LONDON – The success of mainstream parties in the Greek and French elections – New Democracy in Greece and the Socialists in France – has encouraged many to hope that the political status quo has prevailed in the face of populist temptations. But the overwhelming lesson of these elections is the inadequacy of national representative democracy in meeting citizens’ aspirations. In neither Greece nor France can new governments provide a solution to the eurozone crisis.
Europe’s common currency, far from uniting the continent, is doing the opposite, creating fear and division – something that is reflected in the rise of extremist parties like the Front National in France or New Dawn in Greece. What we are witnessing in Europe is not merely an economic phenomenon; it is a crisis of European democracy as well.
In a study of what we call Europe’s “subterranean politics,” a team at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working with partners across Europe, examined both new political parties and public protests, ranging from Occupy London to the Stuttgart 21 protests in Germany. We found that all of these phenomena share not only opposition to austerity, but also extensive frustration with politics as currently practiced. “They call it democracy, but it isn’t,” was one of the slogans of the aptly named indignados movement in Spain.
Germany is particularly interesting in this respect, precisely because it is far less affected by austerity than other European countries. Its economy recovered relatively quickly from the financial crisis, and it has experienced continued, albeit slow, economic growth. Nevertheless, the public display of subterranean politics is just as marked in Germany as it is in other countries. Squares have been occupied all over the country, just as they have in Spain and Greece.
For example, a wave of protests against infrastructure projects in major cities such as Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Berlin has featured so-called “Wutbürger” (angry citizens), who object to the lack of transparency in the planning process and to the absence of citizens’ participation. The case of Guttenplag – a Web site through which activists revealed that former Defense Minister Karl Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg had plagiarized his doctoral thesis – reflects popular concern with corruption among the political elite. Similarly, public protest forced President Christian Wulff, facing corruption allegations from his previous job as Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, to resign in February.
The success of the Pirate Party (a new party concerned with Internet Freedom and what it calls “liquid democracy”) in recent regional elections is yet another example of subterranean politics at work. As its name suggests, its attachment to and support of existing political institutions is opportunistic at best.
But, even in other European countries that are directly affected by austerity, activists cite the failure of democracy, rather than austerity per se, as the reason for their protests. Spain’s 15 May Movement, which triggered the occupation of squares across Europe, was inspired by events in Egypt, and included slogans like “Real democracy now,” “Apolitical, superpolitical,” and “A Cairo in every neighborhood.” As one of our interviewees in London put it: “This is a screwed up system in terms of allowing people to have a say, policies for the common good, informed debate, or critical media coverage.”
Eurobarometer survey data on trust in government and political parties support the argument that frustration with politics-as-usual is motivating protesters and resonating more widely. Sixty-two percent of Germans tend not to trust their government – and that is the lowest in Europe. Distrust of government is highest (80%) in Spain and Italy. Meanwhile, 78% of Germans (again, the lowest proportion in Europe) tend not to trust political parties, compared to a Europe-wide high of 86% in the United Kingdom.
Frustration with the political elite and the lack of participation is shared both by populist movements and what might be described as more emancipatory movements and initiatives. The difference is that the latter try to pioneer their own forms of participation and to develop new techniques of dialogue and democratic practice; this is what is happening in the occupied squares or through new forms of Internet activism.
If what is happening is a crisis of representative democracy, we will have to acknowledge that, even if the euro is saved, Europe will not be. And, vice versa, unless the political crisis is resolved, it may not be possible to save the euro.
The risk is that widespread political frustration in Europe will be captured by Euro-skeptic populist parties. What is needed is a far-reaching and inclusive debate about how to bridge the gap between political elites and citizens, so that ordinary Europeans can influence the decisions that affect their lives. In short, Europe needs to reinvent democracy in order to save it.