The European Conundrum

With last week’s elections, commentators are heralding the “end of Europe,” but the evidence tells a different story.

Pietro Naj-Oleari / European Parliament

Everyone has something sweeping to say about last week’s European elections. And, indeed, from a glance, it’s easy to make pronouncements about the state of politics on the continent. Most emphasize mass abstention, the rise of far-right Eurosceptic parties that oppose the EU, the crisis of social democracy, even some gains by the radical left.

A careful look at the data, however, invites more caution. The most important questions to be raised are whether these elections unequivocally show an increasing disaffection of citizens towards the project of the European Union and whether the European political establishment is facing a deep and general crisis.

My answer on both counts is no: the electoral results show a growing discontent caused by the five year-long poisonous combination of austerity and crisis, but this is not sufficient to speak of a deep political instability and even less of a legitimacy crisis. Moreover, except for the rise of eurosceptic parties, it is difficult to identify a strong common trend. The results seem to largely be the outcome of diverse political dynamics in each country.

To understand the elections, we should do something rare among the chattering classes: start with the data. For example, the rate of electoral participation and its trend in the last decades contrast claims that mass abstention is proof of the EU’s increasing loss of political legitimacy. Despite predictions of a collapse due to the increasing disaffection of European citizens towards the European Union and its institutions, voter participation has been significantly higher than expected (43%).

In fact, the last elections have been the first ones since 1979 in which the trend of declining voter participation has reached a halt. This has been due in particular to the rate of voter participation in some of the largest countries. Massive abstention at these elections can hardly be proof of a growing loss of EU legitimacy — not only because voting rates are steady, but also because this halt to the trend of declining voter participation cannot be explained only through the strong presence and affirmation of eurosceptic electoral lists.

While it is true that among some countries with the largest eurosceptic forces there is an increase in electoral participation — for example, in France (+2.9%), UK (+1.5%), Greece (+5.6%), and Lithuania (+23.9%) — this is not the case for Italy (-7.7%), Denmark (-3.1%), or Hungary (-7.4%). In the case of Germany, the increase could even be connected to a growth of a consensus in favor of the European Union and satisfied with the domestic economic situation. Moreover, from 2007 to 2014, the fall in the level of support for the euro has been relatively modest: from 69% to 66%.

It would, therefore, be more prudent to speak of a plurality of factors that have impacted voters’ behavior in various countries. We can identify at least three of them: the rise of eurosceptic forces, mostly on the far-right; the presence of radical left organizations that have managed to express a strong opposition to austerity policies, a factor that has been decisive in countries such as Spain and Greece; and finally, an increase in trust towards governing parties that have taken a critical stance towards an excessively rigid interpretation of the fiscal compact and have advocated for a new season of taxes cuts and public spending.

These three factors hold different sway depending on the situation in each country.

A similar variety of situations characterizes the electoral results. Take the EU’s five biggest countries: the severe defeat of the Tories in UK and of the Socialist Party in France, both soundly beaten by the two rising right-wing eurosceptic parties, UKIP and Front National (FN), has drawn much of the public attention. But this has obscured the fact that in Germany and Italy, the two countries led by a Grand Coalition government, the electoral results seem, on the contrary, to indicate a renewed trust for the governing parties.

Despite significant growth in voter participation, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) managed to maintain a stable position, winning 30% of vote. But the party that took advantage of the larger electoral participation, winning 2.5 million votes more than in 2009, is the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which got 27.3%.

In Italy, the Democratic Party (PD) was the protagonist of an astonishing recovery. Only a few months ago it was shaken by a deep leadership crisis, which then led to the rise of Matteo Renzi first as leader of the party and then as new prime minister. And just a year ago Italian voters seemed to be losing any trust in governing and traditional parties and in the political system as a whole, and the rise of the Five Star Movement, the new anti-establishment, populist and post-ideological formation guided by former comedian Beppe Grillo seemed irresistible.

On the contrary, on Sunday both Berlusconi and the Five Stars Movement were soundly beaten: the PD gained three million more votes than in 2009 and 2.5 million more votes than in the national election of 2013, reaching an impressive 41%.

