Europe’s Political Contagion
From financial failure to institutional collapse.
Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
That the eurozone has been reduced to a financial and economic shambles was predictable. How little that has changed the continent’s politics was not. To be sure, there have been massive protests in Greece and elsewhere, but the widespread disorder feared by many (including me) in the wake of the 2008/09 financial collapse—arguably the iceberg to the euro’s Titanic—hasn’t materialized, yet. If there is a revolt in the making, it is burning with a slow fuse. Yes, government after government has fallen, but to what effect? Spain has witnessed the rise of the Indignados, a mass Occupyish movement, but when the Socialists lost last year’s election, they were replaced by a conservative administration even more determined to trudge to Merkozy than its predecessor.
Why so many Europeans have accepted so much misery so quietly so far is a mystery. Welfare narcosis? The calming effect of what’s left of boom-time wealth? It is no coincidence that the most dramatic political upheaval in Europe has been in Greece, the country where the social security net has frayed the most and living standards have collapsed the furthest. The continent’s increasingly post-democratic political structures have also operated as a brake on radical change. The defeat of one party by another has generally made little difference. The eurozone’s dominant political class, center-left, center-right, Tweedledum, Tweedledee, has signed up for muddy approximations of the social market economy and a concrete version of the “ever closer” European integration for which austerity has been the agreed-upon price.
Shortly before the December meeting that launched the fiscal pact designed to enforce better budgetary discipline within most of the EU (the Czechs and Brits kept their distance), a German journalist reminded me that a large majority in his country’s parliament favored plunging even deeper into the European swamp (not his word). When I replied that many German voters did not, his response was a shrug of the shoulders. Yet this mismatch—visible across the eurozone—between the opinions of those who sit in Europe’s parliaments and those that they purport to represent could prove dangerous in times as fraught as these. Elite consensus is forcing voters searching for alternatives to today’s destructive euro-federalism into some very strange places. They may not resort to riot, but their choices at the ballot box could amount to much the same, or, indeed, to something even worse.
Greece’s May elections saw the arrival in parliament of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and the dramatic rise of Syriza, a far-left anti-austerity coalition led by Alexis Tsipras, a wannabe Aegean Hugo Chávez. Come the next elections (June 17), Golden Dawn may run into a spot of dusk, but Syriza is likely to end up either in the catbird seat, or close to it. That may mean a hot summer, even by Athenian standards.
Fiercer political discontent is not confined to Greece. In Ireland, another eurozone casualty, voters approved the fiscal pact in a referendum on May 31, but Syriza’s surge has been echoed in gains by the leftist, nationalist Sinn Fein (traditionally the political wing of the IRA) on the back of a platform with distinctly Tsipras touches: opposition to austerity and rejection of a discredited political elite. Such sentiments are not confined to the currency union’s mendicant fringe. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s populist-right PVV maintains that too much austerity is being asked too soon of the tolerably prudent Dutch (and can we have our guilder back?), while the ascendant leftists of the Socialist party just don’t like the idea of austerity, dank u wel.
In April, the first round of their presidential elections saw over 11 percent of the French opt for a leftist hardliner calling for a “citizens’ insurrection” against a sadly imaginary “ultra [classical] liberal” Europe. The far-right National Front grabbed third place and nearly a fifth of the votes. Its promise to junk austerity, and with it the euro, did it no harm.
Italy being Italy, there have been troubling terrorist stirrings, but its mutineer-in-chief is a comedian. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement emerged from hugely popular “V-Day” protests in September 2007 opposed to Italy’s rancid status quo (the V stood for vaffanculo, a phrase untranslatable in a respectable magazine but useful enough as an expression of inchoate rage). These demonstrations predated the eurozone’s meltdown (if not the euro’s steadily corrosive effect on the Italian economy), but have since been reinforced by it. After impressive local election victories in May, Grillo’s movement stands at almost 20 percent in the polls on a program that includes greenery, anticorruption, disdain for austerity, and hostility to the euro.
François Hollande’s ultimately successful campaign for the French presidency played skillfully into some of these themes. He harnessed the social resentment that has been sharpened across large swaths of Europe by economic slowdown, prolonged financial crisis, and the drive, however meandering, for austerity, and he rode it all the way into the Élysée Palace. The eurozone’s straitjacket could, he promised, be loosened to accommodate “growth.” Doubtless Mrs. Merkel will offer some cosmetic alterations, but that will then be that, and there will be little that Hollande can do about it. Instead he will have to face the bleak reality foretold by the flawed, darkly brilliant British politician Enoch Powell in a debate on European monetary union more than three decades ago:
As the eurozone economy twists in the wind, that’s something that President Hollande will find tricky to explain to his voters. Even if Angela Merkel, the person closest to those levers (with solvency comes power), wanted to help him out (and in some respects she might)—the chancellor appears torn between German frugality and loyalty to European “solidarity”—her ability to do so may be constrained by the way that the euro’s woes are continuing to rile up a domestic electorate already deeply skeptical of the eurozone’s bailouts, particularly when headed in Athens’s direction. It’s not easy to work out exactly what the upstart Internet freebooters of Germany’s Pirate party (in another sign of Europe’s increasingly febrile politics, they have now swept into four state legislatures) stand for. But it seems not to include bailouts.
As for the once again fashionable miracle cure, “eurobonds” issued by the eurozone as a whole, that’s finding few fans in the country that would effectively be underwriting this paper. According to a ZDF poll in late May, 79 percent of Germans rejected the idea, and even its proponents in Merkel’s principal opposition, the left of center, more-euro-than-thou Social Democrats, were showing some signs of backing away.
Merkel finds herself stuck. Her support has, until recently, held up well at the national level, but that’s been bolstered by the hard line she has been taking on the eurozone. Austerity may be enraging many beyond Germany’s borders, and it may be the wrong medicine for what ails the single currency in which Merkel evidently still believes. Too bad it’s the only approach that her voters (who are, after all, paying the bill) seem prepared to accept. If she backs down now. . .
So many rocks. So many hard places.
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.