Greece has been at the epicenter of the European debt crisis, and in many ways, the political fallout here reflects the surge of extreme-left and extreme-right forces that the Continent witnessed in the elections for the European Parliament.
As in Greece, the center-left and center-right groups that form the core of national and European Union politics have seen their power eroded by the rise of extremist parties very different from one another, united only by their rejection of the way things are, both at home and in the European Union.
While Europe struggles to cope with the economic crisis, and voters’ focus on domestic issues is seen as a swelling tide of opposition to an “ever closer union,” debate on issues like banking and fiscal union, integration and keeping borders open could stall. If the center wavers, Europe’s great project may fall apart.
The drama playing out in Greece over the past four years may hold useful lessons for Europe. Not every vote lost by the center is a vote against the Union. In Sunday’s election, a coalition of the remnants of the two pro-European Union parties that dominated the Greek political center for decades was hit by a pincer movement from left and right. Syriza, a radical left party, won the most votes (26.6 percent), while the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn finished third, with 9.4 percent. The senior coalition partner, the center-right New Democracy, won 22.7 percent, while its junior partner, the center-left Pasok (running as part of the “Olive Tree” alliance), got 8 percent.
This confirmed opinion polls that Syriza was the party with the strongest support since national elections in June 2012. Syriza is opposed to the austerity program imposed on Greece in 2010 but is not anti-European Union. Golden Dawn is against austerity but also strongly against the European Union. The two parties represent the often bloody historical divide between Greece’s left and right and would never agree on anything besides attacking the government.
Greece is not the first country to witness a protest movement against economic austerity, nor the first where xenophobic extremists have made their presence felt. But nowhere have the two extremes grown so influential so quickly, as formerly fringe groups fed off voters’ anger and insecurity and wore down the credibility of mainstream parties.
In national elections in 2009, before the crisis, Syriza won just 4.6 percent of the vote, while Golden Dawn barely registered, with 0.3 percent (just 19,624 votes). But their recent strong showing, and the coalition government’s weakening, suggests that if these had been national elections the results would have rendered Greece ungovernable, as no party could have formed a viable coalition with any like-minded group. With the economy still on life support, such political instability would be devastating.
The popularity of extremist groups not only undermines the political system’s cohesion but also threatens their own future: Thrilled by the success of their simplistic rejection of the state of things, these parties are unwilling or unable to compromise. They will either remain on the fringe or tear themselves apart. It’s the existence of a government with unpopular policies that in part empowers them. After six years of recession and four years of austerity in Greece, Syriza has been unable to break through the ceiling of 26.9 percent that it won in 2012, while the coalition has not fallen so far as to make governing untenable. The political system limps on.
The aggrievement and disillusionment that fuel such extreme movements can arise from real causes or perceived ones. People may feel fear and deprivation because of the impact of recession, unemployment and higher taxes. They may feel threatened by immigration, or by the idea of immigration. Nationalism can be provoked by outside factors, such as a belligerent neighbor or a sense of national humiliation and loss of control.
All have played a role in Greece, though they are common in many other countries as well. In what turned out to be a triumphant campaign, the U.K. Independence Party urged voters to “Take back control of our country.” In France, the anti-immigration, anti-European Union winner issued a similar call. “The people have spoken loud and clear,” proclaimed the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, on Sunday. “They no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by E.U. commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalization and take back the reins of their destiny.” A day later, President François Hollande urged the European Union to change, accusing it of being “remote and incomprehensible, even for governments.”
Societies are united by a common past and common interests, by feelings of familiarity among their members (even when they disagree) and belonging expressed through their leaders. Losing that, or seeing it weakened, makes people angry and insecure. They cast blame and look for a group that comforts them. In Greece, the target is the government, and beyond that the creditors: the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The lesson that this troika should draw from the Greek crisis is that loans in exchange for austerity and reform may look good on paper, but unless the reforms are first carried out, austerity will lead to depression, and the backlash will not only worsen the economic crisis but might also undermine the political legitimacy of the reformers. Reforms will not work unless they offer justice and hope and the possibility of an easier life for citizens.
When policies result only in strengthening extremists’ sense of anger and self-righteousness, no solutions can be found. Domestic problems will become European problems. For now, centrist, pro-European Union parties are still in the majority in Europe and its Parliament. It is up to them to show leadership, remain calm and save the Union.