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Europe’s Tea Party Moment


This past weekend delivered one of the most entertaining spectacles seen in Europe in a long time. My readers will be forgiven for assuming that I’m talking about the Champions League Final between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, which did indeed deliver the top billing it had received[1]. But as much as I enjoy association football – in spite of its gross corruption and rampant elitism – I was actually referring to the electoral results to the new European Parliament. This 750+ member body, which is often compared to a traveling circus by the British press, nevertheless represents just about the only democratic institution in the European Union. In no other instance are the 450 million citizens of Europe given a chance to directly influence the con-federal structures that, theoretically, stand above the member states as a unifying force for all Europeans.

By now, you will have read the headlines, even if you live in America and weren’t aware that Europe was even holding an elections (the PGA tour is on, after all). The US and European news has been spilling ink like it were free, in bold headlines like “RUINOUS”, “CATASTROPHE”, “POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE”.  The papers are reacting with unaccustomed vehemence to a series of important gains by what are generically branded as “anti-EU” parties. Some of these organizations have existed for years, like France’s National Front, Britain’s UK Independence Party, or the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV); others have sprung up more recently in response to the Great Recession, like Germany’s Alternative for Germany or Italy’s Five Star Movement. All have fed off of the massive economic dislocation and uncertainty created by the crisis, by the burden of bank and sovereign bailouts it entailed, and by the enforced austerity measures that were imposed to sell the bail-outs to domestic audiences in the creditor countries.


These “anti-EU” or “Eurosceptic” parties, whichever you prefer, roughly doubled their participation in the European Parliament, from 56 to 108 members; in other words, from 7.6% to 14.4% of the seats. The charismatic leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has triumphantly declared that EU integration, which had been considered inevitable[2], no longer was so[3]. This prediction is radically premature: European integration in a number of areas, especially financial regulation, continues at a faster pace than previously, not a slower one. With just 14% of the votes in Parliament and no formal coalition, the “Eurosceptics” are not yet in a position to block anything, much less fulfill their desire of rolling back European powers.


This is an important result, but hardly decisive. It is a shot across the bow of the establishment, much as the 2010 Tea Party performance was as much a warning to entrenched Republican leaders as it was to entrenched Democratic leaders. In the US midterms, the Tea Party won roughly 32% of the seats they contested in the House and sent 39 representatives to that body[4], just under 9% of the 435 representatives, while also winning 8 Senate seats. They have not gone on to dominate either legislative body, the early panicked fears of American political elites notwithstanding: in fact, their performance in 2012 was quite disappointing for their supporters.

Fundamentally, the formation of both the Tea Party and the Eurosceptics are based on fear and anger: fear of change; fear of the immigrant “other”; fear of a loss of national, social or religious identity; fear of invasive government and excessive centralization; anger at economic uncertainty and disparate outcomes; anger at the apathy of governing elites, especially when these elites are perceived to be distant and dissimilar to your peer group. The comparison doesn’t take us much further: American and European politics each have their own peculiarities that prevent the comparison of perfect analogues. European elections also suffer from an additional of voter apathy; since the EU circus is really run by the member states, many citizens don’t even bother to vote, or are perfectly willing to cast a radical protest vote that doesn’t reflect their true preference during national elections.


Having just spent the last few paragraphs downplaying the results let me now state that they ARE important; European leaders, mainstream parties and elites dismiss them at their growing peril. Mr. Farage is almost certainly wrong about this election spelling the end of further EU integration, but he may very well be right in thinking that it is the end of integration as it has been going on in the past –  by fiat, by elites, without popular consent, without due democratic process. Ever since the debacle of the European Constitutional referendum, and then reinforced by the charade of the Irish referendum in 2010, European institutions have been criminally allergic to democratic processes and expressions of popular will. That is what is driving both voter apathy and voter discontent. If the EU fails to hear this message, then the “problem” will continue, and will only get worse.

There is a high probability that this will happen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was dismissive of the election results, stating that improved economic performance would quickly relegate the Eurosceptics back to the fringe. That is both true and false: a period of strong economic growth throughout Europe would certainly take wind out of the sails of the insurgents, but the fundamental issues of immigration, lack of democratic accountability and loss of national sovereignty aren’t going away so easily and these will sustain the Eurosceptic parties. Besides, barring divine intervention, Europe is not going to experience the sort of growth that will pull Frau Merkel’s chestnuts out of the fire; growth will remain anemic, with wide disparities between regions and crushing levels of unemployment will into the next decade. Mrs. Le Pen is not going to disappear.

