Has Europe become ungovernable?
Many political observers are holding their collective breath as to whether the uncertain outcome of the UK’s general election will produce another hung parliament. Politicians will then be left to scramble for compromises, which will not be easy against the backdrop of Brexit. Last weekend’s Spanish election also produced a fractured parliament, which resulted in a left-wing government between the Socialists and the far-left Podemos party. The new government has achieved a tiny majority. The alternative would have been protracted coalition negotiations, the failure of which might possibly have led to the third election within the span of one year.
The political landscape in Europe has become more fractured. It looks increasingly more difficult in any country to be able to build strong coalitions. France may be the exemption that proves the rule. During the last election, the newly formed la Republique en Marche swept to power, marginalizing the traditional parties other than the far-right Front National. However, recent by-elections seem to indicate a reversal of the trend. Furthermore, the gilets jeaunes protest movement can in part be explained by the fact that citizens with a gripe no longer had opposition representatives to go to, so they took to the streets. This assessment may be an oversimplification, but there is some truth to it.
Western Europe has a myriad of democratic systems and political cultures. Most counties adhere to one form or the other of proportional representation. The UK is famous for its first past the post system, where every constituency sends the representative who garners most votes to Westminster.
Proportional representation results coalition governments more often than not. The ruling parties need to compromise on their agendas in order to come up with a coherent government program for any given legislative period. These systems can be more or less stable: Since the Second World War, Italy had no less than 61 governments in a span of 74 years. Belgium has had a caretaker government since 2018, which is not the first in the country’s history. The king appoints caretakers when parties in parliament are not capable of forging the prerequisite alliances to build a majority. Then there are the woes of Greece with which the world has become all too familiar since the Euro crisis of 2012 and the antics of Messrs Tziprias and Varoufakis.
The parliaments are becoming increasingly fractured with new parties mainly on the far-right, some of the left and single-issue parties gaining support.
Germany had a tradition of more stable governments: Since the war, just eight individuals have led various forms of coalitions.
Until 2010 it was unfathomable for the UK to have a coalition parliament. The first past the post system is designed to produce clear majorities. Alas it seems to be getting more difficult to do so. Hung parliaments seem to become more frequent. Theresa May was only able to govern with the help of a supply and confidence agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Each European country is faced with its own unique set of circumstances. Greece and Italy have unstable economies and face debt problems. Spain was faced with Catalonia’s independence movement, just as its economy was recovering. Germany grapples with divisive attitudes towards the 1 million refugees Chancellor Angela Merkel accommodated well as with the Energiewende, Dieselgate and what it means for German industry. The UK has Brexit. Migration and climate change are issues garnering attention across the continent.
However, there is a thread that weaves across Europe’s political landscape. The parliaments are becoming increasingly fractured with new parties mainly on the far-right, some of the left and single-issue parties gaining support. The Alternative for Germany, Vox, Podemos, the Greens and the Brexit Party are just a few. The middle ground has a harder time to build functioning coalitions. This was evidenced in 2017 and 2018 when it took Merkel more than six months to form a government. Governing with her grand coalition between the Christian Democrats, Bavaria’s Christian Socialists and Social Democrats has not been easy to say the least. The coalition partners advertise openly how they do not see eye to eye on many issues.
The overarching question is what it will take to build strong governments in an increasingly fractured political landscape? There will be no easy answer. However, the big issues remain: Climate change, migration, a slowing global economy, separatist tendencies of provinces or territories and so on. It will take governments who put country before party in order to grapple with these problems on a sustainable basis. Democracy has never been easy, but it has always been worthwhile because it lets every citizen participate. We have to be careful that the cacophony produced by the current political landscape, which is by the way a result of the democratic process, does not undermine the principle of democracy itself.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources