Responding to Europe’s Political Polarization

PARIS – In Europe, 2015 began with the far-left Syriza party’s election victory in Greece. It ended with another three elections that attested to increasing political polarization. In Portugal, the Socialist Party formed an alliance with its former archenemy, the Communists. In Poland, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won enough support to govern on its own. And in Spain, the emergence of Podemos, another new left-wing party, has ended the traditional hegemony of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party on the center left and the Partido Popular on the center right. (In France, moreover, the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, showed its strength in the first round of December’s regional elections, though it eventually failed to win any).

The message is impossible to miss: Increasingly, voters are deeply dissatisfied with mainstream parties and are willing to give a chance to those proposing radical alternatives. They are lending support to parties that, though very different from one another, all blame the European Union for the sorry state of their countries’ economies and labor markets.

To be sure, radicalization is not limited to Europe nowadays. As I have argued elsewhere, American presidential candidate Donald Trump owes his rise to many of the same factors that are driving Le Pen’s growing popularity. What is particularly problematic in the EU is the clash between radical politics and mainstream governance.

For 30 years, center-right or center-left parties with a broadly shared vision of Europe have governed most EU countries. Despite their policy disagreements, they jointly embodied the ideological consensus – and formed the political coalition – that built the single market, the euro, and the enlarged EU.