Bailouts and the EU’s Tea Party Moment

No sooner had Portugal succumbed to a bailout than European Union officials were gearing up for “The Battle for Spain” – ensuring the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy is not consumed by the contagion that last week claimed its neighbour.

People demonstrate in Perpignan, southern France, on the sidelines of the strikes again the pension reform.
Raymond Roig | AFP | Getty Images
People demonstrate in Perpignan, southern France, on the sidelines of the strikes again the pension reform.

But those concerned about the EU’s ability to fight that battle should turn to the other end of the continent, where Finland could this weekend elect the euro zone’s first truly Eurosceptic prime minister.

The collapse of Portugal’s government and the success of a hitherto unknown populist in Sunday’s Finnish elections may seem unrelated. But Timo Soini, head of the anti-EU True Finns party, was quick to the make the connection in an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year.

“If the Portuguese thing comes before the Finnish elections, that will mean quite a fierce discussion and protest,” said Mr Soini.

True Finns were last week only narrowly behind the centre-right National Coalition party, according to most polls, and that was before Lisbon appealed for a rescue.

“People just don’t get it, don’t want it.” It is a sentiment that appears to be spreading.

Popular anger at bail-outs, austerity and general economic uncertainty has already toppled leaders on the euro zone’s periphery: first in Ireland, then Portugal and arguably Spain, where José Luis Zapatero has said he will not seek a third term as prime minister.

Now, anger is beginning to infect Europe’s prosperous core, where mainstream parties are losing ground to populist outsiders playing on resentment and frustration triggered by austerity and falling living standards.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right UMP party took a drubbing in regional elections last month amid a strong showing by the far-right National Front.

In Belgium, Flemish nationalists have prevented the formation of a government for a year and, observers say, are likely to emerge even stronger if forced into another election.

The minority Dutch government has relied on the anti-EU party of nationalist Geert Wilders to keep it in power for six months.

Even in Germany – where the idea of a right-wing populist party feeding on economic discontent is the subject of whispered concerns – anger over mainstream handling of the economy led the traditional parties to lose ground in the state of Baden-Württemberg last month.

Resentment, fuelled by the tabloid press, grew so intense that one mainstream party, the liberal Free Democrats, appeared to toy with an openly anti-EU platform ahead of the vote.

Chroniclers of Europe’s populist fringe have long focused on the anti-immigration rhetoric of many of these parties, particularly the National Front in France and Mr Wilders’ Dutch Freedom party.

But many, such as Mr Soini in Finland or Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever, have either shunned or played down their anti-foreigner roots and re-branded themselves for the economically angry mainstream.

Softening her party’s hard-edge approach to race and immigration helped Marine Le Pen, the sunnier face of her father’s angry French nationalism, woo white working-class voters disillusioned with Mr Sarkozy’s economic policies.

We are witnessing Europe’s own Tea Party moment. Like Barack Obama, US president, leaders of European nations with the might to rescue a continent from crisis are hamstrung by voters who have had enough bailing out others.

Much like Mr Obama, these leaders are having a hard time figuring out how to win voters back.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has shown just enough solidarity to help the euro zone but her begrudging approach has only heightened popular resentment at profligate southerners.

Jan Kees de Jager, Dutch finance minister, is one of the few to be candid, backing tough bail-out terms but telling voters that rescuing Portugal, Ireland and Greece is in their own best interest, since Dutch banks, pension funds, and trade-oriented businesses would suffer from the collapse of Europe’s periphery.

But nearly all tread lightly when confronting their populist opponents.

Jyrki Katainen, Finland’s finance minister and the centre-right candidate for prime minister, says: “I don’t want to threaten anybody by saying if you vote for True Finns it will lead us to catastrophe.”