The Greeks turn to extremism in defense of their welfare state.
The theme song of a popular TV show from the last decade featured the lyric “I worry all the time. If you paid attention, you’d be worried too” — a wise posture when analyzing the slow-motion crisis that is Europe.
European governments are toppling like clocktowers in an earthquake. The Dutch government fell on April 23, when it failed to agree with the opposition on an austerity plan. On May 6, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated by Socialist Francois Hollande. Greece’s ruling coalition has been shattered — the vote splintered among dozens of small parties.
Turning the rascals out is a normal and healthy thing in a democracy. Who in China or Cuba wouldn’t love the same opportunity? But the European elections are signaling something disquieting — the rise of radicals of both the right and the left.
In the first round of presidential balloting, nearly a third of France’s voters chose either a Trotskyite, Jean-Luc Melenchon (who campaigned to confiscate the incomes of the wealthy) or Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, whose protectionist party fuses anti-immigration fervor with a grab bag of nationalist sentiments. Hollande himself campaigned on raising tax rates on the wealthy to 75 percent, boosting the minimum wage, breaking up large banks, reversing the retirement-age reform (Sarkozy had increased it to from age 60 to 62 for younger workers), and instituting huge new Keynesian stimulus programs.
France is choosing unwisely, but perhaps the twin guardrails of the bond markets and Angela Merkel will limit Hollande’s options.
Greece, on the other hand, seems to be feverish and unhinged. For decades, Greek governments have promised ever more lavish benefits to voters with the costs put off into the indefinite future. That future is now arriving in the form of bankruptcy, or (because Greece is part of the eurozone), externally imposed austerity. Violence has flared repeatedly over the past several years, as a spoiled population has chafed under the combined effects of recession and government cuts. Now more than 60 percent of Greek voters have chosen small left- and right-wing parties over the ruling Pasok and New Democracy parties.
The Golden Dawn, whose symbol bears a close resemblance to the swastika, won 7 percent of the vote and will send 19 delegates to the 300 member parliament. Golden Dawn opposes not just the austerity plan, but also the “so-called Enlightenment” and the Industrial Revolution. As firecracker-wielding young toughs with shaven heads demonstrated outside, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos announced from an Athens hotel that “the time for fear has come.” Warning that “Greece is only the beginning,” Michaloliakos promised to make war on “world usurers,” referring perhaps to the International Monetary Fund, which has imposed strictures on Greece as part of a multibillion-euro bailout package.