The electoral results themselves disprove Mrs. Merkel’s statement. Radicalization is only partly being driven by economic results: in countries that have been turned into economic basketcases like Ireland, Spain, and Portugal there are no Eurosceptic MEPs at all. The hardest hit nation of all, Greece saw only minor gains by the truly anti-EU Golden Dawn and KKE parties; most of the gain went to Syriza, a radical left coalition that is not “anti-EU” only anti-austerity. Only in Italy did the 5-Star movement gain significant ground, sending 13 delegates to Brussels for the first time, but Beppe Grillo’s party failed to improve on its performance during the Italian elections of the previous year. The real winner was Prime Minister Renzi’s Democratic Party, which went from 26% of the vote and second place in 2009 to a very solid 41% of the vote, first place, and a large margin over the second place 5 Star Movement. Another country suffering economically and with a widespread culture of EU skepticism is Hungary, but there the extreme right Jobbik party failed to add to its 3 MEPs.


It should be noted that most of Eastern Europe remains solidly pro-EU: Romania, Czech, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia sent no Eurosceptic parliamentarians to Brussels at all, while Poland and Lithuania returned 4 of 51 and 2 of 11 Eurosceptic delegates respectively, a very modest result. It is safe to say that countries which have recently been under communist rule (Eastern Europe, former Yugoslavia) or fascist rule (Spain, Portugal) still have a living memory of what loss of freedom really means, and are perfectly willing to give up a little bit of national sovereignty and suffer a bit of additional bureaucracy in order to secure the economic and political benefits and guarantees that European institutions provide with a very great degree of success.

The major tectonic shifts came in the “core countries” of Western Europe where economic performance cannot exclusively be blamed and where local factors taken on a great deal of importance.

  • That France’s Marine Le Pen and her repugnant National Front[5] won an enormous victory is undeniable, but it remains an empty one unless she can translate it into gains at the national and department levels. Discontent with the economic malaise in France is a factor, but a larger one is the almost universal dissatisfaction with the hapless François Hollande. This goes beyond his economic stewardship: the French have simply come to despise their President, even members of his own Socialist Party. With a voter turnout of only 43%, the results can hardly be called decisive and there is no chance of her winning a general election. Despairing Frenchmen are already turning to Dominique Strauss Kahn, who man who can only with charity be described as having problems controlling his sexual urges[6], as a potential “savior of France”. But in any case, the National Front is unlikely to make major gains in France’s next national election. If they did, then that would truly be a political earthquake.
  • In the United Kingdom, theUKIP racked up a historic win, the first time any party but Labour or the Tories had won a national-level vote since 1909. But Britain’s economic performance has been good enough that it cannot be blamed for UKIP’s success. Rather it is simply Britain being Britain: distrustful of those folks across the Channel, jealous of the hard-won rights ofnatural born Englishmen, and trusting only in the good old crisp Bank of England notes. I exaggerate perhaps, but the United Kingdom has never bought in entirely into Europe and so UKIP’s victory is less surprising than the National Front’s triumph in foundation member France.The UKIP is a serious contender in British national politics, perhaps the only “insurgent party” that enjoys this status. But UKIP is a serious contender only for third place thanks to the inglorious and abject collapse of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. While they are not going to beat Labour or the Tories any time soon, they are going to have an important influence on national politics by forcing both mainstream parties to hew to the David Cameron’s pledge to hold a popular referendum on Britain’s EU participation, and the Tories are likely to crack down even further on immigration to shore up support on the right.
  • Economics had even less to do with the electoral results in the Netherlands and Germany. The Dutch Freedom Party, which had famously allied with France’s National Front, failed to gather a single additional MEP to add to the 4 they currently hold (15%). Although the Dutch economy has been going through a very rough patch, this has not translated into increased radicalization as many had feared and predicted. Meanwhile, in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) won 7 seats to make its debut in Brussels. This is obviously not due to any economic malaise besetting the German Wünderwirtschaft, but is instead rooted in German weariness with financing the rest of the Euro zone. The AfD is not in fact an “anti-EU” party: they support further institutional integration. It is the “dysfunctional Euro” that they object to – or else they simply like the old Deutsche Mark. In any case, bailout fatigue probably won’t go away anytime soon, but it is also unlikely to gain much more support either, unless there is another catastrophic bailout required….which remains a distinct possibility.

Another theme in the papers is how hard this election has been on the mainstream parties, and there is more truth in this assertion. The main losers have been the center right Peoples Party-Christian Democrats, who lost 61 out of the 274 seats they previously held, even while remaining the largest single party bloc in Parliament. Contrast this with the second largest formation, the Socialists and Democrats, who lost only 6 out of 196 seats. It is seems safe to say that the center of the European polity – if any such thing actually exists, which I deny – was thinned out, with conservatives moving further to the right while progressives and liberals moved even further left. But again, an analysis of party performance in individual member states demonstrates that local conditions trump European-wide trends. Take Portugal and Spain as examples.

  • Despite grinding austerity, miserable economic and labor conditions and mass migration out of the country, the Portuguese political alignment remains virtually unchanged from 2009. The center right lost 3 seats in total, while the parties on the left for the most part just shuffled a few seats amongst themselves (Socialists +1, Left Bloc -2, Communists +1). The big winner was the Greens party which picked up 2 seats for the first time. Portugal has been much caressed by major players like Germany, the ECB and the IMF as a “success story” for the Troika austerity recipe; and with Portugal’s successful return to international bond markets, this judgment seems to be validated[7]. So the main political parties in the country were bolstered in a most timely fashion;
  • Meanwhile in Spain, the situation is radically different. Despite also being mired in grinding austerity, miserable economic and labor conditions, and mass migration out of the country, the mainstream parties received what can only be described as a vicious mauling in the polls[8]. In 2009, the center rightPartido Popular and the socialistPSOE controlled 44 out of 53 seats,the equivalent of 5 million votes. Thanks to the gross ineptitude of Socialist leadersZapatero andRubalcaba, thePSOE has imploded and gone from 21 to 14MEPs. So bad were these results that party leaderRubalcaba has called for a party congress and elections of a new leader: the only national party leader this election has so far claimed[9].  But the rulingPartido Popular also suffered, having gone from 23 to 16MEPs – just enough to claim victory, but as King Pyrrhus once said: “Another such victory and we are undone.” Mr. Rajoy’s partyis stained by corruption scandals that would long ago have caused a change in government in any serious country; while their inability to bring down the country’s stratospheric unemployment and create serious growth in the economyis combined with their authoritarian and dismissivemanner, their anti-democratic impulses, and their unpopular stance on social issues to create a PR nightmare. In fact, only the woefulPSOE could have failed to trounce the PP in these elections.This has benefited any number of minor parties which have sprung up like mushrooms on a rotting log. The principle beneficiaries have been the United Left, which has been robbing the PSOE blind on a national level, the Podemos Party (“We Can” Party), born of the indignados movement and socialist in outlook, that appeared out of nowhere to win 5 seats; and the Union, Progress and Democracy, a center left group led by the charismatic Rosa Díez that nonetheless has been attracting PP supporters thanks to its strong stance against a Catalan referendum.


Speaking of Catalonia, the Financial Times accurately described the election process there as belonging to what is already a different country[10]. Catalans voted in far higher proportions than their Spanish neighbors (+10%), which actually dragged up the average and saved Spain from having a historically low electoral turnout. The main reason for this is that many Catalans took the EU elections as a dry run on their own referendum on independence, “scheduled” for the 9th of November. Along with a decent turnout, a significant majority 55% voted in favor of pro-referendum parties. Additionally, for the first time in history, the Republican Left (ERC) gained more votes than then centrist Convergence and Unity (CiU) with whom they share the government. This has serious implications as CiU is viewed as “softer” on independence: while some members of CiU talk about “non-binding consultations” and holding a referendum as a bargaining tool with Madrid, the ERC is having none of it and makes no bones about its ultimate goal of independence. The fact that more and more Catalan voters are turning to the ERC is significant: ominous and significant if you happen to be Mr. Rajoy.


Spain is today the powder keg of Europe: if any non-black swan event is likely to detonate a new European crisis in what remains of 2014, it is the Catalan referendum and the constitutional crisis it will provoke. Unless European leaders that matter – and here I am thinking of Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi, Wolfgang Schäuble[11] – get involved soon, the window of opportunity to prevent a radicalization and escalation of the coming confrontation will close. Without outside mediation and substantial financial and political pressure, it is not at all likely that either side will back down from their collision course. I just might start shorting Spanish bonds on September 12th this year[12].

Overall, it is premature to cancel the European project, but not too soon to declare that it is in serious danger of failing. Europe has had great success in building robust institutions, generating economic growth, equalizing regional income disparities, and enforcing democratic norms and respect for the rule of laws over an unprecedented area of the continent. It has failed in creating Europeans out of its hodgepodge of nationalities and in engaging them sufficiently in their supra-national institutions. Unless it succeeds in doing both, it risks fracturing along national fault lines in some future crisis.

Of course, Mrs. Merkel is right in that Europe’s first task is to fix the economy and put people back to work. The much needed reforms in Southern Europe are in serious danger of stalling as complacency sets in, thanks to the plunge in the risk premium on sovereign bonds. Italy is the exception: Matteo Renzi has vowed to increase the pace of reforms and has pushed through a package of tax breaks, public sector reforms,  and improvements to labor market flexibility that hold much promise, if they are enacted. Given the clear support he received from Italian voters – Italy had among the highest turnouts on the continent – Mr. Renzi has a clear mandate to move forward. This is a lesson that should be taken to heart by leaders from Athens to Lisbon and especially in Paris and Madrid. European leaders are living in a fantasy land if they think their heretofore apathetic populations will remain so for another decade of stagnation. They dare not risk it.

The answer is both “less Europe” and “more Europe”. Less of the current elitist, unrepresentative and aloof power structures which are easily mocked and easily dismissed in favor of nationalism; but more of the truly democratic, federal Europe – a United States of Europe that would be the second pillar of world democracy and economic liberalism. That requires a willingness on the part of national elites and European elites to give power back to the people through a constitutional convention that would produce a workable document for a federal Europe[13]; its adoption by popular referendums in each member state[14], and the election of a European executive and legislature with real power.

The United States has always been the European Union’s greatest friend and supporter, and we remain so. It is just as important for Americans that Europe succeed as it is for Europeans: when Europeans have failed in the past, Americans boys have twice had to die on European shores in order to set things right again. A third time is not to be contemplated, so there is no alternative to a united, prosperous, democratic and post-nationalist Europe.


Sources and Notes:


[1] For those of you living in some remote, dank hole in the ground, the Spanish derby writ large had Atletico as European champions for all of 55 minutes, only to collapse in heart-rending fashion (unless you’re a Real fan) in supplementary time, giving up 4 goals in rapid succession.

[2] The EU’s official motto is, after all, “ever closer union”.

[3] Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt, “UKIP wins European elections with ease,” The Guardian, 26 May 2014

[4] “How the Tea Party Fared,” New York Times, 4 November 2010

[5] The National Front is a xenophobic, nativist party that combines all the worst features of the Vichy collaborationist regime, in my personal opinion. Marine Le Pen is the closest thing to Adolf Hitler on the continent today.

[6] In May 2011, Mr. Strauss-Kahn was charged with sexual assault against a New York hotel maid. Charges were dropped after the witness was found to have lied repeatedly to prosecutors, though a semen sample was found on her shirt that matched Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s DNA. Mr. Strauss-Kahn admitted to the sexual encounter but denied the charge of assault. During this case, a French reporter, Tristane Banon accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of having attempted to rape her as well. French prosecutors did not open an investigation, even though Strauss-Kahn admitted to having attempted to kiss Banon. The French did open a case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn in March 2012 for his alleged involvement in a French prostitution ring and “aggravated pimping”. In summary, Mr. Strauss-Kahn has some moral defects.

[7] Let us ignore for the moment the fact that Portugal is benefiting from forces in the bond market that have nothing to do with a true appraisal of the underlying risk of the Portuguese sovereign. It is the perception that matters, and the perception is positive for the moment.

[8]“El bipartidismo se desmorona,” El Mundo, 26 May 2014 (in Spanish)

[9] Greece’s Prime Minister Samaras might be toppled, though this now seems unlikely despite calls from Syriza’s Tsipras for him to step down; and in the UK, the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg is also resisting calls for his demission after the near annihilation of his party.

[10]Tobias Buck, “European poll highlights regional rift in Spain,” Financial Times, 27 May 2014

[11] Chancellor of Germany, President of the European Central Bank, and German Finance Minister, respectively. These are the people who could turn off the financial spigots which keep Spanish banks and the Spanish state solvent at an acceptable rate of interest.

[12] The Catalans celebrate September 11th as their national holiday. “La Diada” commemorates the fall of Barcelona and the end of “Catalan independence” during the War of Spanish Succession. To be perfectly accurate, the Catalans of 1714 had not declared Independence, they had declared their support for the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne, against the Bourbon candidate that was supported by most of the rest of the country and France. The Bourbons won, and in fact, the Catalans are stilled saddled with a Bourbon monarch.

[13] Not the unreadable monstrosity that was foist upon and rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

[14] Like the US Constitution, there is no need for unanimity: the new constitution could begin operating as soon as a majority of member states had ratified it.

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