By Arab News
By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Pity for a moment the poor Spanish voter. Dutifully trudging to the polls for the fourth time in as many years, and the second in just the past six months, like the mythical Sisyphus, they roll the boulder up the hill, only to have it inevitably come crashing down again.
After four tries, Madrid is nowhere near to having anything approaching a stable government. Ironically, this lack of clarity is the one true lesson of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections: Deadlocked Spain is a harbinger of a declining Europe’s fate.
Another fragmented result found acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party winning 120 seats, still far from the absolute majority of 176 necessary to form a stable government on its own. The center-right People’s Party (PP) increased its representation in Parliament to 89 seats (up from 66 in April’s contest). The far-right Vox was the big winner of the night, increasing from 28 to 52 seats, surprisingly making it now the third largest party in Parliament. The far-left Podemos saw its electoral fortunes decline as it won only 35 seats this time around. But the big loser of the night was the center-right libertarian Citizens Party, which saw its support plummet to just 10 seats, down from 57.
The inescapable conclusion of all this is that Spain has morphed, over the past five years, from a two-party system into a five-party free-for-all. In the old days, the center-left Socialists and the center-right PP would regularly account for 80 percent of all Spanish votes. Now, they account for a minority 48 percent.
This political sea change means inconclusive (and endlessly rerun) elections must now be the norm in the Spanish political landscape, fostering weak governments incapable of implementing any of the tough economic reforms necessary to revive Europe’s failing economic statist model. There will be little coherent public support to sustain the necessary wrenching changes, or indeed to do much of anything.
But Spain is hardly alone. It is merely the latest data point outlining a more general European political sclerosis. Likewise in Italy, France and even Germany, the center-right and center-left establishments have fallen away, leaving increased populism and electoral chaos in their wake.
And it is not a time for Europe to do nothing. At present, fully 90 percent of world economic growth lies outside the continent. Today, the EU countries comprise 7 to 8 percent of the world’s population and account for roughly 25 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), but consume a staggering 50 percent of the planet’s social spending. Something obviously has to give here, but mainstream EU politicians — the defenders of the old order — have no answers to this obvious existential problem. Worse, they have yet to even raise the question.
The broad policy responses to Europe’s demographic and economic challenges are as clear as they are unpalatable. Increase taxes (hardly possible), decrease benefits and raise the retirement age (hardly popular), or take in significantly greater numbers of immigrants (given the societal strains exposed in Germany by the recent refugee crisis, hardly likely). Given the present political deadlocks, a genuine reforming European leader (and few can be seen on the horizon) would have little luck implementing the drastic reforms necessary to safeguard the continent’s way of life, even if they wished to.
If Germany, France or Italy had even marginally successful growth numbers of 2 percent of GDP per annum, there would be no populist, anti-establishment problem. However, endemic failure to solve problems relating to its economic decline mean populism, and the threat to the European establishment, are here to stay.
At the broadest political level, what is happening in the heart of Europe now makes a great deal of sense when looked at through the prism of dramatic establishment party decay. In Italy, the old center-right (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) is merely the handmaiden of Matteo Salvini’s populist League. The old center-left Democratic Party has been bounced into a “coalition of the desperate” with the populist Five Star Movement to avert even further electoral decline.
In France, the center-right Gaullists and the center-left socialists have all but collapsed in favor of the centrist Macron and the rightist, populist Marine Le Pen. Even stolid Germany has begun to wobble, with Angela Merkel and the center-left Social Democratic Party last year experiencing their worst election results in decades, as the formerly populist Greens and the rightist, populist Alternative for Germany gained on them.
There is a common process at work here: An arrogant, out-of-touch European elite — which has failed and is so far gone it barely recognizes this — making little effort at self-criticism, let alone self-renewal and policy reform.
For, in the end, decline is a systemic process; a self-reinforcing feedback loop that is devilishly hard to escape. Europe’s present political sclerosis — brought on partly by economic sclerosis — is leading directly to policy sclerosis.
What it all portends is that the continent is in an advanced state of decline, with the abetting disease being what the ancient Greeks described so well as decadence: The inability of elites to solve a society’s basic problems and turning away from even trying to do so. Europe’s fall from great power status is a defining feature of our beguiling new era. This process is well advanced and unlikely to change.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.