The Disenchantment of Europe

LONDON – The recent European Parliament elections were dominated by disillusion and despair. Only 43% of Europeans bothered to vote – and many of them deserted establishment parties, often for anti-EU extremists. Indeed, the official results understate the extent of popular dissatisfaction; many who stuck with traditional parties did so reluctantly, faute de mieux.

There are many reasons for this political earthquake, but the biggest are the enduring misery of depressed living standards, double-digit unemployment rates, and diminished hopes for the future. Europe’s rolling crisis has shredded trust in the competence and motives of policymakers, who failed to prevent it, have so far failed to resolve it, and bailed out banks and their creditors while inflicting pain on voters (but not on themselves).

The crisis has lasted so long that most governing parties (and technocrats) have been found wanting. In the eurozone, successive governments of all stripes have been bullied into implementing flawed and unjust policies demanded by Germany’s government and imposed by the European Commission. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the surge in support for extremists “regrettable,” her administration – and EU institutions more generally – is substantially responsible for it.

Start with Greece. Merkel, together with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, threatened to deprive Greeks of the use of their own currency, the euro, unless their government accepted punitive conditions. Greeks have been forced to accept brutal austerity measures in order to continue to service an unbearable debt burden, thereby limiting losses for French and German banks and for eurozone taxpayers whose loans to Greece bailed out those banks.