Europe’s Super Sunday promises an exciting, uncertain future

Voters rejected austerity and they rejected the political establishment.

After a breathless day of elections from the north to the south of Europe, the result is clear. Voters across Europe have decisively broken the austerity consensus that has dominated for the last two years. But while François Hollande’s victory will delight left-wingers across the continent, the people of Europe woke up this morning to a very uncertain future. Unsurprisingly, the financial markets have reacted nervously with share prices tumbling and, in the case of Greece, by 8 per cent already.

There is a danger in hoping for too much from Hollande – he is unlikely to single-handedly turn the tide against the austerity consensus - but his victory signifies a seismic shift in Europe’s politics. With Sarkozy ousted, Angela Merkel has lost her main ally in leading the EU’s response to the debt crisis. Hollande has promised to re-negotiate the fiscal compact treaty and she will almost certainly have to offer concessions to prevent the Merkozy inspired creation from being kicked into touch. Meanwhile, EU officials have spent the last couple of months preparing for a Hollande presidency and will try to buy him off with a growth and jobs pact in exchange for keeping the treaty intact.

Merkel has also taken pre-emptive action to shore up her position by paving the way for her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, to take over from Luxembourg’s Jean Claude-Juncker as chair of the eurogroup – the eurozone’s 17 finance ministers. Schauble, like his boss, is an austerity-hawk.

Moreover, Hollande’s room for manoeuvre is not that great. While the French economy is not in crisis like the rest of Club Med, with unemployment nudging 10 per cent

and debt repayments amounting to more than the education spending after the country lost its AAA credit rating, it is hardly in rude health. His ability to bargain at EU level is also hampered by the economic governance package forced through by the conservative/liberal majorities in the European Council and the European Parliament. This forms the centre-piece to the EU’s austerity drive, locking EU countries into strict rules on overall budget deficit and debt levels, with fines for non-compliance.

However, the mood of the public and politicians has moved decisively. Hollande has promised to offer an alternative to a diet of cuts and to re-balance tax system, and he will need to sketch out a coherent economic programme in the first few months of his presidency. He should also try to make allies of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who have also made recent demands for economic growth and job creation to be prioritised over spending cuts.

But while the future for France is exciting, the future for Greece now looks even more uncertain. A country brought to its knees by bankruptcy and austerity now has a full-blown political crisis to cope with following a complete fragmentation of the party system.

The complete destruction of the two dominant parties is quite staggering. For the centre-right New Democracy party, which topped the poll despite winning less than 20 per cent of the vote the result is merely dismal. Their long-time rivals, the socialist Pasok party, which won the last election in 2009 with 43 per cent, fared even worse - annihilated with just 13 per cent. The two parties which have dominated Greek politics since the end of military rule in the 1970s, and which secured nearly 80 per cent of the vote in 2009, took just 32 per cent between them. By any yardstick the Greek electorate has given its political class a good kicking and the old status-quo will not be the same again.

If it was hard to see how Greece was going to cope with the terms of the second €140bn bail-out package with a relatively stable coalition, it now appears almost inconceivable that the deal will survive as it stands. All parties bar Pasok supported either re-negotiation of the terms or rejection even though moves to re-negotiate would be met with hostility by most EU countries.  If New Democracy’s leader Antonis Samaras, as expected, becomes Prime Minister, there are no obvious ways for him to cobble together a majority without accommodating parties on the far-left and right which want to tear up the bail-out agreement. New elections in a few months cannot be ruled out, although this is unlikely to make much difference. It is hard to see what possessed New Democracy and Pasok to agree to early elections. 

In the meantime, we can expect calls for the out-going technocratic Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos, to remain in government. Untainted by the debt crisis, Papademos enjoyed high personal ratings throughout his six months in charge and, if he can be persuaded to put his wish to return to teaching in the US on the back-burner, he would make a popular Finance Minister.

There was, however, one country where voters did not reject a governing party promising fiscal austerity – Germany. Angela Merkel’s CDU still topped yesterday’s poll in the German Lander elections in Schleswig-Holstein. Even though the CDU vote fell to 31 per cent, their lowest score in 60 years, they still narrowly beat the SPD. The real losers were Merkel’s coalition partners, the free-market Free Democrats, who collapsed to just 6 per cent, well beaten by the Greens and the Pirate party. Nonetheless, it is clear that Merkel still commands support and respect in Germany and, as an experienced leader of Europe’s strongest country, she is still the strongest force in EU politics.

For all that, however, there are two big messages that voters across Europe sent to their politicians on Super Sunday – they rejected austerity and they rejected the political establishment. Mainstream parties of the left and, particularly, the right should watch, listen and learn from these results. But those who have despaired at the right's obsession with self-defeating spending cuts have a reason to be optimistic again. Now it's up to you Francois.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

Financial markets in Greece have tumbled by eight per cent. Photograph: Getty Images.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.