World

Europe's compromised political centre bleeds left and right

Ian Traynor

A lack of trust in the mainstream leadership is driving EU voters to look at more radical options in this week's polls.

The Soviet Army monument in Sofia is illuminated with the European Union symbol. The Ukrainian crisis has sharply divided Bulgarians. (AFP)

Josef Höppinger is an increasingly rare type among European voters: he never changes. “I’m a worker. I vote socialist. Always,” said the 81-year-old retired plumber. But he thinks the governing Social Democrats of Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, will suffer badly when Europe goes to the ballot box this week.

“You’ve got all these scandals with the banks, all the sleaze and corruption. The big parties will get weaker, not stronger.”

Höppinger has lived all his life in the centre of “Red Vienna”, a city run by the Social Democrats. His home is in Karl Marx-Hof, the expressionist workers’ fortress that was Europe’s pioneering experiment in social housing in the 1920s and then a battleground in the civil war of 1934, when the left lost to the pre-Hitler Austro-fascists.

The complex still houses 5 000 people in 1 400 flats. But it is no longer a vibrant, cohesive community guaranteed to vote for the left. Rather, it is a multiethnic mixture of immigrants and poor Viennese, many of them unemployed, making it a fertile hunting ground for the far-right Freedom Party of Heinz-Christian Strache: anti-European Union, anti-immigration, anti-Muslim.

“You have areas here that are 70% immigrant and 30% Austrian,” said Rudolf (61), declining to give his surname. “I have got nothing against immigrants, but it’s a big problem in Vienna. Strache might not be electable but he is very strong here. The old parties just don’t seem to have the answers any more. They have been there for a very long time but now they are getting more competition. The Social Democrats will lose. Everything is in flux.”

Detached and remote
Not only in Vienna. As the European Union braces itself this week for four days of polling to send 751 MEPs (members of the European Parliament) to Strasbourg and Brussels from 28 countries, the temper of the union is one of sullen anger and frustration with a mainstream political class seen as detached and remote, incompetent and venal, and often illegitimate.

The results are certain to bring a bonanza for tub-thumping mavericks and radicals on the extreme right and the far left, with the traditional parties of the centre right and centre left haemorrhaging support to the fringes. “We see the risks from these fringe groups being represented in the Parliament,” said Anthony Gardner, the United States ambassador to the EU.

Simon Hix, European politics professor at the London School of Economics, said: “What’s happening all across Europe is a decline of mainstream political parties, a fragmentation of the vote on the centre left and the centre right. The social democrats have lost the connection to lower-income voters by not producing jobs and squeezing public spending. There’s a failure to generate jobs outside the big urban centres. The decline of manufacturing is replaced by service jobs in capital cities, doing nothing for the white underclass in Salford or Marseilles. And the centre right [have] lost the rural conservatives because of their different metropolitan values and the perception they’ve been captured by big business.”

The period between this week’s vote and the last European election, in 2009, has been the EU’s worst ever. The union’s crowning achievement, the single currency, almost disappeared under the pressure of a banking and sovereign debt crisis that threatened to tear the EU apart.

Five countries – Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – were brought to their knees. Big questions, still unanswered, were raised about France and Italy, the eurozone’s second- and third-largest economies. German-prescribed austerity and spending cuts were administered on a grand scale. Hundreds of billions were poured into a rotten banking sector whose reckless lending policies did much to create the crisis in the first place. The tensions and resentments brought a resurgence of nationalism in Europe. Youth unemployment soared to more than 25%, and to 50% in Spain and Greece.

If the currency has been saved, the political price has been very high. On the eve of the elections, the EU is staring at years of stagnation and relative decline, increasingly unable to compete globally, to sustain its social and welfare systems, and to generate growth and jobs.

Lost faith
“Europe is in a mess. Our economies are failing to deliver higher living standards for most people and many have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver a brighter future, with support for extremists soaring,” wrote Philippe Legrain, a former adviser to the head of the European Commission and the author of a recent book on the crisis, last week.

“After the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, the recovery is the flimsiest on record. Much of Europe remains lumbered with broken banks and crushing debts. Most of Europe suffers from record low investment and feeble productivity growth. All of Europe is ageing fast. Depressingly, most Europeans think younger generations will have a worse life than they do.”

And when things seemed irredeemably bleak, along came Russian President Vladimir Putin, invading and destabilising Ukraine, unilaterally redrawing the map of Europe on the EU’s frontier, and challenging its leaders to stop him.

