Why Europe’s Votes are not a Rejection of Austerity

WASHINGTON--A new narrative is taking hold in U.S. public opinion, best expressed by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: Europe is in revolt. The French are. The Greeks are. Sunday’s elections were “referendums on the current European economic strategy.” Voters, adds the Washington Post, “redrew Europe’s political map Sunday in a powerful backlash against the German-led cure for the region’s debt crisis: painful austerity.” Half a dozen European leaders, or so the story goes, have lost their jobs as result of a voter backlash against European cut-and-reform policies. The poster children are the leaders of Italy and Spain, Ireland and Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Greece.


So let’s review the evidence. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy did not have to quit because of his unpopular austerity policies. Quite the opposite, he was pushed out of office last year because he did not cut expenditure or reform the labor market and thus brought his country to the brink. Voters in Portugal, Ireland, and Spain did throw out pro-reform and pro-austerity governments. But they replaced them with leaders who are equally committed to deficit reduction, structural reform, and sustainable growth. The Dutch government did fall because anti-immigrant, anti-austerity populists withdrew their support of the ruling coalition. But the Dutch debate is not between austerity and deficit spending. It is about how to urgently balance the budget, and nothing suggests that the Dutch find their basic economic strategy wanting. Leaving aside France and Greece for a moment, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that more factors are at play than simple pushback against the cutters and slashers. Two possible explanations suggest themselves.


First of all, anti-incumbency is a strong force during times of economic distress. Americans know this phenomenon well, and every analyst of the U.S. presidential race will quote unemployment numbers as a determining factor. So, why not look at Europe in the same way? It turns out that leaders of countries that weathered the economic crisis well have a good chance of being reelected. Examples? Sweden, Poland, and Germany. However, in countries with growing unemployment and shrinking economies a “throw-the-bums-out” sentiment tends to predominate. This helps to explain why voter volatility and anxiety might produce a change in personnel, but not always a dramatic shift in economic philosophy. In fact, although the number of people affected by austerity has risen and, consequently, so have frustrations with this policy, no credible mainstream policy alternative has emerged. Certainly, a growing minority of voters cast their ballots with fringe groups to register their protest. Yet, nothing suggests so far that the center in the core countries is not holding.


Secondly, a period of political rebalancing is in the cards for Europe. For the past few years, Europe has largely been governed by the center-right. See Britain and Germany, France and Holland, Spain and Portugal. Italy’s technocratic government isn’t exactly left-wing, and neither is the European Commission under President José Manuel Barroso. Such unison of political preference will not last forever.


This is where France comes in. Clearly, voters wanted a change. Some did not feel well-represented by an erratic personality such as Nicolas Sarkozy. Some fundamentally opposed austerity. But another large group feels like many moderate European socialists and Social Democrats traditionally do: they want to be administered with a basic sense of social justice — especially when the social safety net needs to be cut. Francois Hollande, now president-elect of France, has appealed to this sense of fairness throughout his campaign. That’s what his proposal to tax the super-rich at a 75 percent rate is all about, that the burden of upcoming budgetary adjustments should not be borne by the ordinary citizen alone.


The program that the French electorate endorsed is a far cry from a rejection of austerity. Hollande wants to balance the budget a year later than Nicolas Sarkozy would have. That’s a marginal difference masquerading as a difference of principle for the purposes of a campaign. Hollande wants to increase the capital of the European Investment Bank (EIB). If the lending capacity is boosted along the lines of his proposal, the EIB will be able to spend the rough equivalent of 0.1 percent of Europe’s economic output. Not exactly the type of stimulus that Paul Krugman and the U.S. proponents of borrow-and-spend would like to see. Francois Hollande will not end Europe’s cut-and-reform policies, but will rebalance them, thereby prolonging austerity’s limited half-life.


Which leaves just Greece to be explained. Here, there is no doubt: The Greeks are indeed in revolt against austerity and, quite appropriately, their established political class. But Greece is an outlier. In terms of state structure, competitiveness, solvency, willingness to adjust, and now voter preference, it remains the European exception. But that is not enough to prove the case of the impending end of austerity in Europe.


Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Resident Fellow and Senior Director for Strategy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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