European reactions to the UK election result

As much of a surprise for those on the mainland. Charles Roffey, CC BY-NC-SA

We’ve seen plenty of reaction to the unexpected results of the UK 2015 general election, but as an EU member state with an in-or-out referendum as early as next year, what do other key EU players think of the results? A panel of experts gives us the view from Europe.


France

Aurelien Mondon, Lecturer in French politics, University of Bath

The UK general election dominated most French news websites on the morning of May 8, from left-wing Libération, to centre Le Monde and right-wing Le Figaro. However, their coverage has focused on very different aspects of the results, highlighting the newspapers’ political preferences.

Overall, for Le Monde, the main story was the strange output of the UK’s electoral system – the morning’s main headline hinted at the inconsistency between results and members of parliament, and for UKIP in particular: “UKIP 3rd in the polls, but not in Westminster”.

Another prominent article is dedicated to the SNP sensation and the Scottish move toward “electoral secession”.

For Le Figaro, the main story was David Cameron’s “total victory” and the many failures of Labour’s strategy. The newspaper also published an interview with a senior French Socialist MP, praising Cameron’s “courage to reform”; a telling account from the failing Parti Socialiste.

While Libération euphemistically announced “Cameron returned to power”, placing the emphasis on “Labour taking a pounding” for Le Parisien, the election was relegated to the second order of stories, and the focus of one of the two main articles examined the reasons why pollsters got it so wrong.

Finally, independent news website Mediapart provided in-depth coverage of the “disunited Kingdom”.

However eclectic the coverage, one key issue has oddly been ignored at first: the in-out EU referendum promised by the Conservatives. Despite the very real repercussions a Brexit would have on France and Europe as a whole it’s nowhere in the coverage. In France, it seems, ignorance is bliss.


Germany

Isabelle Hertner, Deputy Director, Institute for German Studies, University of Birmingham

Centre-left news magazine Der Spiegel labelled the UK election as a “duel of the unwanted”, describing Cameron as a snob who had disappointed voters with rising living costs, and decrying Ed Miliband as a bad speaker and an unpopular party leader who would make a bad head of government.

While it noted that domestic concerns like immigration and the future of the NHS dominated the campaign, in stark contrast to French counterparts, the German press focused on the question of the UK’s EU membership, the success of the SNP and the implications of both for the future of the UK and Europe.

Germany has always perceived Britain as a key ally in the EU, but there’s growing disillusionment with the UK’s awkwardness among the largely pro-European German political elites and newspapers. Der Spiegel declared Cameron’s victory “bad news for Europe”, arguing that his small majority left him open to blackmail: “His eurosceptic squallers on the backbenches, who have been setting the tone over the past five years, will become even more powerful.”

An in-out referendum which led to the UK leaving, the publication says, would not only mean the EU lost “a net contributor” but would also be a major setback for European integration.

Der Spiegel wrote mockingly about Nigel Farage’s campaign:

He has the bonhomie of a used car salesman who hasn’t changed his wardrobe since 1987. The people in the room like that. It reminds them of the glorious days when Great Britain could take its own decisions, and was not, as Farage argues, remote-controlled by an octopus from Brussels.

And there was barely-concealed schadenfreude over Farage’s own failure to win a seat. But centre-right newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote that UKIP would now play no big formal role “against all hopes”:

Farage’s offer … to tolerate Cameron’s government under certain conditions, seems presumptuous now. Back then it was thought that the elections would bring such a narrow result that the support of a fringe party might become necessary. Since Cameron’s strong victory, this has become redundant.

A statement by former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, that “The Scottish Lion has roared” was picked up by leading centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, which commented: “It reminds us of the situation here in Bavaria.” Indeed, there is a small separatist movement in Bavaria and the Bavarian coat of arms is, coincidentally, decorated with lions. There is some sympathy for Scottish separatism in this part of Germany.


