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What the Greek elections mean for the future of Europe

REUTERS/Marko Djurica
The head of the Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, speaking to supporters after winning the elections in Athens on Sunday.

It feels like déjà vu all over again for Greece — and the rest of the European Union. But it’s really not. It’s potentially much trickier this time.

The hefty win in elections Sunday by the leftist, anti-austerity Syriza political party brings back questions that have never really been off the table for the past five years: Will Greece be able to remain in the euro zone? If it ends up being the first country to drop out, how much does that matter? What does this say about the currency, Europe’s economy and its political prospects?

Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, says leaving the euro zone is not his intent. It’s just that, with unemployment still above 25 percent and the economy much smaller than it was when the crisis started, Greeks have had enough of cutting back. On the other side, if the Greeks get out, European leaders have put in place mechanisms that would make it easier to contain the problem. While Tsipras, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders get down to work in these new circumstances, the ground is shifting under them.

Overall, the European economy is in enough trouble that after years of rejecting the idea, officials this past week launched their version of the stimulus plan that helped boost the U.S. economy. For the first time in almost a decade, the euro has fallen below the rate versus the dollar at which it was launched. Unemployment is stubbornly high. While the U.S. economy seems to have found its footing, there are few hopes Europe will follow suit. Instead, there is much more talk of a long period of stagnation, a lost decade or decades, a la Japan. 

Not surprisingly, Europeans are unhappy about a lot of this. It’s not only the Greeks. But like the Greeks, many of them will have a chance to vote this year. And the standard-bearers of European unity are already catching it from all sides. 

Take a look at the results of this analysis done recently for the BBC. Populist and nationalist parties are on the rise on both the left and right, filling the gap between elites and average voters – “a gaping hole at the heart of European politics where big ideas should be.”

It’s not only the southern tier of countries (including Portugal, Spain and Italy), where the most serious economic problems have cropped up. Immigration issues are huge, too. Anti-EU parties are making their mark in two of the union’s biggest and most prestigious countries — France and Britain.

In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front has declared that the European union will “collapse like the Soviet Union.” She complains that France has given up too many decisions to the EU, and the country has too little control over its economy, its currency and its borders.

Le Pen, like her father before her, has been on the fringes of French politics for years. But now, with mainstream parties deeply unpopular, people seem to be paying attention. Her party came out on top in elections for French representatives to the European parliament last year.

While France does not have national elections this year, it does have regional balloting in late March — a chance for Le Pen to prove last year’s result was no fluke.

Britain does have national elections in May. One of the wild cards is the upstart UK Independence Party, which, like Le Pen’s movement in France, came out on top in the European parliament vote last year. Also like Le Pen, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, has been building for years to this moment.

Britain has stayed out of the euro currency zone, but Farage wants it out of the EU altogether. He has been chipping away at support for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, gaining two seats in the national parliament in recent months. He could become a bigger factor as British politics atomizes. The two-party system that has dominated for decades is giving way to a more complicated dynamic that will strengthen the role of bit players. 

The unhappiness goes beyond Britain and France. In Denmark, which will vote sometime before mid-September, the far-right Danish People’s Party recently came out on top of a public opinion poll for the first time. 

Then, there is Spain, which also is scheduled to vote before the end of the year. The upstart Podemos movement there has allied itself with Tsipras and the newly victorious Syriza in Greece. It should come as no surprise by this point that a poll published this month showed Podemos in first place, leading both of Spain’s traditional parties.  

Of course, it’s far from certain that people across the continent will actually vote in large numbers for these parties. But Greeks on Sunday helped put a winter of discontent into focus. A spring, summer and autumn of discontent might well follow.

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