June 14, 2004

European Earthquake

Elections in both Britain and Germany all but annihilated the political status quo.

The British Labour party came in a humiliating third place, which according to Andrew Sullivan is the worst showing at the polls of the party in power in British history ever. The right-wing Tories came out ahead of both Labour and the Independence Party, but even so it’s their worst performance since 1832.

Germany’s small-s Socialists were badly beaten in the worst landslide against them in postwar history.

I don't follow European politics closely enough to know what actually caused this. But I can see one thing that seemed to have nothing to do with it: Iraq. Blair favored the war and was creamed. Schroeder didn’t and was hammered. Perhaps there’s a wave of anti-incumbency sweeping Europe. Maybe Europe is swinging to the right. Then again, we’re only looking at two countries here. There may be no trend at all.

If this is a part of a trend, at this point I’d put my money on an anti-EU reaction. From the BBC:

Elsewhere in Europe governing parties in Germany, France and Poland are suffering big losses.

As in the UK, Eurosceptic groups are enjoying their best result at the polls.


Celebrating his victory, Mr Kilroy-Silk said: "Now we know why the British public are fed up with the old parties. They are fed up with being talked to in that simplistic manner.

"They want their country back from Brussels and we are going to get it back for them."

I’ve been skeptical about the EU for a while. I love the idea, especially for the sake of Eastern Europeans who could really use a leg up. Integration with the rest of Europe seemed to do wonders for Ireland and Spain and could do the same again for those left behind in the east. But the EU is a ham-fisted overly-centralized anti-democratic behemoth. I wouldn’t design it that way if I were in charge, and even though a European union makes a great deal of sense considering Europe’s tendency to chew off its own leg, I might vote against the current drift of the thing if I lived there, too.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 14, 2004 01:15 AM

Hi -

Well, as an expat yank living in Germany, I think I might have a bit of a clue for you: the results are the bill for the incompetence of the current political parties.

Europe, as you probably well know, is severly hamstrung from not merely labor rigidities, but suffering from structural problems that haven't even been adequately recognized, let alone dealt with. The first political party in Germany, for instance, to point out the fact that the German pension system is, today, effectively bankrupt (only the misappropriation of road building funds to pay for pensions saves the system from insolvency!) will be lambasted and thrown out by an enraged voting population that doesn't want to accept that the entire German polity is built on foundations of sand.

So they punish whoever is the incumbent by voting for the opposition.

While this is perhaps enormously satisfying, it reamins futile, since the conservatives don't have a clue machine either. Neither do the Greens, nor the big-s Socialists (PDS, the reincarnation of the east German communists), nor does pretty much anyone within the institutions of German politics.

The problem is that the entire facade of German politics - I can only speak of Germany, but there fundamentally isn't any reason this doesn't apply elsewhere - is that: a facade. Your political parties here are filled with hacks and sycophants, with very few decent politicos amongst them, since there is little or no direct voting here.

This means you vote for the party, not the man in the party. The party selects the candidates and while you can chose to spread your vote around, the vast majority of voters simply make their mark on the basis of the party and not of the candidates. This anonymizes candidates, since it really doesn't make a difference to many voters to who is actually doing the job. While there are exceptions to the rule, it does remain the rule.

So politicians are anonymous and hence relieved of responsibility, since it doesn't really make a difference what they do as long as they toe the party line. Mayors are as often hired to be a town manager as elected: it is a technocrat's dream.

The Greens in the 80s and 90s wanted to change this, but ultmately ran afoul of the system: they had a few good people, but insisted on revolving ("Rotationsprinzip") them out of their positions within a couple of years in order to put someone new in, someone who wouldn't have learned that the only way to get something done was to work within and with the system, rather than rant and rave outside of it.

This changed towards the end of the 1990s, which made it possible for the Greens to share power with the SPD, since there was more continuity and the Greens had attracted some decent politicos, such as Joshka Fischer and a few others.

