Opinions - 19.08.2013 - 00:00
2 September 2013. A summer ago, for a moment, it looked like Europe would split into two camps over the policies to confront the deepest economic and financial crisis since World War II threatening the most ambition project to unite Europe. On one side stood “austerity”, in the wake of German positions pushed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet. On the other side stood “growth”. The German federal election of 2013 was awaited eagerly as the catalyst for this confrontation.
Elections in neighbour countries
The expectation that this election would provide the stage for such a momentous opposition was reinforced by elections in other countries. In France presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 had been fought on topics of economic growth against austerity packages stitched together by the European Commission and the IMF for Greece and other troubled countries of Eurozone’s periphery. In Italy the campaign for the parliamentary election earlier this year has been fought over savings and cuts by the technocratic Monti cabinet. Many observers expected the German campaign to display the same division on the fundamental economic and financial crisis that Europe currently faces.
Surprisingly, however, this is not the case. The German campaign only marginally includes challenges to the current Euro-crisis policies of the Merkel cabinet. Rather, the campaign has so far privileged themes around family policies and US intelligence issues. The German electorate, like the main political parties, is not divided between austerity vs. growth camps. Polls show strong support for the CDU-led coalition and a victory by the Chancellor’s party is taken for granted at this stage. Further, while in most Eurozone countries incumbents have been blamed by electorates for their managing of the crisis (most spectacularly in France with the missed re-election of former President Sarkozy, but also in Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain and elsewhere), in Germany the incumbent cabinet looks set for re-election.
Populism as element of instability
Also a further element of instability in the European landscape is missing in Germany, setting it apart from other countries: this is populism. While a party made the attempt to put forward an anti-Euro platform, its success in the polls was short-lived. And also the far-left challenge by Die Linke has had limited success. In Germany at least, the phrase of a Eurozone head of government that “we all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it” does not seem to apply.
This means that, whatever the coalition resulting from the election – a continuation of black-yellow (CDU/CSU and FDP) or a re-edition of the grand black-red coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD – it is unlikely that the basic features of current position will change. And, so far, efforts from Euro-partners (be it France or Italy) to make the “Germans” change their position were for the most part timid and unsuccessful. In Germany itself, such policies are not high up on the agenda of this electoral campaign and are only mildly challenged by the socialist SPD.
This lack of “opposition” to EU-policies has historical origins. In the 1960s and 1970s the left opposed the process of European integration, fearing (rightly as it appears now) that inflation and interest-rate targets, single currency and liberalizations would deprive national goverments of the instruments for economic and monetary intervention. In the 1980s and 1990s – also because of the end of communism in Eastern Europe – the left converged on such policies and became a supporter of European integration. Economic policy drifted from the sphere of politics to that of technical management, and the left (be it the Greek PASOK, the Socialist Party in Ireland, France and Portugal, the PSOE in Spain, or the Italian Democrats) is today no longer perceived by electorates as a credible “alternative”. Dissatisfaction with the management of the crisis does not translate into votes for the left.
Austerity and growth policies
All this is likely to have divisive effects. First, opposition between “austerity” and “growth” policies is not one between left and right, but rather one between member-states: a territorial division of Europe pulling electorates apart on a national, rather than ideological, basis. The opposition is between, not across, countries. Second, anti-austerity positions, the channelling of dissatisfaction with the paralysis of national governments and protest against EU’s technocratic elite does not come from established parties but from populist parties – as elections in Greece, France and Italy have shown.
These two dimensions overlap: what policy-makers perceive as populism in the “periphery” against what Southern Europe perceives as technocratic politics in the centre. This cleavage has the potential of being highly inflammable and to jeopardize the project of a common currency. Because of its leading role in the Eurozone, Germany’s electoral campaign cannot ignore the mounting peripheral discontent.
Picture: Photocase / hmdd