Is Europe ungovernable heading into the 2019 changeover?

by David Gow

“Europe is back,” “the wind is back in Europe’s sails,” “France and Germany will together propel Europe forward” – oh dear, Italy delivers “stinging rebuke” to Europe, “steps back” from the EU, “issues warning” to Europe, “repudiates Brussels”. A week used to be a long time in politics: this was the mood shift in just half a day from the 2-1 vote by German SPD members to back a third grand coalition (‘GroKo’) with Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2005 to populist, Eurosceptic parties winning more than half the vote in the Italian general election on March 4.


European politics is highly volatile. The defeats of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and of Marine Le Pen in France last year hardly merited the common analysis that Trumpian populism was on the wane in Europe – as the march of 92 Far Right Alternative für Deutschland deputies into the Bundestag in September underlined. The relatively robust economic growth and declining unemployment in the Eurozone cannot eradicate a decade of depressed living standards overnight.

As many as 71 percent of Europeans may think the EU is “a place of stability in a troubled world”, according to the latest Eurobarometer, but such confidence in its institutions is far from stable. “Citizens have long been disillusioned with politics; now, they have grown restless, angry, even disdainful. Party systems have long seemed frozen; now, authoritarian populists are on the rise around the world, from America to Europe, and from Asia to Australia. Voters have long disliked particular parties, politicians or governments; now, many of them have become fed up with liberal democracy itself,” is how Yascha Mounk, the prolific Harvard politics lecturer/author, put it this week – not entirely over-emphatically.

What’s certainly the case in Europe is that the era of two big “people’s parties” (Volksparteien) of right and left is over (maybe not in the UK but it’s a very different story as we know only too well…). Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the SPD in Germany won just over half (53.4 percent) of the popular vote six months ago compared with 87 percent 35 years ago; in France the centre-right Républicains and centre-left Parti Socialiste won just over 30 percent in the first round in May 2017 (and Macron only narrowly won the first round with 24 percent a month earlier).

Italy has just mirrored that trend, maybe in exaggerated form, with the centre-left PD on 19 per cent and Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italian on 14 percent – compared with 32 percent for the populist Five Star Movement alone, 18 percent for La Lega and 4.35 percent for the Far Right Brothers of Italy. In other words, well over half of Sunday’s voters backed anti-establishment, eurosceptic, populist and/or neo-authoritarian parties/movements.

Moreover, it doesn’t take long for voters to get fed up with parties promising an end to, say, austerity or a break with the past. It’s hard to imagine that France’s PS won 41 per cent in the 2012 législatives only to collapse to 7.5 per cent five years later. Voter patience is so thin, discontent so deep, that on the same day Germany and Italy made profound national decisions, voters in Karinthia, heartland of Austria’s Far Right FPÖ that is in coalition at federal government level in Vienna, deserted it in their droves – in favour of the despised social democrats now in exorable decline in much of Europe. (Will Sweden’s ruling social democrats buck that trend in September’s general election - against a big populist challenge from the Right?)

So, does all this make Italy and/or Europe as a whole increasingly ungovernable (as La Stampa headlined on Monday? Certainly, the prospects for Italy are not good if Five Stars, which has shown in cities it “administers” it cannot run a pizza stall in a piazza, were to take the reins in coalition with other populists.


On the other hand, as Tony Barber pointed out in the FT, institutions such as the Presidency, the finance ministry and Bank of Italy/ECB, have steered the ship fairly well despite repeated warnings of imminent shipwreck. Other commentators suggest the euroscepticism is not that deep-rooted (nobody wants to quit the EU, Berlusconi has dropped his idea of a parallel currency to the Euro).

What these volatile election results should teach us once more (post-Brexit/post-Trump) is that voters are in a pretty foul mood if they have not shared the fruits of the recovery and feel profoundly alienated from the political, corporate elites. In Germany the SPD has bet its survival on using its control of the finance ministry to boost the purchasing power of German workers, invest in the country’s crumbling infrastructure and work with Macron to “reform” the Eurozone (if Merkel lets them and they can lose their hang-ups over balanced budgets). But voters in Cottbus, Caen and Calabria don’t give a fig if the ESM becomes an EMF: what they want is better pay, less precarious jobs and, most of all, hope for the future and confidence their children will have a stake in it; that it won’t just be the plaything of the rich and powerful.

Europe’s mainstream politicians have just 14 months or so to start meeting those demands or else, by the time weary voters turn out in ever fewer numbers for the elections to the European Parliament in late May 2019, the outcome will be a further swell in populist/eurosceptic MEPs. This will make the work of the EP – now more or less cosily run by a GroKo of centre-right/-left – very hard to manage unless, of course, the EPP gets into bed with the ECR and/or populist groups to its right. Not a stable arrangement that one and one unlikely to agree on majority backing for a Spitzenkandidat to be Commission President.

Unless, of course, the electorate proves as unpredictable as ever and decides the centre of politics is both stable and successful after all…

David Gow is Senior Advisor & Consulting Editor at Acumen, and a journalist since 1968. Former German Correspondent, Industrial Editor and European Business Editor, The Guardian. Senior adviser CabinetDN 2009-17. Now: editor, Social Europe and 




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