But it means that there is no child to call out that the emperor has no clothes: everyone wants to be within a consensus, and views those who can read the writing on the wall as Cassandras.

Gotta run,


Posted by: John F. Opie at June 14, 2004 02:55 AM

John -

As a "European", it always annoys me when I hear Americans make generalisations about Europe's politics. In Europe, all politics is national - there simply is no continent-wide political consciousness or debate, as there is in the US. There is no Europe-wide political press, and the European political class in Brussels is isolated from its national roots, unloved and corrupt.

As to what caused the "annihilation" of the status quo - Iraq WAS a huge factor in Britain, but NOT in Germany. Germans were mostly happy with Schroeder's opposition to the war, but not with other actions of his government, while Britons were to a large degree hostile. The Conservatives and Labour, who usually win 80% of the vote in any nationwide election, and who both backed the Americans in Iraq, lost out to others, who didn't back America, and only won 50% of the vote. Of course other factors were important even in Britain, as Blair is perceived by many as having failed to reform public services, and as a sleazy and incompetent liar generally. That tended to determine which of the other parties got the protest vote, but not the size of the protest vote itself.

Posted by: PJ at June 14, 2004 03:26 AM

Tiny turnout, because it seems to most voters that the EU Parliament doesn't have much power. Who are any past leaders? No media exposure, no significant actions. Tiny turnout means those "angry enough to vote" are the main voters; angry at the national parties.

Yes, very national. No international, Europe wide parties, yet -- the European People's Party is moving towards that as a collection of Christian Democrat types; there's something similar for Social(ist) Democrat types.

The EU as a free trade area is great. But the French and Germans want "tax harmonization", so that the new, poor, lower taxing countries (like Slovakia & Estonia) would raise their rates, and waste, to levels of Germany. The pension bomb is huge, and coming, and prolly a lot of anti-US/ anti-Iraq rage is a projection of rage against themselves for being so stupid.

Previously, the unelected EU commissioners would make laws, like on cheese for example, and most folk would just ignore the fact that they are in violation. But lately the EU has been pushing for actual enforcement of their thousands of pages of silly micro-management laws restricting & requiring so many aspects of so many people. And the free trade benefit doesn't need this "unity". As EU laws get enforced, expect more and more backlash against Brussels.

Watch at what level the EU constitution includes Christianity, or not -- the technocrats are also in a struggle over the soul, or soullessness, of the EU. And in Poland, for instance, abortion is generally illegal. There's a similar Kultur war: the same secular fundamentalism vs tolerant Christianity (allied with Christian fundamentalism).

The unsustainability of current secular European civilization is becoming more pronounced every year. Pension problems are a LOT more certain than global warming; and it's not clear what will happen when the current Euro-boomers retire. No IRAs, no 401(k)s, slowly increasing unemployment, massive Muslim immigration supported by anti-assimilationists. The econ squeeze has already started, and will prolly get worse -- though the new countries will help, hugely.

Posted by: Tom Grey at June 14, 2004 03:52 AM

The perception of Americans is that European governments are, as a whole, more comprehensively controlling of aspects of life; Europe has bigger government, in other words. For better AND for worse. I'm not judging here. I'm not sure how much disagreement there is among Europeans about this, but it's MY impression as well.

Pre-EU and right now, each country's big government is culturally idiosyncratic, not big government across the board, and also idiosyncratic in economic policy, especially regarding their policy about imports and exports. (related of course to those things they most need from abroad and those things they most derive income from in selling abroad). Different countries have had the luxury of laughing at their perceptions of other nations' governmental excesses...while ignoring their own cherished ones

Now Europe is facing difficult choices about how much control they are willing to cede to a more centralized government in the EU. If it is to be killed off, now is the last chance. If not, many things will change over time, and there probably won't be any going back. What I think scares people if the idea of what I guess I'd call "highest common denominator" government policy. The EU is likely, as time goes by, to adopt the policies that match the most big government of the different nation's policies, much as America is prone to adopting "progressive" policies that California generates. This means that almost every prospective EU-wide policy , if it's expected to be enforced, is likely to engender a huge battle over whose ox gets gored.

