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Nov 15, 2012 | 11:15 GMT

3 mins read

Constraints on Europe's Leaders Amid Rising Social Unrest


On Nov. 14, trade unions held strikes in several European countries. The largest protests took place in the countries most affected by the European financial crisis: Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy. There were also smaller protests in France and Belgium.

The economic crisis is limiting the political and economic options that European leaders have at their disposal, regardless of the intentions of each government. European elites are increasingly disconnected from the realities of European voters as the economic crisis leads to a crisis of representation in the countries most affected by the economic slowdown.

While unions led street protests, European leaders tried to send a calming message. Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos said the austerity policies and deficit reduction programs implemented by Madrid are the only way out of the crisis. Similarly, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho asked the population for patience over the austerity measures, which he said are helping the country's finances recover. De Guindos and Passos Coelho were trying to send a message to international markets: Madrid and Lisbon will not change course even though their economies are in recession, unemployment has reached record levels and social unrest is growing.

On Nov. 13, French President Francois Hollande said the French presidential election, which was held only six months ago, brought "a change of power" but not "a change in reality," referring to the growing signs that the French economy is slowing down and referencing the need to implement reforms to boost competitiveness next year.

These statements confirm a basic principle of geopolitics: Political leaders have specific constraints, and their ability to make autonomous decisions is limited. Despite their campaign promises, their sincere intentions or their ideological leanings, politicians operate within specific economic and political boundaries — a fact that limits their choices and their ability to lead.

Just six months ago, Hollande won the French election promising to change former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's economic policies. In 2011, the conservative Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Passos Coelho came to power in Spain and Portugal, respectively, promising to handle the crisis better than the previous Socialist governments. Once in power, the three leaders discovered they had fewer alternatives than they had thought.

At the same time, the European crisis has separated the political elites from the interests of voters. Europe is experiencing a crisis of representation, where the traditional parties are unable to meet the demands of society. This explains the growing rejection of the traditional political system in many European countries.

This rejection has many different expressions. In Italy, the Five Star Movement rejects the country's political elites, proposes abandoning the euro and has announced that it will elect its candidates via the Internet. According to polls, the Five Star Movement is currently Italy's second most popular party. In Spain, the crisis has fed separatist desires, especially in Catalonia. The region will hold elections Nov. 25, and the Convergence and Union Party is expected to win. The party's platform includes a proposal to call for a referendum for the independence of Catalonia.

The rejection of traditional elites is particularly strong in Greece, where two anti-system parties (the left-leaning SYRIZA and the far-right Golden Dawn) received a record number of votes in the general elections. It took two rounds of voting for the traditional elites in Greece to withstand the onslaught of anti-system parties. Since then, Athens has been governed by a fragile coalition of traditional parties. But even if anti-system parties came to power, they would find themselves operating under the same geopolitical constraints. 

European leaders' options are dwindling. At the international level, the institutional framework of the European Union and market pressure limits their range of choices on economic and fiscal policy. At home, domestic populations are pressing for a change of direction that directly conflicts with the institutional and market constraints. Finally, groups that question the current political system are gaining popular support. 

As these opposing pressures become harder to reconcile, European leaders are losing room to maneuver. With most of the economies in the eurozone periphery projected to keep shrinking in 2013, the economic crisis will become more acute, and these pressures will only grow.

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