As the financial dangers surrounding the Greek bailout calm, Europe’s leaders are looking ahead to other, political dangers. The English edition of the Greek paper Kathimerini carries an interview with Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, about the political fallout from the drama in Greece:
I am really afraid of this ideological or political contagion, not financial contagion, of this Greek crisis. Today’s situation in Greece, including the result of the referendum and the result of the last general election, but also this atmosphere, this mood in some comments – we have something like a new, huge public debate in Europe. Everything is about new ideologies […]
For me, the atmosphere is a little similar to the time after 1968 in Europe. I can feel, maybe not a revolutionary mood, but something like widespread impatience. When impatience becomes not an individual but a social experience, this is the introduction for revolutions. I think some circumstances are also similar to 1968.
The most impressive for me was this tactical alliance between radical leftists and radical rightists, and not only in the European Parliament… The discussion about Greece, it means a discussion against austerity, a discussion against European tradition, anti-German in some part. Everything was provoking enthusiasm on both sides. It was quite symbolic.
It was always the same game before the biggest tragedies in our European history, this tactical alliance between radicals from all sides. Today, for sure, we can observe the same political phenomenon.
Mr. Tusk is probably right to be concerned, for two reasons—one which he sees, but the other which he doesn’t and has actually played a role in creating.
The continuing alignment between parties across national lines on pan-European questions—what we have called the emerging politics of Europe—is a sign of the Continent’s maturity. But Tusk is right to point out that, historically, European extremists have helped one another out. Fascist parties have found common cause with other fascist parties, communist parties with communist parties, and even fascist parties with communist parties. The way non-extremist European parties, whether center or left, have recently reinforced one another suggests that this dynamic is still potentially viable. If fascism, communism, or other extremist parties do emerge in Europe, there’s good reason to be concerned about them feeding off one another.
But Tusk should ask himself why extremist parties might reemerge at this particular moment. In part, they owe new life to the timeless tactic of selling people a fantasy that helps them avoid ugly economic realities. But in part too, they’ve benefited from a leadership crisis: the Greeks and others have a political class that has repeatedly refused to do what it was voted into office to do. Now, admittedly, the Greek popular will is unworkable, but there’s only so much you can protect people from themselves. H.L Mencken’s quip that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” is famous because there’s some truth to it. Leaders who don’t do a reasonable job of honoring the popular will, even a misguided popular will, are likely to see vigorous opposition.
Most European leaders, however well meaning, are essentially blind to the fact that people might want something other than what they’re offering. Tusk again:
This new intellectual mood, my intuition is it’s risky for Europe. Especially this radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative to this traditional European vision of the economy. I have no doubt frugality is an absolutely fundamental value and a reason why Europe is the most prosperous part of the world
This blindness presents a particularly acute problem when the people see the European leaders not so much as offering a economic model as using their bail-out leverage to enforce it. In January, the Greeks voted Syriza into power to make radical changes. Now, for all the drama, they’re back where they began. If the Greeks or others are not getting what they want out of the ballot box, Tusk & Co. should be right to worry that they might start looking to other, less democratic, more radical options, such as Golden Dawn or the far left.