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How Left and Right Are Combining to Undermine the European Project

How two divergent strands of European politics are combining to unravel the continental unity.


The two main threats to the idea of “Europe” — that fluffy, vague, frequently invoked concept of a united, open continent committed to liberal democratic values — come from the right- and left-wing extremes of European politics. With Greece’s leftist Syriza government currently engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken with its creditors, the left-wing argument that Europe has become dominated by a narrow-minded focus on budget austerity at the expense of human welfare is currently playing out on the front-pages of the continent’s newspapers.

Syriza is itself not opposed to “Europe” — as silly as that formulation sounds. It wants to stay within the EU and keep the euro as the country’s currency. But as Greece heads to the polls on Sunday to vote on a set of economic reforms, Syriza’s belligerent negotiating tactics and the intransigence of Greece’s creditors have combined to put the country on a path to possibly exiting the euro. The euro’s permanence was one of its founding assumptions, and if Greece leaves the currency area, it would undermine the foundation upon which that idea of “Europe” is being built.

Meanwhile, a far more pernicious brand of politics, an anti-immigrant, right-wing nationalism, is spreading across Europe. In Britain, the UK Independence Party is growing with every election. In France, Marine Le Pen and the National Front will make their most serious challenge yet for the French presidency. In dreamy Scandinavia, the Sweden Democrats, with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, are that country’s third-largest party, and now the latest victim is Denmark, where that country’s newly minted center-right government depends on the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party to hold power. Consequently, the government this week announced that it would slash benefits to asylum-seekers in the country, which doubled from 2013 to 2014. “The effect will hopefully be that fewer asylum-seekers come to Denmark,” Integration Minister Inger Støjberg told reporters.

Denmark will also impose new border controls, all the while strenuously maintaining that the new controls are within the guidelines of the Schengen agreement — the landmark measure that removed intra-Europe border controls and facilitated freedom of movement on the continent.

Like many other European countries, Denmark has been flooded with refugees in recent years. And like most European countries, it has done a generally miserable job integrating them. First- and second-generation immigrants make up 12 percent of the 5.6 million who live in Denmark, and the rise of the Danish People’s Party can be mostly attributed to the fear that immigrants are taking over the country. Their Orwellian, awful — and totally brilliant — slogan: “You know what we stand for.”

A more accurate, if less politically appealing version of that slogan, would be “You know what we are against”: Islam, immigration, multiculturalism, and a more fully integrated Europe. And therein lies the terrible irony of recent events in Greece. Syriza represents none of these ideas, but the crisis it has now become embroiled in also threatens the European project.

Indeed, the European left has been marked in recent years by a comedy of errors. There is a great deal of agreement across the center-left and left-wing factions of European politics that austerity, the Berlin-driven policy of budget discipline in the face of sluggish economic growth, has not paid economic dividends and has had terrible consequences for the poor, the downtrodden, and the working class. French President François Hollande was elected in 2012 with a mandate to end austerity but has been unable to deliver on that promise. Syriza’s election victory was built on the same vision. Like Hollande, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has found himself unable to deliver.

As a result, Europe finds itself being pulled apart from the left and the right, as right-wing populists argue for a return of national sovereignty and the left clamors for the undoing of austerity. In the center is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and one can only feel humbled by the enormity of the political task she has on her hands. She too has intransigent domestic political forces to contend with, namely, a widespread unwillingness to offer further concessions to Greece. At the same time, Merkel is charged with keeping the European project moving forward — and that too is wrapped up in the historical fact that the European project is itself a reaction to the wartime actions of Nazi Germany and an effort to ensure that such devastation never returns to Europe.

Even as that project has mostly managed to end interstate warfare on the continent– the exceptions being the current state of affairs in eastern Ukraine and the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s — the primary cause of misery in the world, the plight of refugees, is intimately connected with the challenges facing Europe. There are now 60 million refugees in the world, and many of them are looking to Europe for succor, as embodied by the thousands of people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. It is these men, women, and children who are the target of Europe’s right-wing populists.

Could a more creative politician than Merkel somehow reconcile the competing demands of austerity, left-wing anger, a growing refugee population, and the right-wing backlash? It’s hard to come up with what Merkel could do about the last two. But the first two represent the outcome of a policy that she has championed.

In the topsy-turvy world of European politics in 2015, it will be Greek voters on Sunday passing judgment on that policy.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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