Stephen Collins: A spectre is haunting Europe . . .

Tactical alliance between far right and far left a precursor to Europe’s darkest moments

 European Council President Donald Tusk:  “I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis”. Photograph:  EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

European Council President Donald Tusk: “I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis”. Photograph: EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

 

A spectre is haunting Europe following the economic and financial upheavals of recent years and that spectre is political chaos. In Ireland it is evidenced in a succession of opinion polls over the past year and more which have shown almost half of voters deserting the traditional three parties of government.

Unless there is a dramatic shift back to the centre by the time the election comes around the formation of the next government will prove extremely difficult if not impossible. At this stage it is difficult to see how a period of serious instability can be avoided and there is a real prospect of a second or even a third election being required to sort it all out. What impact that will have on the country’s economic recovery is difficult to estimate, but it will hardly be positive.

Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who chairs European Union summits as president of the European Council, said recently he feared political contagion from the Greek crisis far more than its financial fallout.

He pointed out that the emergence of a common cause between far-right and far-left groups had been a precursor to some of Europe’s darkest moments over the past century.

“I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis,” Tusk told the Financial Times. “It was always the same game before the biggest tragedies in our European history, this tactical alliance between radicals from all sides. Today, for sure, we can observe the same political phenomenon.”

Tactical alliance

GreeceShane Ross

Radicals from the left and right fringes of politics have come together in the country before, most notably in the EU referendum campaigns. They helped to defeat of the Nice and Lisbon treaties the first time around.

The extremes were kept in check at the last election because Fine Gael and the Labour Party rode the wave of discontent at Fianna Fáil’s economic mismanagement and the harsh measure that were necessary to save the country from ruin.

Those measures ultimately paid off and paved the way for a remarkable economic recovery, as the latest set of economic growth figures from the Central Statistics Office have shown. However, it does not appear that Fianna Fáil, or the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition that succeeded it, is being given much credit by the voters for the economic turnaround.

That may change when the election comes around and people are presented with the challenge of choosing a government but there is no guarantee of that happening. Anger and discontent may prove more potent forces in an election campaign than arguments about the need for political stability to ensure the recovery continues.

To some extent the rise in support for Sinn Féin, small, left-wing parties and a range of Independents is a natural outcome of the collapse in the Fianna Fáil vote at the last election. At every election between 1932 and 2007 Fianna Fáil won about 40 per cent of the vote, sometimes closer to 50 per cent. When its support imploded in 2011 it won just 17 per cent and has struggled to get back over 20 per cent. In 2011 Fine Gael and Labour each picked up a chunk of the Fianna Fáil vote bringing both of them to record highs. Since then Fine Gael has dropped back towards its long-term average while Labour has slumped lower than its traditional vote share.

So it is hardly a huge surprise that Sinn Féin and others have stepped into the wide gap left by the Fianna Fáil collapse.

This pattern is manifesting itself all over Europe as the traditional centre ground is hollowed out. The emergence of the hard-left Syriza has been followed by the rise of Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Simultaneously, right-wing populist parties have grown powerful in France, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary and other eastern European countries.

The rise in extremism at national level was reflected in last year’s European elections with the parliament in Strasbourg having a much stronger representation of far-right and left groups than before. The ecstatic reception given to Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras by so many members of the European Parliament a few weeks ago, despite his gross mishandling of his country’s affairs, prompted Tusk’s reflections on the state of politics in Europe.

“It was the first time I saw radicals with such emotion, in this context anti-German emotion. It was almost half of the European Parliament. This is why I think nobody, but in particular Germany, are political winners in this process.”

As a Pole, Tusk knows all about the disastrous impact of Marxist ideology on people’s lives. He expressed concern at the way far-left leaders were pressing to cast aside traditional European values and the liberal, market-based principles that have served the EU in good stead.

“For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe,” he said. “I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience of feeling, this is the introduction for revolutions.”

The next year or two will tell whether Tusk is right to be so worried about Europe’s future.

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