Monday 7 May 2012

Hup Hollande Hup!

Sunday was a big election day for Europe. France elected its first Socialist President in 17 years with Francois Hollande, and the Greek electorate looks like it has given the two main parties a huge kicking.

Hollande will add to the pressure for a change in direction in the EU when it comes to austerity, and Hollande has already set himself up to be the leader of counter-austerity Europe. Though he will undoubtedly clash with Merkel, in the end they’re likely to muddle through unless Merkel sticks to an absolutist vision of austerity Europe. With austerity failing in practical terms – S&P used its report on Spain to critique the front-loaded austerity programme and the EU’s general policy – and countries like Italy voicing the need for a better approach to growth (while endorsing austerity in general), the political winds look like they will shift the continent leftwards to a degree (Europe is still dominated by the centre-right EPP political family).

Within Germany there is more debate on Eurobonds, etc, than I think outside commentators give credit for, though there is still a lack of debate. The opposition Social Democrats and Greens are more enthusiastic on Eurobonds and deeper fiscal integration, but the rise of the Pirate Party makes the German political scene more unpredictable. Germany has been caught up in a lot of comment on the rise of Die Piraten: what exactly are they about? Do they have the kind of leadership structure or policy programme that makes them a credible force? If they remain so unstructured – and wedded to “fluid democracy” (crudely put, where policy is crafted online by activists and then represented in parliament by Pirate representatives) – could they ever be capable of coalition with the other parties?

Sunday brought an election in the Northern German Land of Schleswig-Holstein, where the Pirate Party gained 8.3%, and there was little between the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), even if the centre-left coalition is ahead - the rival Christian Democrats-Liberal bloc trial the Social Democratic-Green bloc 39% to 43.4%. It now looks like the Social Democrats will lead a coalition with the Greens and the Danish minority party SSW (which is not subject to the same 5% threshold as the other parties), that may have a majority of just 1. The Liberal FDP is unlikely to do as well at the federal level as in Schleswig-Holstein (honestly, after the bad year they’ve had, being kicked out of one state parliament after another, their 8.2% vote in S-H is a huge victory), but it just demonstrates how the sudden rise of the Pirates could splinter the political field further.

Muddling along will likely continue in Europe, except now the hope is that we’ll start to see a direction with more solidarity develop. The biggest shock to the system will be the Greek elections, where it could be very difficult indeed to form the next government. With the far-right getting into parliament and the collapse in the vote for the two main parties, political instability is going to dog Greece and the rest of Europe for a long time to come. France and Germany can’t afford to squabble for too long: Greece will be bursting back on to the agenda before we know it.

And the referendum in Ireland? I don’t know how much Hollande’s election will make a difference until – or if – he makes it clear if he is seeking another treaty to supplement the Fiscal Stability Treaty or a renegotiation. From what he’s said it looks like he wants an extra treaty – it’ll be easier to get this, as it will be easier for Merkel to agree to this without losing face – and Ireland might be in a difficult position if it rejects the treaty to push a joint cause with Hollande... and then have to re-run the referendum in order to get the second treaty too (though it should then be clear that enough’s changed to have a re-run at least). The vote’s not until the end of May, so there’s still some time to read the signals from the Élysée.

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