“If you listen to Putin, there’s only contempt for Europe,” said Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. “Europe has been living in a postmodern illusion: that everyone wants the same as we do, but just wants to get there at different speeds. That’s just not true any more.”

One of the EU’s top diplomats sounds desperate: “We don’t have a coherent strategic view and Putin is taking advantage of our shortcomings. What kind of European order do we want? If we cannot give straightforward answers as to what we want to do, you give everything to the populists.”

Mavericks and radicals
In London, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Brussels and The Hague, the term “populist” is the hold-your-nose form of abuse for the anti-European mavericks and radicals riding high in the polls, beneficiaries of the collapse of public confidence in Europe’s political elites – figures such as Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Strache in Austria, all of whom are tipped either to win or to come a close second in the elections in their respective countries.

“We talk about them but never with them,” said Ivan Krastev, a liberal Bulgarian political scientist. “That will be different after these elections. You have a sclerotic political system and a resentment of elites. You have a democracy of mistrust.”

Besides, European populism is far from a fringe phenomenon. The mainstream centre right, the dominant force in European politics for the past decade, has included Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in recent years, all of them proud populists.

Hix argues that Europe’s leaders are making a big mistake by ignoring the anti-European insurgents. They are not going away. The new European Parliament is likely to return three blocs of MEPs, about 150 in total, to the right of the mainstream conservatives. They veer from the eurosceptical British and Polish conservatives to the outright Europe rejectionists of France’s National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party.

Then there is the often anti-EU hard left, which is likely to do well and supplant the Greens as the fourth-biggest bloc in the new Parliament. It will do creditably in Germany, where Die Linke is now the main opposition party to Angela Merkel’s coalition of Christian and Social Democrats, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and most of all in Greece, where Europe’s leftist firebrand, Alexis Tsipras, is tipped to win the election.

“It’s good for the European Parliament that these populists get elected. They represent the real views of Europeans,” said Hix. “There is greater competition for low-skilled jobs. It’s healthy and legitimate and the mainstream parties are forced to respond. But it’s very difficult for the mainstream parties to get it.”

Primacy of nation states
The conclusion frequently drawn from the rise of the europhobes is that the EU is in the grip of an anti-Brussels insurgency as the primacy of the nation states of Europe is reaffirmed. But that conclusion is belied by the opinion polls, which show that public confidence in traditional political elites has eroded severely wherever they are found in Europe.

A Eurobarometer survey unveiled on Monday found that trust in the EU has fallen steeply to 31% from 57% in 2007. But the same poll found that trust in national parliaments and governments is much lower, at 25% and 23%, and has been consistently lower than faith in the EU for all of the past decade.

This may be because, the UK apart, most countries have historically sought salvation in the EU from their own failed political elites and systems. For the Germans, the EU brought rehabilitation from the Nazi shame. For the French, Italians and others, the EU brought recovery from the trauma of Nazi occupation and collaboration. For Spain, Portugal and Greece, the EU secured democracy and helped to banish military dictatorships. For the East Europeans, the EU provided an escape channel from the clutches of communism and Soviet control. The hope of securing respite in the EU from corrupt and discredited national elites still obtains in the Balkans and in Ukraine.

The UK is the exception, because fighting Hitler was its finest hour and because it has traditionally viewed Europe as a source of trouble rather than trust. But those times may be over. “For many member states, the EU was a scaffolding. But now it’s become a cage,” said Brigid Laffan, the director of the global governance programme at the European University Institute in Florence.

Poland’s Sikorski said: “The EU had it easy for many years because we in Central Europe were obsessed with rejoining Europe. We’ve reached the limits of that.” EU leaders continue to invoke history to bolster the argument for “more Europe”. But in the age of austerity, of slashed budgets, of wrenching reforms and of mass unemployment, recession and stagnation, the arguments have less and less traction if the EU’s leaders are not delivering.

Completely irresponsible
“The problem is not the eurosceptics,” said Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister. “The problem is the mainstream parties. Completely irresponsible. What makes the eurosceptics so strong? They’re strong because they are managing the emotions and we are not. It’s hard to counter their arguments.”

The mainstream counterarguments are essentially inaudible. Take immigration, a sensitive and emotive topic dominating an agenda set by Farage, Le Pen and Wilders.

