2015 The Year of all Elections
2015 is the year when for the first time in the 65-year-old history of supranational European construction that voters may finally decide if the EU will survive.
First, Greece and then elections in Britain, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Estonia will answer two big questions. First, has the disenchantment with the European Union reached a tipping point? Second, is the 20th century model of big political parties based on a collective mass and centrally run party now over?
The Swiss will also elect a new Parliament and in their choice of national councilors show whether they want to turn the page on the long decades of integration and open borders with the rest of Europe.
The two issues – Europe and the future of political parties overlap. It is too simplistic to present this as a contest between populist (bad) and Regierunsfähig (good) politics. No party wins power without a dose of populism and the problem with the offer of the traditional 20th century centre-right and centre-left parties is that so far this century they have not shown themselves very good at government.
The two issues have come to a head in Greece where the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn have allied with the populist left of Syriza as well as so-called independent leftists to force early elections. The inability of the old 20th century politics represented by the failure of coalition parties of New Democracy and Pasok to understand what entry into the Eurozone 15 years ago required of Greece was matched by the failure of old politics when Angela Merkel allied with Nicolas Sarkozy to reject any measured, long-term solution to the crisis of Greek budget financing after the crash of 2008.
There is one country where an election will not take place. Unlike Greece the Swedish mainstream parties have pulled back from the brink. In Stockholm a Swedish compromise has been found to allow the recently elected Social Democratic party to stay in office until 2018.
In 1945, the Swedes destroyed political communism that was growing in influence in Sweden’s powerful industrial trade unions. Nothing brutal was done to communists but democracy in the sense of majority votes for strikes was put on hold as Swedish social democracy decided that an open market future larded with social justice was better than populist leftism linked to Sovietism. In Greece at the same time the left-right split descended into civil war and the brutal, violent crushing of the communists was followed by years of arrogant clientalist politics by both the main parties of the right and left.
Now populist leftism is back on the Greek political agenda. This is also the case in Spain where Podemos currently leads opinion polls. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy is a classic 20th century big party politician. He bided his time, waiting his turn to become prime minister but has not known what to do in power.
Now Mr Rajoy has hinted at a grand coalition with the socialists in the style of Germany to stop the populists of Podemos taking over. Spain’s new young King Philip in his Christmas message said his task was to “regenerate politics, tackle corruption, defend the welfare state, and preserve Spanish unity.” Sadly there is no other crowned monarch in Europe able to announce such a programme. When the uncrowned monarchs like Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz or Mario Draghi try to inspire European voters no-one listens or looking at the their record believes them.
The future may be Danish where the ruling social democrats are down in opinion polls. But no single party has won a majority in the Danish parliament since 1909. So even if Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has to go it will be a messy coalition that takes over.
Switzerland will elect a new parliament but the so-called ‘magic formula’ which allows main political parties to have a seat or seats in the 7-strong federal cabinet will not change. The Swiss devolved, decentralised and direct democracy mediated through referendums seems more stable and delivers more prosperity and ecosocial justice than the winner-takes-all governance of its neighbours. But can EU member-states co-exist with their citizens having the final say, not political elites?
Finally, Britain will answer the twin question of Europe and the future of 20th century parties in 21st century politics. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged and made central to his-relection the promise of an In-Out EU referendum in two years’ time. If he wins and the referendum is held fewer and fewer observers (and recent polls) give much hope of a Yes vote especially as the EU question is mixed up with immigration, bad Eurozone performance, and rulings from the non-EU but European Court of Human Rights which Labour politicians denounce with as much populist fervour as Conservative or Ukip MPs.
Indeed nine of Mr Cameron’s senior ministers announced last week they wanted to campaign for Brexit – Britain exiting the EU – so continued British integration with the rest of Europe is no longer certain.
The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, by contrast, has ruled out a referendum to the annoyance of many Labour MPs who not very deep down can be just as populist as their opponents on Europe. If Mr Miliband replaces Mr Cameron in Downing Street he will at least have put off Brexit for a while. But he is likely to do so in a coalition or a minority government with the possibility of second early election.
In short in Britain, the mother of parliamentary democracy, the 2015 election will not produce any clear answer to the twin questions of European integration and what new politics is needed for the 21st century. The new politics of European nations and the EU itself remains to be invented.
Dr Denis MacShane was Labour’s Minister for Europe. His book Brexit : How Britain Will Leave Europe will be published by IB Tauris early in 2015