The Ups and Downs of European Politics
By Steven Hill
Several months ago, American media outlets were sounding shrill alarms
over the rise of the far right in Europe. But recent election results in
Germany, Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere reveal that the panic button was
Germany, the largest economy in Europe, the red-green coalition of Social
Democrats and the Green Party eked out a close victory in September. In
Sweden, the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily
beating the predictions. Recent elections saw center-left governments take
the reins in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right have fallen on harder times.
Following the media frenzy over France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen making the
runoff in their presidential election, his party failed to win a single
seat in the National Assembly races. In Austria, the bogeyman of Europe
who started the far-right alarm, Jorg Haider of the Freedom Party, saw his
party plummet. After a stunning upset in the Netherlands for the
assassinated Pim Fortuyn’s party, bickering internal politics led to its
collapse and Fortuyn’s party nearly disappeared in new elections held on
the scary forecasts of the American media were overblown considerably. But
this is not that unusual. Unfortunately American reportage on Europe often
is fraught with half-truths and Hogan’s Heroes stereotyping. And this in
turn has led to profound misunderstandings between the two continents.
instance, rarely do American journalists point out that Europeans still
enjoy free health care for all, cradle to grave; free education through
university level; comparatively generous retirement for their elderly; an
average of five weeks paid annual vacation, more sick leave, parental
leave, and a shorter work week with comparable wages for their workers
(French workers, with their 35-hour work week, work nearly a full day less
per week than American workers, who now work on average 42 hours per
week). Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the
United States. Environmental, food safety, and labor laws are the envy of
activists in the U.S.
fact, what was lost upon the U.S. media is that the leaders and political
parties known as the “far right” in Europe for the most part do not seek
to overturn the European social state or its proactive government
regulation. On the contrary, they accept its existence to a degree even
the Democratic Party doesn’t accept today. In some countries the far right
parties attained their recent electoral successes by defending the
welfare state that the center-left parties had been rolling back the last
few years. Their leaders called for things like a re-commitment to quality
public health care, elderly care, mass transit, subsidized housing, and
the protection of the public pension and education systems.
Thus, in many respects, Europe’s multiparty politics do not fit the old
left-right axis typically employed by American journalists. It’s comparing
apples and oranges. Yet American media routinely fails to distinguish
these unique political characteristics of the European landscape. Instead,
much ink dwells on the very real anti-immigrant sentiment that, while
cause for concern, hardly is unique to Europe.
two sides of the Atlantic both are founded on their own variant of
capitalism, but in crucial ways follow different social models. The United
States is noted for our freewheeling, free enterprise economics, while
Europe’s social democracies seek to regulate capitalism for the general
welfare and to spread the benefits around. While American observers tend
to disparage the constraints on growth and higher unemployment that may
result from the European model, Europeans scratch their heads over
America’s income inequalities, our consumerism, and our readiness to
sacrifice the social contract for individual material gain.
net result is that neither side knows each other terribly well. And yet,
in this age of globalization, never has it been more important that we
learn to cooperate on issues of security, trade, human rights, and the
global environment. The European and American nations have much in common.
Hopefully we can learn more about those mutual aspects, and get past media
stereotypes that perpetuate trans-Atlantic misunderstanding.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and
and author of a new book, “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s
Winner Take All Politics” (Routledge Press,