Europe watches as Irish political foes seek common ground

Unlikely marriages have given rise to governments across Europe consisting of parties that would never have voted along the same lines, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill
Europe watches as Irish political foes seek common ground

Earthquakes have been shaking the political establishment of national parliaments right across the European Union for the past few years — and now the tremors appear to have reached Ireland.

Old alliances of like-minded politicians have been falling apart, giving way to unlikely marriages between parties that would never have voted the same way in the past.

All kinds of traditional political philosophies have been swallowing their pride and their principles to go into government with one another — and in some cases not assume power — but to facilitate former enemies to rule. Forming these governments has not been easy — the world record is the 541 days the Belgians took to put one together in 2011. In May 2014 it took just five months and resulted in a coalition four parties with the leader of the smallest Charles Michel, becoming prime minister.

And now Spain is in danger of tearing itself apart as they try once again to find a prime minister, three months after their elections.

Take Portugal whose centre right government lasted just 11 days in power last November before being ousted by an alliance of moderate Socialists, the Communist party and the radical Left Bloc with links to Greece’s Syriza.

They forced a vote in parliament which the government lost and had to resign, leaving the way open for the left coalition to assume power without having to go back to the electorate with the two smaller parties shelving their opposition to eurozone financial rules and renationalising banks and energy companies.

In Finland, the eurosceptic Finns Party that refused to go into government in 2011 happily coalesced to form a government with the Centre Party having been returned last April with one seat less. The Centre party provided the prime minister, Juha Sipila, a telecoms millionaire whose focus is firmly on restoring the economy. That includes driving down wages and bring in migrants to help do so — not an objective of the xenophobic Finns Party. The National Coalition is the third party in the coalition that took just over a month to put together.

In Denmark the entire government cabinet is composed of ministers from just one minority party, Venstre, that finished in third place in its elections last June with 19% of the vote.

Parties that in the past were considered to be heretical have moved into pole position in several countries — such as the Swedish Democrats in Sweden with its anti-migration stance that borders on xenophobia.

Or Podemos in Spain that emerged from the indignation anti-austerity movement to play a king-maker or breaker role in that country.

But in many cases it is not a matter of political parties rushing to grab power. In some countries they don’t want it because they would prefer to be in opposition for instance when the job of completing austerity will almost certainly reduce their numbers at the ballot box next time around.

In other cases they don’t want to be seen to prop up traditional enemies in government, or they simply cannot agree on a common programme and would prefer to sit it out and hope to win bigger in the polls next time around.

All of these situations can be seen in Ireland at the moment too. And the problem of junior coalition partners being near annihilated by voters after their term is not unique to Ireland.

Germany’s centre right CDU leader Angela Merkel quite happily formed a coalition with the Socialists during her first term as chancellor in 2005.

She had little trouble with their policies, being more socialist than centre right on many issues. But they bombed in the election in 2009, and she formed a coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party.

While it was an unhappy alliance for her personally, they were wiped out in 2013 despite delivering many of their cherished economic policies with the CDU and its more conservative Bavarian-based sister the CSU.

Now Ms Merkel is back in a grand coalition with the Socialists having fallen short of an outright majority by just a few seats, and has once again implemented nearly all their political aims. Who will suffer next time out may depend on the outcome of the migration crisis.

The only country that is completely out of sync with national trends in the EU is Greece. They have returned Syriza, a far left government not once, but twice, and despite knowing that the prime minister and his party reneged on their promises. Syriza was just six seats short of a majority and formed an alliance with the right-wing Independent Greeks.

The European Union institutions are still dominated by the centre right Christian Democrats — of which Fine Gael is a member — but they are steadily losing governments as parties allied to the Socialists and the Liberal ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) — of which Fianna Fáil is a member — rise to power.

But the feeling that they cannot do business with left and far left parties is prevalent, with mutterings of citizens returning ‘the wrong people to power’ — it first came to the surface with the Greek elections and was heard again when the left took power in Portugal.

However the economic crisis and the imperative not to be faced with a near melt-down as in Greece, and the absence of a left wing economic policy that has widespread acceptance in the world of markets and business is bringing the left closer to the centre.

Controversies closer to home such as whether Catalonia should be allowed to become an independent state in Spain, or whether migrants and asylum seekers are just spongers is creating and crossing divides among parties in various countries.

The leader of the Socialists in Spain will put himself forward as prime minister today, seemingly hoping to do a deal with anybody to form a government after deadlock since the elections in December. But Pedro Sanchez has been caught trying to change horses — having offered a deal to parties of the left, he also secretly offered one to the right. Many believe the outcome will be fresh elections in June.

So while Europeans who understand that Ireland does not have left-right wing divides in government are now watching, fascinated, at whether two parties who took opposite attitudes to an agreement with the British almost a century ago but ended up working in the system created by that treaty will end their enmities to form a government. A German MEP commented that surely they must, for the sake of the country, adding that it was only logical; while an Irish farmer currently in Brussels to lobby for a fairer deal for his profession said it would be impossible — traditional FF voters would never allow it and never forgive it.

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