Finally, European debt crisis goes to the polls

Elections in France and Greece may help quell a rising sense of victimhood from this long euro crisis. Such popular sentiment is exactly what the European Union is meant to curb.

Nikolas Giakoumidis/AP Photo
Greek supporters of the conservative New Democracy party applaud during a May 2 rally in Thessalonikia head of Sunday's general election.

Europe’s history of wars were as much about people’s fears of becoming victims as about people's ambitions to dominate. So one goal of the European Union has been to make sure no one country feels like a victim.

That’s proved difficult during 36 months of a debt crisis that has now left the Continent with its highest level of unemployment in modern history – 10.9 percent. A few countries are now in recession with nearly half of their young adults jobless.

Up to now the EU elite and the financial markets have largely had their say on a patchwork of solutions imposed on the 17 countries in the eurozone. This weekend, however, two elections will offer the first window into the mood of voters – and whether they see themselves as victims of both the crisis and the tough measures to end it.

In France, a presidential runoff election Sunday will likely see a victory for Socialist candidate François Hollande. His tone is decidedly against the austerity policies imposed on euro states by Germany’s conservative Angela Merkel.

Mr. Hollande could upend proposed pacts designed to bring the EU’s 27 member states closer together and prevent a breakup of the eurozone. If so, that would cool the long German-French partnership that has been the engine of stability for Europe’s grand experiment to prevent war through unity.

The second election is in Greece, where the eurocrisis was triggered by excessive government debt (and lying about it). Greek anger at the austerity imposed by the EU could see the two traditional parties, Panhellenic Socialist Movement and New Democracy, at the mercy of fringe parties catching the winds of popular dissent.

Fringe parties, both left and right, have gained ground during Europe’s crisis. A good example was the high showing for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front in France’s initial presidential vote. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party toppled the government April 21 because of popular fears over Europe’s direction.

Despite these shake-ups, a few countries are showing leadership. Politicians in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland are open and honest with voters about the need for quick and radical reform. Such transparency and the call for collective sacrifice helps reduce fear and a sense of victimhood.

And just in case the people of the EU forgot, many nations in Eastern Europe still want membership in this club.

Serbia – the source of Europe’s last wars during the 1990s under the late Slobodan Milosevic – holds an election Sunday in which both the two major parties seek EU membership. The economic benefits of being in that club are too high to still pick fights over territory or play the nationalist card as Mr. Milosevic did.

The eurozone’s inherent flaw – a currency union without enough political union – still needs a fix. But before the EU elite impose more solutions, elections will help bring in the voice of the common folk.

Only then might the people in each country of Europe not begin to see themselves as victims but as drivers of solutions.

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