Thu, Apr 26, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Mainstream politicians suffer defeat amid backlash in Europe

A crisis of legitimacy looms as Europe’s voters rebel against deficit-cutting diktats that have been delivered in the name of the eurozone and European unity

By Ian Traynor  /  The Guardian, LONDON

For over two years, the mainstream political elites of Europe have been battling to save the single currency, seeking its salvation in a German-scripted program of austerity and legally enshrined fiscal rigor that curbs the budgetary sovereignty of elected governments.

In elections in France on Sunday, in the Royal Palace in The Hague on Monday and on Wenceslas Square in Prague on Saturday, a democratic backlash appeared to be gathering critical mass as the economic prescriptions of the governing class collided with the street and the ballot box. The collision looks likely to bring down three European governments.

Center-right Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte threw in the towel on Monday, submitting his resignation to Queen Beatrix after seven weeks of fruitless haggling over colossal spending cuts, which are required to comply with new European rules he has done much to design.

After the biggest popular protests in Prague since the velvet revolution brought down communism, the rightwing government of Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas, close allies of British Prime Minister David Cameron, teetered on the brink, because of unpopular spending cuts as well as sleaze.

Most crucially of all, the era of French President Nicholas Sarkozy looked to be over, having dazzled briefly and faded fast.

“There’s a new uncertainty,” said Paul De Grauwe, a leading Belgian economist. “Now we will have to see what will happen with the fiscal pact, and how the markets react.”

The French delivered a loud non to Berlin’s euro policies, handing a first-round victory to the socialist Francois Hollande, whose central campaign pledge was to reopen German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eurozone fiscal pact, an international treaty signed by 25 EU leaders and currently being ratified. Almost one in five French also voted for the europhobic Front National of Marine Le Pen, who wants the single currency scrapped and the French franc restored.

In the Netherlands, Member of Parliament Geert Wilders, who also wants a referendum on the euro, felled the Rutte government by refusing to back up to 15 billion euros (US$19.8 billion) in savings to keep the country within the currency bloc’s new rules.

There will now be early elections later this year, which may turn on one single issue.

“Europe will be the main political divide in Holland,” said Paul Nieuwenburg, a political scientist at Leiden University.

Wilders, the anti-Islam and anti-EU populist, has already pledged to make Europe the main election issue, announcing he will not agree to cut Dutch pensions to suit “diktats from Brussels.”

On the hard left, the Socialist party, which is also europhobic, is riding high in the opinion polls, meaning that the anti-EU far right and hard left, between them, could take a third of the second chamber in The Hague.

The fall of Sarkozy, if confirmed, and the demise of the Rutte government after only 18 months in office add to the political wreckage littering the chancelleries of Europe.

In the past two years, as a direct result of the debt and deficit crisis, the governments of Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Finland, Slovakia and Italy have fallen.

“A majority of voters are kicking out incumbents,” said Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris and the author of a book on the euro. “But despite the magnitude of the crisis, voters still trust mainstream parties enough. That’s a tribute to stability. It’s not a vote of defiance, bringing in extremists, rather a vote of sanction against a collective eurozone leadership.”

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