By Mathew D. Rose, a freelance journalist in Berlin
Despite the alarming results of the European elections last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained unflinching. The success of the elections, claimed Ms Merkel, confirmed that “We need a policy aimed at competitiveness and growth.” There might have been a few setbacks in the past six years, but for Ms Merkel the EU’s strategy is an unequivocal triumph. So what is missing? Her view: “Policy has to connect with the people.” In other words, austerity as usual needs to dressed in new, improved polemic.
Unfortunately Germany’s European policy has not only failed to connect with the people, even worse, it does not connect with reality.
The German ideology of austerity has led into a cul-de-sac of high unemployment, increased debt and recession for much of Europe. There is nothing wrong with trying to convince other people to believe in the confidence fairy as Paul Krugmann calls it, but it’s inherently off-base, even reckless, to believe in one’s own fable. Over the course of the current economic crisis in Europe, I do not believe I have ever heard so many references to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel since the Vietnam War – and we know how that ended.
One thing is certain: The denizens of Europe, with the exception of the Germans, have lost faith not only in the confidence fairy and an EU economic recovery, but the EU as well. For many it has become a collection of corrupt politicians and quislings of the Germans.
Just to list of few highlights of the election: in Britain the explicitly anti-European-Union UKIP won the most votes. It was the first time in over a hundred years that one of the established parties did not win a national election. In France, another vehemently anti-EU party, the far right Front National trounced the mainstream parties. In Spain, for the first time since the return of democracy the two dominant parties together did not even secure half the votes, falling form 80 percent at the last European elections. Podemos, a party created just a few months before the election with the political goal “to stop Spain being a colony of Germany and the Troika” attained almost ten percent. In Greece, the leftist Syriza party, which has promised to revoke the bailout plan of the Troika, was the most successful party with over a quarter of the votes. Finally, in Portugal, the party responsible for the Troika’s austerity programme lost a third of its votes, being overwhelmed by the Socialists.
But there is more to the story. Although only 43 percent of the electorate cast votes, as in the 2009 elections, many were motivated by the opportunity to vote against the European Union and its austerity policy, or as in Germany, they had gone to the polls anyway to vote for referendums or in local elections. Of the 28 nations participating, only six had a voter turnout of over 50% and two of these, Belgium and Luxembourg, have compulsory voting. Four, Slovakia (13 percent), the Czech Republic (19.5 percent), Slovenia (20.96 percent), and Poland (22.7 percent) did not attract a quarter of their eligible voters. In fact only about 25 percent of voters in East European nations, the most recent EU members, bothered filling in a ballot.
While the EU leadership has over the years successfully rid itself of voter interference, which had precipitated apathy and resignation, it has now galvanized many others. While the EU nomenklatura is auspiciously ignoring this development, numerous politicians have gotten the message. While the leaders of Spain’s and Hungary’s Socialist parties and the Labour Party leader in Ireland resigned following the disastrous performance of their partes, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron is running amok. He has recognized that the EU crisis is radically transforming European politics, which now threatens the political predominance of his own party as well as his premiership in the upcoming general election next year.
The results of this EU election may not be repeated in national elections; still, this was unequivocally not a mandate for current EU policy. This has not fazed many EU member state politicians. Just how alienated European politicians are from the society they live in has become apparent in the follow up to the election. These officials seemed convinced that the European election rout was simply a flash-in-the-pan protest vote soon to be forgotten. Instead they are squabbling about who shall be named as the next EU Commission president.
In keeping with this attitude, the voter repudiation was followed by the EU commission asking member countries for a £3.8billion cash increase to its budget. Some of this is destined to support the new regime in Ukraine. Many EU nation governments will now have to explain to voters why they are subjected to severe austerity, while the EU spends billions of Euros to prop up a corrupt plutocracy in Ukraine that until recently was subsidized by Russia.
Probably the most puzzling aspect of the continuing EU crisis is the reaction of its youth in the affected countries, where unemployment for their age group can be as high as 50 percent, as in Spain and Greece. Many migrate, but there must be a great amount of anger and resentment when a young Spaniard with a master’s degree is forced to accept menial work in Germany, with little perspective of returning to a job at home, much less a well-paid one. Protest movements up to now have been ephemeral. A change here may well be the next major development.
Meanwhile the European Central Bank has promised major measures to combat the looming possibility of deflation in the EU, but this will as usual be too little and too late. As a solution to high unemployment and feeble growth or renewed recession it will certainly fail, as long as the German ideology demands more austerity.
The ECB’s Mario Draghi might wish for more potent measures, but he has been exposed as a feeble actor, powerless against German hegemony. His great moment is history occurred at the height of the Euro crisis in 2012 when he promised to do whatever was necessary to protect the euro zone from collapse. I cannot however imagine that the Germans ever planned to back this up with funds – which they never promised. After the success of the anti-EU party “Alternative for Germany,” the situation has markedly changed. The mobilization of German racism and chauvinism by Merkel’s government to force austerity down the throats of most of the EU has now escaped its cage and can easily turn on its creator.