A bad election trifecta

There were three elections today conducted in the shadow of Europe’s austerity measures and impending recession:  France, Greece and Serbia.  All three saw good showings by anti-austerity, less pro-European forces.  The outcomes of the first two will reduce further the role Europe plays in world affairs, at least for the next few years.  The third suggested that Serbia will continue in its current policies, which are nominally pro-European but still export insecurity, in particular to Bosnia and Kosovo.

In France and Greece, opponents of German-style austerity had a good day.  Francois Hollande’s victory over Nicolas Sarkozy guarantees a tug of war between Paris and Berlin.  The parliamentary election outcome in Greece is not so clear yet–it will be several days before it is decided who will head the governing coalition and which parties will participate.  But the good showing of smaller, anti-austerity parties of the left and right in the Greek parliamentary elections guarantees continuing uncertainty about whether Greece will implement the tough austerity required to obtain International Monetary Fund money.  The bankers are worried.

The anti-austerity advocates in both Greece and France may well be correct that growth is Europe’s real need, rather than fiscal retrenchment.  But Germany remains adamant about austerity, so the election results ensure continuing quarrels and painful adjustments inside the euro zone, which is already headed into recession.

So long as Europe remains focused on its own internal problems, it can play only a limited role in the rest of the world.  The Americans will be fortunate if the Europeans manage to maintain any significant number of troops in Afghanistan into 2014.  The prospects for enlargement beyond Croatia, which is supposed to gain membership in the European Union next year, are dim.  Europe’s role in the Arab awakenings is already minimal.  In Asia and the Middle East, it has condemned itself to a predominantly commercial role, though it leads the nuclear talks with Iran.

In Serbia, ethnically nationalist parties performed well.  The presidential outcome will be decided in a run off two weeks hence.  Moderate nationalist President Tadic did not do particularly well but seems have edged out his rival Tomislav Nikolic, who in the past has bested Tadic in the first round.  Whoever wins, Belgrade seems determined to continue its quixotic effort to prepare for membership in the European Union even while laying claim to Kosovo, whose independence is recognized by 22 EU members, and supporting Serb separatism in Bosnia.  The leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, campaigned openly for Tadic.  These policies are incompatible, but only a few marginal figures in Serbian politics are willing to say what is obvious:  Kosovo is lost and a united (but decentralized) Bosnia is in Serbia’s interest.  Partition would mean the creation of a rump, radicalized Islamic state on Serbia’s border.

So what we can look forward to is a weaker Europe less willing to enlarge or play an expanded role in world affairs generally.   The Balkans will be left increasingly to their own devices, which have repeatedly proved not only inadequate but also dangerous.  Washington, preoccupied with other matters, will occasionally weigh in to restrain its friends–especially the Kosovars and the Bosniaks–from making big mistakes, but otherwise it will try to leave matters to a Europe that doesn’t really care if the Balkan road to the EU is a slow one.

Maybe we’ll muddle through.  Maybe not.  But the election trifecta means that the European Union and its attractiveness to non-members is weak and growing weaker.  That’s not good.

 

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4 thoughts on “A bad election trifecta”

  1. A quibble: the EU may slow down after Croatia, but there really isn’t any reason to expect they’ll abandon Montenegro at this point. (Negotiations are expected to start in June, they’ve probably already hired the hall.) Montenegro is small enough to be affordable, and so would be an inexpensive way to make the point that the EU is consolidating, not closing the doors. It would also serve as a guarantee that Serbian mischief-making won’t end up throwing the place into complete turmoil (as an incentive to rejoin Serbia).

    Russia may find the terrain more interesting in the near future, even if Tadic wins the runoff election. (The preliminary results currently show him slightly behind Nikolic.) With Putin having won his own election, but against the rising discontent of a well-educated and comparatively well-off middle-class, he may find himself forced to let the siloviki have their way in order to maintain himself in power, as much as the economy needs to transition to a less state-guided system. An early example of this – the recent threat of a preemptive strike against the yet-to-be-built European missile defense system. In such circumstances, Russian meddling in the Balkans can be expected as a way of keeping the pressure on a Nato that would really rather be refocusing its attention somewhere else right about now. Helping out Nikolic or Dacic with shows of support for their nationalistic supporters may be a natural move for the Russians. All in all, it’s really not a good time for the EU to go all wobbly.

    1. As almost all Europeans with a decent access to information would tell you, the EU enelargement process *was* already over. I mean that after Croatia for at least a decade nobody would have enteread in the Union. The results of these elections are just an official stamp on it.

      Concerning Serbia, nothing happens by chance. Basically the approach towards the area hasn’t been reassessed after the Milosevic ousting: the “Serbian nationalism” has been considered the first danger and a separate entity. On the contrary, nationalism in Serbia is affected by the nationalism in surrounding area (the wider phenomenon of the Balkan nationalism). Managing wisely a de facto, if not de jure, partition of Kosovo would have led to a weakening of Albano-Kosovar nationalism and, as a consequence, a very likely weakening of nationalism in Serbia. But nothing dramatic really happened, Radicals are out of Parliament and maybe, at the next turn of wheel, reason will eventually prevail.

  2. The French and Greek results show the bankruptcy of the German policy of demanding that Europe overcome its debt crisis through wrist-slitting austerity. Whatever one thinks of the economic wisdom of this approach – seems counter-intuitive to me – it could never hold against the absolutely predictable democratic reaction. The debt crisis was never just about finances but also about people and politics.

    The only way to square the circle formed by popular reaction against politics that puts austerity above all other goals would seem to be cutting from Euro. This would allow a return to own currency that can be inflated when necessary to spur growth. With Greece, this may be only a matter of time. Where would it stop? Maybe it’s just not possible to have one currency and one economic policy for an entire group of sovereign states.

  3. In Serbia, ethnically nationalist parties performed well” Seselj’s party disappeared from parliament.

    Whether you believe in austerity or spending, in the end you will need to pay attention to the core of the economic problems (property bubbles, a finance bubble, Southern Europe that long could afford a huge trade deficit with the North thanks to subsidies and loans). Unfortunately that isn’t happening and so we are stuck with sterile discussions while the problems keep accumulating.

    I believe that austerity is good in so far as it eliminates wastage and creates space for new initiatives. It also prevents debt problems in the future. However, when a fifth of your working population and half of your youth is sitting home unemployed you are wasting a lot of resources that could contribute to the economy.

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