On the centre left and the centre right, an immigration debate is being avoided, leaving the stage to those who shout loudest. Last October, when more than 300 refugees from North Africa drowned off the coast of Lampedusa in Italy, there was an outcry as an EU summit approached. Europe’s national leaders opted to shelve the issue.  

Herman van Rompuy, the European Council president chairing the summit, scratched the topic from the agenda and arranged to have immigration up for debate at a summit at the end of next month. Why? Because, senior officials in Brussels said, EU leaders did not want to trigger arguments about immigration before the elections for fear of boosting the anti-immigrant campaigners. For the centre right in Britain, Germany and elsewhere, the response to the immigration controversy has been to try to appease the far right’s supporters by talking about curbs on freedom of movement, clampdowns on alleged benefits tourism and tighter border controls.

The centre right or Christian democrats have been the ascendant force in Europe in recent years and are predicted to win the elections very narrowly, but at the price of forfeiting about 60 seats, which would also make them the biggest losers.

The mainstream centre left or social democrats have been gaining over the past three years. They now run France, Italy and Denmark and are in coalition in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, and are tipped to win in Sweden in September. But in March, France’s ruling Socialists collapsed in local elections and the Dutch Labour Party fell to 10%, losing control of its traditional power bases in the seaboard cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and in Groningen.

Failure to maintain appeal
The fragmentation that is part of the current European political fabric was graphically displayed and could not be ascribed to the Wilders insurgency. About 30% cast their ballots for new local and regional campaigners, highlighting the failure of the mainstream to maintain its appeal.

The centre left has opted to keep generally quiet on immigration even though it may be the key to its central dilemma – how to secure welfare systems for its traditional constituencies in a time of low-growth austerity and neoliberalism.

“The traditional parties have no real answers on immigration,” said Ania Skrzypek, a Polish political scientist who helped to draft the European social democrats’ election programme. “For us, the main issue is about preserving the European social model. People feel the welfare state is not delivering. In Western Europe, many think the welfare systems are not sustainable. We just can’t afford them. Migration is the answer. We have some answers but we don’t proclaim them.”

There is very little evidence in the academic analysis suggesting that migration within the EU has done anything other than bolster the welfare and pension systems of the host countries, with migrants generally contributing more in taxes than they take out in benefits.

Rainer Muenz, a leading European demographer, argues that immigration is essential in a greying Europe but that Europe’s leaders have been asleep at the wheel. The next generation will be 25% smaller than the current one, with huge holes opening up in an EU labour market of 240-million, just under half the population of 505-million.

His research concludes that extending retirement ages by a decade will fail to plug the gap and that it is already too late to bring in the numbers of migrants needed in ways that would be politically acceptable. “The options on the table are not attractive for politicians – more migrants, later retirement and unemployment. Plus, a majority of voters will be over 50,” he said.

Masking
Laffan said: “Europe has a huge demographic challenge. It’s hard to cope with it politically, but if you analyse it you have to concede that we need inward immigration. But too much is done behind a veil. There’s a lot of masking of a big part of the system. That degrades European politics.”

The “masking” extends above all to the handling of the euro emergency and the triumph of technocracy over democracy in four years of crisis management.

A senior Spanish politician points out how difficult it was to campaign for office and be taken seriously when budget, spending and fiscal policies were being decided elsewhere by a troika of anonymous men in suits from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “The voters are not stupid. They know you cannot deliver on what you’re telling them. They don’t believe you. You lose legitimacy,” he said.

Laffan said: “It’s the politics of constrained choice. You need to tell the public that. But the leaders have been in denial. There’s a lot of dissembling, politics by stealth. It drains politics of credibility.”

That’s a view commonly held among policymakers and senior officials in Brussels. “Our government is not credible any more,” said an ambassador of one member state in Brussels. “You have to tell people things they don’t like. If you don’t, you get a populist party. You need to let people benefit from the new Europe and it’s not happening.”

Another ambassador from a large member state said of the elections: “It will be a pretty large populist revolt against elites. There’s a very real risk that the barbarians are at the gates and that the gates will be closed. The risk is of complacency.”

In Karl Marx-Hof, Höppinger noted that he was born in Vienna the year that the Austro-fascists were shelling the housing complex he has lived in for decades. Their heirs, he said, are back. “Strache does a lot of shouting, but he doesn’t have any answers. But people are voting for him.”   – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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