By now, the European Union has been struggling for over half a decade to sustainably resolve the euro crisis. And as the latest round of brinkmanship over the next bailout tranche for Greece shows, the crisis is far from resolved. It’s still too early to tell what kind of EU will eventually emerge from the crisis, but it is not too early to take stock of the political changes the past five years have already brought about.
Conventional wisdom has it that both left- and right-wing populism have been on the rise across the continent. Yet this lazy equation of left and right fails to capture a more complex picture: Only some of the new left-wing forces in Europe have really been populist. Their major achievement has been to establish an alternative to social-democratic parties that to some degree have been discredited by their association with the so-called Third Way of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder, which sought to reconcile the European left with market-friendly reforms and globalization. Meanwhile, right-wing populism does indeed threaten national democracies, both opposing and in a curious way benefiting from technocratic EU policies advancing austerity.
It is clear that, on the whole, a politically more-fragmented Europe has been the result. We are likely to see more indecisive elections, such as in Spain in December 2015, and, to some extent, Ireland in February 2016, and also ever-grander coalitions of parties uniting against right-wing populists, as witnessed in the aftermath of elections in several German federal states in March, as well as in the Austrian presidential elections in May. Whether this development amounts to a “crisis of representation,” as is often claimed, will depend on the answers to two questions: Can right-wing populist parties, which for now advance their agendas by claiming that they alone represent the “real people,” become “normal” parties representing the concerns of constituents with no exclusive claim to legitimacy? And can supranational politics in the EU be reshaped in such a way that it connects more meaningfully with developments within national party systems?
One often hears complaints in Europe that the substance of democracy is being hollowed out. The British social scientist Colin Crouch coined the term “post-democracy” more than a decade ago; his German counterpart Wolfgang Streeck more recently began to speak of “façade democracies.” The notion of post-democracy, especially, has widely resonated across the continent, capturing a diffuse sense that while the machinery of democracy—elections and transfers of power, among other things—continues to function, the heart and soul of democracy appear to have died. Both Crouch and Streeck have blamed the power of financial elites and the straitjacket that the European Union, and the eurozone in particular, have put on policymaking. But both have also relied on the image of a golden age of popular sovereignty in Europe, with which the sordid present can then be contrasted.
Such a contrast is dubious, though, at least outside the United Kingdom, where ideals of parliamentary sovereignty have remained largely intact and where the creation of the postwar welfare system, the National Health Service in particular, could indeed be understood as the direct translation of popular wishes into a profound restructuring of the polity. Elsewhere, the situation was rather different: Postwar leaders in Western Europe sought to erect an order designed, above all, to prevent a return to totalitarianism. To do so, they relied on a particular image of the past: one dominated by unconstrained “masses” that totalitarian leaders attempted to forge into completely homogeneous political collectives—such as the pure, ethnic German Volksgemeinschaft of the Nazis or the “Soviet People” that Stalin had sought to create in the 1930s.