Until last week European leaders thought their worst nightmare was that Syriza should triumph in the Greek general elections. Now that the leftwing populist party is in government, they worry instead about what will happen if it fails. Lain low by austerity politics, the two parties that held sway after Greece’s transition to democracy in 1974 have watched voters veer off to the left and right. If this trend spreads, it may threaten the European project itself.
The EU’s founding generation knew from bitter experience that democracy was a recent implant with a fragile record. As recently as 1921, the legal scholar James Bryce had written with surprise of “the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government”. But things had quickly gone awry. The European left was already ambivalent towards parliamentary politics, even before the Depression and the example set by Stalin’s USSR. The right, the great victor on the interwar continent, was a parade of strongmen, clerics and generals. The centre could not hold.
By 1939, most of the continent’s functioning democratic systems were in ruins, victims of a flight to the extremes. Weimar Germany, the most modern constitutional polity of its day, gave way to the Third Reich. Across eastern and southern Europe, the interwar transition to democracy was thrown into reverse as no fewer than 16 countries shifted right. Only after 1945 did parties on all sides slowly come to terms with the virtues of political moderation. This painstaking restoration of the centre ground was the precondition for democracy’s reconstruction.
History rarely repeats itself. Today’s far right talks the language of democracy, and its electoral strength may make that talk sincere, for now. That is small consolation. What it stands for could be more lethal to the EU than anything leftwing populists can unleash.
Though critical of the direction the EU has taken, parties such as Syriza and Spain’s Podemos remain staunchly Europeanist. Not so the forces of the right. Golden Dawn, a frankly Nazi party, held its vote steady in the Greek election, coming third, despite much of its leadership being behind bars. Politically, it is eurosceptic; economically, its vision is of fascism in one country.
The shaved heads of these muscle-bound hard men may not worry people outside Greece. But a shift rightward is under way elsewhere, too. In France, the disarray of the centre-right UMP has benefited Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which came top in last year’s European parliamentary elections. The Danish People’s party scored a similar victory. The picture is even bleaker because the polls do not show how the threat from the fringes influences parties of the centre-right itself. It is a phenomenon found right across the continent. In short, the battle to defend the continent’s shared currency is reviving a rightwing language of national purity, racism and independence.
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Syriza’s victory stood not for a repudiation of Europe, but for a redefinition of it. The moral reasoning that lay behind the Greek result began from a simple insight: economic trauma of the severity that Greece has suffered is destroying society. With youth unemployment above 50 per cent, an entire generation is being consigned to the scrap heap. At the same time, the notion of the common good is being sacrificed through forced sell-offs of state-owned lands as well as businesses, with the prospect of ecological destruction as a result. This view of austerity and its impact united classes and ages, town and country.
You can understand why people would take such a stance across debtor Europe — although this is apparently beyond the comprehension of much of the creditor north. Yet the lenders should take note, because this may be the last roll of the dice. It is tempting to write the Greeks off as irresponsible whingers and show them the door. Except that others may then follow them out of the euro, or even out of the EU itself, leaving Europe somewhere close to where it was when the entire integration project began more than half a century ago.
This time, things will be worse. Worse in part because institutionalised co-operation is needed more than ever, now that globalisation has forced peoples together and the room for going it alone has vanished. Worse, too, because half a century ago people had a vivid memory of what fascism can lead to, whereas now we seem to have forgotten.
If the Greek vote was for solidarity, it displayed a virtue that too much of the continent has lost sight of. German or Finnish voters may feel they have shown enough solidarity with the Greeks. But strictly speaking they have mostly shown solidarity with their own financial institutions — which would have been among the biggest losers if Greece had not been bailed out — and that is another thing entirely.
What is the moral vision the creditor nations propose? Frugality is not a policy. And if finance is to serve Europe rather than run it, a notion of the common good needs to be restored. The alternative is an increasingly fractious continent. What Europe risks if it does not change course is the further erosion of the political centre and the rise of rightwing extremism — and perhaps the disintegration of the union itself.
Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia and author of ‘Governing the World: The History of an Idea’