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The Globe and Mail

European election threatens economic integration

Pedestrians walk past a statue depicting European unity outside the European Parliament in Brussels September 5, 2013.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

As president of the constitutionally independent European Central Bank, Mario Draghi is careful to avoid straying in the political arena.

But he came close two weeks ago when he made a plea to bring Europe closer together so it could avoid another crisis like the one that almost blew the euro zone apart only two years ago. "Our future lies with more integration, not with the renationalization of our economies," he said after the ECB's monthly rate-setting meeting in Frankfurt.

The timing of his comments apparently were not left to chance. Between May 22 and May 25, voters go to the polls to elect a new European parliament and the populist, euroskeptic parties on the left and the right, from Greece's Syriza to France's Front National, are coming on strong. While they are not expected to form a majority, the latest polls suggest they will win as much as 25 per cent of the seats.

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If they do, the already slow integration process is bound to slow even more, reinforcing the fears among the europhiles that the next building blocks of the European economy, from euro bonds to common bank deposit insurance, will be a long time coming, or possibly not come at all.

"Skeptics on the left and right want less integration," said Tony Travers, professor of government at the London School of Economics.

The left sees the EU as a "rich capitalists' club," he said, while the right sees it as overcontrol.

While the rise of the euroskeptic parties reflects various degrees of mistrust in the grand European project, it also reflects the belief in some countries that the use of the euro in 18 of the EU's 28 countries has spawned as many losers as winners and that the ECB has created as many problems as it has fixed. Expectations for a fairly low voter turnout – perhaps 40 per cent, down from 43 per cent in 2009 and 62 per cent in the first EU election in 1979 – may also reflect waning confidence in the ECB itself.

In a recent note on the economists' website, Owen McDougall and Ashoka Mody of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School said that "the major finding from our analysis is that reduced trust in the ECB is strongly associated with reduced voter turnout in [European parliament] elections."

Some analysts and economists think confidence in the ECB has waned since 2012, when Mr. Draghi vowed to do "whatever it takes" to keep the euro zone intact. He did so by launching a program that would see the ECB buy the sovereign bonds of any euro zone country that was having trouble financing itself. While the program has never been used, its mere existence was enough to send the bond yields in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland tumbling, greatly reducing their cost of raising debt.

While the euro zone is in one piece, it is rotting along the edges. The recovery has generally been weak and wholly insufficient to put a dent in the region's jobless rate, last measured at 11.9 per cent, just short of its record high. Some countries are shrinking again. The economies of Italy and the Netherlands contracted in the first quarter. Even Germany, the alleged engine of the European recovery, is slowing.

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Adding to the potential new distress are falling inflation rates, making it difficult for highly indebted countries such as Italy and Greece to inflate their debts away. Yet the ECB has not cut interest rates since last fall, nor has it implemented quantitative easing .

The lack of action by the ECB may prolong the economic lethargy. It may give a boost to the euroskeptic parties.

"Confidence in the monetary policy of the ECB, the most important sentiment-shaping force in the euro zone, is eroding markedly," said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of London's Spiro Sovereign Strategy. "That it's now perceived to have left it too late when the euro zone's recovery has stalled is deeply damaging to the ECB's credibility."

The economic platforms of the euroskeptic parties vary greatly.

Some, like the radical left Syriza party in Greece, which may come out on top among Greek voters in the election, are in favour of the euro but want to ditch the austerity measures that it argues have created a six-year depression. In Italy, Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, Europe's biggest euroskeptic party, is advocating a referendum on the continued use of the euro and an end to the fiscal compact, the agreement that places tight caps on national budget deficits and debt loads.

France's far right, anti-immigrant Front National wants to yank France out of the EU and the euro. Britain's UK Independence Party wants Britain to exit the EU. The Alternative for Germany party is mostly opposed to "excessive" EU regulations and is open to the idea of some countries leaving the euro, though not necessarily Germany.

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What they all have in common is the belief that the EU and the euro have not been economic godsends. "The strong showing by the populist parties in the European parliamentary elections next Sunday will only throw the scale of the political challenge confronting the euro zone into sharper relief," Mr. Spiro said.

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