Hollande has reinvented politics in Europe

The implosion of Greece's party political landscape and the victory of François Hollande in France transformed the political debate in Europe. Moreover, both events act as a catalyst for a political reinvention of the eurozone and an emergence of a transnational political space.  

The eurozone crisis transforms the political debate in the currency union's member states and acts as a catalyst for the emergence of a transnational political space. This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from an electoral Sunday which saw the implosion of Greece's party political landscape and the replacement of French President Nicolas Sarkozy with the socialist leader François Hollande.

It was to be expected that of the two votes, the one in Greece would produce the more dramatic result, with a potential to destabilise Europe's political consensus far more radically than the campaign demands of François Hollande for rebalancing the eurozone's policy framework towards more help for growth. By inflicting a catastrophic defeat on their two traditional main parties, Greece's voters have sent them the bill for decades of political irresponsibility. The ouster of representatives of the old regime is actually a wholesome process – as long as the new political landscape that will emerge from the ruins is able to produce responsible government and serious reform. In the short run the election result does not seem to point that way. In a more long term perspective, a reality where PASOK and Nea Demokratia would emerge unscathed and unchanged from the disaster into which their irresponsibility has precipitated the country would tell us that nothing can really change in Greece. The country must overcome the quasi-feudal structure of its politics and embark on a road to modernisation for which a transformation of the party political landscape is a vital pre-requisite. A measure of instability is a necessary price to pay for this.

Whilst the result in Greece is in every way more dramatic – as is the country's predicament -, the transformation of politics that has occured in France is even more revealing and relevant to the future of party campaigning and political strategising in the eurozone. François Hollande focused a core part of his electoral bid not on promising a political change at home, but on demanding a re-orientation of the eurozone's collective policy framework. This was a stunning departure from national politics as we know them.

Many comparisons have been drawn between the new president's victorious campaign and that of the last socialist to be elected president, his mentor François Mitterrand, in 1981. Like Mitterrand, Hollande campaigned for more left-wing macro-economic policies in a Europe dominated by policy prescriptions inspired by the center-right. But where Mitterand attempted to campaign on and deliver a purely national policy shift, an experiment that famously ended in tears and saw France rejoin the European fold after only two years, Hollande directly addressed the fact that decisions affecting policy in France were no longer for Paris alone to take. He campaigned for a policy shift in Europe as much as and even more so as he did for a policy change in France. Today's national elections are about policy change in Europe as much as about policy change at home – it is the first time that a major political campaign in one of the EU's biggest countries has addressed this fundamental fact head-on. Through the crisis, the euro is transforming the pattern of politics in Europe, europeanising at last an essential part of the national debate.

Yet in pointing the way to the future of politics, Hollande's campaign also highlighted the main source of the eurozone's potentially lethal present weakness: the lack of sufficiently strong, sufficiently legitimated joint political institutions. It is entirely constructive to campaign – even aggressively – on European policies in national elections. It is deeply destabilising to do so by focusing the political attack on other governments rather than on political bodies exercising joint authority.

Because Brussels is so weak and politically invisible, Berlin and Angela Merkel rather than Brussels became the nexus of Hollande's eurozone campaign. This was inevitable in the current state of Europe's and the eurozone's political integration – and it is wholly unsustainable as a viable pattern for the future. After last Sunday, the need to give the eurozone political institutions which visibly do the job of giving joint guidance, absorb the shock of political opposition and voters' anger, and must stand for elections to legitimise their power, is more  apparent than ever before. Creating a transnational political space with democratically legitimated strong joint institutions is no longer about satisfying the aspirations of starry-eyed federalists. It is a vital necessity for organising politics in Europe today and giving the eurozone a political framework to generate the policy consensus needed for its survival.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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