The 7-year itch: Europe's elite face judgment in 2015

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Reuters / Alkis Konstantinidis
Seven years after the ‘Great Financial Crash’ destroyed many European economies and left the rest anemic, 2015 will be the year its political ramifications are fully felt.

The continent faces a political earthquake as long standing elites will finally tumble.

Anybody who is married or in a long term relationship will know all about the concept of the ‘7-year itch.’ Hopefully most will find or found it easy to scratch. However, 7 years after the crash of 2008 placed much of Europe under the jackboot of German-led austerity; it’s not so much psoriasis as a rage that engulfs the continent. Forthcoming elections in key states have the potential to change the European project forever and maybe even end it altogether.

Almost all European countries have followed a very similar post-war/post-autocratic rule political pattern. The two main parties are almost uniformly a centre-right and a centre-left grouping that trade governance every 5-10 years. Think Britain’s Conservatives and Labour and Germany’s CDU and SPD. Alongside these, there are usually smaller parties who occasionally hold the balance of power, commit to coalition with a bigger partner and are slowly strangled by having to take unpopular decisions in government. Many don't even survive the experience and ultimately fade away.

The general rule has been that the smaller bracket in multi-party administrations has suffered more at the next election than the bigger unit. This is obviously due to the weaker grouping having to concede more policy positions. An excellent current example is in London where the Liberal Democrats have, in 4 years, gone from the crest of a wave to struggling for any relevance at all.

This stable governance has been the main pillar of the EU’s rise and expansion. If a member state changes Tweedledee, it’s for Tweedledum and both are pro-Brussels. Stuffed with careerist politicians, who know which side their bread is buttered on, neither the nominally right nor the nominally left side of the divide is likely to upset the ‘European project.’ This is about to change. Radically.

Greece's leftist main opposition Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras.(Reuters / Alkis Konstantinidis)

Radical left rising

By the end of 2015, it’s quite likely that the largest party in both Spain and Greece will not be from the traditional centre pair, but of the radical left. Ditto in Denmark, but rather coming from an extreme right, nationalist perspective. Additionally, UKIP might become a serious player in London. As it stands, UKIP have already had the effect of sending the previously centrist Conservative Party hurtling to the right, so their effect will be felt in more than just their own Westminster seat tally.

Greece will be first up, later this month. Every survey conducted since May has confirmed that SYRIZA will secure the most popular support, the only disagreement being on the margin of victory, anywhere from 2-11 percent. Their charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, is a communist who named his son after Che Guevara. Tsipras blames the neo-liberal elite in Brussels for destroying the EU economy and sending his country into penury. He has also indicated that, if or when SYRIZA take power, he will force markets to “dance to the tune” of Greece. Furthermore, he dislikes Angela Merkel and blames her for intensifying, rather than aiding, Greek woes.

The Brussels establishment is terrified of Tsipras. Not merely because he may steer Greece out of the eurozone but because of what his success could unleash around the continent - proof that there is an alternative to neoliberalism and supplicant Eurocrats. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already betrayed his anxiety, saying "I wouldn't like extreme forces to come to power. I would prefer if known faces show up.”

Meanwhile, voices around the institution are extolling Greeks to support the centrists, Antonio Samaras’ ND and PASOK, the classical ‘big two.’ The problem is that in December polling, the latter were scoring only around 6 per cent, so it’s clear the ship has sailed on that notion. SYRIZA won’t win an overall majority but should be able to form a coalition with one of the motley crew of small entities, varying from the nationalist ANEL to the fascist Golden Dawn.

Tsipras will have 4 months in the limelight as a magnet for anti-Brussels feeling until the UK decides in May. While the EU elite might feel they can handle a Greek exit, surviving the withdrawal of its 3rd largest economy and 2nd biggest military power is another matter entirely. In the short term, UKIP will probably do Brussels an unlikely favor. By blocking David Cameron’s Conservatives from securing re-election, they will open the door for the pro-EU Labour to form a government. This will serve to stave off the 2017 ‘in-or-out’ referendum on British membership that Cameron has promised.

