Europeans Forget How to Compromise
Compromise is a value coming under increasing pressure in Europe -- and so are the centrist political parties that champion it. With so-called radical parties gaining support seemingly everywhere, the Continent may be facing a return to the polarization of pre-1940 politics. Meanwhile, centrist politicians are at a loss to find a solution.
It wasn't that long ago that Europe faced the first recent instance of a rise of radical parties. When Jurgen Haider's populist FPO rose to power in Austria in the late 1990s almost overnight -- along with the Danish People's Party in Denmark -- on a strongly anti-immigration platform, centrist parties in the rest of the Continent scoffed. This would blow over, they thought. Blow over it did not.
Everywhere in Europe -- north, west, east, and south -- radical parties are making strong gains.
Whether backing the left-wing Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, the extremist right-wing Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden or the far-left leading candidate for Labour leadership in the United Kingdom, more and more voters seem fed up with centrist politics.
The radicalism -- and attractiveness -- of these parties perhaps lies not so much in their policy proposals but in their vows to not compromise on their promises. Voters seem unwilling to accept that successful politics lies in the art of attaining the possible -- and thus compromising, making gains with small steps. Instead, voters want it all, they want it now, and they seem to be getting angrier every time an election promise is broken.
Nowhere is this mechanism currently more visible than in the Netherlands. The country of 16 million has among the world's best health care and social welfare systems, and the average Dutch voter -- left and right -- wants it to remain as such. As a result, political parties of all colors, different as they may be in their ideologies, all coalesce around one central promise: to keep these popular, government-funded services afloat at a minimum added cost to taxpayers.
When the center-right conservative Liberal party, or VVD, and the center-left Social Democrats, or PvdA, formed a government together, some election promises were bound to be broken. Where the PvdA celebrated an electoral scoop of 38 seats in 2012, it now languishes at 9 to 11 seats in the polls. The VVD has also lost nearly half its seats, dropping from 41 in 2012 to 23 to 25 in an average of polls. Proposals to spend extra money on popular government programs have so far fallen on deaf ears as voters, research reveals, simply can't find it in their hearts to forgive the parties for their broken promises.
Public wrath was on full display this month after Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD reneged on his 2012 election promise that "we shall send not one more euro cent to Greece" by publicly supporting the third European loan package to Greece and admitting that, yes, he was breaking his promise. Parliament exploded, with opposition parties bashing Rutte in a rowdy debate session. In a bid to quell the expected backlash in the upcoming polls, the VVD in parliament provoked indignant laughter when it declared in an all-too-obvious pander to its voters that it was forced to vote for the loan package, even though its spokesman said the party really, really, really did not want to. On Dutch social media, VVD voters cried foul en masse.
The question is now what efforts Europe's centrist politicians -- those artists of compromise -- are going to undertake to counter the ever-widening gulf between them and their angry voters. So far, they appear not to have a coherent answer. They trudge on, hoping that an improving economy will assuage voter fury.
With the refugee crisis engulfing Europe and increasing numbers of voters convinced that these new arrivals are coming to prey on their entitlements, there is every danger that centrists will shift gears into electoral survival mode and try the easy way out: mimicking the radicals, thereby destroying centrist politics itself. Since it is the willingness to compromise that has kept most of Europe at peace since 1945, no one knows what a return to the polarized politics of a long-gone age may bring.