Fragmentation and Instability Becoming the Norm in Europe – At Precisely the Worst Time

  • Thibault Muzergues,

On Friday February 26, Irish voters went to the polls to elect 157 representatives in the Dáil Éireann (the Irish lower chamber) and, by extension, the composition of their government. 

Traditionally, Irish politics has been a two-and-a-half party system, with the center-to-center-right parties Fine Gael (a member of the European People’s Party, EPP) and Fianna Fáil (a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE) in competition for first place and the resulting right to form a government, if need be with the support of the center-left Labour Party (a member of the Party of European Socialists, PES), which has historically scored between 9 and 19 percent of the vote.

However, as in many other countries, the economic crisis following the 2008 Great Recession has upset this balance.  Five years ago, after 13 long years in power that saw Ireland’s GDP rise spectacularly and then collapse equally spectacularly after 2008 (while the country’s debt skyrocketed), Fianna Fáil suffered a spectacular blow as it lost almost 50 percent of its electorate compared to 2007 and ended up third, thereby opening the way for Fine Gael and Labour to form a coalition which took the drastic measures necessary to rebalance the budget and reform the economy so that it could resume its high-speed development.  After five years, the government of Taoiseach Enda Kenny could certainly boast excellent figures to defend its record:  with 7 percent GDP growth in 2015, Ireland is now back in the driver’s seat of Europe’s economy and its unemployment rate, after reaching a 15 peak in 2012, is now down to 8.6 percent, lower than the EU-28 average.  However, ordinary Irish people are still not feeling this recovery according to polls, and with homelessness reaching historic highs in Dublin this year and youth unemployment still at very high levels (just below 20 percent since October 2015), Irish voters certainly had room to express dissatisfaction as well as satisfaction with Kenny’s government.

In the end, results proved all too familiar to observers of current European politics:  with 25.5 percent and 24.3 percent of the vote, respectively, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil reclaimed their dominant position in Irish politics, but without either of the two being able to claim victory.  Furthermore, they together had the lowest combined score for the first and second party in the country’s independent history, a blow for traditional politics in Ireland, but also a common sight across Europe.  The Labour Party collapsed, losing more than half of its 2011 vote and the status of third-place party to Sinn Féin, a left-wing nationalist party not bent on compromise (historically linked to the Irish Republican Army-IRA, it is today more akin to a left-wing anti-establishment grouping in the Republic).  As Sinn Féin immediately announced that it would not go into coalition with any of the major parties, the country is left with no other option than a grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which have been in fierce opposition to each other since the Irish Civil War – with coalition talks will be made more difficult by the very similar scores of both parties. Barring any major surprise in the coming days, the people of Ireland will have to get used to a hung parliament for the next few months.

The pattern is not unique to Ireland. A few months ago, the Spanish and Portuguese general elections led to a similar set of results, with increased fragmentation and a first party too weak to lead coalition talks.  At the time of the writing this post, Spain seems to be nowhere near any coalition, and it might be that Spaniards will have to go back to the polls this year.  In actual fact, there seems to be a general trend across Europe for a more fragmented political field with no collapse (or surge) of the governing party, an opposition that remains relatively weak, and populist parties on the rise, leading to divided legislatures that indeed reflect the mood of their constituents, but are also much less prone to compromise. This in turn makes decision-making more erratic and the countries in question more difficult to govern (when they can actually form a government).

There couldn’t be a worst time for this fragmentation to happen: while this cacophony spreads in a continent going through an acute identity crisis, challenges mount at its doors, with distinct possibilities of Grexit and/or Brexit looming, Russia waging hybrid warfare in Europe and the refugee crisis destabilizing the Balkan region and tearing the EU apart.  After a dramatic and eventful Twentieth Century, Europeans (and many US decision makers, for that matter) had come to regard Europe as an island of stability, prosperity and postmodernist good governance – a continental version of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History paradigm.  As we get into the second half of the 2010s, we should stop thinking in these terms:  as the economic crisis evolves into a social and identity crisis on the continent, Europe is looking much more like the rest of the world, and is becoming a much less stable place. American decision makers should take note – and also remember that American leadership has not been so much wanted by their European counterparts since 1945. 

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