European Affairs

Letter from the Editor     Print Email
Reginald Dale

Is there something rotten in the state of European politics? In the first few months of the new millennium, the main political news from Europe has been doubly unsavory. In Germany, an astonishing story of secret and irregular payments to the Christian Democratic Party plunged one of Europe's foremost statesmen - former Chancellor Helmut Kohl - into a mire of scandal, and even cast doubts over the Party's future as a viable political unit.

The Christian Democrats' electoral support dropped sharply and some commentators recalled the crumbling and eventual collapse of the Italian Christian Democrats in the early 1990s. In Austria, an extreme right party - the Freedom Party led by the populist Jörg Haider - entered the governing coalition, shocking many people in other European countries, especially those where extreme right parties are also gaining ground.


Many saw at least an indirect connection between the two events. As Baudouin Bollaert writes on page 61, the rise of the extreme right in Europe has often been linked to political corruption. And there are fears that if the German Christian Democrats are too seriously weakened, room will open up on the right for the "Haiderization" of German politics. It is still too early to say that will happen.

But anxiety that Haider's success might lead to further gains by extreme right parties in other countries - especially Germany, France and Belgium - was a main motivation behind a decision by the 14 other EU member states to adopt political sanctions against Austria. As Michael Calingaert writes on page 56, the hastily imposed sanctions - which involved a freezing of bilateral, though not EU, diplomatic contacts with Austria - raise major questions over the future working of the EU and its institutions.

Although the 14 governments continued to stick with the largely symbolic sanctions after Haider resigned from the leadership of his Party, a number of political analysts in Europe and the United States believe they were not well thought out.

Nevertheless, as Bollaert points out, there is nothing inevitable in the rise of the extreme right in Europe, and its influence is often exaggerated, especially in the United States.

One thing Europeans can do to clean up their politics would be to take tougher action against irregular payments to political parties. As Nancy Boswell writes on page 66, the financing of political parties was left out of the recent OECD convention against bribery. But members of Transparency International, the international anti-corruption pressure group, believe that the German scandal and its possible French connections, could revive international efforts to outlaw the kinds of contributions to political parties that clearly constitute bribery. TI plans to propose including such payments in the OECD anti-bribery convention next year.

The ramifications of the Haider affair and the Kohl affairs are still far from over. But the fortuitous breaking of the two stories at roughly the same time has added to their impact. If Europeans want to make sure their politics do not really get rotten, they now have added incentives to clean up some of the more dubious ways their political parties are financed. And, as recent scandals in France, Italy and other countries demonstrate, that does not apply only to Germany.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.