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February 10, 2003


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 pushed prematurely.

In 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 January 22.

So 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.

For 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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 Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of a new book, “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics” (Routledge Press, www.FixingElections.com).