LONDON — Southern Europe is where democracy was once invented. But today, many there say that democracy isn't working for them.
In a year where Britain's negotiations to leave the European Union will dominate headlines along with elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, developments in southern Europe could go mostly unnoticed. Yet the continent's future may rest just as much with what happens there.
There is no shortage of problems: The International Monetary Fund warned on Tuesday that Greece's debts were unsustainable — and there may not be sufficient support for another bailout; Italy may need to hold new elections this year amid growing support for populist parties; newly emerged but decades-old tensions in the Balkans are worrying observers.
What connects all of those woes is a feeling held by many southern Europeans: that their national democratic institutions have failed them. Whereas northern Europeans are mostly satisfied with how democracy works in their countries, disappointment with democracy has become endemic in the continent's south in recent years, according to an E.U. survey put into graphical form by Harvard University politics professor Pippa Norris.
In 2003, southern and northern Europeans still had similar levels of trust in their respective national governments, hovering around 40 percent. By 2012, only 15 percent of respondents in southern Europe still held that opinion. In northern Europe, however, satisfaction with the work of governments had increased over the same period.
This wasn't the case from 1989 until the early 2000s, when attitudes toward democracy rose and fell more or less in unison across Europe.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, it was not geography that determined satisfaction with how democracy worked: Dissatisfaction in some eastern European nations such as Poland disappeared as democracy became more stable there, for instance.
Sonia Alonso of Georgetown University thinks that austerity — supposedly imposed on the south by northern European countries such as Germany — is to be blamed for the growing divide.
According to Alonso, a case study of recessions in Germany and Greece could help explain what has made the south so vulnerable. Between 2003 and 2007, the German government implemented harsh austerity measures and changes to its extensive welfare programs. Despite a subsequent increase in inequality, satisfaction with democracy in the country remained stable throughout that time, whereas similar austerity measures in Greece caused a significant drop in satisfaction. The fact that the Germans' own government enforced the measures was critical.
“German internal devaluation was part of a policy adopted by democratically elected German politicians whereas the Greek and Spanish devaluations were imposed by external unelected institutions,” Alonso said. “In other words, Germany's self-inflicted austerity actually improved its democratic legitimacy.”
With southern Europe's economic crisis still unsolved, she expects the divide to grow further. Whereas unemployment and the economy were the top concerns for southern Europeans in the 2016 EuroBarometer survey, residents in the north cared most about immigration. “It is almost as if citizens from north and south are living in parallel universes,” Alonso said.
For E.U. officials, recent surveys nevertheless offer a glimmer of hope. As disillusion with national governments is on the rise, many in southern Europe may look toward the European Union for solutions.
In fact, the European Union's current decision-making process may be blamed for many of southern Europe's economic problems — but across the south, voters are still more satisfied with the work of the European Union than they are with their own governments.