Finally, in Spain the governing conservative People’s Party (PP) got only 26% of votes (against 42.1% in 2009) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) got only 23% (against 38.8% in 2009). Contrary to UK and France, however, the opposition to the austerity policies implemented by the EU and the Spanish government has favored not right-wing eurosceptic parties, but rather left-wing coalitions: United Left (IU), which won 9.9% of votes (compared to 3.7% of 2009) and Podemos.

The latter is one of the biggest and most encouraging surprises of these elections: Podemos is a new embryonic political organization, based on grassroots participation and inspired by the indignados movement, that managed to win an astonishing 7.96%.

If we look at the aggregate results, the claim that these elections show the European social democracy’s further loss of support seems to be ungrounded. Of course, one may contend that the social-democratic label does not apply anymore to parties such as the Italian Democrats, and one might question what we mean by “European social democracy” today. And granted, in France and Greece the center-left has collapsed.

However, on a European level the real loser of the elections are center-right parties: the European People’s Party (EPP) fell from 35.8% to 28.4% of the seats, while the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) had their share hold steady: 25.4% (it was 25.6% in 2009).

If there is a common trend in these elections, it is the rise of forces that are strongly critical of the European Union. “Eurosceptic”, however, is a wide and ambiguous umbrella category covering political forces as diverse as the Five Star Movement in Italy (21.1%) and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece (9.4%). Nationalist, xenophobic and Islamophobic far-right parties litter the European landscape. Beyond just Golden Dawn, there’s Jobbik in Hungary (14.7%), the Swedish Democrats (9.7%), the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands (13.2%), Freedom Party in Austria (19.5%), Vlaams Belang in Belgium (4.2%), Northern League in Italy (6.1%), Finns Party in Finland (12.9%).

This definition, however, does not so easily apply to other right-wing and reactionary formations such as UKIP in the United Kingdom (27%), the newly formed Alternative for Germany (7%), the libertarian Party of Free Citizens in the Czech Republic (5.2%), or the populist People’s Party in Denmark (26.6%).

In the last period, Marine Le Pen has carried on a significant restyling of the Front National. Without entirely breaking with the fascist inheritance of her party, she has consistently pursued its partial institutional normalization and focused the electoral campaign on a combination of Islamophobic and anti-immigrant policies, economic protectionism, and opposition to austerity and to the loss of French national sovereignty.

This blend managed to convince a large part of working-class and young voters, but as a matter of fact only one in five FN voters declared that they opposed the EU. Being the major winner of these elections, in the days after the vote Marine Le Pen launched the idea of regrouping the eurosceptics of the European Parliament under the FN leadership. However, UKIP, Finns Party, the Danish People’s Party, and Alternative for Germany have declined the invitation, judging a regroupment with the FN out of question, while the FN itself refuses any official association with the neo-Nazi Jobbik and Golden Dawn parties.

Finally, on the Left, the GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) won 5.6% of the seats, 1% more than in 2009. The most promising and positive results are certainly those of Greece, where Syriza won the ballot with 26.6%, creating the conditions for a call for anticipated national elections in the fall, and in Spain, with the rise of IU and Podemos. Another interesting novelty is the affirmation of the Swedish feminist and anti-racist organization (Feminist Initiative) created in 2005, which won 5.3% of the votes.

Less reassuring are the outcomes in France and Germany. The French Front de Gauche (FG) paid for the choices and behavior of the Communist Party (PCF). At the local elections of some months ago, the PCF decided to privilege its alliance with the Socialist Party over its involvement in the FG, causing a major crisis within the left-wing coalition. The ambiguous association of the PCF with the Socialists hurt the FG, in an election characterized by a vote of protest addressed mainly against the inept Socialist administration of François Hollande.