I think it's going to be quite fascinating to watch as the drive towards more power for the centralized EU government occurs against a political backdrop wherein various european governments are being forced to consider how economically sustainable their current levels of social welfare are. The older democracies like France and Germany are used to getting a pretty generous deal, but are such deals sustainable as newer hungrier democracies compete by providing goods at a lower cost? Stay tuned.

Many have dismissed this old-europe/new europe divide, but it's real, and it's playing out in euros and cents across Europe. Unless Europeans are very very different that us, they are going to care a whole lot more about such issues than about Iraq as time passes. If Iraq is able to muddle along slowly towards something resembling democracy, and doesn't explode into widespread violent factional chaos, it will just slide off the table, because it's not really a bread and butter issue, it's abstract for most.

Posted by: bk at June 14, 2004 05:47 AM

I'm inclined to believe this is unrelated to Iraq, and more related to dissatisfaction with the EU.

It's doubtful the British conservatives will be more dovish on Iraq, yet they came out on top; and German socialists have already proven their pacifist credentials in Iraq, yet they got booted.

Posted by: David at June 14, 2004 07:05 AM

PJ, interesting post. However a comment if I may. You note "As a "European", it always annoys me when I hear Americans make generalisations about Europe's politics."

As an American (formerly dual citizenship in Germany and the USA - Born in Bayreuth and partly raised in Budingen, Stuttgart, Bad Neuheim and Bayreuth and present in Berlin on 9/11) it annoys me when I hear Europeans make generalizations about America's politics, including who we can and can't have as our President, including what we can and can't do in our own national interests and who we can and can't partner with in the furtherance of our goals. Get my drift amigo?

Posted by: GMRoper at June 14, 2004 07:22 AM

You are confusing two different elections.
Labor came in second in the Euro voting - losing some votes and seats, but actually holding their position better than the Tories who came in first, but lost more seats and more percentages. The new Independence party was the big winner, coming in third. The dynamic I sense here is that euro-skeptics have some passion and use these elections to push their concerns, whereas the major pro-EU parties generally yawn their way through these things. The EU parliament is far less powerful than most people imagine, so its not like there are really very high stakes - hence the "single issue' parties use it to make a statement.

Labor came in third in the local elections. It is here that the impact of Iraq seems quite relevant indeed. The party that seems to have done best is the Lib-Dems - the only major party that opposed the war.
I think Andrew Sullivan was putting his best Tory face on the results - my sense is that the Brits are generally supportive of the social spending policies of Labor, but not the Iraq policies.

I really think you overplay the "earthquake" story. The stakes in these elections are not high, and they often serve as a means for the voters to express displeasure at the gov't without actually giving the opposition any power. Just look how often you see the euro delegation of a country in the hands of the opposition party.

And even with that, it doesnt seem to be such a big earthquake in any case. And certainly not a "shift to the right". The socialists did best in France, the left did best in Italy, the ruling socialists won in Spain. Shroeder got a hard slap, but Labor in the UK muddled through to about the same relative result as last time.

Overall it seems to amount to the usual cost-free anti-incumbency vote with an added boost to the euro-skeptics. Not much of a big deal. For the EU itself, putting more skeptics in the parliament probably makes the institutions stronger - better having them on the inside making the institutions more accoutible rather than on the outside trying to tear it all down.

Posted by: Tano at June 14, 2004 07:24 AM
For the EU itself, putting more skeptics in the parliament probably makes the institutions stronger - better having them on the inside making the institutions more accoutible rather than on the outside trying to tear it all down.

On that we may agree. I for one have serious issues with the EU's voting and representative structure as well as it's "constitution" which to me seems more to be a hardwiring of policy rather than a guide to government structure. What sold me off of it was when select EU proponents were having some kittens over the general electorate ratifying [I believe it was] their constitution. But on the whole, I agree with Mark Stein's cute snap on how the EU is a "Government in search of a Nation" (which is never a good thing) rather than the other way around.

