By John Lloyd
How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.
While Europe's economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that's fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany's, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That's the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.
Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.
The day after that response, Pierre Moscovici, the French Finance Minister, came to Brussels with his country's budget. Under a recent agreement, budgets must be approved by the European Commission before they're debated in the French parliament. This timeframe, with much else, was decided during the turbulent past two years, to contain the crisis and calm the markets. Now, the consequences of that decision to seek European Commission budget approval, and the suppressed frustration at the national level over the straitjackets on their economies, are becoming more widely evident, and a generally EU-supportive press is becoming increasingly critical.
At the national level, the signs of rebellion from the Union continue to accumulate. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has held the stage in the Italian political opera since he was judged guilty of tax fraud in July, has talked grandly of defying the EU by adopting an expansionary program if and when his Forza Italia party is returned to office. Last weekend, he delivered on his threat to pull the Forza Italia ministers out of the coalition with the center-left Democratic Party. His party may split on the issue: he, a frisky 77 last Sunday, has turned strongly against an EU whose leaders pressed for his resignation in 2011. He now seems set to lead his loyal deputies into a Euroskeptic, populist position already occupied by Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement.
Across Italy's northern border, the Austrians voted on Sunday for a new government, and very narrowly gave the majority to that country's right-left coalition. The Freedom Party, strongly anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic, took 22 percent of the vote, up nearly five percent on its previous showing and only a little behind the two main parties. It might have been the largest party if a new group financed by the Austro-Canadian Frank Stronach, even more strongly anti-EU, hadn't taken 5.9 percent.
Austria's economy is relatively stable; Italy's remains in recession. Yet in both, the rising political tide carries anti-immigrant or anti-EU sentiments — or both. It's not the economy, stupid.
Next May, elections will be held for the European parliament. It doesn't have the power of national legislatures, but it's taking a higher profile under the active leadership of the German deputy Martin Schulz. On current national trends, many strongly Euroskeptic deputies are likely to join the assembly in May — from France's National Front, Germany's Alternative for Germany, Britain's UKIP (and many Conservative MEPs), Italy's Five Star Movement (and some Berlusconi deputies), the Dutch Freedom party, Hungary's Jobbik, the Greek Golden Dawn (if not banned by the government), the Czech Republic's Libertas and the Party of Free Citizens, the Danish Freedom Party, the True Finns, the Swedish Democrats and others.
These parties' stances are very varied — from the outright Nazi Golden Dawn and the anti-semitic Jobbik to the constitutional UKIP and True Finns — but all appear to have the electoral strength to send significant representations to the Brussels parliament, and all see political advantage in testing the EU all the way to destruction. Parliaments don't usually host parties who doubt the existence of the state whose citizens elected them. Starting in May, it's overwhelmingly likely that the EU's assembly will.
"More Europe" and "an ever-closer Union" have been the slogans of the EU for decades. "Less Europe" and "a return of lost sovereignty" is now the gathering cry among the people who do the voting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has herself called for more Europe. But she knows that her electors don't want to pay more than they already have to save it. If, in the old jibe, the Union was a French design paid for by Germany, the designers are now reviewing their plans and the sponsors looking at what they got for their money.
The European Union is a big, rich market, that rivals the U.S. But politically, it's still 28 nations. It has neither a plan, nor the will, to get from less Europe to more. Nor to forge a close Union.
(Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.)