Unfinished Business in Europe

Commentary | April 27, 2016

Europe is where the EastWest Institute has done some of its most successful work: from crossing the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, to the reunification of Germany and transformation of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, to peaceful change in the former Yugoslavia in the 2000s. There were those among us, a few years into the 21st century, who hoped that Europe would no longer be unstable but rather, would serve as a partner to others, as a unit, in global challenges from climate change to economic growth.

But recent events have reminded us that what might have seemed settled and secure is, in fact, still open to swift and alarming change.

Look at what has happened in the last few days. In Austria, an election has taken place where the two cozy, comfortable parties (the conservative People's Party and left-center Social Democrats who have shared power in some form or another since 1955) were voted out in favor of two parties to their right and left. Austria had been famous for its stable, unexciting consensus politics; now this arrangement appears to have ended.

And in Serbia, the Progressives (a populist rightist party) won nearly 50 percent of the vote, trouncing its nearest competitor, the Socialists (the party of Milosevic), which received just over 10 percent. The more mainstream Democrats and Liberal Democrats just squeaked over the 5 percent barrier to make it into parliament.

Add these trends-in Hungary under Fidesz and Poland under Law and Justice; the trends in polling in the Netherlands and even France-and one sees a very significant phenomenon. The Social Democratic parties, having reached a high point under Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder, have collapsed. The Economist recently noted that the decades-long message of European unity, social solidarity and mixed-market economies have virtually no resonance with voters, especially among the working class and within progressive intellectual groups. At the same time, conservative parties have given way to populism in the East and West, and the only bastion of traditional social market conservatism seems to be the German CDU (itself under fire in state elections as a result of public unrest over the prospect of a continued migration crisis).

There was a time when EWI was at the forefront of the integration of Europe. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, EWI engaged in erasing the line that had cut across the continent, and integrated the countries that had been separated for decades into common institutions. It was assumed that this integration process would lead to common values that had been set by just those traditional political forces of social democracy and mainstream conservatism that peaked at the end of the 20th century. That is to say, the expansion of the EU would lead to the broadening and deepening of the values of an ever closer union, social and economic solidarity and a prosperity based on the balance of market forces and social responsibility. It was the world of Mitterrand, Kohl, Blair-informed in large part by the memory of the devastation of World War II and the brutal aftermath of ethnic cleansing and dictatorship.