Leaders tumble in crisis as Europe cracks at seams
(BRUSSELS) - Like bowling pins, the debt crisis is felling Europe's political leaders one by one as the grand European Union project cracks under the dual pressure of markets and unpopular austerity plans.
Silvio Berlusconi, long a seemingly unshakeable fixture on the Italian political scene, Tuesday became the latest victim of a two-year euro crisis that to date has toppled 10 of the EU's 27 governments.
"We've only seen the beginning of this for now," Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank, told AFP.
"The crisis will live on in the next couple of years but the results of the financial fallout will be with us for 10 to 15 years."
Ireland's then premier Brian Cowen was the first direct victim of the euro drama after the country had to be bailed out late last year, with the premier of debt-straddled Greece, George Papandreou, handing in his resignation offer only 48 hours before Berlusconi's.
The governments of Portugal, Hungary, Denmark, Slovakia and Slovenia have fallen prey to the crisis.
Facing a groundswell of discontent over successive austerity packages, Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called early elections this month -- which his party looks likely to lose -- and is quitting politics after seven years at the helm.
"The crisis hasn't been the sole factor but more often than not it has triggered resignations or early elections," said analyst Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Schuman Foundation.
Polls suggest defeat even for Europe's "big two", France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel, in case of a vote.
Meanwhile the euro meltdown has given strength to ultra-right populists in countries as far afield as Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary and the Netherlands.
Protests have erupted across the bloc and given rise to new movements such as Spain's young anti-austerity and anti-market "Indignados".
Analysts say the crack-up of the euro could render the EU finally irrelevant after more than a half a century in which it brought peace, prosperity and democracy to a continent fraught by centuries of conflict and extremism.
"We have come to the end of a unique period of political and economic consensus," Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform told AFP.
Amid growing grumblings at Europe's grassroots that politicians have messed up the EU, some countries may abandon the euro while opposition grows against joining the 17-nation single currency by countries not yet inside.
"Where do we go if we don't save the euro? Will we want further European integration? Will democratic politicians be able to absorb a fall in the euro with other forms of intergration?" Brady asked.
More Europe under more federalism remains one option, but would require painful treaty change.
Meanwhile, anti-immigrant feeling across economically-stressed Europe is undermining another symbol of EU integration, the border-free Schengen accord, threatening to see bloc crumble as nations each go their own way.
"There is a battle of the narratives between those who say together we're stronger and those who say we're dragging each other down," said Brady.
Should the EU survive, the crisis could sap the workings of democracy, leaving European nations less governable as they become subject to the market forces currently at play.
"My biggest fear for the future is that the consequences will be to curb politics, narrowing the ability of governments to act, to disseminate money, to be creative, to make commitments," said Techau.
Such political paralysis would likely strengthen extremist fringe movements, he added.
"This is a moment of flux, people are ready for big steps, for an end to the muddling through of the past," Techau said.
"So politicians could play a big role, but we're not seeing this in Germany, France, Italy and specially Britain. I don't see a strong idea or political personnel anywhere on the horizon."
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