Tomislav Nikolic defied the odds and expert forecasts to win the presidential election in Serbia. Quite recently, he was considered a radical nationalist with markedly anti-Western views. But he has managed to shed this extremist image. He is not against joining the EU, nor does he seek to recapture Kosovo. In general, he has positioned himself as a respectable politician. No abrupt turns are expected, but the European zeal of the former head of state Boris Tadic is surely now a thing of the past.
In another country in southeast Europe, Greece, the parties willing to meet the EU’s demands lost badly and leftwing radicals won. They are likely to do even better in the elections in June. But by refusing to comply with the tough terms of the EU and IMF bailout, they will not just exit the EU but the Eurozone as well. For the time being the voters do not seem to be concerned by these incompatible positions. At the very least, the possibility that Greece will quit the Eurozone is growing increasingly realistic.
The growing European crisis is not limited to economic issues. Europe has exhausted its integration model and needs a new approach. Does it have any conceptual alternative to the current course?
Economically, Europe is absolutely hopeless. The typical political framework, built on a left-right divide, is disappearing. There are now two major camps in European politics. The first is the large “party of recovery” (consisting of Conservatives, Christian Democrats, Liberals and Social Democrats) that favors a moderate course to reduce deficits and improve macro-economic performance at all costs. The other camp is represented by the growing “party of discontents,” who are deeply dissatisfied with the current situation and who vote for the far right or the far left. Both ideological extremes are brought together by new rhetoric calling on the government to defend the public against the social ills of globalization.
After the elections in France and Greece, most commentators came to the conclusion that the party of recovery had suffered a defeat: voters in the two countries that are crucial for continuing this course rejected it. (Francois Hollande emphasizes the need to stimulate growth instead of making endless cuts.) But there is still no alternative. The difference between the party of recovery versus the party of discontents lies in their ability to run the state. The former has a clear idea of what should be done and how, but finds it increasingly difficult to garner public support, while its opponent can channel public sentiment but lacks a strategy of its own. The discontents are chanting slogans without assuming any responsibility. Although Hollande’s victory may alter the hitherto immutable German stance on budget stability, it will be a mere adjustment.
Ideological developments are more complicated. One EU country, Hungary, is already essentially turning its back on European values. It is increasingly leaning towards a more conservative and nationalist policy. Viktor Orban’s government is not coping too well with its own financial and economic issues. Being obliged to meet its European creditors halfway, Hungary is staunchly defending its right to conduct its own domestic policy even if it is at odds with the EU’s. True, Budapest is under heavy pressure from Brussels and its partners, but if the EU continues to have problems, some governments may start thinking about assuming more independence in policymaking.
There is no geopolitical alternative. In the past, nationalist politicians in Belgrade, including those from Nikolic’s party, called for an alliance with Russia against NATO. Now such ideas have all but vanished. Moscow is not going to challenge NATO for the sake of some geopolitical chimera in the Balkans. Moreover, Serbian society was so chaotic in the 1990s under the restless Slobodan Milosevic that now all it wants is the kind of peaceful progress traditionally associated with the EU (and also with NATO, although Serbia has its own experience in this regard). The question is whether the promise of the EU has survived.
Judging by everything, Europe is bound to split into a center and periphery. Western Europe will unite around Germany, while the fate of the periphery remains unclear – this is especially true of the countries ridden with political and economic problems in Southeast Europe and the Balkans (Greece, for one). In the worst case scenario, the center may simply give up responsibility for the problematic countries and walk away. Nobody else wants to be their patron. Turkey may have interests in the Balkans, but it has enough concerns with the Middle East. As for Russia’s rhetorical stance as a great power, it is careful to match its ambitions with its capabilities. The temptation to take part in a big Balkan and even Orthodox game (with respect to Greece and Serbia, for instance) is rooted in historic tradition and could, in theory, cause Russia to relapse. Yet, modern Russia is still very far removed from such a self-identification.
It would be premature to predict disaster for Europe, but the past decade shows that pessimistic scenarios that were considered marginal turned out to be right more often than not. At any rate, the idea that Europe’s political design (the EU) is irreversible and can only improve is by no means axiomatic. Europe’s lack of alternatives, which was once considered an advantage, may become a very dangerous drawback if its “unique” political model fails.