Saturday, 18 February 2012


The EU debt crisis has already claimed its political victims - Brian Cowen in Ireland, Jose Socrates in Portugal, Jose Luis Zapatero in Spain, George Papandreou in Greece, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy - and it is about to claim French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 2012 presidential election, but very unlikely to bring down Angela Merkel in autumn 2013.

GDP growth will be sluggish not just across most of Southern and Eastern Europe, but also in northwest Europe, with the exception of Germany, Holland, Finland, and Sweden. Considering that economic sluggishness across Europe and Eurasia will result in political instability in a number of countries with serious debt problems, it is unlikely to expect voters to remain with the status quo and reelect the same governments. Therefore, Sarkozy will follow the fate of his Irish and Southern European counterparts owing to the larger trend in the political economy.
In September 2011, the French Socialists, Communists and Green parties captured control of the Senate, indicative that Sarkozy would lose the presidential election. Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are ideologically on the same side, it seems that their political fortunes may not converge, contrary to appearances. Of course, until recent months it appeared that France and Germany had convergence of political and economic interests, when it became very clear that Germany was in essence using the debt crisis as a vehicle to solidify its EU hegemony, thus bolstering Merkel's political standing and dwarfing Sarkozy's. Merkel's approval in public opinion polls rises when she is insists on rigid austerity measures toward Greece and the periphery eurozone members, while the popularity of her French counterpart dives, despite some very recent public opinion polls showing a slight upward trend.

Although the German Social Democrats are much softer on the EU debtor nations, it is highly unlikely that they would turn against national capitalism and German banking interests by adopting a more generous policy toward the debtor eurozone members. Merkel has everything to gain by adopting very harsh measures austerity measures toward debtor nations, largely because she appeals to a strong nationalist electorate that feels it is taxed to bailout Southern Europe, rather than German and northwestern European banks. Merkel is the symbol of a strong hegemonic Germany that can maintain a strong economy at a time that the rest of EU is weak and its living standards are declining.

Nevertheless, to continue on the road of German hegemony in Europe, Merkel needs a political partner like Sarkozy in Paris and not a Socialist like Francois Hollande who is likely to go along with some bailout and austerity measures, but refuse to go along with everything Germany demands regarding the integration model of the EU. Sarkozy has the difficult task of convincing the French people that the austerity a program was good for Southern Europe at a time that France is itself under voluntary or self-imposed austerity measures, its credit rating is cut, and its economy is recessionary. Although Sarkozy's campaign slogan "strong France" makes a good nationalist sound-byte, it is hollow because the real achievement of his presidency was to weaken the French middle class and laborers, while strengthening Germany by going along with its tough fiscal and monetary policies that actually do not benefit the French economy, save a few top corporate and banking interests.

Sarkozy's Socialist opponent Francois Hollande is on record opposing conservative fiscal and monetary measures that strangle economic growth. Hollande appeals to at least 50% of the French people - according to a public opinion poll - who fear that their country could face similar measures, a fear that many Europeans share, especially across Southern Europe. Fear that austerity of Southern Europe could take France along with it is a motivating factor of those backing Hollande. Hope that a more liberal fiscal and monetary policy, along with a friendlier social welfare agenda that could revive the economy and have a less devastating impact on the middle and lower classes is also a motivating factor for those backing Hollande.

This does not mean that the Socialist candidate who will most likely be the next French president will deviate very far from the Sarkozy-Merkel agenda. Hollande is using rhetoric that is much more to the left as a candidate when in reality he would have to govern from a position that caters to finance capital and corporate interests, and not to labor unions, to the poor, or even the weakening middle class that feels threatened by austerity and the debt crisis. In this respect, Sarkozy was correct to insist that Hollande is lying when he tells the foreign press that he is a pro-market economic Liberal, but at home he tells voters that he is a Socialist. Socialists ruled in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and French Socialist Dominique Strauss-Khan was head of the IMF, yet, austerity prevailed because markets largely determine policy, not political personalities in the era of neoliberalism and globalization.

The political dilemma of Sarkozy is that he must demonstrate the effectiveness of austerity measures at home and abroad. If austerity fails, as it has so far, across Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, especially if Greece leaves the euro, Sarkozy goes down with the debtor nations for having his political fate identified with the failed bailout policies. When the IMF warns about 'too much austerity' that can choke off growth, there is a serious problem. That Sarkozy has placed his political future with 'crisis containment' at home and across Southern Europe is key to his re-election bid. Can crisis containment bring results, or will it sink EU deeper in recession?

With a strong ultra-right wing appeal, Nationalist Front candidate Marine Le Pen, will help Hollande take out Sarkozy in the presidential election. The run-off election could afford Hollande a clear mandate, but the future of the delining French middle class is unlikely to change very much regardless of a Sarkozy or Hollande victory. French voters would have to decide if their future would be brighter with a conservative whose tenure has weakened the country economically and socially, while strengthening Germany; whether any of the reforms promised when Sarkozy ran for office have been implemented and of those that have made any improvements in peoples' lives, or whether the politically inexperienced Hollande who presents himself both as a pro-market neoliberal and a Socialist is worthy of governing a country whose economy will be facing both economic contraction and social downward mobility in the next six years.

The question not just for Sarkozy and Hollande, but for mainstream (bourgeois) politicians across Europe in this decade is who can best mange the recessionary economy and debt crisis, not who can best lead the economy toward robust growth and upward socioeconomic mobility. This picture becomes even clearer by the reality that the Socialist left is as neo-liberal as the traditional conservative camp, while the Communists remain weak and they are burdened with the legacy of 'Communist bloc failure'. Such a political situation across Europe permits the markets to impose neoliberal policies on governments, regardless of whether they are conservative or centrist.

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