Italy

Duncan McDonnell, Senior Lecturer, Griffith University

The main Italian dailies identified leadership as a key reason for the UK election result. In a piece entitled “Give us back Blair”, La Repubblica’s London correspondent, Enrico Franceschini, wrote: “With Blair, the Labour Party won three elections in a row; since then it has lost two elections under leaders that distanced themselves from Blair – first Gordon Brown, now Ed Miliband”. Franceschini added that the party might now consider the “more reformist, pro-business, more Blairite” David Miliband as its next leader – though it is unclear whether he can or will return.

Meanwhile, Fabio Cavalera of the Corriere della Sera remained true to the journalistic tradition of misusing the term “populism” by claiming that Miliband’s “left-wing populism frightened moderates and did not convince his core voters”. He also argued that Cameron had been able to take advantage of a “feel-good factor” brought about by public optimism in the economy. Likewise, Alberto Simoni in La Stampa says that Cameron won because he was able “to convince the English that he was on the right road” with the economy.

In the best quality Italian newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, Leonardo Maisano looks ahead to the referendum on the UK’s EU membership and its possible consequences, concluding that “if London were to leave the union, Edinburgh would almost certainly try to leave the UK”.


Spain

Jose Fernandez-Albertos, Research Fellow, Spanish National Research Council

In Spain, there were three distinctive national readings of the results. Being only two weeks ahead of regional and local elections, the conservative Spanish government was quick to celebrate the Tory victory as a triumph of “responsible” and “reformist” governments contested by public opinion and troubles in electoral polls. This is unsurprising given that Spain’s ruling People’s Party is expected to suffer significant losses.

The fragmentation of Britain’s party system along national lines strikes an obvious chord with Spaniards. It is not difficult to draw a parallel between the fate of the Labour party (swamped by nationalism in Scotland, and damaged by the reaction to that very nationalism in England) to the experience of Spanish socialists in the last decade – penalised in Catalonia for not being pro-secessionist, and in the rest of Spain for being too accommodating to Catalan demands.

If Spain’s experience offers the UK any lessons, it is that the electoral incentives created by the surge of nationalism at each side of the border will make the politics of devolution increasingly conflicted over the coming years.

A possible lesson that the Spanish public might draw from the British results is that small parties face huge existential risks when they decide to behave “responsibly” and participate in multi-party governments, as befell the Liberal Democrats. This might be a serious problem for Spain in the near future.

Spain is the only large country in the EU that has never had a coalition government since the re-establishment of democracy. It is almost certain that no party will be able to command an absolute majority in parliament in the December general election, and new parties (the anti-austerity Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos) are already proving reluctant to collaborate with established ones. The spectacle of the Liberal Democrats’ collapse will do nothing to change their minds.


Greece

Spyros Economides, London School of Economics

The British election results were met with a degree of curiosity in Greece. Apart from the surprise at the extent of the Conservative majority, a sentiment shared by all observing and participating (in) the election, there was a degree of hidden admiration for the success managed by Cameron and his team.

But behind this admiration are two big concerns both for the left-wing Syriza government in Greece, and the electorate at large.

The first worry is the spectacle of a government that implemented an extensive austerity programme, including significant cuts in welfare and general public spending, winning an election by a surprisingly wide margin. This does not fit the narrative of the Syriza government’s commitment to a more expansive public spending, and, more importantly, it undermines the party’s very raison d'etre as the champion of anti-austerity, a stance endorsed by the resounding electoral success it won in January 2015.

Despite the vast difference in the structure and capacities of the economies of the UK and Greece, the fact that a significant proportion of the British electorate think austerity has improved the economy challenges many of the assumptions of those who see an EU sponsored austerity programme as the root of all evils.

Which brings us to the second set of concerns: the election’s European implications. Opinion polls in Greece overwhelmingly indicate that the public wants to remain in the eurozone, and by implication the EU. But part of the Tory government’s economic success can be put down to non-membership of the euro – and now we face a tough debate on a possible Brexit.

Where does this leave the euro/EU debate in Greece? Will it strengthen the hand of those on the extreme left of Syriza, who foolishly believe in a Grexit and a new drachma? However the government responds, the UK’s contradictory signals could have serious implications for the Greek system.

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