Monday, October 1, 2012

Stress-testing European democracy

One thing we have learned so far in the Great Recession is that stress tests for banks are pretty much a waste of time, because nobody seems to take them that seriously. Like all other estimates of the depth of our financial crisis, the stress tests understate the scale of banking losses and overstate their ability to withstand further shocks. Current estimates of Spanish banks' shortfall -  around 60 billion euros - are scarcely believable, given that the collapse of the housing bubble in Ireland - a country with a tenth of the population of Spain, was over 50 billion. So much for stress tests for banks.

But we are doing quite a lot better at stress-testing the democratic regimes of periphery countries. Yes, that's right, those countries with the most recent experience of dictatorship, the ones whose democracies are scarcely two generations old. Greece, Spain and Portugal began the 1970s, the last great economic crisis, as authoritarian regimes of varying degrees of brutality. By the time the years of stagflation were over, dictators had been booted out of all three countries and replaced by democracies which, on the whole, have been as successful as anyone observing events in the 1970s could have hoped.

Until now. Unemployment of 25% in Spain and Greece, well over 50% youth unemployment, a total GDP contraction in Greece of 25% since 2007, and more austerity to come.

I'm still pretty confident of democracy in Spain and, as far as I can tell, Portugal. And I think Italy, with all its huge failings as a political system, has far too powerful a democratic majority to regress to where it was in the 1930s.

But Greece, I have to say, really worries me now. Stories of the police referring citizens to the viligante arm of Golden Dawn, and the recent polls placing the thugs as third party ahead of PASOK, set my hair on end. In Spain, democracy is being stressed in different ways - not only on the streets, with increasingly tense demonstrations by the real victims of the crisis, the young (and a nostalgically brutal response by the police), but also with the Catalan challenge to the 1978 constitutional settlement, which has the potential to create political chaos.

Not only are we unlearning the economic lessons of the 1930s, as Paul Krugman keeps reminding us, we are also unlearning the political ones. When placed in an impossible situation, there is no guarantee voters will respond with trusting patience in the established elites when there are political entrepreneurs out there with easy solutions to their problems. So far, only Angela Merkel amongst major European leaders has survived an election since 2008. In Greece, rapid turnover has decimated the party system and opened up a huge space for the worst kind of racist nationalist demagoguery. And the worst thing is, that the mainstream parties are, generally speaking, at a loss to respond to the crisis, so we can hardly blame people for turning to the alternative.

There's more at stake here than economic growth. The EU elites need, as Samuel L. Jackson might say, to 'wake the f*** up'.