The meaning of Sunday's European elections

Article Highlights

  • 3 European election results bode poorly for satisfactorily resolving the EU’s ongoing financial and political crisis.

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  • What are the implications of #Sarkozy’s defeat in #France’s Presidential Election?

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  • Now, the prospect of real social unrest looms even larger, in #Greece

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  • #Merkel’s political position in #Germany has weakened, making it difficult to prevail in European decision making.

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Sunday’s elections results in six European countries, particularly France, Greece and Germany, bode poorly for satisfactorily resolving the European Union’s ongoing financial and political crisis.  

Moreover, from the U.S. perspective, the left turns in France and Greece mean more difficult times ahead for our own anemic economic recovery, and our continuing efforts to lead NATO and other allies in the struggle against Iran’s nuclear weapons program and international terrorism.  

Here are “instant analyses” of the three most important of Sunday’s results.

France  

Although incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat at the hands of Socialist Francois Hollande had been consistently forecast in public opinion polls, the final result was much closer than expected.  Nonetheless, Sarkozy’s fall almost certainly means that France’s domestic policies, and its position in European deliberations over the future of the Euro, the common currency of seventeen European Union (“EU”) members, will shift decisively left.  That means abandoning or at least substantially modifying France’s support for austerity that made Sarkozy’s alliance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel so powerful in setting Euro policy over the last several years.  Whether or not that policy was correct, a fiercely debated point, it will not be the Eurozone’s policy much longer if Hollande is true to his Socialist platform.

Nor will Socialist policies in France incline toward the pro-growth agenda that Europe really needs.  Instead, an enhanced French emphasis on the government sector over the private sector and free markets will simply exacerbate Europe’s existing difficulties, making it harder for Greek, Italian and Spanish governing coalitions to hold the line in their own countries.  

On Iran’s increasingly menacing nuclear weapons program, Hollande’s election almost certainly means a weakening of the already weak EU position, and decreased pressure on Tehran.  As Iran’s negotiator’s press for legitimization of their well-advanced uranium enrichment program, Hollande will likely be sympathetic to accepting what Iran already has in place, and even relaxing new EU economic sanctions set to come into effect this summer.  Hollande’s election will also mean a return to a difficult France in NATO, thereby fostering an even less-cohesive alliance, increasing America’s leadership travails, especially as NATO winds down in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy’s defeat also represents a success for Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which placed third in the first round of presidential elections, an unexpectedly strong showing.  On May 1, Le Pen told her followers she would abstain in today’s voting, and almost certainly many of them followed her lead.  Given the closeness of Hollande’s victory, Le Pen thus effectively ended Sarkozy’s chances for re-election.  Given the absence of anyone else on the center-right approximating Sarkozy’s stature, Le Pen will now try to emerge as the de facto leader of the right, and presumptive leading candidate to challenge Hollande in the next presidential election.  

The second test of Le Pen’s strategy comes quickly, in France’s June parliamentary elections.  Until now, because of the rules governing voting for the National Assembly, Le Pen’s party has not had even a foothold.  With Sarkozy’s party now in disarray, however, that could well change, to the National Front’s advantage.  (In France, as in many European countries, “rightist” parties like Le Pen’s National Front often have economic policies far-removed from the market-oriented policies of U.S. conservatives.)

Greece   

Although the center-right New Democracy Party, led by Antonis Samaris, emerged with the highest party total vote, just under 20 percent, the real surprise was the strength of extreme leftist parties.  What the overall results show is that the Greek electorate still hopes to reject the austerity budget and long-term fiscal policies imposed on Athens by the EU, and yet also, somehow, remain within the EU.  When it is finally understood that this “have your cake and eat it too” approach is impossible, the effects within Greece are likely to be explosive.  Even before the elections, public-sector unions and radicals had rioted in protest of austerity and against the imposition of policy by distant Brussels.  Now, the prospect of real social unrest looms even larger.

The fractured electoral outcome will make the task of forming an effective coalition government, which will likely fall to Samaris, extraordinarily difficult.  He may begin, as many predicted before Sunday’s election, by combining with the Greek Socialists, the former ruling party, to form a left-right core, from which he can reach out to the least extreme of the remaining parties.  But given the size of the “rejectionist” vote on the left, finding a “responsible” governing coalition is substantially more difficult.  Alternatively, to preserve his options, Samaris could try to rule as a minority Prime Minister, which would significantly increase the prospect of new elections in the near future.  Whichever course Samaris elects (or is forced by political circumstances to follow), the pressure will be intense for him to move quickly.  Greece’s economy was already failing to meet the benchmarks imposed by the EU-led austerity policy, and protracted delay and political uncertainty would simply worsen an already difficult economic picture.

Continued problems for Greece inevitably mean greater trouble got the EU and the Eurozone, and less attention by the Europeans to the outside world.  And considering Greek reliance on oil imported from Iran, pressure from Athens to relax the new EU sanctions could well increase no matter what the shape of a new government.

Germany  

In elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, Chancellor Merkel’s governing coalition, the same as that ruling at the national level, has been defeated.  Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party had the highest vote total, but its coalition partner lost almost half its support.

While there is no inevitable fallout for Merkel’s coalition at the national level, North Rhine-Westphalia elections often foreshadow what happens in Germany as a whole.  Therefore, while Merkel will not likely shift her strongly held views on the Euro and the EU, other countries may see her overall political position in Germany weakened, thereby making it more difficult for Germany to prevail in intra-European decision making.

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Of course, there is still considerable uncertainty as the political fallout from Sunday’s elections settles.  Nonetheless, the immediate implications for the American economy and our broader political interests globally are not positive.  Financial markets will react on Monday, and their verdict will obviously be significant.

Former U.S ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is a Fox News contributor and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations" (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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