The defeat of French President Nicolas Sarkozy by Socialist candidate Francois Hollande was long predicted. What was not foretold even as recently as a year ago was the astonishing fragility of European governments more generally. Since the start of the debt crisis, no fewer than 16 nations in the EU – well over half the total – have seen a change of government. Defeats, resignations, and votes of no confidence pockmark the continent, with no apparent end in sight. Even Europe’s stronger leaders, such as England’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, are in precarious positions as voters in both countries threaten their ability to cut a deal. This is not, moreover, a manifestation of a particular political sentiment. Governments from both the left and the right have been forced to relinquish power.
So what’s the problem? Is it, as many argue, a lack of leadership? Is it, as European Parliament member Udo Bullmann claims, “too few people leading European governenments who have the courage to appear in front of people at home” and tell them the hard truth? Not at all. In fact, most of those who have fallen furthest fastest have done just that, telling their people there is work to be done, work that necessarily includes their own willingness to sacrifice.
Rather the problem lies with fed up followers, with ordinary people too many of whom want something for nothing, with ordinary people who have the patience of a gnat, with ordinary people whose level of tolerance for anything other than instant gratification is low. I do not for one moment dismiss the fact that since the financial crisis times have been tough, particularly for those who are out of work and for those having a hard time making ends meet. But this is not their problem – our leaders’ problem. It’s our problem – it’s a problem that requires collective, collaborative solutions in which large numbers of people will have to play their part.
Meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, I venture to guess that Barack Obama is watching with trepidation his European counterparts toppling. Voters refusal to cut their leaders some slack cannot be said to bode well for his own political future.