The mood is growing surly in the south of Europe as austerity measures take hold. With unemployment at 20 percent in some countries – and youth unemployment as high as 50 percent – warnings are growing sharper about a troubling rise of populist feeling.
The current chaos in Greece presents a vivid example.
Ahead of a key March deadline, the Greek government agreed – after much political agonizing and protesters' torching of dozens of buildings throughout Athens – to a number of cuts demanded by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout necessary to remain solvent. Minimum wages and public jobs will be cut. More taxes will be raised and collected. Greece will cede a substantial amount of economic sovereignty to international lenders.
Many Greeks are aware they hold a lion's share of the blame for their predicament. But the effect of ongoing screw-tightening by Germany, the growing admission throughout Europe that Greece is poised to default, and the Greeks' inability to see a way out of the crisis has deepened discontent and humiliation.
In the days leading up to the Feb. 13 government approval of the latest rounds of cuts, Greeks in the streets accused their leaders of betrayal for acceding to international lenders' demands. They compared the government to the military dictatorship that ruled the country until the mid-1970s.
Isn't Greece simply paying the price of reform – one that Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy all have to pay, to some degree?
Perhaps. But austerity may have consequences that aren't easily seen on the accounting books: How much austerity can a democratic government impose before it loses the trust of citizens needed to make reforms?
Mario Monti, Italy's new, widely respected leader, issued a blunt warning last month to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led Europe's austerity march. Without growth and greater European solidarity, public anger in Italy could cause it "to flee into the arms of populists," Mr. Monti cautioned.
Populism in Europe is a slippery term with a bad history. In the "prosperity Europe" of the past 50 years, angry populism was a memory from the 1930s or a spasm of antiforeigner hatred – skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-elite, and anti-Europe hate groups, basically.
But in "austerity Europe" populism has a new and more powerful economic dimension: the unemployed, sitting on the street with no sense of future.
Rising Authoritarian Appeal
Southern Europe's democratic tradition is relatively new. Besides Greece, Spain and Portugal were also run by dictators until the 1970s.
When the Italian and Greek governments fell last autumn, technocrats were appointed to take over, rather than new leaders being elected. There is no guarantee that the next elections will bring to power those seeking the sunny uplands of democracy, rather than demagogues.
Austerity has brought a dramatic and abrupt shift to Europe's political scene. In Greece, reports suggest a shattering of the political center, new interest in the far right and left, continuing anti-immigrant sentiment, and growing support for more authoritarian politicians.