Europe in no mood to abandon democratic ideal
EUROPE’S ECONOMY and its geopolitical order are in crisis. Unemployment, austerity and tensions among states have led many observers to claim that political conditions across the continent are coming to resemble those of the 1930s. That claim is mostly wrong.
Thus far, the political centre has held almost everywhere. What is remarkable is not the rise of extremism, but how rare it has been given the depth and duration of the crises.
Nowhere have fears about the rise of extremism been greater than in France. In April during the first round of the presidential election the radical fringes made big gains. But as there was never the slightest possibility that anyone other than one of the two mainstream candidates would become president, there were no consequences of voting for extremists in that poll.
June’s parliamentary elections were different. If in that poll the extremists had replicated their performance in the first round of the presidential election they would have packed the legislature in Paris in unprecedented numbers. But voters shunned them when it came to the crunch. Marine Le Pen’s reactionary Front National won just two seats in the 577-seat lower house. The mainstream centre-left and centre-right blocs together won 560 seats.
South of the Pyrenees economic conditions have been very much worse than in France. In Spain one in four people is out of work and fresh austerity measures are announced almost monthly.
Yet last November’s general election produced a boringly straightforward switch from the centre-left to centre-right. With the exception of some increase in support (from 4 to 7 per cent) for the hardline United Left party, the extremes made no gains on the 2007 election.
More widely, regional autonomy disputes have not flared up, a large newly arrived immigrant population has not been scapegoated and when protesters have taken to the streets they have done so peacefully in most cases.
Iberia’s second state has been suffering more chronic, if less acute, economic pain than Spain. Portugal has been the slowest growing economy in western Europe for more than a decade. Its last election took place 15 months ago just as the country was reduced to seeking an EU-IMF bailout. The governing centre-left party shed nine percentage points of the vote compared to the previous election. The victorious centre right added 10 percentage points. There was no increase in support for the extremes or sign of any desire among the Portuguese for a return to old authoritarian ways.
The Republic’s economic shock has been greater than that which affected either of the Iberian states. But when the last general election took place just two months before Portugal’s and five months after an EU-IMF bailout, Sinn Féin’s support rose from 7 per cent in the 2007 election to just 10 per cent. It has since surged in opinion polls, but in polls that count Sinn Féin has been less successful. Its candidate in the 2011 presidential election was beaten into third place and voters roundly rejected its advice on the fiscal treaty.
Italy, unlike most of its Mediterranean neighbours, has thus far avoided external assistance. But much like Portugal, it had been suffering a protracted slump even before 2008. Now a weak economy is dipping back into recession. However, by far the biggest political effect of the economic crisis has been anti-political. The Five Star movement of internet activist Beppe Grillo came from nowhere in May’s local elections and is impossible to place on the political spectrum. But while Grillo advocates extreme economic options – exit from the euro and default on the state’s debts – there is no sign that he or his movement oppose democracy’s basic tenets.