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2015: The Year of All Elections for Europe?

Voters from Greece to Britain may finally decide if the EU will survive.

December 30, 2014

Credit: Volker Rauch

2015 is the year when, for the first time in the 65-year-old history of supranational European construction, voters may finally decide if the EU will survive.

Elections to be held in Greece, Britain, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Estonia will answer two big questions:

1. Has the disenchantment with the European Union reached a tipping point?

2. Is the 20th century model of big political parties that represent mass political movements in society now over?

The two issues – Europe and the future of political parties – overlap. It is too simplistic to present this as a contest between populist and smoothly functioning politics. After all, no party wins power without a dose of populism.

The core problem is this: So far this century, the traditional 20th century center-right and center-left parties have not shown themselves to be very good at governing.

These two issues have now come to a head in Greece, which will have to hold early elections. This outcome is the result of the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn aligning themselves with the populist left of Syriza and the so-called independent leftists.

Not just Greece

However, events in Greece are indicative of a broader political failure. Just as Greece’s two big political powers — New Democracy and Pasok — failed to understand what entry into the Eurozone 15 years ago required of Greece, so it is in France and elsewhere. Mainstream parties have had a hard time adjusting to new global realities.

As things stand, Greeks may well choose to take the exit door of the Euro and possibly the EU. However, populist leftism is not just back on the Greek political agenda.  This is also the case in Spain where Podemos currently leads in opinion polls.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is a classic 20th century center right, big party politician. Over the years, he bided his time, patiently waiting his turn in order to become prime minister. Once he got there, he did not really know what to do in power (a stance in which he curiously resembles former French President Jacques Chirac).

Now, to salvage himself and to stop the populists of Podemos from taking over, Mr. Rajoy has hinted at a grand coalition with the socialists. What he has in mind resembles the style of the default German approach to managing political power.

Spain’s new young King Philip, in his Christmas message, said his task was to “regenerate politics, tackle corruption, defend the welfare state and preserve Spanish unity.” All noble intentions, but what realistic prospect is there for this to become reality?

The case of Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland

Perhaps the political future in many an EU country may be Danish. In Denmark, no single party has won a majority in the country’s parliament for over a century, since 1909, to be precise. Even so, Denmark’s coalition politics are becoming ever messier. The country thus does not offer much comfort for the future.

Political extremists, often in the form of rabidly anti-immigration, if not outright racist parties. are becoming an ever bigger political problem in many a country where such attitudes were formerly way outside the national consensus.

Sweden is a case in point. Fortunately, the mainstream political parties have just managed to pull back from the brink.  A compromise has been found that allows the recently elected Social Democratic party to stay in office until 2018.

How about Switzerland – not an EU country, but certainly a country in Europe. It keeps electing a new parliament from time to time. And yet, the so-called “magic formula” – which allows all political parties to have a seat or seats in the 7-strong federal cabinet – will not change.

Come to think of it, Switzerland’s devolved, decentralized and direct democracy – a political model that is mediated through referendums – seems more stable. It also seems to deliver more prosperity and justice than the winner-takes-all governance of many other European nations.

Other countries, or so it seems, rely on the supposed salvation that party politics used to offer, but as things stand, no longer can. An election “victory” by one political camp or the other is expected to be cathartic by the victors. But then, either nothing happens – or the vain hopes are sorely disappointed.

The Swiss model also raises a bigger question worth pondering: Can EU member-states tolerate having their citizens have the final say, rather than political elites dominated by party leaderships?

Will the EU survive?

Finally, Britain. My own country may provide an answer to the twin question of Europe (will it last?) as well as to the future of 20th century parties in a 21st century framework.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made the promise of an In-Out EU referendum in two years’ time central to his re-election.

If he wins the election, expected for May 2015, and the referendum is held, fewer and fewer observers (and recent polls) give much hope of a Yes vote that would have the UK remain in the EU.

A key reason for this likely outcome is that the EU question is getting ever more mixed up with immigration, bad Eurozone performance and rulings not from the EU, but the European Court of Human Rights.

In a rare case of bipartisanship, Labor politicians denounce the court with as much populist fervor as Conservative or UKIP MPs.

Cameron’s opponent, the Labor Party’s Ed Miliband, has ruled out a referendum – much to the annoyance of many Labor MPs who not very deep down can be just as populist as their opponents on Europe.

Miliband’s is what civil servants call a “brave” decision. If he manages to replace Cameron in Downing Street, he will at least have put off Brexit for a while.

But that truth (or respite) may only last for a short while. Miliband’s potential victory, if it comes to pass, is likely to come in the form of a coalition or a minority government. As was the case in 1974, when the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson formed a minority government.

In short, in Britain – the mother country of parliamentary democracy – the 2015 election will not produce any clear answer to the twin questions of European integration and what new politics is needed for the 21st century.

The new politics of European nations and the EU itself thus remain to be invented.


Has the disenchantment with the European Union reached a tipping point?

Is the 20th century model of big political parties that represent mass political movements in society now over?

As things stand, Greeks may well choose to take the exit door of the Euro and possibly the EU.

The traditional 20th century center-right and left parties have not shown themselves to be very good at governance.