Both Greece and Italy eventually cobbled together unnatural and unstable coalitions of recycled center-left and center-right politicians, many of whom had spent two decades attacking one another’s morals and integrity. It is hard to imagine how these odd-couple coalitions can rally public support for politically difficult structural reforms.
After World War II, socialist and Christian democratic parties jointly fashioned safety net programs that reduced poverty, enhanced living standards, reduced inequality and made European social policy the envy of much of the developed world. That social contract now appears to be shredded.
Europe’s conservative parties, like Republicans in the US, have, for the most part, turned into shrill apostles of austerity at almost any social cost. The shock is that European socialist parties have largely shrugged and acquiesced, instead of fighting to protect their traditional constituents. For that, they are paying a stiff political price, though their ousting from power is scant consolation for the millions of Europeans facing the long-term prospect of poverty and despair. Given how the EU is structured, German austerity policies might have prevailed anyway. However, its victims would not have felt as politically abandoned as they do today, nor as tempted by anti-democratic fringe movements.
Mainstream center-right parties like Britain’s Conservatives and France’s Union for a Popular Movement cannot afford complacency either. Right-wing groups like Golden Dawn, the National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party are successfully wooing away many of their voters, and imitating those parties’ immigrant-bashing and Europhobia will not do much to stanch that flow.
The Germans, too, should be nervous. They have benefited from the austerity policies in a temporary and narrow sense, by reducing the tax burden of bailouts and gaining an export edge from the rest of the eurozone’s weakness. However, these policies are perhaps irrevocably changing the Europe that Germans live and trade in. While the debt crisis seems to be in temporary remission for now, the larger crisis of European governance and democracy is visibly deepening.
In the decades after World War I, most continental European governments responded to economic crisis with variants of austerity and ended up losing liberal democracy. That is a history that Europe must take care not to repeat.