It is becoming clear that the roots of the euro crisis are political rather than economic. The 2008 financial meltdown may well give birth to one of the great moments of political realignment where mainstream parties are being pushed to the sidelines and parties that used to skulk on the fringes are dominating the agenda.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger declared “I’ll be back” at the end of the first Terminator film, very few thought he was talking about returning to Austria. Yet here in Vienna, where Schwarzenegger made a surprise trip this week, there is speculation that his political career will be resurrected – Lazarus-like – in his abandoned homeland. And if he does take the leap, the Terminator could find himself playing a walk-on part in the most grandiose story of his career: the breakdown of the postwar European political order.
The talk is that Schwarzenegger could be one of the most visible faces supporting a putative new “Alliance for Austria” party that is being planned. The man behind it is the expatriate self-made billionaire Frank Stronach, who has pledged to launch a revolution in this placid corner of Central Europe. Last month he released a glossy eight-page personal manifesto that starts with the memorable phrase “unhappily, government is made up of politicians.” Pledging to rectify this anomaly, he talks about instituting lotteries that will allow ordinary people to suggest topics for parliament to debate, introducing a flat tax, and scrapping all corporate taxation for companies that invest in Austria.
According to the Austrian magazine News, Stronach has not yet decided whether to launch a brand-new party or effectively to buy the existing BZO party (a more moderate breakaway from the neo-fascist Freedom Party) by making a big enough donation. Apparently the former would cost 20 million euros, while the latter would be cheaper at 7 million. Stronach hopes to capture up to 20 percent of the vote, which would be the biggest political upset to hit this country since Jörg Haider’s party won a shock victory in the 1999 general election.
The entrepreneurial Stronach has spotted a potential niche in the political market, one that is being exploited across Europe. The mainstream parties that have driven European integration are struggling. Since the beginning of the crisis, there has been regime change in 11 European countries. With the exception of Fredrik Reinfeldt’s center-right government in Sweden, which has presided over an unlikely period of growth, every incumbent that has sought re-election has lost.
The Netherlands – another well-to-do northern European country that used to be a symbol of cozy elite consensus – is also a cauldron of discontent with its politics being remade. Since 2005, the traditional right-wing parties have been eclipsed by the maverick breakaway faction of Geert Wilders (the PVV), which has set the terms of the Dutch debate. Now the same dynamic is taking hold on the left, with Emile Roemer’s hard-left Socialist Party overtaking the traditional Dutch Labor Party (the PvDA) in the opinion polls. Marietje Schaake, a fiercely bright member of the European Parliament from the centrist D66 party, points to a dramatic shift in the concerns of Dutch populism. “The PVV’s support was shrinking because Wilders was not seen to be delivering and people were tiring of his rhetoric on Islam,” she told me in a telephone interview. “But the crisis was a blessing for him – he is moving from Muslim-bashing to attacking Europe.”
The Dutch situation is being echoed across the continent. In Finland the populist, anti-European “Finns” Party (formerly the True Finns) is as big as any of the mainstream parties, and a six-party coalition, ranging from the socialist left to the greens to the conservatives, has huddled together in a government to keep them out of office. In Italy, the comedian Beppe Grillo is at 20 percent in the polls; in Ireland, Sinn Fein is now the second-biggest party in opinion polls; in Greece, radical Syriza has replaced the once-mighty Pasok as the main party of the left.
Even in countries where the electoral system prevents new parties from getting much representation, they are increasingly making the weather. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Left Front got a combined 29 percent of the vote in the presidential elections (though the electoral system stopped them from translating support into seats in the parliamentary elections that followed). And in Britain, though the anti-EU UK Independence party is only at 7 percent in the polls, it threatens to come in second in next year’s euro elections.
As power shifts, so does policy. “We are scared shitless,” a Finnish cabinet minister told me. “The only way we can deal with the True Finns is to clone them.” This is why “pro-European” governments in Finland and the Netherlands are counterintuitively threatening to block the EU bailout fund; the “sensible” Greek New Democracy party is echoing Syriza’s call for a renegotiation of the austerity package; and the British Labour and Conservative parties are edging toward calling for a referendum on EU membership that they would both love to avoid. How else to shore up their credentials against the insurgent parties? In a new political order where elites have lost their freedom of action, will it be possible for the EU to take any decisions at all, including ones designed to save the system from collapse?
At the turn of the century, the late political scientist Peter Mair pointed to a void that had opened where traditional politics used to be. While citizens have retreated from the political sphere into their private lives, the parties that used to be embedded in civic life have become mere appendages of the state (a “governing class” that seeks office rather than a chance to represent ideas or groups in society). It is this void that the new parties are trying to fill and – so far at least – succeeding. They are recasting politics as a dispute between elites and the people, and are rediscovering the forgotten roles of opposition and expression (in fact some parties such as Greece’s Syriza and the Dutch PVV have gone to great lengths to avoid going into government).
It is becoming clear that the roots of the euro crisis are political rather than economic. The 2008 financial meltdown may well give birth to one of the great moments of political realignment – bigger even than 1917, 1945 or 1989. Europe’s governing class will hope that the new forces in Europe will implode once they are forced into power – but as Arnie’s Terminator films showed, a destructive force, once unleashed, can be nearly impossible to destroy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.