Posted by: Bill at June 14, 2004 08:03 AM

Everyone has to be devisive; at least they were open and free elections. One may not like the particular style of democratic process, One may not like the decisions made by some of the electorae... However, proponents of deomcracy should applaud and be proud of every democratic process.

Even the ones with results we don't like.


Posted by: Ratatosk at June 14, 2004 08:23 AM

What Ratatosk said, and then some. True democratic elections, regardless of the victor is the ultimate expression of self rule. The road may be tough, it may have twists and turns and mudslides galore, but the destination is the best hope for mankind.

God Bless Us All (regardless of country)

Posted by: GMRoper at June 14, 2004 08:48 AM

I don't know what to make of the results of recent European elections and, like most Americans (I suspect), I don't much care. Europe has so many knotty problems to contend with that I wouldn't be surprised if they turn to navel-gazing for some time to come. How can the system of social services be maintained? How can the EU subsidies to French farmers be justified in a Europe that includes Romania (with nearly half as much farmland) and Ukraine (with more)? What does it mean to be French today? European? With increasing African and Asian immigration?

With slow GDP growth compared to the U. S., China, India, and many others, Europe fades into irrelevance in world affairs.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at June 14, 2004 08:53 AM

Tom inadvertently dope-slapped me with...

The EU as a free trade area is great. But the French and Germans want "tax harmonization", so that the new, poor, lower taxing countries (like Slovakia & Estonia) would raise their rates, and waste, to levels of Germany.

And that's the other thing that troubles me. France and Germany haven't exactly played by the EU rules when it comes to fiscal management of their own economies (dare I say that it's "unilateral," nah, cheap shot.). Meanwhile they aren't in the best of shape in general. I read some things recently on France's situation, as one example, that would lead me to think that the EU's fiscal policy would lash developing and advancing economies to an "Old European" albatross to the former's immediate, and the latter's chronic detriment.

A Free Trade zone and common for the EU would be great as Tom indicates. But its so much more than that, which makes me more of an Euro-skeptic the more I study the benefits of the EU.

Posted by: Bill at June 14, 2004 09:02 AM

"All politics are NATIONAL?"

Then where is the accountability to the needs of constituents between cantons, districts, prefectures, whatever?

Democracy doesn't work when the electorate doesn't regulate the ability of government to act. Government is people - individuals. In all deliberative bodies through history, you will never find a historical reference to the actions of the whole. The impetus for success comes from an individual, or a small group within the body, that steps up and leads.

Of course, failures are stepchildren...

The evolution of the EU governing mechanism seems aimed at insulating the policy makers from any level of direct responsibility to the populations that will be subject to the laws generated by that body. A previous poster pointed out that the silliness over cheese regulation and other such micromanagement gems have been largely ignored up until now. Voter apathy all by itself seems to indicate a pretty low opinion for the process in train...but eventually the EU will have to act to make these laws stick.

Democracy doesn't work when participation falls below certain levels. A robust constitution with widely accepted checks, balances, and strong protections of individual liberties can be a great shield. I doubt that the man in the street over there is much more connected to constitutional law than here...but what they have come up with for the EU is something like the Manhattan white pages. That's a lot of room to move if you are a government looking to control vice represent.

I am not a European...but I don't think that maintaining smaller, weaker nations as labor pools or clients to Germany and france is going to work. The welfare states must be reformed across the continent or something is going to break.

