Good News From Europe
NAPLES, Italy — In the Sherlock Holmes mystery “Silver Blaze,” the most significant clue was the dog that did not bark. In the euro crisis, the most telling development to date may be the political extremism that has yet to arise.
Here in Italy there is a long history of radical politics on both the left and the right. In the 1970s, political groups to the left of the Communist Party enjoyed popular support. Neo-Fascists sat in parliament. But today, despite Gallup findings that 71 percent of the Italian public is struggling economically, extremist political parties have yet to reemerge.
The same holds true in much of the rest of Europe. The euro crisis, the worst economic emergency since the Great Depression, has not sparked the degree of nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism seen in the 1930s.
For Americans, who must work with the Europeans to revive global economic growth, the failure of political extremism to gain traction here should be heartening.
In every European election since the euro crisis began—in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland—voters have rejected extremists on both the left and the right.
The next such test comes in late April, in the first round of the French presidential election. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the right-wing National Front, is a xenophobe and a nationalist. In an early March 2012 IFOP survey of voter intentions, she had the support of 18.5 percent of the French electorate. This marks a rise in the backing accorded her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who received 10 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2007 French presidential election. Nevertheless, a January TNS Sofres survey found that the French public’s support for National Front policies—a crackdown on immigrants, a rejection of European integration—has actually declined since April 2011.
The left-wing presidential candidate, Jean Luc Melenchon of the Front de Gauche, has demonstrated even less appeal, with the backing of just 8 percent of the public.
Organized parties of the left and the right have limited support in other parts of Europe as well. In Germany, a mid-February poll by the ZDF television network found the Left Party, largely former communists, attracts only 7 percent backing, down from 13 percent in October 2009. The popularity of the extreme right wing, the National Democratic Party, barely registers at the national level.
In Austria, the right-wing Freedom Party received 15.2 percent of the vote in the 2010 presidential election. That was up from 10 percent in the 2002 parliamentary elections, but less than the party’s support in the 1990s.
In other parts of Europe, the euro crisis has sparked widespread strikes and violent public demonstrations. But this backlash has remained outside the political process. There has been no strong right-wing or left-wing electoral backlash in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Italy, the European Union countries that have suffered most in the last three years.
Nor are there signs of any increase in broader nationalist sentiment. The Pew Global Attitudes Project periodically asks Europeans whether their culture is superior to others. Only in Germany have such views increased in the last decade. In Britain, France, and Spain, such views have declined.
With the stark memory of the experience in the 1930s, a rise in protectionist sentiment might be expected in the wake of the euro crisis. But in fact, the European public’s commitment to open markets remains as strong as ever, according to Pew.
Xenophobia also often increases during times of economic stress. And the proportion of Europeans who believe that immigration is a problem rather than an opportunity has gone up since the crisis began, according to the German Marshall Fund’s annual immigration survey. Nevertheless, concern about immigration has actually gone down relative to other worries.
The long-term political consequences of Europe’s current economic woes have yet to fully play out. The euro area as a whole is headed into recession. And the downturn is likely to be deep, painful, and prolonged. Nearly one-in-two young people in Spain are already out of work. In Greece, Portugal, and Spain, public spending on pensions, unemployment benefits, and other social welfare will be slashed, imposing widespread hardship.
Europe could still lurch to the left or to the right as it struggles to cope with its economic problems. And the risk of political extremism taking root should not be discounted. But, to date, the current European critique of modern capitalism sparked by the euro crisis has not jelled into formal political movements. There is no parallel to the emergence of the Fascist and Communist parties that gained power in the 1930s. This is good news for both Europe and the United States.
Bruce Stokes is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.