Europe’s Fragile Center Takes New Blows

ROME—Europe’s months of electoral showdowns between mainstream and populist parties have ended with the establishment weakened in Germany and defeated in Italy—and trouble brewing for both countries.

A new bipartisan governing pact sealed Sunday in Germany could further fuel voter discontent with longtime incumbents in the European Union’s most important country, potentially sapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority in what is expected to be her final term.

Germany’s center-left Social Democrats said rank-and-file members had approved joining a coalition led by Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats. The country is expected to have a new government by mid-March, ending an unprecedented political paralysis since September’s national elections, when a fragmented vote exposed a decline in support for traditional parties.

Meanwhile antiestablishment, EU-skeptic parties won about half the vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Italy, leaving the shape of the next government murky. Backlashes against immigration, the euro’s fiscal constraints and politicians decried as corrupt boosted support for populists such as the antiestablishment 5 Star Movement and the right-wing Lega.

A populist-led government appeared possible, albeit politically challenging, given the 5 Star’s strong performance. Lengthy wrangling is expected.

The weekend’s events capped a year of elections in which the EU’s broadly centrist governing establishment faced its strongest-ever challenges from insurgent movements, ranging from far-right nationalists to far-left anticapitalists. The outcome: The center’s hold is slipping, and its enemies are here to stay.

At stake is the survival of Europe’s order since the end of the Cold War, based on steadily deeper economic and political integration among liberal democracies ruled by pragmatic, postideological elites. That model faces challenges from the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, along with authoritarian tendencies in some of the EU’s eastern members such as Hungary and Poland. The assumption of power by nationalists and other populists in the EU’s founder countries in Western Europe would greatly increase those centrifugal pressures.

Whether Europe’s insurgents grow stronger in coming years, and how much pressure they put on the EU’s cohesion, depends in large part on whether mainstream politicians can win back ordinary Europeans’ trust. That would require tackling issues such as economic inequality and the stifled opportunities for young people, barely controlled immigration that is spreading fears about security and cultural identity, and a pervasive perception that technocratic elites are offering voters little choice, hollowing out democracy.

The battle also hinges on how well Europe heals from the economic and migration crises of recent years, which did much to inflame popular discontent. A belated but spreading economic recovery is one source of hope for the establishment. So, too, are stronger efforts to tighten immigration policies. Mainstream conservatives in countries such as Austria, the Netherlands and Germany have sought to stem the influx of people from Europe’s poor and war-ravaged neighboring continents that was proving politically destabilizing.

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“The center is shifting right in response to non-European immigration. The nation-state will take back some of its powers from the EU, notably control over borders,” said Josef Joffe, a senior fellow at Stanford University and publisher of German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. “As Europe shifts rightward, populism will be absorbed and contained.”

Others aren’t so sure. “Our mainstream politicians aren’t learning,” said Cas Mudde, a specialist on populism at the University of Georgia. Some think economic growth alone will save them, while others are betting on copying populists’ messages, he said.

Italian populist parties won close to 50% of the vote in Sunday’s elections according to exit polls. In 2008 elections, antiestablishment parties won barely 15%. Italy’s adherence to unpopular EU rules, including its curbs on budget deficits and on government aid for small savers when banks fail, could come under increasing pressure.

Whether Italy benefits or suffers more from the euro has become contested in this once staunchly pro-EU country, even though populist parties have lately backed away from demanding a referendum on the euro.

Those populist parties might be able to form a governing majority in Italy’s new parliament, depending on the final seat count. In practice, though, it is unclear whether the 5 Star Movement would be sufficiently willing to share power to entice others to cooperate.

Italy shows how populists can drive the national debate even in opposition. “They don’t need to win to force the mainstream onto the back foot, making them reactive,” said Wolf Piccoli of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence in London.

Germany’s bipartisan coalition between Ms. Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats, or SPD, will be the third such pactsince 2005. Back then, the two long-dominant parties had around 70% of voters’ support. Now it has declined to barely 50% in recent opinion polls. Many people in both parties have strong reservations about the new governing pact because they fear it will strengthen the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, now Germany’s largest opposition party.

SPD members approved the coalition pact partly because they feared new elections would decimate the party, which is suffering a long-term decline along with many other moderate-left parties in Europe.

Many Christian Democrats aren’t happy either, blaming Ms. Merkel’s consensus-oriented, centrist style for alienating conservative voters. The discontent on the party’s right and September’s weak election result are likely to constrain Ms. Merkel’s authority in negotiating overhauls to the EU with France’s President Emmanuel Macron in coming months.

Mr. Macron is pushing for deeper integration and mutual economic support among eurozone countries. He swept France’s elections last year on a centrist, strongly pro-EU platform, defeating a nationalist, EU-skeptic opposition. EU elites greeted the French outcome with relief and enthusiasm.

France increasingly looks like Europe’s exception, however. The fragmented politics of Germany and Italy appear to be Europe’s new norm.

Write to Marcus Walker at marcus.walker@wsj.com

Appeared in the March 5, 2018, print edition as ‘Votes Further Fray Europe’s Center.’

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