The European Malaise Puts Three Leaders On The Ropes – OpEd


By Cornelia Meyer*

Leaders of the three main countries in Western Europe are facing leadership challenges, and each is a sign of a deeper malaise infecting European societies.

In Germany, discontent with Chancellor Angela Merkel manifested itself at the last election to the Bundestag, when her CDU (Christian Democratic Union) party achieved the worst result in postwar history.

Then there were the fraught negotiations to form a coalition government, and the disastrous state election results for the CDU’s sister CSU party in Bavaria and coalition partners the SPD in Hesse. There were also nasty public spats with Merkel’s interior minister, the Bavarian Horst Seehofer.

The hemorrhage of voters from these established players to fringe parties had started earlier. On the right, they departed in droves to the Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), and on the left they opted for die Linke, an offshoot of the communist party of the former German Democratic Republic. In the middle, the Greens and to a lesser extent the Liberals (FDP) fared well. Under 18 years of Merkel the CDU had moved markedly to the center. Their pledges had become very closer to the aims of the Greens and the SPD.

The election results led to Merkel withdrawing from the presidency of the party and declaring that she would step down as chancellor before the next elections in 2021. The party leadership contest was disputed on the right between Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz, who wanted to restore the old Christian and conservative values.

The winner, Annegret Kram-Karrenbauer, had been anointed by Merkel and stood for her centrist approach.

This may be good for Merkel, because her chances of staying in office for longer have increased with the party leadership in the hands of her highly competent ally and former Prime Minister of the Saarland.

The displeasure with Merkel went beyond the turning point of her popularity in 2015, when she let about a million refugees into Germany.

This gave the right-wing AfD the ammunition to do exceptionally well in the elections. During the 1970s and 1980s the former CSU leader and Defense Minister, Franz Josef Strauss, had argued time and again that it would be dangerous for Germany if political parties were established to the right of the CDU/CSU.

To the left, Germans worry about the future of their welfare state, underfunded pensions, inadequate childcare and support for the elderly. For many families, finances have become tight. Rented housing has become unaffordable and home ownership unimaginable.

Over the past few weeks the Yellow Jacket movement brought France’s security apparatus to its knees. The streets of Paris and regional cities were afflicted by riots last seen in 2005. The scenes in Paris this weekend were reminiscent of a capital under siege and in a state of emergency.

Here, too, the initial spark (a fuel tax) only provided the trigger for expressing a wider dissatisfaction. As in Germany, it is about the disconnect between income, rents and the cost of living. It is also about high unemployment, which Germany has been able to avert since the noughties.

French presidents have always had to contend with opposition, and sometimes unrest, when they tried to impose reforms.

What is different this time is that, as in Germany, the traditional party landscape was turned on its head: Last year Emmanuel Macron’s la Republique en Marche displaced a raft of candidates from the conventional parties in the French parliament. This means there is no sizeable opposition in parliament and many supporters of those historic parties may feel more accommodating toward the demonstrators than they would if they had representatives in parliament with a seat at the table.

Over to the UK, where Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting for her political survival and to push her Brexit deal through parliament. Neither looks easy.

Brexit is a self-inflicted crisis in the political system, but it reduces that very system to a state of near limbo. The UK does not have a written constitution, but rather refers to a range of traditions, laws and rules as constitutional. That “constitution” has been put to a severe test since that fatal day in 2016 when 52 percent of voters ticked the “leave” box on the Brexit referendum ballot.

Again, there were deep undercurrents from which Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that he led could draw in order to achieve the referendum result. True, then Prime Minister David Cameron called for the referendum out of fear that his Conservative Party would lose too many votes to UKIP in the future. The right wing of the party has always had an uneasy relationship with Europe, so Cameron’s fears of defecting politicians and voters were justified. However, Farage played a clever game, turning the Brexit question into one that fed on insecurities and nurtured fears of immigration and social decline. It also built on the deep suspicions the general population harbored against the political classes in Westminster.

Not unlike Germany or France, the political and business elites were not capable of reading the national sentiment accurately. They did too little to assuage the fears of Mr.Everyman.

Europeans have had it good for a long time. The welfare state provided for all. It is becoming increasingly doubtful how affordable that will be in future. At the same time, the cost of living is rising and bare essentials such as housing are out of reach for many. Other than in Germany, unemployment — especially youth unemployment — is a pressing issue.

There is resentment that governments saved “fat-cat” bankers and did little for the poor during the financial crisis of 2008. Income and wealth inequality is on the rise. Overlay the pressure of immigration and you have a dangerous cocktail.

This dissatisfaction brought about a realignment in the party political setup of many countries. The unease goes well beyond Germany, France and the UK. Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain and others suffer from the very same symptoms.

* Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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