What began as a debt and currency crisis in the EU risks becoming a crisis of liberal democracy itself. Four years of grinding austerity across much of the continent has caused millions of middle-class and working-class voters to lose faith in the ability of mainstream political parties to protect their basic interests. It would be a sad paradox if the European movement, conceived in the ruins of fascism and two world wars, and for decades democracy’s best advertisement to the communist East, undermined its democratic achievements in pursuit of a perverse economic dogma.
With few exceptions, Europe’s mainstream center-left parties, which long positioned themselves as defenders of society’s most vulnerable, are taking it in the teeth politically. The democrats in Italy, the socialists in France and Spain, and the Greek socialist party known as Pasok, having committed to many more years of cuts in social spending, are increasingly out of touch with the desperate situation of young people without job prospects, homeowners unable to keep up with their bills, and older workers facing long-term unemployment, later retirement ages and pension cutbacks.
The victims are visible almost anywhere you go in Mediterranean Europe. You see shuttered groceries and clothing shops, abandoned restaurants, idled factories and half-built housing developments overgrown with weeds. Newspapers carry heartbreaking stories of families evicted from modest apartments, people losing their jobs and then their health benefits, young and not-so-young women turning to prostitution to make ends meet, even suicides by self-immolation.
Most people in Greece, Portugal and Spain personally know someone whose former middle-class life has been destroyed by the combined effects of recession and government austerity policies. In the midst of this destruction, many mainstream politicians still prefer to pretend that this is just a normal business-cycle downturn that will pass.
The EU’s recent offer to let Spain, France and five other hard-pressed nations extend their budget-cutting deadlines is not nearly enough. These countries need to stimulate their economies, not merely slow down their economic contraction. (And while it is refreshing that the IMF now acknowledges that it underestimated the negative effects of Greece’s first bailout and austerity program, it shows no inclination to reduce the similarly negative effects of the successor program now in place.)
Perhaps it is not surprising that millions of disillusioned supporters of centrist parties now cast protest votes for populist fringe movements that echo popular anger even though they offer few practical policy alternatives. Movements as diverse as Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn, Italy’s anarchist Five Star Movement, France’s anti-Arab National Front and Britain’s Europhobic United Kingdom Independence Party have little in common ideologically. Their one shared feature is that they have little respect for the liberal democratic values that have defined and shaped postwar Europe. Growing electoral support is turning them into powerful players.
Last year in Greece, and this year in Italy, protest parties attracted so much support that no mainstream party emerged from national elections with enough votes to form a government. Italian politicians and newspaper editors who once dismissed the Five Star Movement as a joke led by a former comedian have been forced to change their tune. Many voters see it as an alternative to traditional parties that have made their lives worse by endorsing tax increases for working-class and middle-class families, higher utility bills and delayed retirement eligibility.