Europe’s soft political revolution is Germany’s nightmare

If the relationship German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU President Donald Tusk have built won’t last, a pillar of Germany’s architecture for the EU will crumble.

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With British Prime Minister David Cameron launching his campaign for reforming Europe or for more exemptions for Britain and a Greek default on the horizon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s struggles to keep the European Union moving ahead have become more demanding: after the presidential elections in Poland and regional elections in Spain, two more countries have moved up on the list of her concerns with EU partners.

To be sure, voters have responded more to domestic issues and did express their disapproval of party establishments in Poland and Spain, but for many citizens the EU is connected to both. The feelings of estrangement with the national political class easily extends into a negative judgement on the European policy process, which is further away from people, less understood by them, and a traditional scapegoat in the political discourses voters are part of. To analysts and campaign planners alike, the profound transformation of party systems in the post-divided and pre-federal Europe still remains a puzzle of too many pieces. It has become evident that traditional party structures are withering away everywhere, often in slow motion instead of an implosion like the state parties of the former Eastern bloc. The intellectual troubles, however, have to do with the totally open question of what will replace these structures.

East Central Europe has lived through 25 years of political fragmentation, with parties popping up or dying faster than at any time in recent history, massive shifts between parties in elections, and a much increased role of personalities in political campaigning. As Piotr Buras shows in his analysis of the Polish presidential elections, the period of uncertainty and flux has not ended yet, and it remains unknown how it will end when it finally does. 

In the “old” member states of the EU, matters long looked like a gradual transformation with some outlier developments like Lega Nord and the rise of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Now it has become evident that party systems in the West are going through the same fundamental overhaul as in the East – the process just looks different. The traditional European Left struggles with a lack of attractiveness in light of widespread disillusionment over the prospects of a better life guaranteed by welfare state redistribution. The conquest of establishment positions by socialist politicians no longer enjoys the legitimacy of breaking the control of old and conservative elites over state and economy. Rather, in the eyes of many people, the Left has become just another part of the establishment. In the days of traditional cleavages, clientelism of the Left could be accepted as “us” taking away from “them”; nowadays it is just patronage.

The traditional European Right stood for traditional values, capitalism, and (at least on the continent) social justice often spelled in a somewhat paternalistic fashion. Now it struggles with the disappearance of the traditional milieus and the same disillusionment among the electorate over social justice as organised by the welfare state. Its most complicated challenge, however, is the erosion of support for the pragmatic internationalism of Europe’s conservative parties. The EU was very much their project, and the rise of anti-EU or nationalist parties comes as a direct attack on them. While religious beliefs, family values, the owner-entrepreneur ideology, or gender roles have all vanished from their profile as societies were individualising, they have lost their ground on national identity or patriotism in the efforts to deepen European integration. New parties to the right denounce the conservative pragmatism on Europe, and even turn the European People’s Party leaders’ approach to intergovernmentalism against them. To the new nationalists, seeking to get the EU under control through the central role of the European Council is half-hearted at best; it’s much weaker than cutting the powers of Brussels, repatriating competences, and taking one’s destiny into one’s own national hands.

As the EU’s output fails to deliver on the prosperity and welfare expectations of many, the European claims of both left and right mainstream parties shamble, adding to the momentum of change under way as a consequence of societal development. An end state to this transition is not in sight, but indications are that it won’t be limited to the fringes. Somewhere down the line, the political centre of most EU member states will become thoroughly shaken up, contested, and occupied by new political forces before it may resettle.

The big question is whether the EU can outlast such an extended period of flux. Will there be enough time for political leaders to “re-learn” Europe as they rise from the debris of traditional party systems? And, how to manage the EU during that period? Current wisdom seems to be to play it safe, avoiding constitutional ambitions – even though the European Parliament is preparing just that – to shy away from major treaty change, and to strengthen the control of member state governments. This approach has become more difficult for its protagonists, Chancellor Merkel being first among them. In her view, Britain must not be encouraged to leave, but also must not be accommodated by equipping the EU with reverse gear. Likewise, Spain must stay on track as the most promising case of fiscal discipline in the south of the EU. Poland, finally, is key to maintain the stability pivot of the EU. If Polish presidential elections convey a message for the future of Polish EU policy, the country’s accession to the Euro has just been postponed for at least another decade. All the more, it remains crucial to secure Poland’s positioning in the political centre of the EU, where Germany sees itself. And for this, close bilateral relations between the countries are essential. If the relationship Chancellor Merkel and EU President Donald Tusk have built won’t last, a pillar of Germany’s architecture for the EU will crumble.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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