UKIP's British earthquake

However, the longer term effect of UKIP securing between 10-20 percent of the popular vote and 30-60 seats (based on polling data) will be to drive the Conservatives further to the right. One assumes Cameron will resign, to be replaced by Boris Johnson. Unlike Cameron, who personally supports the EU, Johnson has pledged to remove Britain from the organization entirely. Hence, it’s almost certain that the central issue in Westminster for the next 5 years will be Europe. Inevitably, with UKIP marginalized, barring an economic miracle of some sort, the Conservatives will be returned next time out and will finally break the link between London and Brussels.

Next up will be Denmark where the Danish People’s Party is forecast to almost double its share of the vote from 12 percent in 2011 to around 20 percent this time. While that won’t be sufficient for the radical nationalists to enter government, it could force the conventional pro-European centrists into coalition. Obviously, one or other of Venstre (right) or the Social Democrats (left) would see their identity diluted and the interloping DPP would become leaders of the opposition. As sure as night follows day, their threat would then be much more substantial in 2019.

Leader of Podemos, a left-wing party that emerged out of the "Indignants" movement, Pablo Iglesias.(AFP Photo / Josep Lago)

Nevertheless, I believe it’s Spain which will ultimately cause the biggest immediate ruckus. Its election is expected in the Fall and a party founded only 12 months ago is on target to emerge victorious in the biggest conceivable slap in the face to the establishment. Founded by 36-year-old Pablo Iglesias, Podemos is flying high at 25-29 percent in polls. Like Greece’s Tsipras, Iglesias is a communist who vows to restore Spain’s sovereignty but, tellingly, doesn’t propose removing Spain from the eurozone. Instead, Iglesias pledges to change Brussels from the inside, replacing the neoliberal, pro-American bosses with leftist leaders across the continent. Iglesias also promises to immediately remove Spain from NATO.

The notionally socialist PSOE, who were in power as the 2008 crisis hit, have pushed left in an attempt to counter Podemos. Interestingly, their support has broadly held-up at around 20 percent. The losers have been the governing Christian Democrats of the People’s Party - their support has almost halved from 45 percent in 2011 to the mid-20’s now. All indications are that a left alliance will be returned in Spain with the newbie Iglesias replacing Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister. Whatever about Greece, having the EU’s 5th largest economy controlled by an anti-NATO communist is the stuff of nightmares for Brussels.

Dublin finally explodes

Ireland could also face elections, but technically the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, can wait until 2016. Currently, his embattled Fine Gael-Labour coalition is reeling from mass-protests over water charges, a legacy of the Troika. The likelihood here is that Sinn Fein, under the leadership of alleged former IRA supremo Gerry Adams, might head the next government. Soft Euroskeptics, Sinn Fein could ally with the rump Fianna Fail party. Fianna Fail were the most successful democratic political grouping in Europe of the 20th century, holding power for 50 of 68 years before being almost wiped out in 2011. To further complicate matters, Fianna Fail’s origins were also in an earlier incarnation of the IRA and their founder, Eamon DeValera, was a previous Sinn Fein leader.

The biggest danger for Brussels is that a Sinn Fein government in Dublin will push for reunification with Northern Ireland, opening up a can of worms in Irish-British relations which would inspire border disputes across Europe. Interestingly, it’s generally accepted that the ruling pro-EU coalition has salvaged Ireland’s economy and economic growth has returned. The disillusionment is evidently rooted in disenchantment with elites rather than a financial “cry for help.” This suggests that even an unlikely Europe-wide financial recovery might not be sufficient to bolster the establishment around Europe.

Whatever the economic portents for Europe in 2015, whether a combination of quantitative easing and low oil prices stimulates recovery or fiscal malaise continues, the political ramifications of austerity will be felt this year. To say the EU will never be the same is not hyperbolic, it’s a statement of fact.

AFP Photo / Valery Hache

I mentioned the ‘7-year itch.’ In the eponymous Billy Wilder movie, Marilyn Monroe stands over a subway grating with the wind blowing up her white ivory dress. It’s one of cinema’s most iconic images. Despite the rush of air, Monroe’s wardrobe didn’t malfunction and her modesty was protected. Brussels is now facing ill-winds - will its system manage the storm and can its unity be protected?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.