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Barbarians at the Gate?

Europe's lumpen outsiders are becoming insiders as the Continent's political pendulum swings to the right. After the Netherlands and France, Germany may be next (German elections are due in the autumn, and the center-right candidate - Minister/President Stoiber of Bavaria - is now the favorite). Spain, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal are already ruled by center-right governments. This swing does not simply mark the return of traditional conservative parties and policies - smaller governments, more attention to the interests of capital - to power. Something new is at work.

What's new is the fact that many of today's center-right governments are supported by populist or nationalist parties. In Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark, the government is either a coalition or a minority government propped up by the pivotal support of populist right-wing parties. In France the government is composed of mainstream center-right politicians. Yet, President Chirac owes his victory to the success of the far right National Front.

This is a decisive novelty. In the past, Europe's political contests were waged between left wing parties representing the interests of labor, and right wing parties representing the interests of capital. Centrist parties that represented the middle classes and moderated the ideological extremes of left and right were pivotal. Nowadays, ideological differences between left and right are blurred. So a new breed of politicians and a new constituency of voters hold the balance of power.

The successes of populist/right wing parties can largely be attributed to the failures of left-leaning governments. Europe's disappointing economic performance lies at the root of this. European unemployment remains high, and productivity growth (and hence living standards) has slowed since the mid-1990s. Even non-economically-minded voters perceive the striking difference with the US, where productivity growth has skyrocketed since the mid-1990s and unemployment is far lower. Some voters are beginning to think that their cherished European welfare state may be to blame.