Can Europe’s tea parties upend EU? (Politico)

Can Europe’s tea parties upend EU?
By: Tyson Barker
April 21, 2011 04:22 PM EDT
The looming battle over raising the debt ceiling has demonstrated that political brinksmanship is now a central element in Washington, even as it puts U.S. financial credibility at risk. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has gone to great lengths to reassure financial markets that it would be raised — despite tea party opposition.

While the tea parties’ devotion to ideological purity roils Washington, a similar phenomenon is rupturing the traditional way that European countries are governed and putting at risk the Continent’s future prosperity.

The True Finns Party, for example, emerged as a clear winner in the Finnish elections on Sunday, with 19 percent of the vote. This anti-European Union political party capitalized on Finnish voters’ growing exasperation with what they view as the feckless profligacy of their southern neighbors. The True Finns campaigned on a platform of denying Portugal an EU bailout, though the country is at the precipice of default.

This Nordic result is a growing trend in Europe. From Finland to the Netherlands to Belgium to Hungary, reactionary anti-establishment parties and factions are on the rise. Though created by differing political cultures, the gaggle of anti-establishment, right-of-center movements across Europe is united by several common issues.

Many commentators have focused on their shared anti-immigrant rhetoric, but the most troubling aspect for the future of Europe is these parties’ deep-seated euro-skepticism and growing bailout fatigue.

They all regard the EU as a distant and aloof super-state — rewriting the social contracts of their countries and enabling indulgent behavior in the Union’s southern member-states. While these parties lack the libertarian streak that has come to define the U.S. tea party movement, they play to their populations’ visceral anger, which has been ignited by the economic crisis, the government response and an underlying desire to return to something more reflective of its own “core values” – be it in Helsinki or The Hague.

This European tea party movement has something else in common with the American version: an ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to compromise. At the EU level, which is built on consensus, this intransigence threatens to derail the euro-zone and even put the future of European integration in jeopardy.

 

In the Netherlands, the conservative coalition government’s tenuous hold on power is at the mercy of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, which has argued for repatriating power and treasure back from Brussels.

Meanwhile, Belgium, a country whose very existence is based on a delicate consensus between the prosperous Flemish north and the French-speaking south, has not been able to form a government in almost a year. Last month, the country, which is the seat of the European Union, won the dubious title of having the longest period without a government in modern history.

Flemish nationalists have long been resentful of their perceived role as paymasters to a decadent Wallonia. Their victories in last year’s election led some to question whether Belgium is still a viable state.

Next year, national elections are scheduled in Cyprus, Portugal, Poland, Denmark and Spain. In many races, similar populist, anti-establishment movements could well gain power.

But the elephant in the room is France. Sandwiched not only geographically but politically and culturally between the EU’s fiscally Spartan northern rim and the more free-wheeling south, France is, in some ways, the ultimate swing state in the EU system. The country faces presidential elections in May 2012, and many polls now show Marine Le Pen, scion of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Front National and an ardent Euro-skeptic, could receive enough votes to make it to a second, run-off round.

President Nicolas Sarkozy consistently runs third — behind Le Pen and the center-left candidate.

Though Marine Le Pen’s style has proven more palatable to the average French voter than that of her bombastic father, the substance is the same. If Le Pen is able to get traction in 2012, it could throw open France’s commitment to the European monetary architecture — regardless of her being elected president.

France is one of the EU’s two “indispensible nations.” If it succumbs to, or even flirts with, this new brand of Euro-skepticism, Europe could have a rocky road ahead.

Tyson Barker is senior project manager in transatlantic relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

 

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