The Eurozone’s politics according to the Financial Times

In the last two years newspapers have been promising more or less the same thing to Eurozone citizens: collapse, soon. But the Eurozone has proved surprisingly resilient and shown evidence of a commonality of superior interests and a capacity to coordinate against the fringes.

Julien Etienne
17 April 2012

In the last two years British newspapers have been promising more or less the same thing to Eurozone citizens: collapse, soon. The Financial Times has been doing most of the work in that respect, exploring in abundant detail all the reasons why the Eurozone would break up.

FT columnists have provided multiple arguments as to why the Eurozone is or should be in trouble. Some of these arguments – on the Eurozone’s institutional design – are quite largely accepted even by one of the Euro’s key architects, former head of the European Commission Jacques Delors.

Arguments on the Eurozone's politics have been far less convincing, however. On that, FT readers have learnt a lot about growing popular opposition to the Euro and the rise of eurosceptic populist parties in the Eurozone. The FT has keenly brought eurosceptic fringe parties such as Finland’s true Finns to its readers’ attention. A FT senior journalist has even suggested that European governments should listen to the fringes rather than oppose them. The capacity of extremist parties to block a rescue of the Eurozone was emphasized time and again.

More generally, dissent at home and among member states has been emphasized to suggest that a satisfactory solution to the crisis was unlikely to be agreed upon. European politicians have been repeatedly called incompetent, and European politics a series of useless international meetings, only good at ‘kicking the can down the road.’

Yet, the announced wave of Eurosceptic populism has not materialized. Rather, it is the commitment to defending the Euro that has prevailed so far, in intergovernmental summits and in the polls. In spite of tensions, disagreements, conflicting interests, and a minority of opportunists or independents within major parties, successive votes in the last two years have seen the main political parties, left and right, repeatedly get together at national and European levels, achieving often very comfortable majorities in support of the Euro.

Reaching agreements in the EU has never been a smooth process, yet the Eurozone politicians’ competence for negotiation and coordination acquired from a long experience of building common institutions and drafting common legislation in the European Union has shown earlier this year in the overwhelming agreement between EU member states (the UK excepted) on a new fiscal compact to coordinate fiscal policies within the EU.

In other words, there is evidence of a commonality of superior interests and a capacity to coordinate against the fringes. This is not fundamentally new, but rather a structural element in Eurozone politics that FT commentators have consistently ignored.

It all boils down to the history of the last two decades. Since the bases for a common currency were established in the 1992 Maastricht treaty, all major political parties that came to exercise power in the Eurozone (that means pretty much all of them since political majorities have changed at least once in Eurozone member states since 1992) worked effectively to build the Euro system and to make it operational. By doing so, both left-wing and right-wing parties have tied their fates to the fate of the Euro.

Indeed, abandoning the Euro would imply a major loss of credibility for the parties that have consistently worked to build it. That would be a major push for extremist parties, who are the only ones to have a clear eurosceptic discourse on the continent. These parties have already gained substantial ground in the post-9/11 climate of islamophobia, and the centre is all too well aware of these dangerous competitors.

In other words, there is a matter of political survival behind the commitment of all major political parties in favour of the Euro. It originates well before the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis started, and endures irrespective of whether the choices made and the policies adopted so far to solve the crisis have been the ‘right’ ones or not.

This fact could stop being a determinant factor in Eurozone politics if the system of political parties collapsed and new entrants or former members of major parties repackaged themselves as champions of a return to national currencies. It is a theoretical possibility, and we are witnessing some signs of this happening in Greece right now.

Yet, what we are seeing in the rest of the Eurozone is how resilient major European parties have been. Most have managed to perpetuate themselves despite smaller wins, loss of strongholds and dwindling numbers of militant supporters. Even in Greece the political party system has been showing remarkable resilience until now, in spite of the multiple failures the country has experienced since 2008.

Overall there has been new competition on the fringes, certainly, but the traditional organizations remain crucial players still able to structure national debates and bring significant returns to their members.

In accordance with its reporting over the last two years, the FT has been arguing recently that politics remain the biggest problem of the Eurozone. In particular, it has been suggested to readers that a victory of François Hollande in the coming French presidential election would pose serious risks to the Eurozone rescue plan. Yet again, this misses the point: a socialist president in France would hardly change the odds for the Euro. If anything, Hollande’s election could alter the balance of power in the Eurozone between those calling for austerity and those calling for growth. There is no reason to think that, because of his election, members of the Eurozone would stop coordinating with one another and reach compromises in order to defend and strengthen the common currency, as they have done until now.

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