it again”, mocked Süddeutsche Zeitung. The German broadsheet went on to marvel at how the country of Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher could turn out such a useless cohort of leaders.
It looks as if Britain sold its stake in Europe at the bottom of the market. If only it had heeded the poem so often pressed into the service of Anglo-Saxon finger-waggery. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Yeats wrote, in the much-overlooked, optimistic end to “The Second Coming”. Anarchy has indeed been loosed on continental Europe. But the darkness is dropping. The gyres are turning.
Jeremy Cliffe is the Berlin bureau chief of the Economist