While the FN stormed among working-class voters, the FG did not manage to attract disappointed socialist voters, getting only 6.3% of the vote. In Germany, Die Linke did not manage to grow in comparison with the 2009 elections, winning basically the same score: 7.4%. Finally, the anticapitalist left in France, Greece, and Portugal got disappointing results: Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste and Antarsya are under one percent and the Portuguese Bloco de Esquerda got only 4.6%, dropping a full 6% compared to their 2009 total.

What does this data all mean?

While it is certainly true that this vote expressed a clear discontent about the deterioration of conditions of life caused by the combination of crisis and austerity policies across Europe, the political translation of this discontent varies according to the different national situations. As I suggested earlier, we can identify three different political translations of this discontent: rising support to far-right or populist anti-Euro parties; rise of left-wing opposition to austerity policies; and renewed trust in governing or establishment political parties that have expressed the intention of interpreting the fiscal compact in a looser and more flexible way.

It would be a mistake to think that the main outcome of these elections is simply a vertical crisis of governing and pro-Euro parties, and it would be an even greater mistake to think that the most important match in the next months will be the one played between the formations of the radical left, on the one hand, and those of the far-right, on the other. While this scenario may partially apply to some countries, such as France, it does not apply so easily to the European situation in general.

Germany and Italy’s electoral results should be taken seriously. The Italian Democratic Party, which has now thirty-one seats in the European Parliament (only three less than the German CDU), will most likely play a major role in the coming months, due to the collapse of the French Socialist Party. Moreover, starting from July, Italy will have the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months.

The success of the Democratic Party is due to a combination of various factors, some of which are peculiar to the Italian political landscape. One of the factors, however, is particularly relevant for the European scenario: Matteo Renzi, the new leader of the party and prime minister, has taken a critical stance towards a rigid application of the fiscal compact. As Perry Anderson noticed in a recent article on “The Italian Disaster”:

[H]is opening package of social measures combines legislation making it so easy for new workers to be fired that even the Economist has raised its eyebrows, with a handout of €1,000 tax cuts to the least well-paid, unabashedly presented as a plum for the polls.

Italian voters proved to be sensitive to the idea of bending EU rules, partially redistributing income, while at the same time not questioning the EU neoliberal paradigm, including a further de-regularization of the labor market.

Could this become the European Commission’s response to the threat of a legitimacy and anti-European crisis? And is there a space for an increase of public spending and a policy of partial expansive reforms? This is likely to become the open question of the coming months.

In the meantime, on Monday, one day after the election, the President of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, declared that the electoral results are worrying and that the moment has arrived to give concrete answers to the European citizens. He will likely release further press statements in the coming days, and on June 5 the ECB might announce not only the cutting of interest rates, but also a bond-buying program, with no conditionality attached, to supposedly avoid deflation, overcome credit constraints, and support economic growth.

Finally, the second likely scenario will be a further drift of democracy into technocratic soft despotism. The European Parliament has already quite limited decisional powers relative to the European Commission and the European Council. The current presence of 143 eurosceptic representatives and forty-two members of the GUE in the Parliament will likely push the governing parties to a further displacement of decisional power to the Commission and the ECB, particularly in a situation as complex as that of the next months, which include the negotiations on the TTIP (Trade Transatlantic Investment Partnership) between US and EU.

A significant event in the coming months will be the summit of the European heads of states on youth employment, which will take place on July 11 in Turin, Italy. This may become an important occasion for a discussion among governments on a new course of European policies: a greater flexibility in the application of the fiscal compact and in public spending combined with a further erosion of social and labor rights.

A network of Italian and German political and social organizations is already organizing a day of protest against the summit. This might be the first opportunity for the Left to forcefully oppose this new course.

Finally, Podemos’s surprising electoral success in Spain should be taken as an important lesson for the European Left. We will have to confront a complex situation combining rise of nationalist and populist parties, a possible reformulation of European economic policies capable of institutional stabilization, and a further drift to new forms of technocratic authoritarianism.

The combination of social conflict and radical democracy should not only be a key goal of the Left, but also the “way of life” for all radical formations. As Perry Anderson wrote, “Europe is ill.” And we’re the only ones who can cure the disease.