McManus: Europe’s continental drift

Unemployment in the 17 countries that share the euro is higher than 11%, and it's still heading up. Above: People wait in line outside an unemployment office in Madrid, Spain.
(Paul White / Associated Press)

RIMINI, Italy — You think we have it bad, caught between a stagnant economy and gridlocked politics? Then take a trip to Europe, where the economy is going not sideways but backward — and the politics are too.

Europe’s numbers should be familiar by now, but they’re still awful. In the United States, President Obama’s much-derided stimulus package helped end our recession in 2009; in Europe, with no comparable stimulus, the recession isn’t over. Unemployment in the 17 countries that share the euro is higher than 11%, and it’s still heading up. The International Monetary Fund says the Eurozone’s economies won’t start growing again until next year, if then.

Since 2008, Italy’s gross domestic product has shrunk by almost 10% after inflation; by some estimates, Southern Europe is experiencing its worst drop in living standards since World War II. It all makes the U.S. recovery look positively healthy, even though our 2% growth rate and 7.6% unemployment feel anemic by modern standards.

On the ground, the news isn’t much better. I headed this month for Rimini, Italy’s aging but still glitzy beach resort, where la dolce vita doesn’t seem so dolce these days. Real estate prices have tanked. The dazzling turn-of-the-century Grand Hotel, which Federico Fellini used in his films, is almost empty. “The only foreign tourists we’re seeing are Russians,” a hotel owner told me with a tone of mild distaste.

Spain, Portugal and Greece are even worse off; France isn’t much better. The French were shocked to learn this year that many of their brightest university graduates were thinking about emigrating to America, to Australia, even — the horror! — to Germany, Europe’s healthiest big economy. The news has helped push Parisians into an enthusiastically lugubrious debate: Are they more morose than ever, or have they always been this grumpy?


Worst of all for the French, they’re not unique. The Italians and Spanish are depressed by the depression, the British are unhappy about austerity, and the Germans are grouchy that they’re still being asked to pay for it all.

And that has turned European politics sour. In almost every country, protest movements — many of them ugly, xenophobic and nationalist — have swelled with resentment against the bureaucrats of the European Union and against immigrants, often without papers, who are taking low-wage jobs. In Greece, the thugs of the Golden Dawn movement, which holds

18 seats in parliament, roam the streets beating up Africans and Arabs. In Italy, a senator from the anti-immigrant Northern League said a Congolese-born physician in the new Cabinet reminded him of an orangutan. In Britain, the anti-European (but officially “nonracist”) UK Independence Party was, for a while, the fastest-growing faction in the country.

The good news is that the far right hasn’t taken over anywhere, not even in Greece. But its strength (and that of left-leaning protest movements too) clearly reflects voters’ impatience with the inability of traditional parties to solve problems. To most European politicians, Obama’s job-approval rating of 46% looks dazzling. France’s Francois Hollande is stuck at 30%, Britain’s David Cameron at 38%. (Germany, as usual, is an exception: Angela Merkel, whose voters are grateful that she has protected them from their neighbors’ worst problems, is cruising toward reelection with an approval rating of 62%.)

Just as in Washington, most politicians in Europe actually agree on some measures that would help solve their problems; they just can’t make it happen. Leaders of most parties want countries such as France and Italy to reform their bureaucracies, which make it almost impossible to fire anyone, meaning employers won’t hire anyone either. (In Italy, those with the resulting temporary and part-time jobs are known as precari, as in “precarious.”) At the same time, even Merkel knows that she needs to ease her austerity policies and that Germany needs to underwrite a new banking union to help get credit flowing.

But here’s where Europe’s brand of gridlock turns out to be even worse than ours. Merkel says she will launch a new “More Europe” banking union, in exchange for economic reforms in other countries, as soon as she’s reelected on Sept. 22. In Germany, just as in Washington, you can enact politically risky reforms only in the brief windows that open just after an election campaign.

But in the Eurozone, those windows are even smaller. With 28 members, somebody in the EU is always in campaign mode.

Next up in 2014 is France, which will vote for the European Parliament in May and its own Senate in September. “Hollande won’t agree to major reforms before then, and that means Merkel can’t do anything big,” French political scientist Patrick Chamorel told me.

In 2015, elections are likely in Britain and Spain. And don’t even think about Italy, where the jury-rigged coalition government that includes both the left-leaning Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservatives could fall any time.

Does all this continental intrigue matter? Yes. Europe’s unending recession is holding back a global recovery. And when the United States wants European allies to share its burdens, from counter-terrorism to Syria, the continuing economic and political crisis gets in the way.

Meanwhile, though, a look at Europe offers Americans at least one consolation: the pleasure of schadenfreude. Yes, the food is superb, the culture is sublime and they even have healthcare systems that work. But when it comes to political gridlock, Europeans are just as bad off as we are — probably, the patriot in me proudly says, even worse.

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus