A cry of alarm for Europe
24 October 2017
ROME – The last Austrian and Czech elections show clearly that the media has given up on contextualising events. To do that, calls for a warning about Europe’s future as a vehicle of European values are required. Europe has been weakened by all the recent elections, with the notable exception of France. Common to all, France included, were some clear trends, that we will hastily, and therefore maybe imperfectly, examine.
The decline of the traditional parties.
In every election, since the financial crisis of 2009, the parties we have known to run countries since the end of the Second World War, are on the wane (or practically disappearing, like in the last French elections). In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) secured 26 percent of the vote, just a few votes behind the Social Democrats who took 26.9 percent of the votes. The social democrats have been in power practically since the end of the war. And the other traditional party, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP), won the elections with 31.5 percent. Together the two parties used to have more than 85% of the votes. In the Dutch elections held in March, Geert Wilder’s far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), came second after the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), at the expense of all other parties. And in September in Germany, the far right anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoyed historical success, becoming the third party while the two traditional parties, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the social democrat Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), suffered the worst results in more than a half a century. According to polls, next year Italian elections will see a populist movement, the 5 Stars, taking over the government.
Austria is the best example to understand how European national politics have changed. It is important to note that no right-wing party was really visible in Europe, (except Le Pen in France), before the financial crisis of 2009. That crisis brought insecurity and fear. In that same year the Austrian far-right, under the charismatic leadership of Jorg Haider, got the same percentage of votes as of today. And the conservative Prime Minister of the time, Wolfgang Schlussel, broke a taboo by bringing the Freedom Party into the government. Everybody in Europe reacted with horror, practically isolating Austria. And the FPO lost all its lustre in the government as it went down 5 percent, and with the death of Haider even further down. There are no gasps of horror now in Europe over any far right-wing parties getting in to govern.
What has fuelled the decline of the traditional parties?
The traditional parties were already facing a loss of participation and trust by the electors at the end of the last century, but in 2009 Europe imported the financial crisis which racked the US in 2006. 2009 saw hardship and unemployment all over Europe. And that year Greece became the battleground of two visions in Europe. The Southern countries wanted to push out of the crisis with investments and social relief, while the bloc of Northern countries, led by Germany, saw austerity as the only response. Germany wanted to export its experience: they were doing well thanks to an internal austerity reform started by Schroeder in 2003, and they did not want to take on other reforms at any cost.
Greece was just 4 percent of the European economy and could have been rescued without problems. But the German line won and today Greece has lost 25 percent of its properties; pensions went down by 17%, and there is a massive unemployment. Austerity was the response to the crisis for all of Europe and that aggravated fear and insecurity.
It is also important to remember that until the invasions of Libya, Iraq and Syria, in which Europe played a key role (2011- 2014), there were few immigrants and this was not a problem. In 2010, immigrants numbered 215 thousand, in a region of 400 million. But during the invasions, the very fragile balance between Shiite and Sunni, the two main religious branches of Islam, collapsed. Civil war, and the creation of ISIS in 2015, pushed many to try to reach Europe to escape the infighting. So, in 2015, more than 1.2 million refugees, the majority coming from countries in conflict, arrived in a Europe that was not prepared for such a massive influx. And, if we study the elections before then, we can see that the far right parties were not as relevant as they are now.
Therefore it should be clear that austerity and immigration have been the two main factors for the rise of the right wing. Statistics and data show that clearly. Statistics also show that immigrants, of course with exceptions, (that media and populism inflates), basically want to integrate, accept any kind of work, and are law-abiding and pay their contributions, which is obviously in their interest. Of course, the level of instruction plays a crucial role. But the Syrians who come here were basically middle class. And of course, it is an inconvenient truth that if Europe did not intervene in the name of democracy, the situation would be different. NATO estimates that more than 30 billion dollars have been spent on the war in Syria. There are now six million refugees and 400 thousand dead.
And Assad is still there. Of course, democracy has a different value in countries which are closed and rich in petrol. If we were serious about democracy, there are so many African countries which need intervention. Book Haram has killed seven times more people than ISIS; and Mugabe is considering running for re-election after dominating Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. But you will never hear much on those issues in the present political debate.
How is the far right changing Europe?
Nigel Farage is the populist who led a far-right party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which fought for leaving Europe. UKIP received the greatest number of votes (27.49 percent) of any British party in the 2014 European Parliament election and gained 11 extra Member of the European Parliament MEPs for a total of 24. The party won seats in every region of Great Britain, including its first in Scotland. It was the first time in over a century that a party other than Labour or Conservatives won the most votes in a UK-wide election.
But Farage lost the elections held just before Brexit in June 2016. His declaration to the media was: in fact, I am the real winner because my agenda against Europe now is the basis for politics in all the traditional parties. Brexit did follow.
And this is what is happening now everywhere. The Austrian elections did not see only the FPO rise. They also saw the conservative OVP taking immigration, security, borders, and other parts of the far-right agenda of the populist agenda in the electoral campaign. A full 58 percent of the voters went for the far-right or the right, with the Social Democrats also moving more to the center. The new Dutch government took a turn to the right, by reducing taxes on the rich people and to companies. The same turn to the right can be expected by the new coalition led by Merkel, with the liberals aiming to take over the Ministry of Finance. Its leader, Christian Lindner, is a nationalist and has several times declared his aversion to Europe. In that sense, he will be worse than the inflexible Schauble, who just wanted to Germanize Europe, but was a convinced European. And it is interesting that the main vote for the far right party AfD came from East Germany, where immigrants are few. But in spite of investing the staggering amount of 1.3 trillion euros in the development of East Germany, important differences in employment and revenues with West Germany remain. No wonder that the President of South Korea has warned President Trump to avoid any conflict. They have decided a long time ago while looking at the German reunification that they would not have the resources required to annexing with the successful North Korea. The rocketman, as Trump calls Kim, after the decertification of Iran, can claim that the only way to be sure that US will not intervene is to show that he has a nuclear intercontinental ability, because US does not respect treaties.
Those considerations made, a pattern is clear everywhere. The agenda of the right wing has been incorporated in the traditional parties; they bring in the governing coalition like Norway did, or they try to isolate them, as did Sweden. This does not change the fact that everybody is moving to the right. Austria will now tilt to the Visegrad group, formed by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are clearly challenging Europe and looking to Putin as a political model (all the right wing does).
The only active European voice is Macron, who clearly is not a progressive guy either. The real progressive, Corbyn, is ambiguous about Europe because the Labour Party has a lot of Euroscepticism.
The new German government has already made clear that many of its proposals for a stronger Europe are not on the agenda, and austerity remains the way. Unless a strong growth comes soon (and the IMF doubts that), social problems will increase. Nationalism never helped peace, development, and cooperation. Probably, we need some populist movement to be in the government to show that they have no real answers to the problems. The victory of 5 stars in Italy will probably do that. But this was the theory also for Egypt. Let the Muslim Brotherhood take the government, and it will be a failure. Pity that the General El Sisi did not let this happen. Our hope is that we do not get any El Sisis in Europe.
If only young people went back to vote, this would change the situation in Europe … this is the real historical loss of the left in Europe.