Perhaps French President Sarkozy was just the first to go, and the remaining two corners of northern Europe's austerity triangle -- Germany's Merkel and the UK's Cameron -- could soon follow.
British Prime Minister David Cameron walks past German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Reuters)
Austerity seems to doing worse than ever in European politics, and the leaders who championed it are slipping down public opinion polls. German chancellor Angela Merkel, the top austerity figurehead, remains personally popular, but the blame-Germany/blame-Merkel trend has been gaining momentum across Europe for months. Nicolas Sarkozy lost the French presidency to Francois Hollande, who campaigned in part on reordering the French-German relationship to involve more resistance to Germany's austerity leadership. Now, northern Europe's scapegoating championship (Greece and Italy retaliated against their leaders much earlier) appears to have spread to the United Kingdom.
In a different political climate, British Prime Minister David Cameron's discussion of the euro situation on Monday probably wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows. What Cameron said -- hinting at a Greek exit from the euro should anti-austerity parties prevail in Greece's elections next month -- is nothing the vast majority of both Britons and continental Europeans don't already know. In fact, a Guardian/ICM poll released Monday showed that 72 percent of Britons believe Greece will leave the euro.
Yet Cameron, whose country isn't even a part of the eurozone, was promptly treated to a scathing round of criticism from opposition leaders within the UK, with Labour politician and shadow chancellor Ed Balls calling him "all over the place" on the euro topic, and accusing him of causing market panic.
Theoretically, Cameron's common sense pronouncement of what people already know shouldn't be all that dangerous. But, of course, political posturing off of leaders' statements isn't exclusive to Britain. It's common enough, especially when the electorate is getting frustrated and the leader in question is looking weak. And there's no doubt that Cameron is looking weak. The same poll from this week showed Cameron at his lowest-ever approval ratings. His party stands only at 36 percent approval, the opposing Labour party ahead at 41 percent. The only good news about this for Cameron is that at least Labour's five-point lead isn't the eight-point lead it was last month.
There's blood in the water, and the sharks are gathering. "I'm afraid the problem," The Guardian quotes Labour's Ed Balls as saying, "is that David Cameron for the last two years has been supporting the German position which is now an increasingly isolated position, a very different position from the Obama-Hollande view that we need a more balanced plan on austerity, medium-term, tough decisions, but a plan now on jobs and growth."
It's a remarkable shift from only two summers ago, barely European austerity plans were far less controversial. Germany, with its quick economic recovery (as it seemed at the time) was the model even for deficit hawks in the U.S., and Cameron was painting himself as a combined financial and social savior.
It doesn't take too much reading between the lines, looking at Balls's statement, to see what he's really saying: In France, Sarkozy's party is out and the Socialists are in; in Britain, perhaps the Conservatives should be put out and Labour should take the reins. Even in the UK, it seems standing too close to Angela Merkel can be toxic.
Perhaps Sarkozy was just the first to go, and the remaining two corners of northern Europe's austerity triangle -- Merkel and Cameron -- will soon follow. If that's fated to happen, one wonders whether perhaps it would be better it happen soon, so that the new spend-happy replacements can bond and form a new coalition. Europeans newspapers said a lot of goofy stuff about the frosty meeting between Merkel and new French president Hollande last week, but their central point is well taken: European Union cohesion, shaky as it is, may be easier to maintain if the key players aren't pulling in radically different directions.
In the meantime, political opportunism is political opportunism: expect Cameron to draw fire for almost anything he says, whether or not it's something everyone already knows.