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The Crisis of European Democracy

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.