Following the dramatic results of the elections to the European Parliament, the focus now shifts to whether the European Institutions and governments are capable of effective response. They will need to react radically and rapidly even if the election post-mortem EU leaders’ summit in Brussels produces little except hand wringing.
It would be fatal if EU leaders were panicked into retreating from the first small step to a more democratic system of EU governance – the election of a Commission President. Any veto by EU governments of the candidate who now wins a European Parliament majority to become President of the Commission would send a message of utter cynicism to EU voters.
It is essential that the European Union does not temporise with the hard core racists who will be present in greater numbers in the European Parliament now. If anyone needs reminding of what the French National Front’s former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has obliged us, addressing a rally in Marseilles Le Pen said that:
Maybe the Ebola virus will help the immigration problem by killing all the Africans.
But, above all the Brussels summiteers will need to begin dismantling the disastrous austerity economic straightjacket imposed after the Euro-area crisis by conservative governments and the conservative dominated European Commission, which has fuelled the revival of the long buried demons of the European far right.
Of course, in and by itself, a new economic strategy for sustainable growth, more jobs and a much fairer tax system will not eliminate the threat to the future of the European Union posed by the diverse right wing populists and beyond them the openly fascist and neo-Nazi parties who have made hay in this election. But it would help undermine the growing support of many poor and disillusioned people for the xenophobic and racist extremes.
Changing Course after the European Elections
To change course, EU leaders must first understand that it would be political insanity to lump together the anti-European xenophobes on the populist and far right together with the growing support for parties on the radical left such as Syriza in Greece and similar parties in Spain, Italy, Germany and elsewhere. The leaders of Syriza – who may well emerge as the largest party after the next Greek general election – are opposed to leaving the EU or even abandoning the Euro.
They understand what price Greeks would have to pay for a disastrous devaluation coming on top of the terrible human tragedies created by the Euro-area austerity policies. Syriza also knows that it faces a massive political battle to mobilise support throughout the EU for an agreement to “forgive” an important part of the massive debt mountain which threatens to crush the fragile signs of Greek economic recovery. Little wonder that they are looking for allies throughout the EU.
The smaller parties of the radical left, even with their allies among the European Green parties will not be remotely strong enough by themselves to push through an end to EU/Euro-area austerity policies. But it will be surprising if we do not hear at least some of the same demands coming from the increasingly beleaguered governments in Dublin, Lisbon, Madrid and, above all, Paris and Rome.
The new Italian social democratic Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has dropped some very large hints that the EU will press for some easing of his country’s Euro-area’s deficit reduction targets. In Paris a drastically weakened, François Hollande, knows this is also essential if the feeble French growth rate is not to fizzle out completely.
Such overtures seem certain to attract support from Spain (where the “Indignados” movement has attracted significant support as have other radical leftist groups). The much weakened Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in Dublin, which lost heavily to Sinn Fein and an array of left leaning parties in the European elections, and the conservative government in Lisbon – where the elections were won by the socialists – are both also anxious for some change of policy in the Euro-area.
It would be a mistake to assume that the so-called “northern bloc” of hard line governments, who in the past have backed the German refusal to change course, will stay the course. In both the Netherlands and Finland there are alarming signs of an economic slowdown, and their governments may not be so resistant to a managed change of policy to growth and investment in Brussels in future.
What then of the Chancellor Merkel and her pro Euro-area “orthodoxy” government? There is certainly no enthusiasm to be seen to make a visible change of direction in policy which might eventually mean that Germany would have to accept a greater degree of resource transfers to the so-called Euro-area periphery. But Berlin knows that it may not be able to hold the line for much longer, especially if the future political survival of key allies in Paris and Rome is further put at risk.
The German EU ship of state will take some time to change direction. In the immediate future the responsibility for preventing fears of an aborted economic recovery leading to a disastrous new Euro-area crisis will fall to the European Central Bank. But to judge from remarks he has made in Portugal, its President, Mario Draghi seems likely to loosen monetary policy sooner rather than later.
It would be wrong to assume that even a major change of Euro-area economic policy will – in the short term – reverse the striking election gains made by the far right. But it would surely help to show voters, who have been profoundly alienated by the crisis, that there is a different way forward than to join a blinkered race into isolationism and xenophobia. The hard core racist, fascist and neo-Nazi groups which have reared their heads in some European countries will be more impervious to any change of policy. Dealing with the extreme right and their SA style paramilitary outriders will demand much more determined resistance from democrats of all kinds over a long period to ensure they are put back in the bottle.