Posted by: TmjUtah at June 14, 2004 10:23 AM

I confirm Michael's comment. European leftist parties cultivated the illusion of taking benefits from pacifism and anti-americanism (Italian moderate leftists changed on purpose just before elections their standing about iraq, from an anti-withdrawal stance to a zapateristic haring). It was a wild illusion. In Italy too they did not gained substantial advantages. In Italy the center-right coalition stands out, shifting towards religious, christian parties, anti-immigration and euroskeptic ones. This is the real effect of middle-east war. Anti-americanism had no real weigh, contributing only to harm moderates in the leftist coalition and benefiting extreme positions. European future will be signed by anti-europeism, nationalism and anti-immigration feelings, not by anti-americanism

Posted by: Paolo at June 14, 2004 10:35 AM

Here's a very smart guy who has been skeptical of the EU's viability for a long time


Posted by: Moonbat_One at June 14, 2004 12:36 PM

Moonbat_One, thank you a lot for the link! Terrific article.

Posted by: Paolo at June 14, 2004 12:41 PM

In Denmark, the traditional anti-europeans lost the election, and I guess that is because we have had some long discussions and referenda to be in or out of the EU, and now a lot people have decided that it is better to vote politically than just against, as it does matter whether someone you more or less "accidentally" vote for is conservative or socialist, no matter what stance he has on the EU. By accidentally, I mean that if you vote for a list against the EU, you never know if the guy or gal recieving the vote will have any of your other political views. I think it matters that we here have the only elected supranational parliament on earth, and I am pretty happy about having a parliament, and not just a diplomatic run-together.

Posted by: Kim Gammelgård at June 14, 2004 01:56 PM

You know...sometimes elections are just elections. I doubt these shifts really mean much of anything, that is to say, I doubt there's some big unified theory behind it.

Who knows. I could be wrong. Doubt it, though.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at June 14, 2004 04:22 PM

Three big cheers for the European voters ! Maybe there is hope for the Europe after all. The last thing Europe needs is a centralized superstate with bureaucratic fascists in Brussels micromanaging their lives.

It is no accident that Europe - with roughly the same demographic profile and population as the US - has produced no Microsofts, Intels, or Wal-Marts. Too much government control, too much taxation, too many regulations, too much of an entitlement mentality, and not enough of an entrepreneurial spirit.

Europe needs a frictonless, integrated, tariff-free economy. What Europe needs is a Reagan Revolution. Otherwise, the US, and eventually China and India, will leave Europe in the dust.

Posted by: Freeguy at June 14, 2004 05:52 PM

Bill writes:

it's "constitution" which to me seems more to be a hardwiring of policy rather than a guide to government structure

I agree. The proposed EU Constitution is 100 times the size of the US Constitution. It is not a set of guiding principals but a policy wish list. Since amendments will require unanimous consent of member nations, it will be harder to modify than the US Constitution. Even policies that are reasonable right now are stultifying when they are set in stone at the highest level for all time.

Posted by: Lewis at June 14, 2004 05:55 PM

Exactly Bill ( and Lewis ) ! Europe needs to be more flexible, open and adaptive. The beauty of the US Constitution is that it defines the framework , the foundation for a free society in which people chart their own course..and the result is a very open, dynamic, creative society.

That is what Europe needs. The Magna Carta and Bill of Rights are British-American in origins. The US and UK simply have a longer history of individualism. That is why London is the financial center of Europe, instead of Paris or Frankfurt.

It is largely a cultural difference I think, which is reflected in politics. But one thing is certain : globalization is not going to stop, and the nations which are hamstrung with regulations and high taxes are not going to be successful. The future belongs to open societies and innovative people who welcome free trade.

The UK will be fine as long as it stays out of the clutches of Brussels ! The UK is much like the US in it's attitude about capitalism and freedom. But Continental Europe needs to change. The fantasies of Chirac and Shroeder for a Franco-German centered Europe are just that - fantasy.

Posted by: freeguy at June 14, 2004 06:24 PM

Lewis, I blame air conditioning and word processing, semi-seriously.

The Constitution was drafted and signed in the late spring and summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. Men in very hot clothing worked with very slow quill and ink to get something down that everyone could agree on before they had to go home to deal with the harvest (or at least the secondary business effects of the harvest). In other words, these brilliant battle-hardened men were hot and sweaty, under financial pressure, and limited in their abilities to foist hard problems onot someone else back home (no email or cell phones).

The commitee responsible for the European Constitution had none of these advantages. It shows.

A nice summary of what happened in Philadelphia:


Posted by: Mark Poling at June 14, 2004 07:07 PM

John Opie has a good point. Unfortunately it's this Euro (not UK) voting system that the UN wants to saddle the Iraqis with.

Posted by: someone at June 14, 2004 07:51 PM

But I can see one thing that seemed to have nothing to do with it: Iraq. Blair favored the war and was creamed. Schroeder didn’t and was hammered.

PJ made the point about the inaccuracy of this statement pretty well in the second post.

But wasn't it sloppy to look for the generalization in the first place? The UK Labor government sent thousands of troops to war on a premise that turned out to be substantially false. Germany had no involvement in the war.

Wouldn't you, then, expect voters to be more influenced by the war in Britain than in Germany?

As, indeed, all the opinion polls and commentary indicate.

This seems to me to be yet another example of the wishful thinking that pervades your thinking on anything to do with Iraq.

Posted by: Mork at June 14, 2004 11:19 PM

Mork, see http://windsofchange.net/archives/005077.php
and http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/common/story_page/0%2C5478%2C9800858%5E661%2C00.html
about banned Iraq weapons being found in Jordan scrap heaps. THAT's a good criticism of Bush & Bremer. Your premise that turned out to be substantially false is far from being settled, or having turned out negative. In fact it is slowly turning out to be slightly positive. Only a strong positive could have been a conclusion in such a short time. The miles of documents, at least, will have to be reviewed before it can "turn out" negative, as you claim.

Evidence is asymetrical.

Quick update on the current Slovak governing coalition getting 8 of 14 MEP posts, for 3 of the 4 parties; 6 went to the opposition (3 each, 2 main parties). Lots of little parties got none. To be in the national parlieament, a party must get at least 5%. To get an MEP rep, a party had to get some 7%.

Most of both opposition and governing parties support a Christian Europe, meaning mentioning this in the EU constitution.

I wouldn't be surprised if the EU constitution was shot down, again; and I hope it is.

Posted by: Tom Grey at June 15, 2004 03:59 AM

"Elections in both Britain and Germany...."

This is a very odd way to put this. A reader not already familiar with the events would naturally assume you were referring to national elections, affecting the national parliaments.

But, of course, they weren't. They were largely meaningless EU elections revolving around protest votes against national governments, and local-council-only elections in Britain (and the singular Mayoralty of London, which Ken Livingstone, who is back in Labour, breezed to victory in).

"But I can see one thing that seemed to have nothing to do with it: Iraq."

That's absolutely wrong. It was the major reason Labour in Britain suffered so badly. Um, have you been reading any British newspapers, at all, prior to, or after, the election?

(I've not followed the German elections, and have no comment on them.)

"Celebrating his victory, Mr Kilroy-Silk said...."

Unfortunately, Kilroy-Silk is pretty much a racist semi-fascist; I take it you are unfamiliar with him, and haven't followed the story of the UKIP? (He was the long-time host of an extremely popular British morning tv chat show, fired for repeated racist, bigoted, remarks.)

Posted by: Gary Farber at June 16, 2004 01:29 AM

Gary Farber,

What basis do you have for accusing Kilroy-Silk for being a "bigoted" "racist" "semi-fascist?" The specific comments that got him fired were none of these things. If there is a larger pattern, please provide links. He was fired for speaking the truth, which is a policy violation at the BBC (Big Brother Corporation) these days.

P.S. Don't cross the BBC:


Posted by: HA at June 16, 2004 03:41 AM

HA - take a look at this and see if your views hold. As far as I know Kilroy's article isn't available online officially but here's a page where a transcript is available.

Using FOX news links to back your argument that the BBC don't speak the truth? Nice one. That makes sense.

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