What’s Next for Europe?

Politicians in power since the 2008 financial collapse, regardless of their political stripes, find themselves in peril. Analysis of the recent French and Greek elections followed three lines of thought – that voters soundly rejected strict austerity measures, blamed incumbents, and abandoned mainstream political parties for more extremist leadership, both right and left. The three interpretations are linked, suggests Alistair Burnett, editor of BBC News’ The World Tonight, yet the patterns show some inconsistencies. Support for anti-immigration policies may have peaked in some European nations, and electorates are divided about abandoning the euro. Burnett argues that an overarching message from the results of French and Greek elections is the growing tension between democracy and the interests of financial capitalism. Political leaders try to please the markets, but that may no longer be a tenable strategy. Increasingly, voters are uncomfortable with investors profiting from unemployment, economic bubbles, currency volatility, questionable debts and so much human misery. – YaleGlobal

What’s Next for Europe?

Europe’s voters punish incumbents who fawn over global financial markets
Alistair Burnett
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Throwing out the bums: Supporters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party raise flares as they celebrate winning seats in the Greek Parliament for the first time (top); other voters in Europe say no to austerity, too

LONDON: French and Greek voters have spoken loudly on austerity measures, but perhaps not so decisively. In Greece’s case, the message was so unclear that the country returns to the polls on June 17th. Chance is that no matter how they vote the tension between the market and democracy is here to stay.

This month’s election results can be broadly categorized in three ways: The most common headline was a variant on the London Daily Mail’s “Au Revoir Austerity.” Another interpretation was that Europe kicked out another bunch of incumbents. A third variation – Europe’s mainstream parties are losing support to extremists on both the right and left.

A strong argument can be made that results in the French presidential and Greek parliamentary elections show that voters have had enough of the debt-reduction policies. In Greece, parties that campaigned explicitly on an anti-austerity platform did very well. But the results may be a continuation of a trend underway since the financial crisis struck in 2008, with leaders of any party tossed out of office once their electorates had the chance to vote – the defeat of US Republicans that year, Gordon Brown’s Labour in the UK in 2010, Spanish Socialist Jose Luis Zapatero in 2011 and now Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then again, recent votes in France and Greece also saw increased support for parties of the far-right and far-left campaigning against the effects of globalization – the right took issue with immigration while the left oppose power of financial capital and bankers.

There’s an element of truth in all three explanations, which to some extent feed off one another.

The most straightforward factor explaining the French and Greek results is that the parties that had been in power when economic crisis hit four years ago got the blame for the consequences, including increased public debt, public spending cuts and tax rises to pay for bank bailouts by national governments.

Sarkozy, who came to power in 2007, promising to reform the French economy for faster growth, was only a little more than a year into his presidency when the crisis hit. The crisis derailed much of his reform program and also associated him in the minds of his electorate with rising debt and the euro crisis. Sarkozy was prominent alongside Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in overseeing eurozone problems and the need to bail out Greece, Ireland and Portugal. He went to the French electorate asking for a second chance, and voters refused.

In the Greek election, socialist PASOK, in power in 2008, saw its support plummet, blamed for not preventing the collapse of the country’s finances and severe austerity measures that have hiked unemployment and reduced the standard of living. There was a rise in support for smaller parties opposing austerity measures and a fall in support for the main opposition party, center-right New Democracy, which had endorsed the package of public spending cuts and tax increases introduced in Greece in return for a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

There is one exception to the trend of European incumbents since 2008 failing at re-election, blamed for not preventing the crisis and associated with the recessions, spending cuts and tax increases – Poland.

Last year, Poles re-elected the coalition led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Still, this result also confirms the view that Europeans base their voting decisions on the state of the economy. Voters rewarded incumbent Tusk, because the Polish economy escaped Europe’s suffering and continued to grow, perhaps benefitting from proximity to the German market and exchange rate flexibility arising from not being in the euro.

The economic crisis has spurred the rise of far-right and far-left parties in recent European elections.

In France, the new leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, achieved a record result for her party, with 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. Some credit that success to Le Pen distancing herself from more direct anti-immigration policies of her predecessor and father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and focusing her campaign on leaving the euro as much as on issues around integration of France’s Muslim population. In the Greek election, the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party, considered by many to be neo-Nazi, managed to get MPs elected for the first time on an anti-immigration platform, while Syriza, a left-wing alliance, did well by blaming bankers for Greece’s problems.

But across Europe, voters are also rejecting conventional politics and politicians, left and right. In Italy’s recent local elections, the Five Star Movement, led by former comedian, Beppe Grillo, who supports Italy’s leaving the euro, garnered almost a fifth of the vote in some cities and won the Mayoralty of Parma, while in Germany the Pirate Party, which campaigns for internet freedom, got almost 8 percent in the North Rhine-Westphalia state election in Germany on May 13th.  

Anti-immigrant parties, focusing especially on the growing Muslim populations in many European countries, attract more support, even in the traditionally liberal Nordic countries. Last year, the Danish People’s Party scored 12 percent in national elections, while the True Finns party got nearly a fifth of the vote in parliamentary polls. In Norway, anti-immigrant politics became linked with mass murder after far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik, now on trial, described the killing of 77 people in shooting and bomb attacks as a “political attack” and “revolutionary nationalism,” to save Norway from being taken over by Muslims.

Support for right-wing anti-immigration parties in Europe depends on which country is examined.

In contrast to France and the Nordic countries, parties that focus on the place of Muslims in society and immigration controls may have peaked in other countries. In the Netherlands, which faces early elections in September, recent opinion polls show a fall in support for the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, who shot to prominence four years ago by denouncing Islam and its influence in his country. In the UK, the British National Party did poorly in May local elections.

So perhaps a neglected outcome of the French and Greek elections is the tension exposed between democracy and the interests of financial capitalism.

The markets have reacted negatively to the good showing of parties opposed to austerity. The value of euro fell 15 percent against the US dollar in the two weeks following the French and Greek votes, and the cost of government borrowing in several countries, such as Spain, is rising again. Many European commentators and politicians are urging Greeks to be “rational” in the new election, suggesting that they heed the markets’ messages and support parties that signed up for the austerity measures, conditions for the EU and IMF bailouts that calmed markets and relieved pressure on the euro when agreed to earlier this year.

History suggests that Greek voters cannot defy the markets, even if they vote against austerity once again on June 17th. Political leaders usually end up doing what they think the markets want. But that could provoke more protests, particularly in Greece where there has already been violence between demonstrators and police.

Democracy in Europe is facing a challenge. And some see it coming less from parties of the far-right or far-left and more from the interests of financial capital as expressed in the markets.

Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program. The author will field readers’ questions for a week after the publication date.

Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization