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Europe’s Super Sunday promises an exciting, uncertain future

New Statesman
Monday, 7 May 2012

Voters rejected austerity and they rejected the political establishment.

After a breathless day of elections from the north to the south of Europe, the result is clear. Voters across Europe have decisively broken the austerity consensus that has dominated for the last two years. But while François Hollande’s victory will delight left-wingers across the continent, the people of Europe woke up this morning to a very uncertain future. Unsurprisingly, the financial markets have reacted nervously with share prices tumbling and, in the case of Greece, by 8 per cent already.

There is a danger in hoping for too much from Hollande – he is unlikely to single-handedly turn the tide against the austerity consensus - but his victory signifies a seismic shift in Europe’s politics. With Sarkozy ousted, Angela Merkel has lost her main ally in leading the EU’s response to the debt crisis. Hollande has promised to re-negotiate the fiscal compact treaty and she will almost certainly have to offer concessions to prevent the Merkozy inspired creation from being kicked into touch. Meanwhile, EU officials have spent the last couple of months preparing for a Hollande presidency and will try to buy him off with a growth and jobs pact in exchange for keeping the treaty intact.

Merkel has also taken pre-emptive action to shore up her position by paving the way for her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, to take over from Luxembourg’s Jean Claude-Juncker as chair of the eurogroup – the eurozone’s 17 finance ministers. Schauble, like his boss, is an austerity-hawk.

Moreover, Hollande’s room for manoeuvre is not that great. While the French economy is not in crisis like the rest of Club Med, with unemployment nudging 10 per cent

and debt repayments amounting to more than the education spending after the country lost its AAA credit rating, it is hardly in rude health. His ability to bargain at EU level is also hampered by the economic governance package forced through by the conservative/liberal majorities in the European Council and the European Parliament. This forms the centre-piece to the EU’s austerity drive, locking EU countries into strict rules on overall budget deficit and debt levels, with fines for non-compliance.

However, the mood of the public and politicians has moved decisively. Hollande has promised to offer an alternative to a diet of cuts and to re-balance tax system, and he will need to sketch out a coherent economic programme in the first few months of his presidency. He should also try to make allies of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who have also made recent demands for economic growth and job creation to be prioritised over spending cuts.

But while the future for France is exciting, the future for Greece now looks even more uncertain. A country brought to its knees by bankruptcy and austerity now has a full-blown political crisis to cope with following a complete fragmentation of the party system.

The complete destruction of the two dominant parties is quite staggering. For the centre-right New Democracy party, which topped the poll despite winning less than 20 per cent of the vote the result is merely dismal. Their long-time rivals, the socialist Pasok party, which won the last election in 2009 with 43 per cent, fared even worse - annihilated with just 13 per cent. The two parties which have dominated Greek politics since the end of military rule in the 1970s, and which secured nearly 80 per cent of the vote in 2009, took just 32 per cent between them. By any yardstick the Greek electorate has given its political class a good kicking and the old status-quo will not be the same again.

If it was hard to see how Greece was going to cope with the terms of the second €140bn bail-out package with a relatively stable coalition, it now appears almost inconceivable that the deal will survive as it stands. All parties bar Pasok supported either re-negotiation of the terms or rejection even though moves to re-negotiate would be met with hostility by most EU countries.  If New Democracy’s leader Antonis Samaras, as expected, becomes Prime Minister, there are no obvious ways for him to cobble together a majority without accommodating parties on the far-left and right which want to tear up the bail-out agreement. New elections in a few months cannot be ruled out, although this is unlikely to make much difference. It is hard to see what possessed New Democracy and Pasok to agree to early elections. 

In the meantime, we can expect calls for the out-going technocratic Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos, to remain in government. Untainted by the debt crisis, Papademos enjoyed high personal ratings throughout his six months in charge and, if he can be persuaded to put his wish to return to teaching in the US on the back-burner, he would make a popular Finance Minister.

There was, however, one country where voters did not reject a governing party promising fiscal austerity – Germany. Angela Merkel’s CDU still topped yesterday’s poll in the German Lander elections in Schleswig-Holstein. Even though the CDU vote fell to 31 per cent, their lowest score in 60 years, they still narrowly beat the SPD. The real losers were Merkel’s coalition partners, the free-market Free Democrats, who collapsed to just 6 per cent, well beaten by the Greens and the Pirate party. Nonetheless, it is clear that Merkel still commands support and respect in Germany and, as an experienced leader of Europe’s strongest country, she is still the strongest force in EU politics.

For all that, however, there are two big messages that voters across Europe sent to their politicians on Super Sunday – they rejected austerity and they rejected the political establishment. Mainstream parties of the left and, particularly, the right should watch, listen and learn from these results. But those who have despaired at the right's obsession with self-defeating spending cuts have a reason to be optimistic again. Now it's up to you Francois.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.
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