February 2016 – ECONOMICS – The last economic crisis never ended, and another one may loom. Europeans have endured years of unemployment and underemployment, stagnating or falling living standards, and cuts to state services on a scale ranging from steep to decimation. The disintegration of Syria has sent a tidal wave of human misery crashing over the country’s borders, some of it lapping on the shores of the European continent. And already the populist, anti-immigration right is in a strong position, from Sweden to France, Greece to the Netherlands. So when Greece’s motorcycling former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis warns that Europe could be falling into “a modern 1930s”, it is time to sit up, listen – and prepare.
Anybody can predict the next economic crisis and go on to claim vindication, but here is what we know. We never got over the last crisis: we remain in the aftermath, a lost decade, and governments will have far more limited options if another meltdown happens. In the eurozone – where membership of a single currency leaves less room for maneuver, and years of spending cuts have meant extensive social and economic devastation – around one in 10 remain out of work. It is especially bleak for the young: over a fifth are without work; in Greece and Spain, the level remains nearly half; in Italy, nearly 38%; in France, over a quarter. The “graduate without a future”, as journalist Paul Mason describes them, is recognizable across the continent: young people who find that the opportunities they expect from education simply are not there. Poverty and hardship has become the lot of an increasing number of Europeans: Oxfam found that there were 7.5 million more Europeans in “severe material deprivation” in 2013 compared with four years earlier.
And now the economic ghosts of 2008 appear to be doing a comeback tour. Global growth has become ever more dependent on a slowing Chinese economy. Fears mount of a US recession, weakening European industrial production, and a possible credit crisis in Europe’s banks. Pictures of panicking traders, hands clasping fraught faces as markets tumble, add to a sense of deja vu. Osbornomics has left Britain poorly prepared for crisis, with weak wage growth meaning fewer tax receipts and shrinking industrial production leaving us ever more dependent on the City.
And who is waiting, preparing and consolidating? Europe’s far right, already feeding off the despair of economic crisis and a backlash against refugees fleeing violence from the Middle East. Where once the principal target was Jews, now it’s Muslims. Despite failing to achieve an anticipated breakthrough in December’s regional elections, Marine Le Pen’s far-right far-right Front National – combining anti-immigration politics with an audacious raid on the economic rhetoric of the left – won nearly 7m votes in France. Even if their leader Marine Le Pen is mercifully unlikely – in the current political climate, at least – to win a presidential election, it is distinctly possible she could top the first round.
In Sweden, the far-right Swedish Democrats – a party with neo-Nazi origins – occasionally leads opinion polls, regularly receiving the support of nearly a fifth of the electorate. Here is a party whose leader once denounced the growth of Islam as “our greatest foreign threat since world war two”. In Finland – already stricken by recession – the hard-right Finns party is already in government. The Northern League is surging in Italy; its leader, Matteo Salvini, has demanded the razing of Roma settlements, and last year, after becoming governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia demanded the expulsion of African migrants. While the far-right Freedom party – whose former leader Jörg Haider was accused of Nazi sympathies – failed to win Vienna in elections last year, it scored a record result. Polls in the Netherlands suggest a party led by Geert Wilders – who, like Donald Trump, wants Muslim immigration stopped to prevent an “Islamic invasion”– is on course to come top in a general election. In austerity-ravaged Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn terrorises immigrants. Even in Germany – which, in the postwar period, has resisted the rise of the far right – the populist hard-right Alternative für Deutschland has growing support.
And so it falls to the left to offer an alternative outlet. It is possible. Spain has been hammered more than most, but so far has not endured the rise of a similar, far-right anti-immigration party. Instead, popular discontent has been funneled in the direction of Podemos, a progressive party arguing for an alternative to austerity. Podemos has flourished thanks to movements that have organized in local communities, such as the anti-eviction movement. But its approach to communication is worth understanding, too. Eschewing the traditional symbols and language of the left, even resisting talking in the language of “left” versus “right”, it has appealed way beyond the traditional leftist comfort zone. It has appealed to a younger generation in despair. The message is one of relentless optimism and hope. Podemos is resolutely patriotic in approach, redefining patriotism as defending the interests of the majority against the elite and ridding the country of injustice. –The Guardian