America’s debt-ceiling crisis achieved something quite remarkable. It made the EU look well governed by comparison. Both the EU and the US systems are weighed down with checks and balances that make it hard to get things done. But Europe currently has one thing going for it that America lacks. All the most important decision makers in Brussels are committed to making the system work. There are no Tea Party types who regard compromise as a betrayal.
This broad centrist consensus was an unacknowledged strength of the EU throughout the euro crisis. Although it became routine to complain that European leaders always do “too little, too late”, the markets also realised that – even if Europe’s leaders did not get it right first time – they would just reconvene, at yet another emergency meeting, and keep bashing away at the problem. The fact that all 28 national leaders at EU summits are committed to working together is crucial in keeping the euro alive.
In the coming year, however, the big danger to the European single currency is that the political consensus that underpins the euro could come unstuck. A weak economy, weariness with austerity, anger about immigration and resentment of a remote-seeming EU are fuelling the ascent of anti-establishment and nationalist political parties across the continent.
These rising political forces are gaining ground in big EU countries such as France, the Netherlands, Britain and Italy – and also in smaller nations such as Greece, Hungary, Finland and Austria. Given that the EU requires unanimity for many big decisions, even a small state that goes rogue could cause real trouble.
As the Tea Party has demonstrated in the US, anti-establishment radicals do not need to capture the position of president or prime minister to gum up the system. Even if traditional pro-EU centrists continue to lead most national governments in Europe, their room for manoeuvre at EU summits is greatly reduced if populist parties are making big gains back home. A Dutch prime minister who fears the anti-EU Freedom party – which is topping the opinion polls at present in the Netherlands – will find it much harder to agree to a new bailout for southern Europe. Similarly, a British leader who is losing ground to the UK Independence party will be driven to take more extreme positions in EU negotiations.
Next year’s elections to the European parliament also look like a possible breakthrough moment for a European Tea Party. The parliament has traditionally been the most federalist institution in Europe, acting as a lobby group for the transfer of more powers to Brussels. But next May’s elections are likely to show a surge in votes for eurosceptic parties across the continent. It is quite feasible that the National Front will top the polls in France, that the Freedom party will win in the Netherlands and that Ukip will be the biggest single bloc from Britain.
What is more, the European parliament has recently gained new powers. While it lacks the blocking capacity of the US Congress, a rebellious European legislature could reject the EU budget, prevent crucial appointments and refuse to sign off on legislation that is needed to prop up the euro.
Europe’s rebel parties are very far from forming a coherent bloc. They range from proto-fascists such as Hungary’s Jobbik to the far-left Syriza in Greece – and from conservative nationalists such as Poland’s Law and Justice party to semi-anarchists such as the Five Star Movement in Italy. Some of the anti-establishment parties, such as France’s National Front, are trying to make the journey from the far right towards political respectability. A few, such as Ukip and parts of the Italian right, share the tax-cutting, small-government agenda of the Tea Party. Other rebel parties in Europe, including the Dutch Freedom party, have cast themselves as defenders of the traditional welfare state.
What almost all Europe’s anti-establishment parties share with the Tea Party, however, is an anti-elitist rhetoric that casts mainstream politicians as the servants of a remote, globalised elite. Another central theme that unites most of Europe’s anti-establishment parties with the Tea Party is resentment of immigration. When mainstream politicians say – correctly – that their ability to curb immigration is constrained by EU rules on free movement of people, they merely fuel populist rage at “out of touch” elites.
Opinion polls in the richer countries of western Europe show an increasing voter concern about migration – legal and illegal – that is rich fodder for Europe’s Tea Party types. Anger about the economy and about immigration are fusing – and can then be easily directed at the EU itself, which has large powers in both areas. As one British official puts it: “Ukip’s dream is to get Europe, immigration and welfare into the same sentence.”
Beyond particular issues, what Europe’s rebel parties really share with the Tea Party in America is a political style – a rhetoric that holds that the system is rotten, that society is heading for disaster and that therefore compromise is a betrayal. Even in the US – which has built up global confidence in the dollar over centuries – the Tea Party’s political machinations came close to causing a financial panic. For the EU, which is still struggling to rebuild confidence in the euro, the rise of a European Tea Party would risk disaster.
Me Here.........This author shows how clueless he is about the American TEA Party. He does show that people in Europe are getting fed up with an unresponsive central government that dictates to rather than to the people. He is so afraid of the people being able to tell a government what to do.