Illustration by Golden Cosmos
Illustration by Golden Cosmos

Europe’s citizens are turning the tables on their ruling elites as austerity bites. In election after election, they send their governments packing and turn instead to fringe parties, some of which evoke the ghosts of Europe’s authoritarian and racist past.

Yet there are good reasons to believe this is not the 1930s, redux. Something else is going on in Europe that is quite profound: The shape of European democracy is changing. It is fragmenting and opening new channels for protest and political action that make it less likely some new Hitler or Mussolini will suddenly ride a wave of support to power.

It’s becoming clear that the political transformation accelerated by the financial crisis will need to be at least as deep as the economic one, and this means the end of mainstream politics. There will no longer be a once-per-generation societal consensus, as was the case throughout the post-World War II period. Instead, Europe will see a continual process in which governments, voters and civil movements renegotiate their social and economic contracts.

The result, by definition, will be less predictable and more disorienting. There will also be much more uncertainty about the level of entitlements and the extent of provision of public services. The rise of boutique parties, including extreme ones, reflects this trend of fragmentation and will be crucial to its unfolding.

Neo-Fascists to Pirates

There is hardly a European country that has been spared the phenomenon. It’s not only in Greece where we see new entities emerging, such as the hard-left Syriza coalition or the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Also in Germany, a country with strong mass-membership parties, the Pirate Party, sometimes dismissively called the cafe-latte and laptop-generation party, has now made it into three German state parliaments, polling around 8 percent of the vote each time. In the U.K., the fringe Respect party won a parliamentary by-election on a platform of opposing the country’s policies on the Middle East. The U.K. Independence Party scored unexpectedly well in local elections. It advocates the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union.

These niche parties are filling the gap that has been left by mainstream politicians, with social media their natural territory. When government policies fail, populists call things by their name, attracting support. The anti-immigration sentiment that the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands or Golden Dawn in Greece are riding, for example, hasn’t primarily been about the dislike of foreigners. It has been about the lack of credible immigration policies.

Much of the recent fragmentation and radicalization of politics in Europe is a direct result of the financial crisis and its mishandling. Europe’s political elite failed to explain to people the scale of the economic adjustment that’s taking place. But even before the crisis many of these parties were gaining ground, as larger mainstream ones saw membership bases fall.

This longer trend has several causes. First, we now have lower barriers of entry into the political system, mostly as a result of new communication technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Increased transparency can help new movements to grow more quickly, and bring down established actors in cases of abuse. The Arab Spring offers ample testimony for the power of this technological accelerator.

Impenetrable EU

The growing complexity of decision making, especially acute in the EU with its multilayered institutions and shared sovereignty, is another factor. The conclusions of EU summits, for example, can be important, but even for those who are interested, they are impenetrable. National leaders have fewer and fewer levers left in their hands to control their economies. Financial markets, meanwhile, are anonymous: They have no phone number to call and no democratically accountable representative to invite to parliamentary hearings for direction. All of this increases the attractiveness of single-issue parties because they are more easily understood.

Democracy is changing also because its representative version is weakening, while the empty space is filled by new forms of activism and expression such as plebiscites, whether through referenda or poll taking. People get mobilized directly, for one cause at a time, rather than by the cross-cutting ideologies that defined mainstream political parties.

What’s more, people have diminishing stakes in the durability of the system. One example is the shift from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pensions, which transferred risk from companies and the state to the individual. The role of the state is changing to that of an insurer of last resort. Citizens feel less like stakeholders in the state because they feel their vote no longer has any real impact on outcomes, while their tangible gains from the system become less certain. This contributes to disaffection.

Much of this is reminiscent of the 1930s, a period in which people also felt that their governments were unable to offer solutions, as they suffered severe economic and social dislocation. The difference with the 1930s is that, whereas the only alternative then appeared to be a radical new party that would seize control of the state and put everything right, today people have more alternatives and more channels of expression.

That’s important because it means people are not helpless, even if they are frustrated. So they occupy Wall Street; or drum up Facebook-led campaigns; or, as happened in Italy last year, they force a referendum to block the government from launching a nuclear-energy industry and privatizing water utilities.

The flip side of that coin is that for radical parties, the allure of being in power is much tainted today. Populists are even more anti-establishment, but they are shrewd enough not to seek power because accepting responsibility doesn’t work for them in the new era. So, when Geert Wilders brought down the Dutch government by leading his Party for Freedom out of the coalition recently, it wasn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. His support in opinion polls had been dropping. The anti-austerity agenda was being exploited by other actors on the country’s political scene.

Out of Power

None of this means people should be less vigilant in opposing the rise of neo-fascist politics. But notably, despite all the radicalization of popular feeling in the past few years, with the departure of Wilders there is currently no extreme right-wing populist party in any governing coalition in the EU.

Winston Churchill’s dictum that, while imperfect, democracy is the best of all available political systems remains true. But it’s becoming clear that institutions will have to be reshaped to negotiate a path between our ever-more-polarized interests and the minimum common denominator catering to society’s fundamental needs. This will mean a more prominent role for the grassroots movements, alongside stronger, more inclusive institutions.

There will doubtless be turbulence in the years ahead, and times in Europe when everyone holds their breath for fear of the worst. Yet representative democracy isn’t under an existential threat. There are new safety valves in the system alongside the old ones, and they are proving to be surprisingly effective.

(Pawel Swieboda is president of the Demos Europa Center for European Strategy and a former adviser on Europe to the Polish president. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Pawel Swieboda at pawelswieboda@demoseuropa.eu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net