Europe: A Crisis of Representation

6 MINS READNov 15, 2013 | 11:33 GMT
Europe: A Crisis of Representation
A French protester stands near a fire during demonstrations against the ecotax.

Because unemployment will remain at seriously high levels in most EU member countries for the foreseeable future, the gap between the rulers and the ruled will not narrow anytime soon. The position of the ruling elites is weakening, but the anti-establishment groups that seek to replace them are not strong enough to take over. Protest groups pervade Europe, but most lack the organizational integrity to become viable political actors. At this point, a key issue in Europe is whether its traditional institutions of representation will be able to capitalize on social discontent in the future.

One of the most notable consequences of the European crisis is the gap it has created between voters and political and economic elites. As the situation in Europe evolved from a merely financial problem to an unemployment crisis, public support for traditional elites at home and abroad dropped dramatically in most eurozone countries. At home, politicians, bankers and even union leaders and businessmen increasingly are seen as part of the problem. Abroad, EU bureaucrats and foreign governments, most notably Berlin, are seen as isolated from the countries most affected by the crisis.

The resultant disconnect has created a significant development we have covered for some time: the rise of anti-establishment parties. In some cases, these parties have nationalist or euroskeptical proclivities; a few openly reject the free movement of goods, services and people within the European Union. Parties as diverse as France's National Front and Italy's Five Star Movement belong to this broad group of anti-establishment forces. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party represents a more extreme version.

Trade unions are also significant political actors in most eurozone members, protesting austerity measures and pushing to soften some reforms. Several countries in the eurozone have applied reforms to their labor and pension sectors since the beginning of the crisis, and unions have tried to influence the process with varying degrees of success. General strikes and protests have become commonplace, particularly in peripheral eurozone countries.

How the Mainstream Survives

However, political parties and trade unions can only go so far in harnessing social discontent. Mainstream political parties have been discredited in most countries — just not enough for their anti-establishment rivals to supplant them.

Several factors explain this phenomenon. First, although anti-establishment parties are becoming more popular, they are not regarded as viable political options by most populations. Even modestly successful groups like the National Front or the Dutch Party for Freedom are struggling to find acceptance as conventional parties.

Ironically, mainstream acceptance could undermine these parties' power. Generally, they find it easier to be in the opposition. Real power means real responsibility and constraints, and not all parties are ready to make that transition. Since its surprising performance in Italy's 2013 general elections, the Five Star Movement has been dealing with several internal conflicts that have hurt its popularity. These conflicts result from poor institutional structure and, more notably, a presence in the parliament — a situation that requires making unpopular decisions.

Second, anti-establishment parties sometimes operate in electoral systems specifically designed to curb their popularity. Such is the case in France, where the two-round voting system reduces fringe parties' chances of accessing power. The winner-take-all system in the United Kingdom serves a similar purpose. As a result, parties such as the National Front and the U.K. Independence Party have been systematically underrepresented in their respective parliaments.

Other nations with proportional representation, such as Italy and the Netherlands, make it considerably easier for fringe parties to enter parliament. Still, these parties are often forced to deal with tacit alliances between mainstream parties, which often neglect to cooperate with the newcomers. In most cases, the best scenarios for anti-establishment parties are minority governments, in which they can push their nationalist agendas in exchange for supporting a fragile government. This happened in the Netherlands, where the Party for Freedom provided support for the minority coalition, and in Bulgaria, where nationalist Ataka Party supports the current Cabinet.

Trade unions do not fare much better; unionization has been declining steadily in Europe for the past three decades. Unions are still strong political actors in countries such as Italy and France because they are represented on the boards of companies, they can organize strikes successfully and they are often well connected to mainstream parties.

However, their power has waned. Aside from declining membership, unions are often unpopular, perceived as representative of only specific interests groups. The European crisis adds another layer to this problem — unions tend to represent people who have jobs. Because millions of Europeans have become unemployed since the beginning of the crisis, most unions do not really represent those at the margins of the system.

Grassroots Movements

The decline in popularity of mainstream parties, the electoral and institutional challenges faced by anti-system parties and the insufficient representation by trade unions explain yet another feature of the European crisis: the emergence of grassroots movements, groups of people who coalesce to defend specific interests or to achieve specific goals. The Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, which was created to fight evictions in Spain, is one such group. Initially, its sole purpose was to reform the Spanish mortgage law, but eventually it developed ties with other grassroots groups, including 15-M, a youth group that protested against the government of former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2011.

The "red caps" movement in France is considerably more difficult to describe. Comprising elements from various backgrounds, including the center-left and the center-right, union leaders and businessmen in the agricultural and transportation sectors, the red caps emerged in Brittany, a region in northwest France, to protest against the so-called ecotax, a levy on heavy transport vehicles. The movement's name is derived from anti-tax protests by peasants in Brittany in the 17th century, highlighting the group's sense of regional identity and history. However, the rejection of the ecotax is the only issue that binds the movement's disparate elements together.

The evolution of the red caps is meaningful in that it represents a broad-based anger toward the French government, one that cannot be explained simply by ideological or social divisions. Indeed, a few days after the protests in Brittany, several supporters of right-wing parties wore red caps as they booed French President Francois Hollande in Paris, suggesting that red caps have ceased to symbolize merely an anti-tax movement in a region far from Paris.

If their goal is to make a lasting political impact in their countries (which is not always the case), these grassroots organizations may find it difficult to outlive their original messages. Often, they lack the cohesion, structure and funding to survive long enough to affect their country's political systems. In some cases, they disappear after achieving their original goals. In others, they disappear even earlier. The mainstream parties have big advantages in funding, infrastructure and experience, which largely explains their prevalence despite the disparities between the ruling elite and the constituencies they govern.

If the current elites outlast the crisis, they will feel increasingly challenged by grassroots movements and anti-establishment parties in the future. As a result, they will try to merge their policies with those of fringe groups to appease voters. This, too, may undermine efforts for European integration.

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