Europe’s Political Crisis – Analysis


By Fuat Keyman

Europe caught up in a multi-dimensional crisis has to renew itself politically and economically if it is to overcome them. But will it succeed in doing so?

Germany apart, the consequences of the global economic crisis on Europe are creating very serious risks and uncertainties not just at the level of the economy but also for its political future. Europe is the home of modernity and democracy but it is becoming unable to see its political future. The risks and uncertainties affecting Europe’s future apply not only to the European Union (EU); they affect the whole continent.


Developments in the two largest countries in Europe, France and Germany, offer some grounds for hope, if only a little. Germany is still strong economically and it appears that its strength will continue. Merkel may go after Germany holds its elections next year. But it is very probable that she will be succeeded by an alliance of the centre left-Social Democrats and the Greens and so the probability is strong that the centre would remain politically dominant. Germany looks set to continue on its way during the economic crisis in economic stability and under the political leadership of the centre.

France has got rid of Sarkozy whose greatest mistake perhaps was to weaken the political centre by pursuing short term gains. So now France is to be led by the centre-left, even by a strong centre-left government. It is extremely important that political change is contained in the centre against an increasingly strong far right. But the French economy, though still strong, does not rest on secure foundations in the way that the German economy does. Should France have an economic crisis, it is virtually impossible to foretell what the performance of the centre left government will be. So one needs to stress that one cannot answer questions about whether Europe will be able to overcome a possible political crisis which it could have as well as its economic crisis just by considering Germany and France.

Political Transformation and Uncertainty

The political developments which challenge Europe and have grown stronger as a result of the economic crisis are multi-dimensional and multi-layered and they are also spreading and deepening. When we list these developments, or at least the ones with a political dimension to them, the picture which emerges is rather negative, indeed alarming. It is as if the alarm bells are ringing for Europe. Europe should take a lesson from the past, and restructure itself with a vision and strength of will. So what are these political development and challenges? Let us list the foremost ones.

The first of these developments is the fact the political cost of the economic crisis has been high for governments and led to transfers of power. There were 27 elections in Europe between 2010 and 2012 and in 16 of them, the ruling parties lost power. France, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia. Italy is ruled by a government of technocrats. It is apparent that there was a generally shift to the right in these elections and that, because of the crisis, as soon as the incoming governments took office, they were squeezed between the need to introduce economic stability packages and the demands of the electorate. Europe has entered a period in which administrations will find it very difficult to govern their societies.

Second, it is also apparent that in these elections extreme right-wing and racist parties grew even stronger. Extreme rightists and racists are continuing to boost their strength and popularity in Europe against centrist politics and to which spread and expand. Popular anger together with uncertainty and anxiety about the future are expressed by giving votes to these parties. The extreme right and racism are growing stronger from Greece to Finland and from Holland to France. These parties operate by drawing on the discourse about the free market, a homogenous national identity, and Euroscepticism. The probability that these parties will grow even stronger in the next decade is not a small one.

Third, the economic crisis has introduced European politics to the phenomenon of the unelected government of technocrats, starting in Greece and Italy. Thus the problem of the democratic deficit and the problem of technocratic-bureaucratic administration cut off from the people, till now experienced at the level of the EU, has now also come into being at the national level. If the economic crisis continues, the phenomenon of technocratic government, whether elected or otherwise, may grow.

Fourth tendencies like Islamophobia, hostility towards foreigners and migrants, and cultural racism are steadily growing stronger, on one hand, while on the other so too are tendencies to sacrifice democracy for the sake of economic stability. A risk is thus emerging of moving from a political culture which is multicultural and democratic towards one which is inward-looking, homogenous, identity-based, and essentialist. Thus Europe would add a crisis of identity and citizenship to its economic and political crisis.

Fifth the political crisis has made the European Union lose its attractiveness in recent years for ordinary people and voter turnout and participation for elections to the European Parliament, one of the EU’s most important institutions, have fallen significantly, falling to levels which indicate apathy. Similarly the EU has not been able to design a constitution for itself and the economic crisis had made its political future and belief in becoming a political community even less clear. Discussion about whether to deepen or broaden the union is giving way to a debate on a union in which there could be varying forms of full membership. Here in Turkey, the discussion which we used to hold two or three years ago about enlargement and full membership have lost their relevance in a remarkably short space of time. The uncertainty about the political future of the European Union on one hand and on the other the indifference of the mass public presents a very serious challenge to Europe. The latter indeed contains the risk that the European masses may develop structures opposed to European integration.

Sixth, is the perception that Europe and the European Union might slip steadily into the position of being perceived in a generally globalizing world, and in particular in the context of the Arab Spring, as an actor without influence and even without credentials. Both inside Europe and in the rest of the world, there is a growing perception of ‘ineffectual Europe’ i.e. that the continent is inward-looking and unable, indeed unwilling, to become a global actor. This perception is to be found in both academic and public discourse, and also among ordinary people. Some countries have contribute to this impression during the Arab Spring by behaving like nation-states despite their membership of the European Union, first in Libya, then in Egypt and now in Syria. When Britain, Germany, and France spoke throughout the Arab Spring, that did not imply that the European Union was speaking. In the field of foreign policy, the disjunction or rift between the European Union and the nation-state has been growing, just when the idea of unity should implied a need for the opposite.

Restructuring and revival

In his seminal work, “Europe’ (Polity 2002), a volume that I very much admire, Zygmunt Bauman, the famous social theorist, stresses that “Europe” is not a place with specific boundaries, territory, culture, and identity. On the contrary it is an idea which is constantly renewing itself, changing, and being restructured. In determining this, Bauman employs an interesting definition of power that was used by his fellow international relations specialist, Karl Deutsch: “Power is the ability to afford not to learn from mistakes.” According to Bauman, even in periods when it was powerful, it recognized that it never had such a luxury and restructured itself by learning from its mistakes. Europe is an idea which renews itself by means of learning.


The idea of the European Union gained ground after World War Two as a result of this learning process. Today Europe and the European Union are going through a period of crisis in which they cannot afford not to learn from it or not to extract a lesson from the mistakes they make. There are very strong challenges, both global and local. Even if one shares Bauman’s ideas, it is much easier to be pessimistic rather than optimistic, indeed we must accept that we are stuck at a point where pessimism is realistic.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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